Watching the Crucifixion

Watching the Crucifixion
Ben Tapper

Ben Tapper

Contributor at Christianity Now
Ben has a BA in Political Science from Manchester University, an MA in Public Affairs from Indiana University, and is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity from Christian Theological Seminary. He serves as the Faith Formation Coordinator for First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis, IN, and is actively involved in community engagement. Ben has a passion for issues of justice and liberation for oppressed people.
Ben Tapper

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“The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

For over four centuries evil has triumphed in the United States because white Christians have done nothing. Even worse, they’ve helped facilitate the triumph of evil by creating, participating in, and benefitting from systems of oppression against people of color.

The quote above immediately takes me to the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion as it is portrayed in the gospel of Mark, where I’m struck by the parallels between the Roman authorities in Jerusalem and white congregations today. Rather than focusing upon the Jewish crowds, I want to focus on the Roman officials, soldiers, and citizens that were surely present while Jesus was put on trial and executed. If we are to take this narrative at face value, not only does Pilate seem to doubt that Jesus is deserving of death, but the soldiers and other officials that are present are tasked with putting someone to death whom appears innocent. Why would Rome be willing to put a poor, Jewish teacher to death for seemingly no reason?

The truth of the matter is that Jesus challenged Rome both directly and indirectly during his time in Jerusalem. In Mark 11, Jesus is depicted as entering Jerusalem on a colt as people throw down leafy branches and cloaks to line the streets while shouting “hosanna” which means “save us.” That is not the way people typically made the pilgrimage into Jerusalem for the Passover. Jesus was mimicking a Roman general’s victory parade and thus directly challenging Rome’s power and authority. At such an important holiday, surely this would have gotten the attention of the Roman authorities. Moreover, once in Jerusalem, Jesus predicted that not one stone would be left standing on the temple. The temple in Jerusalem was the center of social and economic life in the city. When Jesus suggested the temple would be destroyed, he was threatening the livelihood of the political and religious elite of Jerusalem which included Roman leaders and officials. The suggestion that the temple would be destroyed was tantamount to saying the entire religious, social, and political system that the Roman empire supported in Judea would be destroyed. If that is the case, it is no surprise that Pilate ultimately turned on him.

In the same way, speaking out against systemic racism is speaking out against the religious, social, and political systems of white communities across the country. For centuries, white people and communities, especially white Christians, have participated in and benefitted from the systemic abuse of people of color. During the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, people were bought from African tribes and villages and sold in the United States to work as field or household slaves. Families were torn apart and enslaved persons were victims of emotional, physical and sexual violence. While this institution sounds vile today, it was supported by a majority of Christian churches at the time. Even when some northern Christians began to speak out against it, their southern counterparts continued to support the institution. Moreover, the wealth of both the northern and southern elite was built on the backs of enslaved persons. Whether buying or selling the crops that enslaved persons harvested, making clothing and industrial goods to sell, or building and repairing the ships which transported enslaved persons, both parts of the country saw many people get wealthy from the institution of slavery.

While the institution of slavery officially ended after the Civil War, the practice of racialized dehumanization took a different shape. From 1877 to 1950, nearly 4000 people of color were lynched in the southern United States. Many who weren’t killed, left their homes, businesses, and families under threat of violence. When people were lynched, or fled from lynch mobs, their businesses or property were usually taken and given to white members of the community or white-owned businesses. Thus white people continued to profit from the practice of racialized terrorism. As the era of lynching came to a close, Jim Crow laws carried on the legacy of disenfranchisement and oppression.

During the height of Jim Crow segregation in the south, black people were frequently denied job and educational opportunities that white people were not, meaning that white workers had more opportunities to earn wages and support their families at the expense of their black counterparts. In addition, housing discrimination has plagued people of color for more than a century. Predatory practices often force people of color out of their homes without allowing them to build equity, or deny them homes altogether. Entire neighborhoods were and are designed with policies that explicitly or implicitly prevent people of color from living there, and the financial policy known as red-lining kept people of color from obtaining loans and prevented businesses from investing in neighborhoods of color. As black neighborhoods deteriorated due to a lack of investment, many white neighborhoods saw new businesses created as investment increased, thus driving up property values allowing white families to build equity. In cities across the U.S. today, black and latino rental applicants are still rejected at higher rates than their white counterparts with similar incomes, educations, and credit scores, meaning that white tenants are living in buildings and homes that people of color, equally qualified, were denied access to. These practices have and continue to deprive entire generations of wealth while their white counterparts remain largely unaffected.

