At the Foot of the Cross 2008

Crucify Him!

"Crucify him! Crucify him!" I am standing in the crowd shouting: "Crucify him!". I know I should not be here; but I am. I have barely heard of this Jesus. But I am here, I tell myself, because I am the history man. I know that the cry has resonated down the centuries in blood and anguish. What started as a bitter cry from Matthew the Evangelist, who could not understand why so many of his fellow Jews were obdurate in the face of the Good News of Jesus, ended in the sustained scream of Auschwitz. I am with the whole world in the crowd but only the Jews will be blamed.

If you had told the genially meticulous, pipe smoking Johann Sebastian Bach that his Matthew Passion would be a tiny but significant piece in the superstructure of genocide he would not have been able to imagine it. Yet it is a testimony to how humanity can use beauty for its own warped ends that this is what happened. But, in a strange way, he should have known, born in the shadow of the recently concluded 30-years-war when the armies of supposedly civilised Western Europe slaughtered each other in the name of Catholicism and Protestantism. I am the history man; I have seen it call before. I saw it in the Holy Land when Crusaders killed Muslims for Christ; and I saw it in Byzantium when Crusaders from Western Europe slaughtered Greek Orthodox Christians in the name of Christ and sang the Te Deum in the Hagia Sofia clad in their armour.

I could argue that there were complex underlying causes behind every act of cruelty from the Condemnation of Jesus to Hitler's "Final Solution" and onwards through the killing fields of Cambodia and the jungles of Central Africa - that is what historians do - but what is more easily definable, more sharply etched, is the use of violence as a quick fix. Whatever the political entanglements of the Sanhedrin, the death of Jesus would fix something, buy time, create 'wiggle room'; it was right, as Caiaphas said, that one man should die for the whole people. Pilate, dithering and dangerous, opted for the quick fix, to stave off difficulties with his vassal princes and his distant but lethal superiors. Medieval Kings, short of popularity and even shorter of revenue, turned on the Jews for living in the way that Christianity had imposed; they were secretive in their ghettos, they practised usury, they walked with the mark of their religion upon them. All over Europe, from the birth to the death of the second millennium, they were butchered for being what we would have them be. And Hitler? Yes, I have heard all the arguments about a humiliating peace at Versailles and the ravages of economic depression; but it was another instance of the fix, though not so quick. Somebody had to be blamed. Somebody always has to be blamed. I am standing here in the crowd, without knowing very much about it, blaming Jesus.

I often ask: why Germany? To which the sad answer is that it could have been anywhere; and, indeed, it did happen in Russia; but Stalin was our ally so we stayed quiet. And wherever Hitler went he had friends who were happy enough to go along with the "Final solution". But what we need to remember is that German religion had slipped out of Reformation agonising into bourgeois moralising; it had no more force than enlightenment philosophy; it had reduced Jesus to a benevolent and distant philosopher; it had stopped up its channel to the Holy Spirit.

The crowd shouts: "Crucify him", "Heil Hitler", "Send them home" or "Sharia!" and the combination of self interest and adrenalin-induced hysteria is unstoppable. This is the clue to where we stand on this grimmest of days. We are not looking down grandly on the sultry crowd, not the occupants of the moral high ground looking down on Pilate, Herod and the Pharisees, not the resistance forces risking death; we are here, on the ground, in the crowd; and, therefore, we are not standing beside the refugees as they are manhandled onto aeroplanes to meet almost certain torture and death. We are the crowd, we are shouting: "Crucify him!"

This is such a cruel accusation against ourselves that it is easier to dismiss it as absurd than to take it seriously; that is the problem with direct speech; nobody really believes it anymore; it sounds like something in a play, something that only fictional characters would say. We hear people saying harsh things in soap operas but our lives are altogether more homogenised. We no longer protest and do not like to be the objects of protest. We have managed to separate ourselves from unpleasantness. We let other people deal with the dirty side of life: the despised immigrant will clean the toilets and push the trolleys; the despised media will say what we dare not say; the despised politician will see the economic benefits of the immigrant but make sure that he is properly insulting at the same time; and we who are respectable will let journalists and politicians, loud mouths and gentle mouths, the brutal and the subtle, do our dirty work for us. That is how the Jews got killed; that is how the Armenians got killed; that is how the people of the Sudan are being killed now.

