War of the Worlds
I can no longer read or hear the Markan account of Jesus’ crucifixion and slide easily over the details of public humiliation, systematic mocking, physical torture, state-sponsored terrorism, and orchestrated cruelty. In fact, to quote the title of both an article and a book by Adam Serwer, “the cruelty is the point.”
I don’t mean to suggest that we should gaze at the institutional violence in a pornographic sense. I leave that to Mel Gibson, for example, who indulged his torture fetish in the film, The Passion of the Christ. He employed the same longing, languorous gaze on the torture scenes in that film that he employed and encouraged in Braveheart and the Lethal Weapon series. The pornographic view of violence does not critique that violence but rather revels in it.
That is not what I mean. It is, however, often the gaze employed by those who would see the suffering of Jesus as one of the “points” of the crucifixion. By this I don’t mean attention to the fact of Jesus’ suffering but rather attention to the “amount” of that suffering. I find that this voyeuristic gaze is employed as part of sermons rooted in the Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) theory.
In this theoretical perspective, the amount of suffering is proportional to the depth of sin remedied. The greater the “debt of honor” to God, the more the Beloved Son must suffer to “pay off” that debt. I find that equation to be morally abhorrent, personally disgusting, and theologically deficient. I have discussed PSA elsewhere, but I think it is important to remind ourselves that this is not the theoretical framework of the Markan composer.
The cruelty is the “point” for those (primarily the Romans) who carry out Jesus’ show trial, mockery, torture, and execution. Roman citizens convicted of capital crimes were typically beheaded. This execution usually did not include the other elements of the process in Mark 15 unless the defendant was accused of some offense against the state.
Crucifixion was reserved for recalcitrant slaves, treasonous subjects, and those whom the Empire regarded as terrorists and brigands. The two “bandits” (Mark 15:27, NRSV) crucified at Jesus’ right and left hands were not likely to have been petty thieves. Instead, they were far more likely to be Zealots who attacked the Roman occupation forces to persuade them to leave Judea. Barabbas was another of these insurrectionists – who certainly would have seen themselves as “freedom fighters” in the mold of the Maccabees from two centuries earlier.
Therefore, crucifixion was more than an inefficient method for disposing of troublemakers. It was political theater performed on the bodies of the victims. This theater was intended to convince the rest of the populace that (in the words of a villainous science fiction enemy) “resistance is futile.” Cruelty was more the process than the point, in fact. The “point” was that complying and collaborating were far more comfortable that resisting and rebelling.
In his recent article, Luis Menéndez-Antuña reflects on the “intertextual” realities of Jesus’ crucifixion and contemporary testimonies by torture victims, specifically in Latin American contexts. “Although no one would question that the historical reality of crucifixion is a case of torture,” Menéndez-Antuña writes, “there has been little sustained attention to crucifixion as torture. This is particularly true in the Gospel of Mark,” he continues,” where, as my argument shows, the literary rendering of the victim’s pain reflects what we know about torture from the experiences of those who have survived it” (page 2).
Menéndez-Antuña notes that the Markan composition “represents torture in one of its purest forms. Capture and interrogation, physical abuse, humiliation, and deliberately inflicting pain in intensifying ways are constitutive elements of torture” (page 4). If we compare his list to the events in Mark 15, we can see that he is correct. More than that, we can see that torture is a much larger process than the physical suffering inflicted at the time of execution.
The first question Menéndez-Antuña addresses is why we, as interpreters, should bother with this analysis of Mark 15 as an account of torture. Most of the commentary on the Passion accounts in my experience has created an impersonal and analytic distance between my life and the reality of the Cross. That is an intentional, if obscured, working of privilege, since I don’t find myself in any place where public political torture is even a possibility. Most dominant-culture scholarship keeps the reality of torture in Mark 15 at a comfortable distance.
“My argument,” Menéndez-Antuña writes, “shows how, contrary to these claims, sustained attention to the phenomenology of torture, to the literary analysis of its witnessing, and to the testimonies of those who have survived, enhances literary analysis rather than obscuring it” (page 5). While I don’t advocate another exercise in voyeuristic violence from the pulpit, as an interpreter I must come to terms with what is being reported and performed in the Markan composition if I am to faithfully proclaim the text.
Menéndez-Antuña has an extended dialogue with the work of Elaine Scarry in her 1988 book, The Body in Pain. Scarry describes three phenomena at work in torture – inflicting pain in increasing intensity, objectifying the pain and making it publicly visible, and the pain being viewed not as pain but rather as power. She argues that torture includes both the infliction of physical pain and the conduct of verbal interrogation. Menéndez-Antuña notes that “both components work to achieve the ultimate effect of torture: the destruction of language and ultimately the erasure of a world” (page 6).
