Friday, April 2, 2010
Good Friday Meditation: A Station of the Cross at Lancaster County Prison, April 10, 1998
When Jesus had received the wine, he said, "It is finished."Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. John 19:30
Jesus took his last breath between two thieves. This wasn't the loveliest place to die. Among the outcasts. We shouldn't think of these thieves flanking Jesus as similar to robbers who might hold up a Turkey Hill. Their crime was more along the line of a Nelson Mandela. They were "social bandits," that is, political agitators subversive of Rome's domination system. Jesus dies among political subversives, with himself being labeled the same. As the scripture says, "He was counted among the lawless." There is something profound about Jesus dying among bandits, criminals. Theologian Jurgen Moltmann put it well when he said:
The symbol of the cross in the church points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates of the city. It does not invite thought but a change of mind. It is a symbol that leads us out of the church and out of religious longing into the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned. On the other hand, it is a symbol which calls the oppressed and godless into the church and through the church into the fellowship of the crucified God.(1)
To recall that Jesus took his last breath between two outcasts and criminals in front of the Lancaster County prison is highly symbolic. Though this prison is in the midst of Lancaster, its residents live "outside the city." By that I mean, they are society's outcasts. I will not stand here in front of the prison and tell you that the criminals behind bars should not be here or that they should be let out, nor will I forget their victims. I will say that generally speaking those in prison are disproportionately people of color. I will dare to say that at least 90% of the violent criminals in prisons are from abusive families; persons who grew up amid violence, who were neglected, and forgotten. I won't try to justify their crimes. But, I will say that retributive justice or punitive incarceration of criminals is not the final answer. Merely "giving them life" will not give them life.
As we consider Jesus dying on the cross, we might be tempted to compare his death to the death of criminals by capital punishment. The comparison has been visually portrayed in movies like Dead Man Walking with the repentant character played by Sean Penn strapped to a cruciform table. Some of us might be uncomfortable with that comparison. Every person who dies by the hands of the state is guilty of there crimes, aren't they? Weren't the three criminals who were tortured and executed by the state some two thousand years ago on the hill of the skull all guilty of their crimes?
Jesus breathed his last breath between two criminals. It's not the loveliest place to die. Nor is it the loveliest place to live. The criminals in this prison could probably tell us that, if we were listen to them. But, that's not the kind of place that most of us would want to be found in the midst of criminals or society's outcasts and marginalized. But, as strange as it may sound, that may be the very place where we might find this one who died a criminal's death. Christ may possibly be found not just long ago on a cross. Not just under steeples on Good Friday and Easter Sunday or among the faithful in a march through the city. Oddly enough, Christ may be found today ... right here in this prison. For as the scriptures tells us, Jesus said he could be visited in such places as this. Who knows he might be right in there between two thieves.
1. Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God. (New York: Harper and Row, 1974),40.