Sympathy with Jesus’ Killers
Who killed Jesus? For some reason, this question comes up every Lent season.
Who Was Involved?
In the most direct sense, the answer is pretty obvious: Rome. Rome killed people on crosses. Jesus died on a cross. That’s pretty clear in the Gospel accounts, too. Pilate, as the representative of Rome, signed Jesus’ death order. Roman soldiers carried it out, just as they carried out many other executions, including at least two more in Jerusalem that same day.
Others wanted it to happen, whether or not they had the power to do it, as our Gospel texts make clear. Sometimes the Gospel writers even get a bad reputation for being anti-Semitic as non-Jewish modern Christians read the stories through the lens of the Holocaust. That claim against the Gospel writers tends to forget that at least 3 out of 4 of them were probably Jewish.
The “blood libel” also comes in here. Through history, Christians have harmed Jews using this text to claim that they brought their suffering on themselves. That is a serious misrepresentation of the text. For one, they say that Jesus’ blood is on them and their children. They do not say it would be on all of their descendants. None of them or their children have been alive for a very long time. If we look at the history, that makes a lot of sense. After they rejected Jesus’ peace teaching, many of them and their children were either killed or dispersed throughout the Empire in the Jewish War a generation later. His blood was on their hands and they paid for that decision. There’s no reason to believe we should punish all Jews far removed from that context.
We could also specifically narrow in on Judas, the biggest traitor among the apostles. It wasn’t just Judas, though. He may have started it, but others couldn’t even stay awake with Jesus (as a narcoleptic, I sympathize). Peter outright denied any affiliation. Most of them scattered and hid during Jesus’ torture and execution. They didn’t exactly act like the kinds of people you would want by your side as you are unfairly tried, tortured, and executed.
Where We Can Relate
Whether we admit it or not, we often share many things in common with these groups.
Rome operated on a principle of Pax Romana, the Roman Peace or “peace through victory.” The core philosophy is that the best way to create a surface peace is for somebody to be the strongest that keeps everyone else in line whenever they try something. Generally speaking, everybody thinks they and people like them have the right to be at the top. Eventually this led to Rome’s demise as it does every empire. Pilate probably truly believed that he was being a peacekeeper, stopping a riot by giving the crowd what they wanted and stopping a rival King in the process.
How many times have I been willing to sacrifice the well-being of one person even when I think they don’t deserve it, to appease others?
We can similarly relate to Jewish religious leaders. They were designated by God to be the keepers of truth! They had a holy mission to protect the people of Israel. It wasn’t just about forcing individual ethics, either. They were much more communal. If you committed a “private” sin, the whole community suffered. It was their job to keep the community healthy.
Blasphemy was one of the worst things you could do within that community. This Jesus guy said he was God and the Son of Man coming on the clouds to judge the world. He explicitly overturned the Law. That’s not just the oral tradition that religious leaders had added later; they were things that had been spoken from God to Moses and recorded in the Torah. Worst of all, he was picking up a huge following doing so, mostly from the poor, women, tax collectors, prostitutes, and others that should not be associated with according to God’s Law.
How many times have I actively harmed somebody “for the greater good” who believed or taught something I considered wrong?
Judas and Other Disciples
The disciples grew up thinking that the Messiah would come as a military conqueror and/or a religious leader. Instead, Jesus claims that title but refuses to fight Rome and dismantles many elements of their religion. I imagine Judas’ betrayal happening because he thought Jesus had betrayed him first. The same would be true of the other disciples in less dramatic ways. The Messiah wasn’t supposed to die! He was supposed to kick Roman ass and restore the Jewish state! As they’re watching Jesus, saying things like his Kingdom not being of this world and therefore his followers won’t fight, they’re at best confused and at most angry at his failure to meet expectations. Is it any surprise that they gave up on their leader who was such a failure by the metric they knew?
How many times have I done the same, shrugging off Jesus because the way of the cross is just too hard for me to stay with him?
When we gloss over the ways we act exactly like Rome, exactly like the Jewish religious leaders, and exactly like Judas or the other apostles, we rob Easter of its power. Christ has died, by our hand, but Christ has also risen, proclaiming a life greater than the death we inflicted and a love greater than our hatred. We are humbly invited to acknowledge our mistakes and to join him in this new life and new love.