The Easter Story
There is an extraordinary gospel story that I must share with you. Like the Passion there is an public execution with an unexpected outcome. The event has striking similarities with the death of Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary. This is a story of a mother’s last-minute act of forgiveness of her son’s murderer. Below is the description of the events as reported by Nick Kirkpatrick of the The Washington Post followed by important takeaways.
“With eyes covered and a noose around his neck, a young man identified only as Balal was “screaming and praying loudly before he just went silent,” Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) photographer Arash Khamooshi, who was photographing a public execution in Iran told CNN.
“What unfolded next was an extraordinary, unexpected act of forgiveness.
“Saeed Kamali Dehghan of The Guardian reports Balal, who is in his 20s, was convicted of killing 18-year-old Abdollah Hosseinzadeh with a knife during a street brawl in 2007. He was arrested by police after fleeing the crime scene and, after six years, was given a death sentence.
“The crowd watched as Samereh Alinejad, Hosseinzadeh’s mother, approached. Time writes: “According to some interpretations of sharia law, the victim’s family participates in the punishment by pushing the chair from under the condemned man.”
“But instead of pushing the chair from underneath him and execute him, Alinejad slapped him in the face.
This story is one of the best examples revealing what happened at the crucifixion of Jesus. There are three points I would like to make about this story.
First, this story of public execution, like the Passion narrative, is a modern example of the scapegoat mechanism. The scapegoat mechanism is when a group engulfed in violence and crisis finds unanimity in the execution of a victim who is blamed as the cause of crisis and whose expulsion is its cure. The scapegoat mechanism is the term coined by René Girard who identified this pattern of behavior in mythology, archaic religious texts such as the Bible, and modern literary texts such as Shakespeare, Proust, Dostoyevsky. Public execution is an example of the scapegoat mechanism at work. It is a surviving form of archaic sacrificial systems where violence is sanctioned by the collective who expel one to save all. Crucifixion is a form of public execution used by the Romans against those who threaten the state, law, and order in order to keep a minority group in its place. This is expressed in the words of John 11:15, “Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” In the telling of the execution and murder of Jesus like in this story, there is no sacred language. Both report a public execution rather than a religious ceremony. There is no priest, temple, ritual, myth, nor religion. There is only the truth about the lynch mob and a public act of execution. Both stories report the expulsion of a victim.
Second, the essence of the gospel is the forgiveness, that is, where vengeance and sentencing is suspended and mercy expended (Isa 61:1-3; Jeremiah 31:31-34). At the moment of his impending death, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The essence of the good news is not only that Jesus is Lord, but also Jesus is the innocent victories victim who forgives his enemies and whom God restores to life as vindication and proof that he was innocent and right! Rather than he condemn his enemies he offers reconciliation. This reconciliation is not simply between God and man. God has always forgiven sin without bloodshed (Psalm 51). The reconciliation offered by the scapegoat mechanism is a lie and only temporary order until the disease of violence that infects and threatens all members of the group returns. Jesus offers non-violent forgiveness and reconciliation without the shedding of blood. He unites the victim and victimizer, the sinner and the sinned against, Jew and the Roman, male and female, and slave and master.
Third, the story of the cross is recapitulated. When I look at these photos, it is like gazing back into the ancient world. The women were clad head to toe in black garments of mourning appropriate for an execution and funeral. There I see Mary. The mob of men was watching. There I see the crowd that cried “Crucify him!” The executioners led the blindfolded victim to the scaffolding and the chair/cross and the loose. There I see the Roman guards preparing to execute Jesus. Standing beside the murderer is the victim’s mother who days early had a dream in which her son tells her everything is alright. There I see Pilate’s wife who had a dream about the innocence of Jesus. In an unexpected and unprecedented moment, the mother forgives the victim. And there I see Jesus say, “Father forgive them.” The mothers embraced. The crowd is dispersed. The family remembers the dead victim. There I see the early Jesus movement who proclaims the gospel, forgives their enemies, and practices the Lord Supper. Families were reconciled. Violence halted. The scapegoat mechanism was denied another victim.
In conclusion, human society cannot be sustained by expelling a person or group it finds guilty of a crime or sin because the group never sees that it is “Satan casting out Satan.” As modern people we no longer confuse murder with religious sacrifice. But when we approve of murder and killing (e.g., capital punishment and war) we unknowingly resurrect the scapegoat mechanism and approve of murder and expulsion of one to save all. We accept a lesser form of violence for the sake of ridding ourselves of an unacceptable form of violence. But neither are acceptable. Whether murder or blood sacrifice of religions are divinely approved and acceptable. David wrote, “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” We have confused God with our human demand for bloodshed. Today, we have the industrial military complex, the industrial prison complex, the judicial system, and public policing that are modern forms of the scapegoat mechanism, in which the collective gives approval to the institutionalization of violence against others in order to preserve the group. But we fail to realize that we shape each other through shared desire. Every violent event and crisis shapes the culture, collective stories, institutions, stories, and laws. The cross exposed the lies of sacrifice, stripped away the disguise of religious language and myth, and revealed the murder of innocent victims in plain site. Today, we are without their protection. The Easter Story revealed our victims so that we have a choice: forgive or face apocalypse.