Why Didn’t Christ Fight Back?


Holy Week is over. And what a week it was (and always is). Time off from work and school, family reunions, Easter dinners, eggs and overfilled baskets make the week a short, merry respite from everyday life. But there comes a time when all the dust settles and we are asked to reckon with the immense spiritual odyssey our God crammed into this one short week. Rightly considered, Holy Week can never fail to leave me vertiginous as I proceed from supreme heights to bottomless depths and back to insurmountable heights again. The week begins with Palm Sunday and the triumphal entry and shortly proceeds to the Last Supper, the washing of the disciples’ feet, the Agony in the Garden, the betrayal, the trial, the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection. In all of history, humanity can find no week which could genuinely rival Holy Week with comparable lessons on human character and calling as well as the eternally consequential acts found in the redemptive death and resurrection of Christ.

But this year, one thought consumed me more than others: The Passivity of Christ. In an otherwise active life of teaching and prayer and miracles, Holy Week seemed a time when Christ suddenly became passive – a willing recipient of the most sadistic physical, emotional and social brutality humanity could dish out. Simply reconsider how it unfolded.

It began in the Garden of Gethsemane.

He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father, – if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.”

– Matthew 26: 39

Next came the betrayal by Judas.

His betrayer had arranged a sign with them, saying, “The man I shall kiss is the one; arrest him.” Immediately he went over to Jesus and said, “Hail, Rabbi!”  – and he kissed him. Jesus answered him, “Friend, do what you have come for.” Then stepping forward they laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. And behold, one of those who accompanied Jesus put his hand to his sword, drew it, and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot call upon my Father and he will not provide me at this moment with more than twelve legions of angels? 

– Matthew 26: 48-53

Further came the trial before the Sanhedrin.

 The chief priests and the entire Sanhedrin – kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus in order to put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. Finally two came forward who stated, “This man said, ‘I can destroy the temple of God and within three days rebuild it.’” The high priest rose and addressed him, “Have you no answer? What are these men testifying against you?” But Jesus was silent.

– Matthew 26: 59-63

And then the questioning by Pilate.

And when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he made no answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they are testifying against you?” But he did not answer him one word, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

– Matthew 27: 12-14

FInally came the Passion and Crucifixion.

The people stood by and watched; the rulers, meanwhile, sneered at him and said, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Messiah of God.” Even the soldiers jeered at him. As they approached to offer him wine they called out, “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.”

 – Luke 23: 35-37

In the wake of these events, the question in my mind arose again and again: Was Christ passive in his apprehension, Passion and Crucifixion? At any moment, the Lord God in the form of Jesus of Nazareth could put all of these arrogant human creatures in their place. One active move in the Garden to say “No” to the Call, to summon Legions of Angels to smite the Roman soldiers, to denounce the intrigues of the Sanhedrin and forcefully declare his innocence to Pilate could save the human life of Jesus Christ. And when I watch what happened to Jesus during Holy Week, my human impulse is want him to get out of this nightmare. If only he would assert himself, advocate for himself and show his tormentors who he really was, then he would be spared this unparalleled agony. If only he were active and instead he was passive. And the price of this passivity would be the Cross.

But, you see, that is the problem with my sad human mind. I am selfishly pre-occupied with saving myself, advocating for myself, getting out of trouble, getting out of pain. To do these things, in my mind, is to be active. All else is passive. Is it surprising that there is such a robust human proclivity for self-preservation? Perhaps not. The Biblical narrative constantly shows man (most often, sinfully) making himself God and orienting his life accordingly.

But God’s Way is different. Christ chose to teach man what it means to be truly active. In the name of selfless devotion to man’s salvation, Christ actively assented to drink the cup put before him. He actively resisted the temptation to lash out at soldiers, the Sandhedrin and the Roman Governor. He actively accepted the taunts, the thorns, the scourge and the nails while offering comfort to women on the Via Dolorosa, absolution to his tormenters and reassurance to his fellow death-mate on a nearby cross. The path Christ chose was not passive at all, but, in fact, the most active in all of human history. And this unparalleled “activity” is called obedience. And it was the most painful obedience the world has ever know. Obedience requires subordination of appetites, of self-interest, of easy-outs and end-runs. Obedience requires clear-eyed honesty and rock-ribbed devotion to a vision greater than my own – God’s vision. It is painful and soothing. It is confining yet liberating. And yet obedience gets a bad name in the modern world of “freedom” and “self-actualization”. But God’s Way is different. On the model of Christ, we too are called to obedience. As Thomas Merton and George MacDonald astutely observed, respectively,

“For each one of us, there is only one thing necessary: to fulfill our own destiny, according to God’s will, to be what God wants us to be.” 

“Doing the will of God leaves me no time for disputing about His plans.” 

Holy Week is over. But its Truths are not. The kingship of Christ, the sacramental wonder of the Eucharist, the importance of service to our fellow man, the incomparable gift of redemption in Christ’s death and the inestimable hope in his Resurrection. But this year, the overarching Truth I needed to learn once again was what it truly means to be active and passive. Christ showed me. Again and again. God has a Will. It is better than mine. And I am to obey it. Actively.

For more on the virtue of obedience, please see Jen Fitz’s and Eve Tushnet’s recent pieces here and here.

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