Was it different then? Jesus, a Galilean, only one step up from a Samaritan, has been talking straight, telling people that simply observing a superficial law is an inadequate response to the wonder of creation. He appeals to the vitality of Abraham, Moses, Samuel and David; he is indifferent to incense and burned flesh; he is tired, like his Father, of the cauldron and the coldness, the fire and the frigidity, the lamentation and the luxury. His weariness has been uncomplaining; but this week events took on a brisker tempo and a greater intensity until the explosive mixture of radicalism and religion could not be contained. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, attacked the economic system, scorned the priests, supported imperial taxation and generally created religious and political instability. Faced with the easy power and time honoured nostrums of the religious authorities, he refused to fall into line.

Now he stands in front of us; Where are we standing? Are we standing out, providing mute moral support for this condemned man? Are we challenging glib, coherent authority or are you with me in the crowd shouting "Crucify him!", or perhaps worse still, are we at the back of the crowd trying to have it both ways, giving the appearance of collusion but not meaning it or giving the impression of detachment but not meaning it? Are we moral creatures as long as the morality is private? Are we the sort of people who say our prayers at home but allow blasphemy to go unchallenged in the street and the market, at the board room table or at the dinner table?

The Jews I am standing with shouting for Crucifixion and the Germans who are applauding Hitler are not a different species; for we are they and they are us; and everything they do they are doing on our behalf. As I stand at the foot of Pilate's dais or in the stadium at Nuremberg I am too frightened to die for Jesus but that is not surprising. I have been too frightened to live for him; and that is where the problem starts.

The idea of aggression against Jesus may seem far fetched but it is not. Attacks on Jesus by atheist intellectuals are commonplace; and we must not allow ourselves to be dragged down by indifference to the Word of Christ. We are allowing ourselves to suffer from poor morale because we have adopted the management speak of targets which show Christianity to be a numerically declining phenomenon; what matters is our individual relationship with God, not the numbers. But all that we have undergone is nothing compared with what we will soon have to face. There are many challenges before us but the one we really have to face is finding the strength to ensure that we do not do to Muslims what Christians have already done to Jews.

The law, violence, structure, monitoring, surveillance, audit, prison, power, manipulation, vengeance, codes, condemnations, edicts, vetoes and sanctions - all such summary and restrictive instruments - are simply instances of the need for a quick fix; but speed is not enough; we want the fix but it must be executed somewhere else. We will collude in silence but of course we would not dream of sanctioning real cruelty. If an impoverished African with a mental health problem has to be manhandled onto an aeroplane by half a dozen security men at four in the morning, that is not our affair; there must have been a good reason for such harsh official action. Are we, then, as democrats and citizens but, above all, as Christians, articulate and well informed, part of the security corps or are we standing with Jesus who is standing with the deportee? And look! Jesus is standing with the Muslims!

These are unpleasant questions but we live in unpleasant times. There is a well documented phenomenon, of SS men retiring to their homes to listen to Schubert. Culture did not save Germany from its terrible disaster and culture, whatever is left of it, will not save us. It is the supposed people of culture who are waging a campaign against the wisdom of God, the wisdom of Christianity and Islam. The only figure that stands between us and barbarism is the condemned man, the man we would crucify, the man who says that the world which God created must be built on love, the man who is to die because we earthly creatures simply cannot not live alongside his perfection.

Yet, in spite of the difficulties, our Lord promised that we would never be asked to do anything for which he would not provide the resources; so let us look at ourselves now, and see whether we have the courage to move from the crowd, to cross the open space, to stand with the condemned man.

The horror of this day is that every time we re-live it, we are in danger of ending up in the wrong place, in this place, where the crowd shouts for a quick fix. But with a little courage, with a little strength, gained from looking into the eyes of the man, we can cross the open space as long as we keep ourselves focused on the eyes of the man, as long as we do not look round to see the angry faces of the crowd. If we are to be true to the man, if we are to stand by him, we must forget the crowd, the people of whom we are frightened, with whom we have colluded. We must forget the bribes and the pressure and focus on the inner strength we have gained from this man to whom we are walking.

Soon we have a hill to climb; and when that is over and we are exhausted, there will be a period of silence; and then a great shout; and we will be renewed; and then, as the days turn and we are worn down by the world, we will find ourselves drawn back towards the crowd; and then we will yet again have to find the courage to look into the eyes of the man and cross the open space; and climb the hill. It feels circular but it is a spiral. Each time we see the same objects but from a slightly more elevated angle; if we have courage our pilgrimage will take us ever higher; but today the big picture is too difficult to grasp; all we can feel is the danger of crossing the open space.

Slowly, keep looking ahead; let us cross the space together.


Heavenly Father, you sent your son to live among us so that we might better learn of your love; as he stands condemned before us now, help us to cross the space from our comfortable prejudice to stand next to Jesus and, in that witness of the victim, resolve not to do to others what we did to him. Amen.