Class and the Cross
I wrote a post about a more radical perspective on the Good Friday narrative 3 years ago. Today, I want to ask the questions “why did the crowd call for Jesus execution” and “what relevance has this for today”. Perhaps the simplified version from Sunday School is missing some key details for understanding the crowd, its fears and its motivations in the scene where Jesus is condemned to die. It is one that should make many Christians feel uncomfortable whilst being familiar ground for many Activists in the UK.
I should start by saying that there is, in fact, nothing particularly wrong with the Sunday School version – it is accurate in that it adds nothing and leaves us with the simple facts: a cruel punishment placed on a blameless man who accepts it willingly because he knows what they won’t accept: that as God and as the son of God, he is capable of moving through death to resurrected life. To a child encountering the story for the first time, it is sufficient. For an adult, it lacks many details that are key to understanding the wider ramifications of the story.
As I have stated before, the crowd cheering Jesus do so because they see him as their release from the suffering of occupation. They are the real victims of the Roman Empire: those who live outside the city wall and scrape together a marginal living. Once inside the walls, we encounter a crowd who have it rather better. In return for unwilling acceptance of Rome’s imposed order, they can live in peace. If Jesus is a threat to Rome, then he is a threat to them as Rome will not make considerations for their previous acquiescence when crushing the Jewish resistance.
Because the court that tried Jesus was convened after dark (around midnight) the city gates would have been shut and late arrivals would have been turned away. Jesus, having been arrested by Roman Guards, would have gotten through at the insistence of the those surrounding him to their fellow Guard on the gate. Those who were in attendance would have been the better off who could afford to live inside the walls; those who had time to concern themselves with legal matters in the city and who fulfilled the role required by every occupying force: the collaborating classes for whom life isn’t bad enough to want an uprising and who are afforded intermediate power by the occupying forces.
We could draw parallels with just about any other time in history. The Maharaja system of the British Empire in India comes to mind, whereby Britain handed limited powers to a domestic ruling class and provided for them a share of the bounty of Imperialism, thus keeping them from making any real move towards independence. I find this today in parts of our society – people who will not challenge injustice that holds their neighbour down because it might affect their position, their privilege or their capacity to “get ahead”.
I wonder how Jesus must have felt knowing, realising perhaps, that these people were so compromised by their position as the middle layer of Roman imperial control that they would rather have him executed than risk the empire’s wrath. The peace of empires is always carried out through injustice and subjugation. These were the lucky few for whom that peace made some kind of sense.
For us today the warning is simple: we mustn’t allow our judgement to be clouded by the privileges we are given and which so often clouds our judgement. We need to be aware of the suffering of the marginalised so that we can choose actions that benefit them. And for Christians we need to remember that “life in all its abundance” is better than the best capitalism and empire have to offer us.