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God with a Human Face by John C. Purdy


John C. Purdy is a retired minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), which he served for 26 years as an editor of curriculum resource. He is also the author of Parables at Work (Westminster) and God with a Human Face (Westminster/Knox). God with a Human Face was published by Westminster/John Knox in l993 and is used by permission of the author, who also prepared the text for Religion Online.


Chapter 10: God Is an Ex-Convict? (John 18-19, selected verses)


In Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, there is an arresting scene in which Jesus and Judas come upon the townspeople as they are stoning Mary Magdalene. Mary is a prostitute, but it is not her trade for which she is being punished, but for plying it with the hated Roman soldiers - and on the sabbath. Jesus interrupts the stoning long enough to hear the indictment. Then he picks up a couple of stones and hands them to Zebedee, the spokesman for the town. Go ahead and kill her, he tells Zebedee - but be sure that you yourself are innocent. And then Jesus makes reference to a woman with whom Zebedee has been illicitly involved. Zebedee drops the stones and turns with the others and leaves the scene.

The attack on Mary Magdalene is a familiar tale of crime and punishment. Later Jesus will find himself the central character in a comparable story:

After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons....So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person to die for the people. Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching....Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.....Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate's headquarters. it was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate went out to them and said, "What accusation do you bring against this man?" They answered, "if this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you." ....Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, "if you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor."

When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench.... He said to the Jews, "Here is your King!" They cried out, "Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!" Pilate asked them, "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but the emperor." Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. (John 18-19, selected verses)

The plot of this story is very familiar to us; we rehearse it every time we watch such standard television fare as the detective story, the courtroom drama, or the cop show. It is what Karl Menninger in The Crime of Punishment (1969) calls our "daily morality play." Says Menninger:

"The crime and punishment ritual is part of our lives. We need crimes to wonder at, to enjoy vicariously, to discuss and speculate about, and to publicly deplore. We need criminals to identify ourselves with, to secretly envy, and to stoutly punish. Criminals represent our alter egos - our 'bad' selves - rejected and projected. They do for us the forbidden, illegal things we wish to do and, like scapegoats of old, they bear the burdens of our displaced guilt and punishment --the iniquities of us all.'

Them we can punish! At them we can all cry 'stone her' or 'crucify him.' ... The internal economics of our own morality, our submerged hates and suppressed aggressions, our fantasied crimes, our feeling of need for punishment - all these can be managed in part by the scapegoat device. To do so requires this little maneuver of displacement, but displacement and projection are easier to manage than confession or sublimation.

Hence, crowds of people will always join in the cry for punishment. Often their only interest in the particular victim is the fact that he is a labeled villain, and the extermination of villains is a 'righteous act.' The definition of villainy does not have to be a matter of common agreement or scientific investigation, it is enough that someone has been 'fingered,' accused, arraigned, sentenced. 'He, not I, is the purveyor of evil, the agent of violence. Crucify him! Burn him! Hang him! Punish him!'" (pp. 153 - 154)

If you doubt the full truth of Menninger’s observations, reflect upon the "public morality plays" that are regularly offered on television. Detective stories, courtroom dramas, and cop shows have been essential to television from its beginning as a mass medium: "Perry Mason," "The Defenders," "Dragnet," "The Rockford Files," "Cagney and Lacey," "Agatha Christie," "Peter Whimsey," "Hill Street Blues," "Murder, She Wrote," "L.A. Law," "The Streets of San Francisco," "Columbo." Each of us has a list of favorites.

A popular cop show of the ‘80s was "Cagney and Lacey," a drama about two big-city policewomen. A rerun, selected at random, tells this story: Elizabeth Carter is a young black woman who has been raped by four men. With the help of Mary Beth Lacey and Christine Cagney, the men have been arrested, tried, and sentenced to prison. But now there is a hitch: One man has appealed his sentence and has been released on a technicality. He is to be retried. Elizabeth is being asked to go back into the courtroom to testify against him. She comes to the two detectives, pleading that she not be put through that ordeal. The assault and the original trial have left her shaken and self-accusing. We do not have to meet the four rapists to hate and despise them; the embittered and frightened woman is evidence enough of their criminality. Christine and Mary Beth set out to persuade Elizabeth to testify, lest the man be turned loose to rape other women. The young prosecuting attorney, also a woman, threatens Elizabeth with a bench warrant if she refuses to appear. Finally Elizabeth agrees to testify, although at the last moment it is revealed that a second of the convicted rapists is also being granted a retrial.

What does that prove, but that some people do indeed commit crimes against society and must needs be punished? Otherwise we would all slide into anarchy or barbarism. If it were not for the Mary Beths and Christines of this world - and prosecuting attorneys and prisons - no woman would be safe on the streets. Fair enough. But why is it necessary for us to have this made the theme of popular drama and be constantly reenacted for our viewing pleasure? Does it not prove Menninger’s point that "crowds of people will always join in the cry for punishment"?

