Jesus was not an innocent man.
As a matter of fact, the Son of God was profoundly guilty of the crimes for which the Romans executed him.
He consistently appropriated titles of divinity reserved only for Caesar to himself. During the Jewish high holy days of Passover, he rode into Jerusalem in open mockery of Caesar’s own entry, complete with kingly fanfare. Even worse, during a moment when thousands of Jewish pilgrims converged on Jerusalem — a time when the threat of seditious rebellion increased exponentially — Jesus interrupted the Empire’s commerce by wrecking the tables of the freelance bankers and merchants at the Temple, brandishing a weapon and making threats about tearing down the religious holy place.
Incitement. Sedition. Terrorist threats.
In the eyes of the Empire’s law, Jesus was guilty indeed of all these. And the Romans executed him for it, as was their law allowed. Even by the Christian scriptures’ own reasoning, Jesus’ execution was not a travesty of justice at all. As Paul writes in Romans, the government is “God’s minister, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil,” and the the government does not bear the sword in vain.
Regardless of what Christians have said for centuries, by the unreflective standards of Paul’s writing and by the weight of his lawful conviction, Jesus was not an innocent man.
He was guilty. And while the state had every right to execute him in the name of justice because of that conviction and his crimes against the state, his execution on a cross remains a disturbing example of immorality and a state’s all-too-frequent penchant for overextending its power.
Just like every execution by a state since and before.
The United States has endured a particularly brutal week or so as states have piled executions on top of each other. First, there was Troy Davis in Georgia and Lawrence Brewer in Texas, followed the next day by Derrick Mason in Alabama. This afternoon, Manuel Valle is scheduled to be killed by Florida, in spite of protests by the makers of the drugs that will be used to execute him.* Six more are scheduled before the year’s end.
As Christians, we can claim that Jesus was sinless, but we cannot claim his innocence. Those are two very different things. Troy Davis might have been innocent. The others who have been recently killed are likely guilty of the crimes for which the state convicted them, just like Jesus was.
But Jesus and these executed have other things in common besides their state-decided guilt. Most glaringly, with the exception of Brewer, they are all ethnic or racial minorities, because “justice” is applied disproportionately to racial minorities. If you are a black person — or any color other than white — on death row, you are much more likely to be killed by the state.
And like Jesus, many of these men are being executed amid fanfare by those who have been wronged, as the daughter of Valle’s victim cried out on Facebook in joy, “To all my family and friends that have been anxiously awaiting with me for 33 years. The Governor has signed a death warrant for the bad guy who killed my father! WOOOOO HOOOOOO!!!!!!!!”
It’s no wonder that when asked by baffled Pharisees when and where they had seen him, Jesus responded the Son of Man was anyone held in prison, whether for good reason or bad. Perhaps he knew that even if a criminal is profoundly guilty — if the verdict is indeed just — the punishment administer is often unjust and unfair for the poor and for racial minorities.
In evangelical circles, it is popular to talk of Jesus’ crucifixion in personal terms, that “my sins” were the nails that crucified him, my wrongs were what executed him, and that my daily sins crucify Jesus every day, over and over again in perpetuity, creating a metaphysical kind of purgatory for Christ on the cross.
But that is only half true in many ways. We do indeed continue to kill Christ, but not with the lies we tell or the extra M&Ms we take from our doctors’ candy dishes.
If Jesus is indeed our prisoners, as he says he is, then within the past week, we have killed him, in much the same way, four times over, in the body of Troy Davis, Lawrence Brewer, Derrick Mason, and Manuel Valle.
And their tombs are not empty.
So, if we want to seek and to find Jesus, or if we already are and want to know why we can’t seem to find the Son of God active in our world today, perhaps we should look no further than these men’s graves.