But the chief priests stirred up the crowds to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” They shouted back, “Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” So, Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. (Mark 14:11-15)
Today’s scripture reading is quite long - 39 verses, in fact. Yet this is a condensed reading of what is recommended for today. The lectionary suggests we read the entire passion narrative on Palm Sunday – two full chapters of Mark’s gospel. (Mark 14:1-15:47), a total of 119 verses of scripture! If we read it all in church today, it would take close to 15 minutes and there wouldn’t be any time for a sermon. Still, that’s exactly what happens in many of our churches on this day – they hold a collective reading of these two chapters and let the text speak for itself this week. Some churches select different people read the various parts... someone is the narrator, someone Jesus, Peter, someone speaks for the High Priests, the soldiers, Pontius Pilate... and the crowd is almost always played by the congregation.
Michael Battle, a priest in the Episcopal Church says when he was growing up he always looked forward to this dramatic reading in his church. But there was one enigma for him. When it came time for the congregation to shout the words “Crucify Him!”, he always mumbled those words. He just couldn’t bring himself to shout out loud in church those blasphemous words “Crucify Him!” How could he as a Christian call for violence against Jesus?
And yet Mark’s Gospel makes it clear it was the crowd that called for violence against Jesus. Most of us would likely point the finger at Pilate as the violent one but Mark says, no – he questioned whether Jesus warranted such punishment but because the crowd was so insistent, he relented to their wishes.
So, Mark points us to an ugly truth that we have been trying to dodge for over 2000 years – it is the crowd that is bloodthirsty... the propensity towards violence lies within the population. Is that true? There is a part of me that doesn’t even want to consider that possibility... I don’t want to go there! Because to do so is to invite the possibility of being found wanting and even perhaps found to be an accomplice to the problem of violence in the world.
So, I don’t want to look under that rock... and yet as a preacher I know that it’s good theology to consider this because Mark insists that it was the crowd that cried out “Crucify Him!” So, we’re called to do some soul-searching today ‒ to consider whether we deserve the role we’ve been cast by Mark. And to do so, we need to struggle with the difficult questions raised by this text: Am I attracted to violence? Do we as a people cry out for it? Do my actions have violent consequences for others. How have my actions led to the suffering of Christ? Difficult questions.
The first place I remember encountering violence growing up was in the school yard during recess. My elementary school had all eight grades in one school, so there were very young kids there and some in their early teens. Back in those days it was quite common to witness a fight between two people. Violence in the school yard was a regular occurrence as I recall, and whenever a fight broke out the response of the crowd was always the same... we gathered round. We’d form a circle around the two fighters and just watch them go at it. Some people would take sides, cheering for one of the parties, but most people just stood there watching. Violence, you see, was entertaining! Eventually one of the teachers would step in and break them up, and the two warring parties would be hauled off to the principal’s office. I don’t remember anyone ever being sent home for fighting, it was just sort of accepted as normal for boys – so the worst they might have got was a detention or the strap. The strap was rarely used but often threatened – a curious scare tactic when you think about it... don’t be violent or we’ll be violent to you!
Today there’s zero tolerance for fighting on school property so if you want to see a good fight, you’ll have to go to an Admiral’s hockey game in Norfolk. Yes, violence is still tolerated on the hockey rink and the football field, in fact it’s one of the attractive features of that sport for many.
But hockey and football aren’t the only venues where people can witness violence – the movie theatre is another. The entertainment industry has long catered to the populations’ love of violence. Back in the 50’s and early 60’s, western shoot-em ups were the popular thing. In the 70’s it was Kung Fu movies, and most recently its superhero films like Iron Man, Wonder Woman, and the Justice League. Over time the degree of violence seems to have increased in Hollywood films with the introduction of films like John Wick. This movie is basically a 101-minute shooting spree in which the main character, John Wick, shoots and kills a total of 77 people to exact revenge on a mobster’s son. Why? The mobster’s son killed his dog. So, the crowd’s appetite for violence is well catered to by Hollywood, and if you prefer gaming to movies, well, check out Mortal Combat, Grand Theft Auto or Attack of the Zombies.