What of Jesus?

With this in mind, read again the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and sentencing. Is it, as popular piety would have us believe, the story of an innocent man set upon by a gang of corrupt officials and a mindless mob? Is it not rather one more enactment of "our daily morality play," with each one dutifully playing his or her assigned role?

First, there is Jesus, about whose innocence there seems to be some doubt. Nothing that we have seen or heard him do is a direct threat to public order. Nevertheless, he is branded as a criminal; it is said that he has claimed to be the king of the Jews. He is accused of the crime of insurrection - fomenting rebellion against the emperor.

Then there is .Judas, the one who "fingers" Jesus, to use Menninger’s term. He is the one who brings the soldiers and police to the supposedly safe garden where Jesus has gone with his disciples. We have already probed possible motives for Judas’ actions; they may have been socially acceptable. Perhaps he thought he was protecting the state from a dangerous criminal. Perhaps he thought he could force Jesus into taking a public stand against the Establishment. The Last Temptation of Christ shows Judas as carrying out orders given by Jesus himself.

And speaking of carrying out orders, there are the soldiers and the police. One cannot blame enlisted men for believing that their officers are always right, even though they may suspect that the one they are arresting is innocent of any crimes. We expect soldiers to obey orders. We expect policemen to uphold the law - not to interpret it.

Also upholding law and order, according to their lights, are Annas and Caiaphas, the high priests, before whom Jesus is brought for interrogation. Caiaphas, we are told, has already decided that it is expedient that Jesus die. His very existence is somehow a danger to society. Jesus’ possible innocence of specific lawbreaking is immaterial and irrelevant to Caiaphas. Like some who favor capital punishment, he has decided on high moral grounds that it is better to have the death of one than to risk the destruction of many.

The civil magistrate, Pilate, is usually depicted as a villain. But in this version of the story, he is the only one who perceives that Jesus is innocent. After a preliminary examination Pilate wants to release him. Eventually Pilate gives in to the pressure of the crowd; he allows them to convince him that Jesus may be indeed a dangerous revolutionary. Pilate decides that it is better to hand Jesus over to be crucified than to risk a riot, where many might be killed. The life of one is a small price to pay to avoid civil insurrection, when many innocents - including women and children - might perish.

And what of the larger group, sometimes referred to as "the Jews" or simply "they"? They may be driven by a kind of herd mentality, but they are certainly not acting as a lynch mob. They prove their probity: They will not enter Pilate’s headquarters lest they violate God’s law and be unfit to eat the Passover.

So we do not have a rascally, villainous cast of characters. We have ordinary soldiers, policemen, officials, priests, magistrates, and citizens - all doing what soldiers, police, officials, priests, and zealous citizens do every day. It is the usual "morality play," with a suspected criminal, arresting officers, prosecutors, a trial, and sentencing. With the exception of Jesus, none of the actors appear to be sterling characters. They are ordinary human beings, with a fair measure of hypocrisy and callousness. But each carries out with fidelity the role that society has assigned to him or her.

"The fundamental reason why Jesus has to die makes the question of responsibility for his assassination pointless. Every society, Jewish or Gentile, that is founded on money, power, and law, condemns him. He puts people first, making economics and politics less important than men and women. In contrast, society, even when it says the opposite, deceiving others as well as itself, considers individuals simply as a means." (Sulivan, Morning Light, p. 75)

A Fair Trial

The suspicion lurks that Jesus might have profited with a change of venue. Wouldn’t he have fared better in our criminal justice system? However, do you recall from the 1950s the film Twelve Angry Men? It shows the behavior of a jury in a first degree murder trial. When the jurors first gather to deliberate, eleven are fully convinced that the accused - a young man - stabbed his father. One lone juror, played by Henry Fonda, is not convinced that the case against the boy is airtight. And the film shows how, through questioning and discussion, all twelve come to believe that there is a reasonable doubt that the boy is guilty. They vote to acquit.

The film attacks the notions of the disinterested juror and of impartial justice. None of the twelve knows the young man. But several have good reason to want to see him nailed. The juror played by Ed Begley is prejudiced against all persons of the boy’s minority group. If you don’t punish this boy, others will be encouraged to commit crimes, he says. Jack Warden plays a man who has tickets for the evening baseball game; he will vote with any majority, if the thing can be done quickly. The last juror to be convinced is played by Lee J. Cobb. He wants the boy punished because he represents his own son, with whom he has had a bitter quarrel. Would such a jury have perceived that Jesus was innocent of any crime?

The suspicion lies to hand that had Jesus come among us today instead of two thousand years ago, chances are that he would be imprisoned - if not executed.

