Finally one arrives at the place
Of the skull because there is no where
Else to go. And there before the face
Of bone one pauses to despair.
The culmination of all evil
Is displayed before one’s eyes:
Man’s heart conspired with the devil
And cared little for disguise.
Perhaps these lines by the young British poet Andrew Lansdown will begin to give us some words to articulate the flood of thoughts and feelings evoked by our participation in the dramatic reading of the passion according to Luke, which we just completed.
In the ancient world, great cities were few and, by comparison to the wild, untamed vast deserts and forests, centers of great human achievement. The fact that most ancient cities were built in the shape of a square or rectangle came to be interpreted as a meaningful contrast with nature or paradise, which was depicted as round. Cities were human creations, almost in contrast to nature. In cities were found the pinnacle of human achievement—art, architecture, government, religion, justice, philosophy. Cites were where humankind dominated. They were the artifice of the human mind and hand.
When Jesus set out for the capital city of Jerusalem, he began his surrender to human control.
If you wanted justice anywhere in the region, you came to Jerusalem. If you had any political ambition, you came to Jerusalem. If you were a devout Jew, you made a pilgrimage to the Temple, recently and grandly rebuilt by King Herod, in Jerusalem. If your mission was to confront women and men on their own turf, as it was the mission of Jesus, you came to Jerusalem.
Having just rehearsed the events of that fateful last week of Jesus in Jerusalem, we have just been reminded of ways in which individuals and human institutions can fail. His friends and followers turned their eyes away and kept their distance, worried about their own safety as they saw what was happening to Jesus. If there had been public opinion polls, the favorability ratings would have been off the charts on the Sunday he entered Jerusalem and near zero by Friday. The politicians and religious leaders were better at waffling in response to public opinion than they were at following their conscience. And when the whole sordid mess was over by Friday, one of the soldiers assigned to keep watch that day over those who were being crucified looked up at Jesus, near death on the cross, and acknowledged: This man was innocent.
After sitting through months of the Nuremberg Trials at the end of World War II and listening to the testimony of the Nazi leaders who carried out the war and the mass execution of 11 million people, the great American philosopher Hannah Arendt made this observation: she said she was stunned at the banality, the ordinariness of human evil. Ordinary men and women got up every day, went about their business, the business of routine violence and destruction.
It is the ordinariness of the story in which you and I have just participated that is so disturbing. For the politicians and religious leaders, it was just another day of dispensing justice. The executioners were just following orders.
What makes our blood run cold is that this story reveals the banality of human evil. Is it not in the little, everyday betrayals of one another that evil is perpetuated? Are not even our best efforts at justice frequently flawed? Are not our loyalties as fickle as the crowds in the story, as easily swayed by public opinion?
But—thanks be to God—the story does not end there. The story ends with Easter, when God intervenes and reverses the consequences of human evil, even when it seemed virtually overwhelming. God does not—will not—allow evil, even in its most vile forms, to have the final triumph. God intervenes; God rescues just exactly when individuals and human institutions are exhausted. In the middle of Saturday night, God reversed the momentary victory of human evil that dominated on Friday so that on Sunday morning, when the women came to embalm the corpse of Jesus, instead they found an empty tomb.
There will be more Good Fridays. The innocent still suffer. The best political, religious and justice institutions in this capital city, laid out in a square, may I remind you, stumble and fall and all of us are lulled by the banality of evil. Everyday children die when it is easily preventable. Innocent people sit in jail. A helpless victim of violence is in a hospital. Many are hungry. Many are hopeless. And we are so tempted to accept it all as normal.
Are we atheists in this way? Although we say we believe the victory of good over evil was won at Easter, do we act as if the outcome is not settled? The battle does still go on, in your heart and in mine.
We have a choice. The choice is living as if the story stopped where it ended today, with the realization that individuals and human institutions had, in a day’s routine, killed an innocent person or we can live as Easter people—joyful, energized, focused intentionally working on the side of reversing evil because we believe, even when there seems to be little actual evidence, that God tips the scale in favor of forgiveness, generosity, fairness and all the other ways new life emerges from death.
I encourage you to walk the way of the cross seriously this year here or wherever you will be this week. Especially this Thursday, Friday and Saturday, when the church marks in “real time” the way from death to life, I urge you to walk slowly through these three days that culminate on Saturday night with the sudden burst of joy in response to God’s miraculous reversal. And I hope that starting today, you will come out on the other side of this Holy Week more realistic about the power of human evil and more thankful—and more believing—in God’s power to reverse it, in your heart and in our world. Next Sunday, when you arrive at Easter, may you be an Easter person, although there are many more Good Fridays yet to come. </P