Judas was the snitch in the government's case against Jesus, though his motive was vague. Others, perhaps only caught up in the spirit of the thing, gave false testimony against him. Soldiers carried out the sentence: they nailed him to the cross. His disciples had let him down every hour on the hour until Judas showed with the law – chief priests, scribes, and elders – and a crowd wielding swords and clubs. Then they abandoned him.
Every Sunday, from a time before I can remember until I was around eighteen years old, I knelt in a pew and was assaulted with a life-size statue of Christ on the cross hanging above the altar. Crowned with thorns. Blood dripping down one side of his face. A gash in the skin stretched tight over his agonized ribs, blood dripping; more blood trickling from the nail holse in his hands and feet. The weeks of Lent were a blessed relief, as they covered the statues with purple satin.
Perhaps the Catholic Church is onto something in its official condemnation of the death penalty. Its own saviour was a victim of capital punishment.
Jesus was a convict.
I know; he was betrayed. Most people who wind up in prison are. But the powers that were saw Jesus as guilty of insurrection, of treason, of attempting to overthrow the government. Serious charges, especially in the political tumult of the times. He was establishing a loyal following. They were scared of him.
When I think about what would happen if Jesus showed up next Tuesday – not riding down from heaven on a cloud with trumpet fanfare blasting, but the way the Bible says he did it the first time, human born, I cannot help but feel certain that he'd wind up on death row, probably in Texas. This would, of course, be after he graduated from harvard at thirteen and got fed into the media machine, made the rounds in TV land: Oprah, Good Morning America, maybe even Geraldo. Larry King Live would be a great venue for Jesus. We could call in. We could ask why there are tornadoes, why AIDS, why war. We could ask if the Western psychiatric establishment is part of the solution or part of the problem. And there would no doubt be numerous documentaries and a feature film, first rumored to be starring Tom Cruise, but in the end Brad Pitt would have to get the part.
Then everything would sour, and something would get whispered in a hallway somewhere in D.C. – This guy is bigger than Michael Jackson and Madonna put together, and he's still gathering momentum – and next thing you know, Jesus would be arrested. Betrayed again, no doubt. And instead of trying to post his bail, Hollywood – his production company, his agent, his lawyers, his publicist – would just bail out on him, as would most all of his other followers, except perhaps a loose, anonymous following on the Internet or maybe the odd militiaman who'd be willing to hole up in the name of Jesus and exchange fire with the feds.
Christ is on the cross, nails through his hands and feet, a thief hanging on either side of him. One thief makes fun of him. The other asks forgiveness. And, in what is the only instance in the entire New Testament of Christ actually promising heaven to anyone, Jesus says to the thief, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
Of course, these days, we don't crucify. These days, executions are a bit more civilized. They should be. After all, it's Christians who are carrying them out.
Excerpted from the essay published in
Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited, edited by Rick Moody and Darcey Steinke