By Clint Wilson
What would I have done if I were there?
Can you imagine what it would have been like to be present, to stumble upon the local law enforcement taking one more criminal to his appointed end?
I decided to go to the market to buy more wine for our upcoming dinner party. We will feast soon, but how can we do so without the fruit of the vine? My usual vendor was present, assuring that every dinner detail would be just as perfect as my father before me practiced, and I always follow every jot and tittle of his traditions.
Upon my walk home I encounter a crowd, some crying and others screaming. A criminal is being treated with extreme physical force, which the Empire, or at least this soldier, deems necessary to achieve the end of justice. I wish I could say these scenes were unusual, but they have been on the rise, or maybe they have always been present and I am merely more aware. Nevertheless, the authorities have condemned him, as have the people. The system has spoken, and surely he is on his way to what he deserves.
But then the soldier calls out “You, come here, and carry his cross!” “Who, me?,” I think to myself, afraid of the demands of justice. Besides, my arms are full with choice wine, ready to be poured and enjoyed from the chalice. How can I help, and why should I? I am busy and I do not know him. Neither do I know the extenuating circumstances of his situation. I need more information and evidence before I can commit to carry this cross for my neighbor, if he can be called that. Of course, I do not say this aloud, only in my head, as the Law and the Prophets flash somewhere in the back of my mind.
Then I realize he is not pointing to me, but to the person just behind me. A man steps forward, and he is a strong and tall black man. He looks intimidating, but his chest is out and he does not back down… courage is in his heart. He kneels down on the ground, his black knees now on stone; human canvas taking on the blood and sweat of another as he begins to strain under the hard wood of the cross. He is unable to breathe under the weight. The soldier whips him as he struggles with the beams and blood trickles down, like wine from the press of the vine.
The criminal says to him, “My Son, what is your name?” Words barely escape from his gasping mouth, “My name is Simon, I am from Cyrene.” This man did not have a choice to carry the cross, and it is unbearable to watch him do it, but dignity is in his soul even as terror is in his eyes. I do not know his background, or his own record with the law, or how far back his family history stretches in the lush valley of Cyrene on the northern tip of Africa. But now he is here in Jerusalem, and he lifts the cross and carries it forward under the demands of justice. Many see it and cry out, while others simply walk away — it is their privilege that allows them to do so. Is this justice? And what is demanded of me?
Others in the crowd are murmuring “this criminal is innocent,” telling stories of how he has brought hope and healing to many in his own community. Maybe this criminal is the just one, and the soldier is out of line. Is not the soldier merely doing his job, I wonder, caught up in the machinery of a system that sometimes turns justice into a dehumanizing process? His job expectations are a yoke I would never want to bear, demanding decisions of him in a split second that I can hardly understand. Yet, how much force is enough to accomplish the job? He is being excessively violent, but am I the one to say something?
Besides, I know many soldiers who are good and decent men. For heaven’s sake, my father was a soldier, and his before him, both of them equally committed to mercy and justice, like most of the soldiers I know. And if any empire has a claim to execute justice with equity, surely it is the Roman Empire, right?
But this situation is different and my stomach turns as I watch it unfold. The black man carries the cross for this criminal, his struggle to breathe grows ever more serious. I wonder about his own family, and what he was like as a child. He and this Jesus figure could have been childhood friends. I want to speak; I must speak out.
But is now the time to act? I have a family, and a good job, and what can I do anyways? My own son is only two, and he grows daily like the fruit of the vine… and he needs me present. Silence is so tempting to justify. Not to mention that Passover is nearly here and I have fine wine to serve to my family and friends. My social obligations, and yes, even my religious duties beckon me homeward, I tell myself.
And besides, this black man is now carrying the cross for this criminal. Is it providence, or futility, or justice, or systemic inequities that have brought this about? Either way, the black man was called upon to carry the cross, and I can now go on about my way. As I walk away, I struggle with the guilt that this black man is carrying the cross meant for me. And yet I and many others will feast this evening, even as the black man carries the cross of Christ. The pangs of my guilt lessen as I turn my back to the burden of the cross. Will the ways of the Empire ever change, I mutter? “Will my ways ever change?” a voice inside me cries faintly. It turns out, the answer to one is the answer to the other.
De Profundis (Psalm 130)
Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice;
let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.
If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss,
O Lord, who could stand?
For there is forgiveness with you;
therefore you shall be feared.
I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him;
in his word is my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord,
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, wait for the Lord,
for with the Lord there is mercy;
With him there is plenteous redemption,
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.
Fr. Clint Wilson is rector of St. Francis-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Louisville, Kentucky.