The Torture and Humiliation of the King
Today we continue our journey through the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life. As we do so, we come to a part of the story that, paradoxically, some will find repulsive; others compelling, even inspiring. Perhaps most disconcerting, it is an aspect of Jesus’ story that remains timeless and universal. It is the torture and humiliation of Jesus.
The first question that comes to mind is, “How can people be so cruel?”
As much as we like to feel that were a civilized people the truth there’s something dark within us as a species. Only a few centuries ago, in Europe, crowds would gather to watch people tortured, flailed, skinned alive, drawn and quartered, burned at the stake. The human heads of enemies of the crown used to be impaled on London Bridge. In John Wesley’s 18th century, crowds would bring sack lunches to watch public hangings, as if they were going to a picnic. Anybody want to go back to the good old days? Sadly, some do.
I just don’t have to be the good old days all we need to do is to is watch the news and see the bloodshed that is part of the landscape which is Syria.
The sad reality is that from time to time horrible atrocities still erupts that brings into question our humanity. The Jewish Holocaust, Rwanda, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, are modern examples. In the Rwandan genocide in 1994, estimates of the death toll ranged between 500,000 and 1,000,000, as much as 20% of the total population.
But you don’t have to go around the world to remember, just tour the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie Illinois. The whole point of the museum is to preserve the memories of those lost in the Holocaust and teach current generations about the on-going need to fight hatred, indifference and genocide in today’s world.
Perhaps most troubling of all, is the fear that under the right conditions, there is a streak of cruelty in all of us. If you’ve ever been unnecessarily cruel not just to your enemies, but to strangers, even to friends or members of your own family, you have experienced it, this shocking darkness that we encounter in our own hearts.
The last 24 hours of Jesus’ life as portrayed in the Gospels is a case study in the human condition: Judas betrayal, Peter’s denial, disciples abandonment, Sanhedrin’s jealousy, crowds rage, Pilate’s acquiescence, soldiers cruelty. If you want to know what we need saving from, look at the story of Jesus; look at the human condition; look inside our own hearts.
But if “How can people be so cruel?” is the general question this story from the life of Jesus raises, a more specific one is this: “Is there anyone who isn’t inspired by the fortitude and faith with which he faced what he suffered?” While we may be repulsed at Jesus’ torture and humiliation, while it might even be possible to find stories of individuals in history who suffered worse, it’s doubtful there is any other person in human history who has inspired more people more by how he faced injustice, suffering and humiliation.
In seminary we were thought four theories underlying the purpose of Jesus’ life and death. There is, for example, the substitution theory, the subjective or moral influence theory, the sacrificial theory, and the “Christ as Victor” theory. I don’t want to go into them in detail here, but I refer you to his discussion there. The important point to remember is that there are several, not just one.
Remember that those who wrote the New Testament were Jews who practiced a sacrificial form of religion. The Jewish Bible was their Bible, and so, as they sought to understand the story of Jesus, they used the language and terms of the Jewish bible to do so. Just as we today find cruel and unusual punishment abhorrent, so we may also find a theory of Jesus life and death which requires the spilling of blood abhorrent, even though – as part of our Christian heritage – we still use it in our liturgical language.
Given this, one of the most popular understandings of Jesus’ death – especially in modern times – is the subjective or moral influence theory, which maintains that Jesus work’ was not so much about changing God, as it was changing us. In this theory, Jesus died not so much for us, as “because” of us, as we see what the human race did to the Son of God upon earth.
As we see the suffering Jesus faced and with what fortitude and faith he faced it, we behold the power of sacrificial love, and are changed. And indeed, we are inspired by Jesus fortitude and faith in the midst of suffering, to face our own.
Remember that – as is never portrayed, even in the most realistic of portrayals – Jesus is stripped naked, in humiliation. He is abused with a crown of thorns, a purple robe that sticks to raw flesh, and the blasphemous taunts of soldiers. After no food and water for 24 hours, after no sleep, after being beaten and flogged, can you imagine trying to carry that 75-100 lb cross beam? No wonder Jesus staggered and fell. No wonder the Roman soldiers concluded he was never going to make it and they didn’t have all day, so they “recruited” Simon of Cyrene, a mere passerby. No wonder it was to be a day that was to change Simon’s life forever, such that he too – a mere passerby compelled to carry the cross of Jesus – became a follower? And his sons became some of the early leaders of the church.
Is it therefore any wonder some of our best art and music through the centuries has sought to portray the power of these scenes? Just as we saw last week how identification with the injustice shown to Jesus has appealed to many, so we see this week how identification with Jesus’ physical and emotional suffering has – throughout the century – appealed to many. And how, those who suffer have found in Jesus’ example fortitude and faith to face their own sufferings.
One of the most famous examples is that of the Isenheim altarpiece, painted by Matthias Grunewald in 1515. The hospital at Isenheim cared particularly for plague victims, and in his concentration on Christ’s appalling physical agonies, his body gruesomely mangled and torn, Grunewald bolstered the faith of those who beheld it by reminding them that Jesus too, had suffered horribly before his eventual triumph over death. I have stood before Grunewald’s Crucifixion, and if you look closely at Jesus’ skin as he hangs upon the cross, you might even conclude that he too suffered from the plague.
For every child who has been picked on, taunted, and humiliated, Jesus walked the way of suffering. For every man and woman who has ever been made to feel small by others, Jesus took those taunts. For every victim of torture, everyone falsely condemned, everyone abused by another, he carries that crossbeam, finally to be nailed to it.
In this, God is saying to us, “I subjected myself to the hate and meanness of others not only that I might understand what you suffer, but that in my suffering, you too might find fortitude and faith.”
To put together what that means for us, consider this. Tammy Duckworth is an Illinoisan, currently the U.S Senator of Illinois.
In November of 2004, she was an Army reservist copiloting a Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq. On November 12th, her chopper was struck by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) that exploded at her feet, severing both legs and crushing her arm. By the time the chopper crash-landed, she appeared dead. The soldiers with her knew the enemy would be on the way to the crash site, and that if they were captured, they would likely be killed, but in the military, “no one gets left behind.” At great risk, they extricated her from the helicopter, then carried her through a field of six foot tall grass. When they reached safety, they realized that though she had lost half the blood in her body, she was still alive. She has recovered from these horrific injuries, not only to be a U.S. Senator, but has just given birth to her first child.
When asked how she felt about the personal risk her fellow soldiers took to save her, Major Duckworth has said, “You have to get up every day and seek to live in such a way as to be worthy of that kind of effort and sacrifice.” Talking about taking up one cross and to follow the Via Dolorosa, she has become an example of service and bravery.
How can any Christian – beholding these scenes of the torture and humiliation of the King – not feel and do the same?