“The Hand Did It”--A Sermon For Palm Sunday, Year A
Not all that long ago, my three year old made the following claim, “It wasn’t me, it was my hand that did it”. While stifling a laugh, I explained that while it may have been his hand that had done it, he was the one in charge of his hand. His hand’s action had been performed on his brain’s behalf--and we can’t separate the action of his hand from him.
Needless to say, he helped clean up the mess his hand had made.
Cute anecdote aside, there is something about who we are as human beings that makes us want to pass the blame on--whether that is shame or fear of punishment or something else entirely--it can be exceedingly difficult to claim an action as our own, owning a reprehensible deed and in that owning being honest about our own culpability.
We bargain, we negotiate, we pass the proverbial buck and use the less proverbial but. The comic strip artist Bil Keane played on the universality of this tendency through his introduction of “gremlins” called “Not me”; “Ida Know”; and “Just B. Cause”, into his Family Circus strip. The giggles ensued when we recognized ourselves in these declamations of innocence.
But, the giggles are suffocated when we recognize that we stand this close to the edge of mob violence and recognize that “Not me” must be taken with dead seriousness.
Biblical scholars, historians, writers and theologians have engaged in centuries of debate about who was to blame for the execution of Jesus. Some argued that it was the Romans, it being their cross and their legal system. Others contend that the Zealots, who were so disappointed in Jesus’ perceived failure to overturn their enemies in battle, were to blame. And, still others continue to place the blame on the Jewish community living in Jerusalem at the time--a blame that led to the persecution and killing of untold numbers of Jews by purported Christians over the centuries.
“Not me”; “Ida Know”; “Just B. Cause”...
We miss the point in our machinations to pass the blame. Because, regardless of which voices in that moment, in that place and time, called out crucify him--whether they were Jews, Romans, the Jewish Sanhedrin, or Pilate--this isn’t about any particular group or individual needing forgiveness. Rather, it’s about a crowd of diverse individuals who came together around one issue, united in their hatred as much as they had once been united in acclamation. As the Gospel of Luke indicates "That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies (Luke 23:12)."
With the crucifixion the uneasy peace between the factions could go on. With the united cry of “crucify”, the crowd found something besides each other to hate. And, oh how easy it is to slip into hate made manifest in acts of evil and persecution.
In 1973 the results of psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s “Stanford Prison Experiment” were published. Zimbardo wanted to study the behaviour of “normal” people when those “normal” people were placed with an evil environment. Participants in the study underwent tests of their mental and physical health and ultimately, 24 individuals who were deemed mentally stable and “the least anti-social” were selected for participation. Participants were assigned the role of either prisoner or guard and the experiment was intended to last 2 weeks. After 6 days Zimbardo called off the experiment when it became clear that things had gone too far and the characteristic nature of encounters between guards and prisoners became negative, hostile, confrontational and dehumanizing.
And, in his explanation as to why this disastrous and dehumanizing experiment went so long...well, Zimbardo had assigned himself the role of prison superintendent--and had gotten so caught up in the evils of the situation that he became not only complicit in them but a perpetrator of them.
In fact, in a 2011 NPR interview, Zimbardo expressed profound regret that he hadn’t called off the experiment sooner...
Zimbardo concluded from this and other experiments that good people can perform evil actions in response to situational forces--whether those forces are the roles they have been assigned, the authorities to whom they are accountable, or their own desire to “keep the peace”.
This brings me to the crowd. The crowd that goes from “Hosannas” to “Crucify him”...this crowd of “normal people”. Submission, obedience, good bureaucrats, insensitivity--and a crowd of normal people becomes a mob--and from that mob of good, diverse people came the shouts of crucify.
I get it, I get why in that time and that place, the tide turned and the once acclaimed Jesus was brought low. But, part of why I bring to our attention the work of folks like Zimbardo is our need to understand why we tell this story again and again. It is not sufficient to let the story rest within the pages of scripture--read in solitude and reflected upon in private.
Traditionally, in many churches, the passion narrative is read as a sort of “reader’s theater” and the congregation plays the part of the crowd. I have taken this reading for granted--in many places it’s just “what we do”. But, in another time and place I found myself in conversation with an individual who argued that it was inappropriate for the congregation to shout “Crucify him!” because he felt it was misplaced blame. We weren’t there he argued, we weren’t the ones who called for Jesus’ execution. It wasn’t our sin and to call out “crucify him” would make people feel bad for something that they didn’t participate in. He felt that to “make” people play the role of the crowd was emotionally manipulative and a cheap trick of sorts. Further, he didn’t feel that people should be made to feel guilty in church.
Inappropriate he said, and with that, he walked away and the conversation was over. I wish we’d continued to talk. To work through what seemed like an intractable difference.
Because, understanding how easily we too can become “the crowd” breaks us open to the possibility, indeed the truth that we are all in need of forgiveness. Understanding the possibility that we too can become the crucifying crowd shines a light on the evils that stand in opposition to love. This is not just about someone else or about some other time, or some other place--it’s about us in the here and now. The us that is broken and in need of healing, the us that is desperate for reconciliation, the us that has been bound by our desire to keep the peace, the us that has failed to speak, the us that has failed to act...the us that comes to confess each week--things done and left undone, thinks known and unknown...
The us that is forgiven and will be forgiven and has been forgiven. The us that is loved both at our best and at our worst. The us that God loves. The us that is beloved. The us that anticipates the resurrection even at the forsaken last.