At the Foot of the Cross 2009

The Scourging - Casual Violence

The starting point for any Meditations on the passion and death of Jesus must be our attempt to hold his humanity and divinity in reflective tension. This is the Son of God who died for us but he is also a human being like us. The familiar tableaux of sacred art which most memorably represent the events of Good Friday should not deceive us; if we are tempted, we might better look at more contemporary representations informed by our intimate knowledge of the mass, state sponsored violence of the 20th Century, of gas in the trenches, of concentration camps, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of Agent Orange and extraordinary Rendition. Not that there had not been mass violence and torture before - our story today connects with the most sustained military dictatorship in history - but the scale of 20th Century violence was such that it permeated all levels of society in a way that was viscerally explicit; and, through newspapers, cinema and television, it made us complicit. We could no longer plough our furrow and sit by our hearth, disturbed only by the occasional story of a boy who didn't come home.

At the heart of our social narrative there is a deep paradox about violence. In the past 100 years the parallel developments in medicine and militarism have been enormous; a massive fall in infant mortality was the precursor to the slaughter of the First World War. It was almost as if we had saved the babies so that they could die at Paschendale. Social reform took children out of factories and mines, out of chimney sweeping and prostitution, but the next generation of legislators sent millions to the front and the next generation sanctioned the carpet bombing of civilians.

When we read the Passion accounts, one salient characteristic is how the violence is so casual: in all four gospels (Matthew 27:26; Mark 15:15; Luke 23:16; ; John 19:1) Pilate's order to scourge Jesus is just a casual afterthought with no purpose except, perhaps, to please his accusers. It is neither an act of torture intended to elicit a confession nor a punishment; it is simply an arbitrary exercise of sadistic power. We later see this again in Acts and the Epistles of Paul where scourging is simply a commonplace of the exercise of military power.

Violence is almost always wrong but there is something peculiarly nasty about gratuitous violence. While we may not approve of calculated aggression we can see the point of neo-Darwinian, competitive aggression; we can see the cause of violence born of extreme exasperation; we understand because of the way we are how stress, bewilderment or impotence can lead us to lash out; but the violence against Jesus was none of these. There might be an argument that his silence or enigmatic statements might have provoked anger but by the time he was scourged his death was inevitable, he was a victim inside a well-organised system. Everyone knew, after the release of Barabbas, that he was going to be crucified, so what was the point other than to assert a petty, disgusting rite?

The central theme of these meditations is our complicitness in the pain and death inflicted on Jesus by the fanatical religious and barbaric secular authorities and we can recognise that complicitness in the contemporary world of casual violence. I hardly need remind us of the gratuitous cruelty of dictators, the connivance of democracies, the pointless acts of gangs and individual criminals and the myriad acts of cruelty which infect our society. Often, like Pilate, we wash our hands; but more often we simply grumble. How often do we complain, write letters to our leaders, support Amnesty International and similar organisations? And this links with a second perspective of our meditations, how we, like the crowds watching Jesus suffer and die, just stood by. We could argue that they had good reason, that they were subject to arbitrary power which would punish them for their bravery; and we could argue that the same constraint applies to would-be protesters living in contemporary dictatorships which lack due process. It would be a very brave person who would protest against the cruelty of cynical military regimes; but we cannot argue such extenuation for ourselves. There is not much point in struggling for centuries to secure democracy only to let it wither on the vine.

The scourging of Jesus looks pointless; but behind the cruelty, there is evidence of fear. Pilate, even though he was a Roman Governor, seems to have been frightened; and fear leads to disproportionate assertiveness, seen at its most vivid in the bully. The deficit in self esteem or self assurance is made up through violence. This is the kind of explanation which modern psychology would understand but to explain is not to condone; and we too easily make that jump: "He had no alternative," we say; "He was driven to it"; "It was either the victim or him". If we reach this point we have sold out to the logic of fear. Our media is full of such explanations which ultimately lead to tacit justification. We are all in danger of buying in to this anti-salvation agenda.

And here we meet the paradox of the Passion which inhabits the whole of our Christian life; for Jesus suffered this violence in the act of saving us, presenting us with the gift of salvation which frees us in two ways pertinent to cruelty: first, it gives us an alternative narrative to that of inflicting cruelty to try to secure self esteem or reduce fear; and, secondly, at the root of that new narrative is the centrality of love as an alternative to competition.