Therefore, the purpose of torture is the destruction of any world that might be an alternative to the world of the people “in charge.” As Menéndez-Antuña notes, the ethical status of torture is often debated in terms of whether it is “productive” or not. This discussion assumes that the goal of torture is to obtain important information or intelligence. In this theoretical framework, it is, in principle, possible to find a “justification” for torture, if only the information produced is of sufficient intelligence value. Thus, the victim’s pain becomes a means to achieve the torturer’s ends, and the victim ceases to be regarded as fully human.
The reality, however, is that this application of interrogation and pain generally reduces the victim to whimpering incoherence. “Pain is world-destroying,” Menéndez-Antuña writes. “The moment the torturer drills the victim’s nerves, their conscious world empties. The destruction of language accompanies world-destruction,” he argues, “because pain is essentially non-linguistic” (page 7). Menéndez-Antuña points to the silent darkness of Mark 15:33 to illustrate this reality on a cosmic scale.
It should be clear from even a superficial reading of the Markan account that the purpose of Jesus’ torture is not to extract information. The purpose of this process is to destroy Jesus and the alternative world which he proclaims and performs. “Torture condenses a process,” Menéndez-Antuña, “where oppositional visions of future worlds collide, hence the torturer’s ultimate goal of annihilating the victim’s project for a new reality” (page 9). “Annihilating the victim’s project for a new reality” – that sounds like the response we read in the Markan composition to “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Menéndez-Antuña examines two elements of the makeup of Jesus’ new reality – discipleship and the temple. I’ll describe the former in a few sentences. Discipleship, at least in the Markan composition, is a move from the old world into a new one. The disciples struggle, and ultimately fail, to inhabit this new world. Thus, the report of Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus is one of the ways to illustrate the world-destruction the torturers intend to enact. In the face of that destruction, Peter can only weep in despair.
The temptation to hold the victim responsible for their own suffering is always just beneath the surface of any experience of inflicted pain. Menéndez-Antuña argues for great caution in how we describe the relationship between Jesus’ actions and the actions of the torturers. If we see his actions as “triggers” for the torture process, we can end up ratifying the reasons the torturers give for their conduct. He argues that “considering the accusation as the origin of torture risks accepting the logics of torture itself” (page 16).
An historical description of Jesus’ ministry and the Roman response may well show that Jesus’ aggressive actions during Holy Week led to his execution. “But when it comes to the narrative and literary representation,” Menéndez-Antuña writes, “to locate the etiology of torture in the victim’s actions is to reinscribe a justification of torture” (page 16). In other words, it is not the victim who is somehow to blame but rather the old world which is refusing to die that is responsible for the torture.
In his torture and death, therefore, Jesus stands with every victim who envisions and seeks to enact the new world of God’s wholeness, justice, and hope (whether that vision is framed in terms of the Gospel or not). The parties responsible for the suffering are the representatives of the old world, bent on maintaining the power they have in that old regime. We must always resist the easy option of blaming the victims for their own suffering.
If only, for example, the protestors in the Black Lives Matter movement wouldn’t engage in demonstrations and disobedience, they wouldn’t be arrested, assaulted, and abused. Their behavior, the argument goes, triggered the response. Therefore, that response is, at least partially, their fault, the argument continues. If that is the case, then Jesus’ crucifixion is his own damn fault as well. If he had just stuck to prayers and piety, no one would have gotten hurt.
This is always the thinly veiled threat when we preachers hear that we need to keep politics out of the pulpit. If we don’t know enough to keep our mouths shut and just do “theology,” there will be unpleasant consequences – for us, for our families, and for those who might share our views in the congregation. While physical violence is not the “go to” strategy these days for white preachers, reputational, financial, social, and institutional violence are ready substitutes. These consequences may not be “torture,” but they are no less real.
The intention of Jesus’ torture and death was to demonstrate that this is what “the King of the Jews” looks like – tortured to death in a process that culminates in a cross. The Markan composition wants us to see that, ironically, the Romans got that part right. More on that next time.
References and Resources
Alexamenos graffito: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexamenos_graffito.
Burton, Oliver Vernon, and Defner, Armand. Justice Deferred: Race and the Supreme Court. Cambridge, MA.: The Belknap Press, 2021.
Chan, Michael J. https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/not-without-gods-power.
Diggers, Ira Brent. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sunday-of-the-passion-palm-sunday-2/commentary-on-mark-151-47.
Menéndez-Antuña, Luis. (2021). The Book of Torture. The Gospel of Mark, Crucifixion, and Trauma (forthcoming in Journal of the American Academy of Religion). Journal of the American Academy of Religion. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/353804044_The_Book_of_Torture_The_Gospel_of_Mark_Crucifixion_and_Trauma_forthcoming_in_Journal_of_the_American_Academy_of_Religion.
Serwer, Adam. “The Cruelty is the Point.” https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/the-cruelty-is-the-point/572104/.
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