Roving thoughts and provocations

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Lenten Thoughts

Piero della Francesca: The Flagellation of Christ

I say the rosary every day according to the church season, choosing one of the four sets of gospel “mysteries” (joyful, luminous, sorrowful, glorious) to reflect on the life of Jesus. Since it is now Lent, I am saying the sorrowful mysteries, those that deal with the Passion and Death of Jesus. This year, two of the five mysteries have special meaning for me—the second and the third.

The second mystery is the scourging of Jesus. This was a prescribed part of Roman execution by crucifixion. The convict was stripped naked and beaten with rods. This was done to break his spirit, so there would be no undignified scuffle when the man was led to the execution site and affixed to the cross. It was to demean him ahead of time, to degrade his manhood, so he would be cowed and submissive when taken to his death.

The third mystery is the crowning of Jesus. This was not a prescribed part of the process. The Roman soldiers improvised a special humiliation for their prisoner, wrapping him with a mock-regal purple robe, giving him a fake scepter, and putting an “imperial” wreath of acanthus leaves on this head, to scoff at the idea of a “King of the Jews.” It was like the medieval installation of a buffoon as “Lord of Misrule.” Again, the aim was to take away any last scrap of dignity that might be left to Jesus.

Sound familiar? Our recent torture techniques seem directly linked to the treatment Jesus received. Our prisoners were stripped, subjected to head bangings and face slappings. This was not torture, according to torturologist John Yoo. It may have been painful but it did not inflict permanent damage—except to human dignity. And making prisoners wear women’s underwear on their faces, or smearing them with what they were told was menstrual blood, was breaking down their deepest ideas of worth in their own culture and their own pride. It was a derisive “crowning.”

I do not know what went through the minds of secular or non-Christian torturers. But Christian torturers might have reason to have tortured consciences themselves when or if they remember what Jesus said in the gospel of Matthew (25.31ff). Asked who will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, he says those who comforted him in prison. Asked who will be excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven, he says those who would not comfort him in prison. His listeners ask, “When were you in prison, that we came to you or did not?” He answers: “Whatever you did to any of my brothers, even the lowliest (elackistoi), you did to me.” Christians should face this sobering fact: in their treatment of the lowliest of men, they were torturing Jesus, renewing what the Roman soldiers did to him.

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