In this year of Charles Darwin, the radio and television have been full of wonderful programmes about the way in which he developed his theory of the Origin of The Species through Natural Selection whose breadth and elegance is truly breathtaking; but we must never forget that it is a description of the evolution of plants and animals which optimised their fit with the environment; the idea of the "survival of the fittest" did not mean those with the greatest physical prowess but those which fitted their ecology best. Our mistake has been to transfer this evolutionary explanation of 'passive fitness' into a rule which applies to human competition. We have leaped from Tennyson's "Nature red in tooth and claw" to humanity so that evolution is no longer a simple explanation of how we arrived where we are but is transformed into an explanation of, and even a justification for, aggression. In spite of all the wickedness for which organised religion is responsible, Richard Dawkins is still as wrong as a human can be when he exalts the Darwinian paradigm of natural selection above the imperative of love, underlined in the meekness of our Saviour.

In order to learn as best we can from the suffering of Jesus we need to think of it in two, totally inter-dependent ways: first, Jesus the man suffered terribly; we must never forget this or we will be swept into sentimentalism; secondly, the meekness under the pressure of pain was faultless. This is not, however, a story which we happened to learn, of the infliction of pain behind high walls; Jesus was behaving as he did as a public demonstration of the reality of love in the face of aggression. It is the stark contrast of meaningless violence and loving purpose. The extent to which the Gospel narratives are taken up with descriptions of the Passion and death of Jesus is no accident. Indeed, one of the ways in which the New Testament came to be what it is was that supposed Gospels which down-played the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday were deemed non-canonical. We are supposed to imagine ourselves as far as we can into the mindless infliction of pain and the conscientious riposte of love.

Let us now look at gratuitous violence from three points of view: the victim, the perpetrator and the spectator. Without wishing to over exaggerate our own, personal sufferings, we will be very lucky - or perhaps unlucky - if we go through life without suffering. It is part of our condition, it is part of being a creature, it is the necessary price we pay for exercising conscience, of freely choosing to love; for an intrinsic part of any deep love is the willingness to make sacrifices. Our love of Jesus calls for this response just as his love for us called for it; but although his response was public it was, nonetheless, uncomplaining. Just as it is inappropriate to ask for love, so it is to complain to others about our suffering; it is between us and Jesus. The Psalmists complained to God and, in the privacy of our own prayer or in collective generalisations where we share the sentiment but spare each other the detail, it is proper to bemoan our fate; it is difficult to be imperfect as part of our condition; but using this as a form of competitive virtue or victimhood is unhelpful.

From the perspective of the perpetrator, violence is only effective in a superficial, short-term way. It gets the lion his food but it gets humanity nowhere. We are, therefore, not only to reject violence because it is wicked but also because it is ineffective. There is, however, a third consideration. Violence coarsens our self understanding such that it is easy to become indifferent to it. How often have we heard the comment that the first act of violence is the most difficult but after that it becomes progressively easier.

From the standpoint of the spectator that last point also applies. It is difficult to be indifferent the first time but it becomes progressively easier; before we know where we are - literally - we add revulsion fatigue to compassion fatigue. But Jesus never allowed himself to be blighted by humanity fatigue; he never stopped loving us through our agents of torture and death. He never stopped praying for us; and he carried through his purpose. ON this point the Gospels are economically eloquent. Whether you take each word and incident literally or whether you think that the Evangelists chose their material in the power of the Holy Spirit to illustrate the truth of Jesus as they saw it, the accounts of the Passion and death of Jesus starkly contrast the gratuitous violence of act and expression with an economy of response which gives us a model for our own, brokenness.

Yet, after all the dissection of the different roles of victim, perpetrator and spectator, after the dramatic contrast between the perpetrator and the victim, we are confronted with the central mystery of humanity: that we are all three types. Our imperfection offers us the opportunity to suffer for Christ; but, conversely, it offers us the opportunity to turn away, to turn our backs, or even to be participants in cruelty. It is our three-fold being in this sad, sacred drama which gives it a poignancy, a plangency which is never dulled or mellowed.

Here is our best chance, as we imagine ourselves into the moment when the skin is flayed from our Saviour's back, to recognise the extreme ambiguity of our existence, so often standing at a point between walking away from or towards Jesus or just standing still, refusing to look at what confronts us. For 2000 years we have wondered at the mystery of how Jesus could be both divine and human; but the mystery is how our response is so fraught yet so fulfilling.

Prayer. Lord Jesus, it is only at this point of contact between the thongs of the whip and your sacred back that we can bring ourselves to shudder at what we have done and what we have failed to do; for we, who were given flesh, took your flesh. May we learn from your love, articulate in silence, suffering and sacrifice, how we may love you; and grant us the grace to see ourselves as fellows in your suffering, as well as perpetrators and spectators so that we might know truly who we are.