I was rehearsing with my parish choir last night, and we were singing the Passion of Jesus, particularly the parts of the crowd that had turned ugly, demanding Jesus’ execution.
“Away with him! Crucify him!”
“I do not know the man!”
“We have no king but Caesar!”
“According to our law, he ought to die, because he has made himself to be the Son of God.”
What happened? Why did they do that?
For three years they had followed Jesus throughout the countryside, hanging on to his every word and submitting to his healing. Why did they turn against him, demanding his death? What was going on in the hearts and minds of the people whose words I was singing?
They were afraid they’d be next.
Back in those days, the rules were stark: Submit to Roman rule or die an excruciating death in a public execution. If you resisted violently, you and your gang were rounded up. If you were a nonviolent resister, as Jesus was, they arrested and executed only your leader.
In a way, that made it less risky for the followers of a nonviolent resister. You could escape arrest and death, if you scattered. You could make it look like your leader was acting alone.
Jesus’ followers knew they were a hair’s breadth away from execution themselves. What if they had turned violent, demanding that Pilate release Jesus? What if they had stood up for Jesus, identifying themselves as his followers? No, they couldn’t risk it – arrest and a horrible death. So they did what they had to do, to save their own skins. They renounced Jesus and shouted their loyalty to the Romans.
And Pontius Pilate, the governor – he was playing with them!
Don’t assume Pilate was a nice guy. He was one of the cruelest governors of the time. His job was to keep the peace and put down any insurrections, and he had Rome to answer to if he didn’t.
So, he tested them. “Shall I release the King of the Jews or Bar-Abas?”
“Bar-Abas!” they shouted.
You can just hear Pilate smirking, “Check. Right answer.”
Pilate tried again. “Shall I crucify your king?”
“We have no king but Caesar!” they cried out.
Can you hear Pilate thinking again?
“Check again. Right answer again. Hah! I’ve got them now. All I have to do is execute their leader, and they’ll all head for the hills and I’ll not have to worry about this particular insurrection.”
Can you see yourself in this crowd? What would you do?
You could speak truth to power.
You could nonviolently resist.
You could refuse to submit to tyranny.
You could act.
But, you don’t.
I struggle with the fact that I don’t.
The scene with the crowd calling for Jesus’ execution shows us something unlovely about the human condition.
When faced with the threat of prison, torture and death in the name of truth and justice, most of us turn tail and run, or renounce the truth and abandon justice, choosing instead to submit to the tyrant.
The tyrant knows this and uses it.
Except for a few.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
You can add to this list.
Think about it. I would run and submit. I have run, and I have submitted.
What about you?