A Good Friday Reflection: Jesus the Criminal

On Good Friday 2015, we (Jeannie Alexander and Michael McRay) joined friends and con-spirators in a Citywide Stations of the Cross for #ReclaimHolyWeek in Nashville. Standing on Legislative Plaza, in the shadow of TDOC’S headquarters at the Rachel Jackson Building, we led the group through Station 8–Jeannie with a reflection, and Michael with a prayer.

Station 8: Jesus is hung on the cross to be crucified

Matthew 27:33-44The Message (MSG)

32-34 Along the way they came on a man from Cyrene named Simon and made him carry Jesus’ cross. Arriving at Golgotha, the place they call “Skull Hill,” they offered him a mild painkiller (a mixture of wine and myrrh), but when he tasted it he wouldn’t drink it.

35-40 After they had finished nailing him to the cross and were waiting for him to die, they whiled away the time by throwing dice for his clothes. Above his head they had posted the criminal charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Along with him, they also crucified two criminals, one to his right, the other to his left. People passing along the road jeered, shaking their heads in mock lament: “You bragged that you could tear down the Temple and then rebuild it in three days—so show us your stuff! Save yourself! If you’re really God’s Son, come down from that cross!”

41-44 The high priests, along with the religion scholars and leaders, were right there mixing it up with the rest of them, having a great time poking fun at him: “He saved others—he can’t save himself! King of Israel, is he? Then let him get down from that cross. We’ll all become believers then! He was so sure of God—well, let him rescue his ‘Son’ now—if he wants him! He did claim to be God’s Son, didn’t he?” Even the two criminals crucified next to him joined in the mockery.

On the day of Jesus’ state execution three criminals were crucified, not two. In reality, from the church and the states perspective Jesus had it coming. He was guilty of sedition. He was a criminal. We can look back now those of us who believe he was the son of God, or a prophet, and see him as holy and without fault, and sinless he may have been in relation to God, but not in relation to the state.

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Jeannie and Michael

Jesus entered Jerusalem embracing the conflict, the fight, the arrest and unavoidable execution. Consider his own words:

Luke 12:49-53 The Message (MSG): “I’ve come to start a fire on this earth—how I wish it were blazing right now! I’ve come to change everything, turn everything rightside up—how I long for it to be finished! Do you think I came to smooth things over and make everything nice? Not so. I’ve come to disrupt and confront! From now on, when you find five in a house, it will be— Three against two, and two against three; Father against son, and son against father; Mother against daughter, and daughter against mother; Mother-in-law against bride, and bride against mother-in-law.”

And in the Temple:

Matthew 21:12-17, The Message (MSG): 12-14 Jesus went straight to the Temple and threw out everyone who had set up shop, buying and selling. He kicked over the tables of loan sharks and the stalls of dove merchants. He quoted this text: My house was designated a house of prayer; You have made it a hangout for thieves.

From one place to the next he is having to duck out in the middle of the night to avoid being lynched. How does he refer to the religious leaders in his community? Brood of vipers charged with making the people twice the son of hell as they are. And in the end, fear, anger, confusion, and love all combine to form an initial plan of indeed buying swords, taking up arms. Jesus was a dangerous man. Crucifixion was a punishment Rome reserved almost exclusively for the crime of sedition. The other two men crucified with Jesus were refered to in the Greek as “lestai” in English that has most often been translated as “thieves” but actually it meant “bandits” which was the most common designation for insurrectionist or rebel. Make no mistake, this was a revolution brewing.

Let me tell you about the dangerous men I call my brothers, friends, partner. Just as the Roman Empire created a state of systemic violence and corruption that resulted in insurrection of many forms, so too has the American Empire, the American nightmare created systems whereby the rational choice for many is to live outside that system, to live as outlaws. We howl Jesus’ innocence but sleep comfortably at night while a system of carceral slavery has exploded in this country, where we trade in human flesh and warehouse hundreds of thousands of men and women for life, who do not pose an ongoing threat to you or me. But they too are dangerous to empire. Black and brown bodies that bear witness to the war that empire brought to their homes, their communities, and their brother insurrectionists poor whites who too choke on violence, poverty and shame. Jesus the Son of God is also Jesus the insurrectionist, the rebel, the criminal. And we have cleaned him up and all but buried his message in order to sell him to the masses. But where does Jesus really stand? With the condemned who resisted a system of destruction, often meeting that system with their own violence? Or safe in the shadow of the flag pledging allegiance to machines of death and retribution, state machines that hold the monopoly on violence? Why is Jesus on the cross? Because that’s where his people are.  – Rev. Jeannie Alexander

unnamed (3)Prayer: In December 2013, Michael wrote this prayer after a devastating encounter doing chaplaincy work in the mental health pod of Riverbend Maximum Security Prison. He shared it after Jeannie’s reflection.

O God, come to our assistance. O Lord, make haste to help us.

Where are you? How come when we call in our hours of great distress, in our moments of deepest need, you do not answer?

Perhaps you too are weeping, crouched in the corner of your hallway, and can’t get up. Perhaps you too choke on your tears and can’t raise your voice. To know you also can be so shocked by our horribleness to each other that you cannot speak, to know that you also can be so traumatized by walking in hell that you must stop to weep, would give me some manner of peace.

God, mother and father of a broken people, if the system we’ve created baffles me, it must surely baffle you—for you are just, and this so-called “justice system” is not. It is hell; it is darkness and flame. It consumes those who get close; it brutalizes souls. The Scriptures say Christ came to set the prisoners free. But how long must we wait, O Lord, for it to be so?

Jesus, you said that when we encounter the least of these in prison, we encounter you. I try to believe that.

But was that really you in there? Was that really you the officers carried out of the unit to the ambulance? I didn’t expect you to look like that. I didn’t think you would have a razor in your hand. I didn’t think you would smear blood on your face while I talked with you. Have the principalities and powers really broken you so brutally that even you can’t resist the demons of despair, fury, and self-hatred? I knew you would be in prison, Lord. That’s why I came. But I didn’t think you would be in hell.

Days like that make me angry. I want to burn the place to the ground, and some days, I want all those responsible for it to burn too. Some days I wish for desolation. And I know you said to forgive them for they know not what they do. But sometimes I think they know.

So God, please, please, have mercy.

For our inhumanity to each other—Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

For our condemnation and confinement of broken people to broken systems—Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

For believing in punishment when transformation is needed—Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

For abusing our power and creating suffering—Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

For not always seeing the image of you in each human being—Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Breathe into us your spirit of loving kindness, of a justice kissed by mercy, and a truth met by peace. May we be as present as possible with each person we meet behind those horrid walls and on these lonely streets, and may we always remember that whatever we do for them, we do for you.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,



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