Crucify Them! Lessons from Holy Week on Capital Punishment

Standing in a dimly lit Greek Orthodox Church this week with my mother, I was confronted with the icon of Christ crucified. As the life-size cross with a hand painted icon of Christ was solemnly carried by the priest around the Church, I, along with many in the Church, was overcome with grief. The faithful wept for the crucified one who is considered by over a billion humans to be God incarnate.

However, I did not weep for God. I wept for the “others.” The poor, the homeless, the people of color and minorities of all varieties and stripes, Women, those who identify as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Queer and Transgender, along with the millions incarcerated in America and around the world. On that cross was a Jesus who for me symbolizes all those who are oppressed and exploited.

I could not help but see this ancient ritual as a commentary on our modern society. Massive crowds chanting for crucifixion of an innocent man whose only crime was that he sought to abolish all forms of state and religious authority and, instead, create a horizontal society of inclusion and mutual aid, where all were equal.

How fitting since this week we are not only commemorating Passover for the Jewish People and Easter for Christian communities but also the one year anniversary of the Boston Marathon Bombing. All of these have a common thread which binds them: confronting the hatred, misunderstanding and prejudice of some with the resilience and love of others. The story of the exile of the Jews with that of Jesus and the people of Boston is one of leading people from darkness of oppression to the light of love and solidarity.

Yet, on Thursday April 17th, the day in which some of the Christian Churches commemorate the Crucifixion of Christ, the Senate of New Hampshire failed to repeal the death penalty by a single vote. Here we are, almost 2000 years after the crucifixion of Jesus and countless others by the Roman Empire and we are still sentencing people to death. How can faithful and non-faithful alike justify a horrific practice?

Amnesty International lists the United States with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, North Korea, Yemen and China as the top perpetrators of state sanctioned executions. Yes, that’s right, the United States is listed along with all three members of the so called “Axis of Evil.” How fitting. All of the nations who still sanction the ruthless, prejudiced and unethical retributive justice that is known as “capital punishment” are the real axis of evil.

The United States carried out more state sanctioned executions than North Korea and Yemen over the past few years. Additionally, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Where is the outcry of the faithful filling their places of worship to pray and be together? Where are the Christians who are weeping for an executed Lord fighting for the millions of oppressed and exploited?

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone writing on behalf of Pope Francis reiterated the Holy Father’s complete commitment to abolishing capital punishment. Cardinal Bertone writes, “Today, more than ever, it is urgent that we remember and affirm the need for universal recognition and respect for the inalienable dignity of human life, in its immeasurable value.” This not only leaves room for reconciliation and love, but to understand the true face of crime and confront its root causes.

Also this week we were made aware of a powerful story about forgiveness. In Iran, a state which tops the list along with China and Saudi Arabia in terms of carrying out executions, one execution did not go according to plan.

In a powerful display of forgiveness and love, the parents of the victim who were helping to carry out the execution of their sons’ killer, stopped the execution as the noose was tightened and spared the life of the perpetrator. Is this not how we can reconcile and repair the world?

Reproducing violence begets violence. If we stop the cycle altogether, we can build a better world. This is what Jewish thought has described as Tikkun Olam or Repairing the World. We live in a broken world and it is up to us to take responsibility and change it.

This message comes not as a celebration of Easter or of the successful passing of the Jews into Israel or even the resilience of the people of Boston in the face of terrorism. It comes as a warning. Reproducing this violence and hatred will not change anything but only perpetuate the same evil which we have been combating since the beginning.

Jesus on the cross said “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23: 34) Unlike Jesus, I will emphasize the fact that we do know what we are doing. The time has come to stand up on the side of true justice, love and forgiveness in the face of all forms of hatred, prejudice and revenge.

True courage comes at a cost. Standing before authority and power we, like Sisyphus, may feel helpless and unable to change the world. I consistently hear “It’s too big,” “I am only one person,” “How can I change the world?” Yet, if everyone stood up as individuals, we would quickly realize how many there are and how we, in unison, can stand up and give hope to those who have no voice and no hope.

We must dare to believe and face all adversity if we truly want a better world. This is what is meant when the Byzantine Chanters exclaim “I gave My back to scourgings, and turned not away My face from spittings; I stood before the judgment-seat of Pilate, and endured the Cross, for the salvation of the world.” (The Ainoi [Praises] of Holy Thursday Evening)

Let us take the true power of this Holy Week, Passover and Marathon Monday and commit to love one another more than ever before. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 preached that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” What he omitted was that it bends only when we, standing in solidarity and love, bend it together.

Christopher Helali is a labor activist and member of the Industrial Workers of the World. Read other articles by Christopher.