Suffice it to say that there is an attraction to violence in our culture. Granted, we have controlled how and where it can be displayed (in sports or on movie theaters) and we’ve put age restrictions on who can witness it, (G, PG, PG-14, A, R) still it’s hard to shelter our children from all elements of violence nowadays. My grandson Logan is fascinated with Darth Vader even though he’s never seen a single Star Wars movie. He’s been able to pick up enough from commercials and advertising to develop an attraction to this mysterious, powerful and deadly guy name Darth.
It seems it’s only when we step outside of our culture that we actually see how tolerant we’ve become to violence within our modern culture. Years ago, I was invited to speak to a cub pack in the small town of Elmira Ontario. I remember that the movie “Home Alone” had just come out in the movie theatres and it was very popular. So, I wrote a poem about the movie and how the young Kevin had protected his home from the water bandits by the use of an arsenal of different weapons. After I read my clever poem to the cubs, I looked up and saw a look of horror on the faces of one of the scout leaders. Only then did it occur to me that Home Alone is a rather violent film! I learned later that night that many of the kids in that scout pack were of Mennonite background and Mennonites have a far greater aversion to violence than the rest of us. They would never take their kids to see such a violent movie... so they invited me in to speak to them and I promoted a violent film to them! (If you can’t even trust the preacher to keeping kid’s safe from violence then what hope is there?)
We worship Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, who preached peace and lived peace, and never advocated violence on anyone, yet he suffered and died a violent death on a cross. The irony that Mark points to is this: the people who hailed his arrival to Jerusalem were the same ones who shouted, ‘Crucify Him!” How can this be? How can the worshippers of Jesus also be responsible for his harm? Mark doesn’t explain it, he only claims that it’s true. So, I ask you, have we inflicted harm on Jesus with our violent tendencies? Do our attitudes and viewpoints, our ways of handling conflict and dissention continue to bring suffering to others and to our Lord? Put simply, does Jesus weep over America the way he wept over Jerusalem?
Yesterday our nation’s capital was the focus of a huge rally to end gun violence with similar rallies happening at the same time in 800 plus other cities across the USA and around the world. The Washington rally was spurred by the shooting deaths of 17 students and teachers at a school in Parkland, Florida on February 14th. The mass shooting has spurred a movement among students across America whose message is very simple – “Enough. No more violence in our schools.” Yesterday, the “March for our Lives” brought over half a million people (many of them students) to Washington, and thousands more descended upon other cities across America to protest the lax gun laws in this nation. Theirs is an alternate voice in a society that has consistently drowned out dissenters of their second amendment rights speech. Theirs is a passionate cry for change that refuses to be consoled by patronizing promises of prayers for the victims. Theirs is a fresh voice of reason that has sparked the hopes of a new generation of voters who will not accept the tired rhetoric of politicians and gun lobby groups. Theirs is the vision of a new tomorrow that will not tolerate politicians who listen better to rich lobby groups than they do the people they are elected to represent.
The question is, where will the church line up? Will we join voice with the students who cry for change or will we continue to spew the tired mantras of old.
“Guns don’t kill people, people do.”
“It’s a mental illness issue not a gun issue.”
“We must respect the second amendment rights of individuals.”
“The solution is more guns in the right hands.”
We are wise to learn the lesson of Christ’s life, death and resurrection – that power and force never achieve the ultimate goal of transformation... transformation comes only to those capable of receiving God’s truth.
So, let me end with a Holy Week poem by Ann Weems:
A Gate Called Truth
Just outside Jerusalem
we came to a gate called Truth.
We called to the gatekeeper
to let us in.
“The latch is not on,” he replied.
“Anyone who will can enter.”
We went closer,
but seeing how great and how heavy was the gate,
We looked for a way around.
There must be a way around.
We’ve arrived at that gate today. Are we going to try to go through it or are we going to look for a way around?