Some of the most dogged justice fighters in this century spent time in prison: Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights advocate; Emmeline Pankhurst, the British suffragette; and Mohandas Gandhi, who struggled for Indian independence.

No Prisons, Then?

If criminal justice systems are flawed and if we all are guilty of needing to see others punished, is then no one a criminal? Should we tear down our prisons? Hardly. Surely some deserve to be there. In his novel Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky recounts the story of Raskolnikov, an impoverished law student in Petersburg. He deliberately commits a murder, with intent to steal. With an axe he disposes of an elderly woman who

runs a pawn shop. Raskolnikov’s rationale, spelled out in an essay published prior to his crime, is this: There are two kinds of people in the world. First, there are the ordinary folk, who are bound to obey the criminal laws. Then there are the superordinary people - like Napoleon and like himself - who must be allowed to shed blood in order to fulfill their destinies. When his crime is discovered and he is sent to Siberia for eight years, Raskolnikov’s only regret is that he acted stupidly. Who would argue that such a murder does not demand severe penalties?

Certainly there are persons in prisons whom we do not want out on our streets. For their video verité Doing Time: Life Inside the Big House, Susan and Alan Raymond interviewed inmates in the Lewisburg (Pennsylvania) Federal Prison. "Red" tells us - the viewers - that he went to the wrong house for a drug buy and killed three innocent people. Strickland has been transferred from another prison, where he tells us that he killed four fellow inmates in a riot. John tells us calmly that he cut the throats of his sister, her husband, and their son - because they would not let him stay overnight in their house. After watching the film, one has to be grateful that Red and Strickland and John are put away for life.

"Crucify Them?"

And yet are we ready to say with finality that life imprisonment is what criminals like Red and Strickland and John deserve? Are we ready to go a step further and cry "Execute them!"? How can we be certain that in some sense they are not being punished for our iniquities? How can we be sure that any man or woman standing to hear the judge’s sentence is not being made our scapegoat? Can we separate society’s need to apply penalties from our individual need to inflict punishment? How do we know that in sentencing a man or woman to death we are not crucifying Christ afresh?

Some persons have responded to such questions by refusing to accept their assigned role in society’s morality play. Karl Menninger used his influence as a famous psychiatrist to found a series of homes, called villages, to which young men and women may be sent instead of to reformatories or prisons. In the villages young men and women are provided with surrogate parents, a stable environment, and a chance to finish their education.

In the 1950s on the streets of Manhattan, an ex-Jesuit missionary had a strange ministry. He scooped up drunks to keep them out of the hands of the police. Cops called him The Bodysnatcher; the homeless and derelicts knew him as Father Dutch. He had reason to know the dread of incarceration: He had spent four years in a Japanese prison camp and three years as a prisoner of the Chinese Communists. Father Dutch had several safe rooms to which he took drunks for food, a shower, clean clothes, and a night’s undisturbed sleep.

Edith Stein was a Roman Catholic nun of Jewish extraction. She allowed herself to be taken off to a Nazi concentration camp to share the fate of the prisoners. As one survivor wrote of Edith, she was "truly a mother - tending little children whose natural mothers neglected them; a sorrowful mother, suffering with and for her children, who, like herself, would soon be driven into the gas chambers to be liquidated like vermin."

There are thousands of women and men who are engaged in attempts at prison reform, or in prison ministries of one kind or another. They have refused to be part of the crowd that shouts "Stone her! Hang him!"

In our Gospel story, Jesus accepts the role of the accused criminal with no attempt at evasion or escape. He is as passive in the hands of his accusers as a lamb in the hands of the slaughterers. Apparently he makes no attempt to defend himself; he offers no convincing reasons why he should not be handed over to be crucified. Why? He leaves us with a mystery more profound than any detective story ever written. God is an ex-convict? We pose a question rather than make a declarative statement that would seem to border on blasphemy.

When I was a theological student, I traveled one summer with the seminary choir. We stopped at the state prison in Deer Lodge, Montana, to sing for the prisoners. In our program one of us always told why he had decided to go into the ministry. The lot fell to me. I never felt quite so foolish as I did telling those stony-faced felons and murderers and rapists why I wanted to be a preacher. My discomfort was wiped away by another member of the choir, who was chosen to preach a brief sermon. Peter McKenzie told how Jesus came from working-class people in a small town. How he never held a steady job. How he was betrayed by a friend and given a shoddy trial. How he was summarily executed. As Peter spoke, I watched the faces of the prisoners. It seemed to me that Jesus’ experience was closer to theirs than to my own.

Most of us think of prisons as God-forsaken jungles, inhabited by God-forsaken men and women. Is it possible, however, that precisely in such places we might be permitted to glimpse the human face of God?

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