As we’re putting together the CRUCIFIXION (RESURRECTION) issue of Spit & Spirit, I’m marathoning through Game of Thrones to get caught up to what’s on television right now. The episodes I watched this week have Theon Greyjoy tied up with arms and legs outstretched and tortured. In one scene, they screw a nail through his foot. In another, they shove a knife in between his fingernail.
Before a round of torture begins, the tormenter tells him “If you guess correctly, you win. I win when you ask me to cut off your finger to make the pain stop.” The scene ends with Theon screaming, begging to have his finger cut off.
I have lots of “beliefs.” Beliefs about God and about Jesus. Beliefs about justice and truth and mercy. I speak critically about the Church, about the U.S. government, about corporate practices, about war, about the NYPD, and a handful more issues too, I’m sure.
But I’ve never had my life threatened because of those beliefs, I’ve never been harmed because of them, I’ve never even been arrested for them.
What would I do if someone shoved a knife underneath my fingernail? What would I do if someone nailed me to a cross? Would I ask forgiveness for them because they know not what they are doing?
In 2008 I was waiting for the subway when I noticed police talking with a man who appeared to be homeless. When the train finally came a few minutes later, they were still talking with him. Something seemed off. The train was held in the station and I watched from the doorway. Eventually, the train doors began to close and the police were still questioning the man. I stepped off the train and back on to the platform.
They were aggressively questioning him. They demanded identification and he gave them the only ID he had. They wanted to know why he didn’t have a drivers license. They wanted to know where he was staying. They kept saying they were trying to be helpful but they didn’t seem very helpful — I’ve seen police be helpful to tourists.
The man stood up and began nervously pacing. The police got in his face. I pulled out my Palm Treo and began videotaping. They eventually restrained him. And afterward they saw I had been taping. An officer told me I wasn’t allowed to videotape in the subway system (not true). I told her I was going to continue. She repeated it. I repeated it. She then told me it was too late and asked for my ID. She told me she would arrest me if I didn’t delete the footage. It was 7:30 PM on a Friday. I was on the way to a friend’s homecoming party and I was alone. I didn’t want to spend the weekend in jail. I deleted it. She made me prove it.
As I sat next to the guy, he said to me “This is crazy man, this is absolutely crazy. I’m so glad you’re here with me.”
We talked about what they were accusing him of (taking up two seats on the subway). He calmed down. They couldn’t have that. The police separated us and got back in his face so he’d get agitated again. Another office backed me up against a wall, got in my face and screamed at me. Finally, they gave me a citation and sent me on my way.
I left not knowing what happened to the guy.
I like to tell myself about all of the things that I did right: I observed and documented the situation which could have prevented it from escalating. I demonstrated to the guy and to bystanders that he wasn’t alone, that this wasn’t right, that someone was there with him. After the incident, I got in contact with the NYCLU who not only helped me fight the citation but also counter-sued the Transit Adjudication Bureau for having a secret, closed-door hearings on what were supposed to be public cases. When they won the case, it was described as a landmark victory.
But as I work on an issue about crucifixion and resurrection, I can’t help but think about all of things that I didn’t do.
I didn’t refuse to delete the evidence. I didn’t stay and continue to observe. I didn’t track down the case. The police threatened me with a weekend in jail and I backed down.
Jesus went toe-to-toe with the powers-that-be of his day and he didn’t back down. They didn’t put him in an NYC holding cell for a weekend, they tortured and crucified him.
I wonder if my faith has become a cheap faith. If I know all of the right words to post on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook but write them all from the comforts of my home.
When Jesus healed a blind man, he picked up dirt and spit into it. When was the last time I got my hands dirty?
I say this not so that we’ll all feel bad for ourselves for not being literally crucified for every cause that we believe in (I’m not sure we’d have the same luck as Jesus in that whole raising from the dead thing) but to remind us that we can always be doing more.
We can have more difficult conversations. Is an uncomfortable 45 minutes really all that terribly?
We can take bolder stands. Does losing your job or splitting the denomination really stack up against crucifixion?
We don’t have to though. Leading comfortable lives of conformity is always an option. It seems to work well enough for many people. And even if the system isn’t working so well for you, ignoring it might seem easier than challenging it.
But that’s not the way of Jesus, that’s not the invitation that Jesus made. Jesus began his public ministry by quoting from Isaiah,
“He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,”
His followers proclaimed that Jesus Is Lord, in direct opposition to Cesar Is Lord. Jesus dared to feed the masses and to heal the sick, tasks that the Romans were supposed to do for the people.
They crucified him for it. According to other ancient texts, most of his early followers were killed for continuing to preach the Good News in his name.
Jesus met Simon and Andrew at the waterside and invited them to leave their nets and to follow him. I heard that story growing up. They emphasized that in order to follow Jesus, you had to leave your old life behind.
But they never mentioned where Simon and Andrew were following Jesus to. Simon and Andrew left their nets by the water and followed Jesus.
They were crucified too.
I really believe that the Gospel is good news. That it’s liberating and just and can transform the whole world. I believe it’s possible in practice too, not just in theory. I long for a world in which following the Gospel doesn’t get you crucified.
But we’re not there yet. Governments and churches still oppress. War still wages. Torture and abuse plague all parts of the world.
And so if you follow the way of Jesus, it might cost you. It might cost you your job, it might cost you funding for your church, it might cost you the unity of your denomination, it might cost you a friendly holiday with your family, it might cost you a weekend in jail, and let’s hope it never comes to this, but it might cost you your life.
That’s the way of Jesus, but the promise is that it’s worth it.