Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Witnessing an Execution | Tuesday of Holy Week

"And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32 NRSV)

One afternoon in the late 1980s or early 1990s, my mother went to a meeting at the high school and didn't get home until after 7pm. This was a cause for concern, because we always had dinner at 6pm, and she'd intended to be home well before then. My dad and I worried and wondered, and he was about to go look for her (remember, no cell phones) when she finally drove in the driveway. She was sad and agitated, because as she was leaving her meeting she witnessed a car accident. It was perhaps a quarter of a mile away, and she saw the windshields shatter in a halo of blue on impact. When she got there, one of the very first to do so, she immediately began providing first aid to the victims. She's not a doctor or nurse, but she's always made sure to keep her first aid training up. She and others gathered around and helped as best they could, and reassuring when they couldn't, until the paramedics arrived and took over. It had all happened because of an idiot who had passed another car on a hill and hit a minivan at full speed.

The injuries she saw were horrific, but what disturbed her deeply, aside from all the blood and pain, were the gawkers who showed up. By the time she left people were parked up and down the road, laughing and talking as shattered bodies were extracted from crushed vehicles. They even had sodas and snacks with them. It was a disgrace.

There is something in the human condition that draws us to tragedy. Although I'm not one of them, many people enjoy true crime stories on TV and look for details the latest criminal activities reported online. It is tempting for so many of us, even if that's not among our usual interests, to click a link to a story promising all the unsavory details of a murder.

Historically, if you wanted to get a crowd together, you promised them an execution. Often execution day was like a carnival, with street vendors peddling food and beverages, children playing, and people catching up with neighbors and friends on the latest gossip while they waited for the main show. Early surgical procedures were likewise considered quite entertaining, with as many as seven or eight hundred spectators on hand to witness a screaming patient be cut into by a surgeon with unwashed hands, wearing street clothes.

Turning to the Gospel of John, and the passage for this Tuesday of Holy Week, we see Jesus speaking of his upcoming death. He says he'll be 'lifted up,' as indeed he was when crucified, and thereby 'draw all people' to himself. Considering the late date of this Gospel, it's unlikely that the historical Jesus actually said it. And yet, the image of Jesus' execution being a draw actually works.

On one level, the public execution of Jesus drew people from the area to witness it. In the early Christian imagination, even the hated Roman soldiers could be moved by his heroic death. On another level, the one that is most important, the story of Jesus' death on a cross has been a huge draw over the centuries. People imagine someone loving them so much that he would die for them, and it touches their hearts. The Catholic church through the 2000 years following his death has literally portrayed him as crucified. One of my earliest memories of church is seeing the life-sized statue of a man on a cross hanging over the altar of my local parish. Week after week I saw it, and it certainly left an impression.

Many religions have some variation of the hero's journey at their core, and while Unitarian Universalism can count them among its sources, it doesn't seem to have anything similar for itself. Such is the case for Humanism as well. We know of stories of human triumph over adversity, but nothing specific that we celebrate with regularity. While we can appreciate the death of Jesus for how it exposes the truth that violence and oppression were the foundation of the much-vaunted Pax Romana, it doesn't speak to us in quite the same way in our day.

As science puts together a picture of the pre-history of our world, and of our species, we can see even more vividly the cruelty of which our kind is capable, and also the endurance. Through bottlenecks representing near-extinction to our domestication of flora and fauna, we have defied death and shaped the world to feed and clothe us. Very often I hear people referring to us as 'the most invasive species on earth,' and I disagree. Yes, we are causing serious harm to our environment right now, such that it is extinguishing other species and putting our own kindred at risk of flooding, drought, and famine. At the same time, we have reached over 7 billion without mass starvation, despite all the dire predictions over the past 200 years that such would be the case. We did this through ingenuity and cooperation, what has brought us this far already.

Throughout in our pre-history and our known history we can see the hero's journey we are all on, the battle not just for survival, but also and above that, human flourishing. Our failures should caution us against hubris, and our victories should encourage us to strive to better care for one another and our world. If people somehow instinctually crave grim fatality, our past is full of plenty of accounts of such, followed by stunning comebacks. Perhaps we should be sorting through those to lift up in the grand, winding, stumbling narrative of humankind.