Furthermore, as the War on Drugs ramped up in the 1990s, police departments were given money for increasing drug arrests, which often meant targeting people of color and communities where people of color resided. Laws were passed that granted harsher penalties for the possession of crack cocaine, which was used by low-income black people, than for powder cocaine, used by wealthier white individuals. Black cocaine users were targeted and imprisoned at much higher rates, and given harsher sentences, than their white counterparts, allowing white drug users to remain with their families while depriving black families of mothers, fathers, and income. Throughout the course of the previous four centuries, white Americans have benefitted from the systemic abuse of people of color.

White Christians have not only benefited from systemic abuse, but they’ve participated in the oppression which highlights another parallel between our current context and the text in Mark: the response of the Romans after Jesus’ arrest. Pilate seems resigned to allow Jesus to die in order to preserve order, while roman soldiers carry out the execution and roman citizens likely watch the violence take place. The narrative doesn’t mention anyone pushing back or seeking to save Jesus’ life. There were no rallies or demonstrations against Pilate’s decision. No soldiers refused to participate in the murder of an innocent man. Rather, once Pilate’s decision was made, everyone fell in line. In the same way, white Christians have fallen in line with the system of oppression in the U.S. There are pictures of celebrations occurring immediately after a lynching. People dressing up, bringing food, and taking photos to ensure the moment was captured while a black body, or multiple black bodies, hung limp from a nearby tree. Others went beyond celebrating and sought to enforce the oppression. White evangelical organizations like Bob Jones University openly sought to remain segregated well after the order for desegregation was issued. Still others have remained silent. This was the case for many southern Christians during the Jim Crow era. It would have been rare to hear a white preacher give a sermon opposing Jim Crow laws and practices during the mid-20th century. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, to his surprise, Dr. King found it difficult to convince white churches to join him. They were content to remain on the sidelines.

While history is riddled with those that have celebrated or supported oppression, occasionally there have been white Christians that have joined in protests and rallies. They were beaten or jailed during the freedom rides, the March in Selma or other Civil Rights events. They stood with Dr. King, worked alongside the NAACP and provided counter protests during Ku Klux Klan rallies. There are white Christians who have stood with the oppressed against their oppressors.

Having said that, the question remains, as white congregations across the country watch the continued crucifixions of people of color, how will they respond? One need not look far to find an example of systemic abuse taking place. The people in Flint, Michigan, were exposed to high levels of contaminants in their water from April 2014 to October of 2015 causing widespread health problems throughout the community.[1] An Indianapolis man, Aaron Bailey, was shot and killed by two IMPD officers on June 29, 2017.[2] Officers said they feared for their lives, but no weapon was found on Bailey, and a special prosecutor determined that no charges would be brought against the officers. Even something as routine as childbirth poses heightened risks for black women. According to the CDC, black women are 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes than their white counterparts. Shalon Irving is an example of this phenomena. She had two master degrees and a PhD, and still inconsistent post-partum treatment contributed to her sudden collapse and death only three weeks after giving birth.[3]

There is no reality within which the white church can deny the existence of widespread violence and abuse against people of color. Just as the Roman empire and its representatives caused, participated in, and watched the brutal death of Jesus of Nazareth, so too white Christians watch as people of color continue to fall victim to a system of oppression that the white church has created, perpetuated, and benefitted from. It doesn’t matter that you’ve never owned slaves. It doesn’t matter that you’ve never said the N-word. It doesn’t matter that you feel guilty about your white privilege. What matters is the action you take. If you aren’t working to end oppression, you’re perpetuating it. History has told us what is necessary for evil to triumph. Now is the time to demonstrate what is necessary for evil’s defeat.