Text Study for Mark 15:1-39 (Pt. 3); November 21, 2021

The Torn Curtain

Menéndez-Antuña reminds us that in the Markan composition, we hear that “Jesus breathes his last” (NRSV) two times in three verses (Mark 15:37,39). These two mentions sandwich the description of the tearing of the “curtain” or “veil” in the Temple. “But Jesus, emitting a great cry, expired. And the curtain of the Temple was torn into two from above to below. But when the centurion who was standing opposite him saw that he had expired in this way, he said, ‘Truly, this man was a Son of God’” (Mark 15:37-39, my translation).

One of the drawbacks of attending to these verses only in the broad and long readings of Holy Week is that we have neither the time nor the inclination to explore the details of the script. We find here yet another Markan sandwich or intercalation, albeit a small one compared to the others in the composition.

The Markan composer wants us to hear the intimate connection between Jesus’ expiration and the Temple’s exposure. I am using alliteration in this description because I think that was the intention of the Markan composer as well. It’s hard to capture in a translation (although I will keep trying). But both the verb forms in the verses for “to expire” and the verb for “to tear” begin with the same letter and are in the same tense and person. The Markan composer has devoted precise attention to the exquisite details of these verses.

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Menéndez-Antuña reads this part of the script in two ways. He has first suggests that the tearing of the curtain is “a symbol referring to the world’s collapse in terms of Jesus’ relationship to the temple. I further propose,” he continues, “that it is a metaphor for the destruction of the victim’s body right at the moment of language’s annihilation” (page 19). Everybody has been talking up a storm to this point, he notes. But now one voice will be left in the silence – a voice that calls Jesus (whatever tone we might attribute to the centurion’s utterance) a “son of God.”

“The cry of dereliction (Mark 15:34), the tearing of the veil (Mark 15:38), and the victim’s outcry with his last breath (Mark 15: 37.39) bespeak literary moments when authorial imagination captures crushed victimhood,” Menéndez-Antuña writes, “when the inevitable expressive nature of the author’s written word grasps the ineffable essence of the victim’s inner world” (page 20).

He has connected the torturous process of Jesus’ death to the lived experiences of victims of torture in Latin America in ways that most commentators would avoid at all costs. The result of this avoidance, he argues, is a limited understanding of the text and the experience of Jesus as the victim of torture. He argues that “qualified interpreters ultimately fail to take the crucifixion for what it really is: the peak of a long, painful, carefully articulated process of torture geared to destroy the victim’s inner and outer worlds, thoughts and language, flesh and bones, past and future” (page 21).

Why would we contemporary interpreters and preachers cooperate in this avoidance of the crucifixion as it really is? I think that one reason must be that we contemporary (White, Male, North American) interpreters and preachers find ourselves primarily on the side of the torturers rather than on the side of the victims. There is strong evidence, for example, of American material support for the Pinochet regime in Chile, perhaps extending to the active support of the torture program and policy. Numerous other examples of United States support for Latin American dictatorships can be cited and documented.

While the use of torture is illegal on American ground, that has not stopped us from using it on other pieces of property. That is the real rationale for offshore installations to hold suspected terrorists and other presumed threats to our national security. In such facilities, the techniques of waterboarding, stress positioning, forced nudity, threats to the individual and their family, sleep deprivation and loud music for days on end, prolonged solitary confinement and confinement in small spaces have been employed during the last twenty years.

Of course, we need not go offshore to remember and thus witness the use of torture by White Christian Americans. We need only remember the history of lynching Black people in this country since 1865. I would refer you to the report produced by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), Lynching in America (Third Edition). That report documents nearly 4400 “racial terror lynchings” in the United States between 1877 and 1950.

“Racial terror lynching was a tool used to enforce Jim Crow laws and racial segregation,” the report writes, “a tactic for maintaining racial control by victimizing the entire African American community, not merely punishment of an alleged perpetrator for a crime.” These lynchings were given a variety of social justifications. But they were intended to control a subject population through the public application of torture and execution enacted on black bodies in that local community.

The phenomenon of “public spectacle lynchings” has the greatest similarity to the torture and death of Jesus as reported in the Markan composition. “At these often festive community gatherings,” the EJI report notes, “large crowds of whites watched and participated in the Black victims’ prolonged torture, mutilation, dismemberment, and burning at the stake.” One of those “public spectacle lynchings” took place in Omaha, Nebraska, for example, when in 1919 Will Brown was shot, his body hanged, drug through the streets and mutilated, and then burned beyond recognition.

It should be impossible for us contemporary White American Christians to reflect on Jesus’ torture and death without grappling yet again with the deep resemblance between that torture and death and the torture and death involved in lynching. If we cannot do it ourselves, James Cone has made the connection in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, one of the most important works of biblical interpretation and constructive theology in English in the twentieth century.

“Christians, both white and black, followed a crucified savior,” Cone writes. “What could pose a more blatant contradiction to such a religion than lynching? And yet,” he notes, “white Christians were silent in the face of this contradiction” (page 96). In fact, White Christians were not “silent” so much as celebratory. For example, there is the announcement in a 1919 New Orleans paper that “3,000 Will Burn Negro.” The headline declared that “John Hartfield will be lynched by Ellisville Mob at 5 o’clock this afternoon” (see the EJI report). Silence is not the word I would use here.

The magazine of the NAACP, The Crisis, made the connection between crucifixion and lynching with regularity. For example, when the magazine reported the lynching of Will Brown mentioned above, they made the connection with a photograph. In the December 1919 issue one can find a photo of Brown’s burned and mutilated body, surrounded by grinning and triumphant White Omaha men. The photo was captioned “The Crucifixion in Omaha.” You can find that photograph and the related report here.

“It was not easy for blacks to find a language to talk about Christianity publicly,” Cone writes, “because the Jesus they embraced was also, at least in name, embraced by whites who lynched black people. Indeed,” he continues, “it was white slaveholders, segregationists, and lynchers who defined the content of the Christian gospel” (page 118). Unless we White interpreters make the connections and acknowledge our history, we will continue to define the Christian gospel in a way that excludes the tortured and silences their voices.

This is a matter of the ethics of interpretation and of what Menéndez-Antuña refers to as “the ethics of accounting for torture” (page 21). “The historiographical question then comes into sharp focus,” he writes, “why do we, historians and literary critics, talk about torture in the past in ways we find ethically deficient when we talk about torture in the present?” (page 23). I think that’s a question for us as biblical interpreters and preachers as well.

“A symbol of death and defeat,” Cone writes, “God turned [the cross] into a sign of liberation and new life. The cross is the most empowering symbol,” he argues, “of God’s loving solidarity with the ‘least of these,’ the unwanted in society who suffer daily from great injustices. Christians must face the cross,” Cone concludes, “as the terrible tragedy it was and discover in it, through faith and repentance, the liberating joy of eternal salvation” (page 156).

Of course, this means that we too (who claim to be Jesus followers) must embrace that loving solidarity with “the least of these.” At the moment one declares that necessity, however, the interpreter moves from preaching to meddling. This is why it is comfortable to hold the reality of Jesus’ cross at arm’s length and to maintain it as symbol, metaphor, theory, and jewelry.

Menéndez-Antuña is speaking about scholarly interpretation, but he could just as well describe much of my preaching when he writes, “To various degrees, however, these approaches overlook the irreducible reality of pain during torture, its inexpressibility and the dilemma that it poses to language. In other words,” he continues, “they decenter the victim’s pain and leave questions about the literary representation of agony unaddressed. And they do so,” he argues, “despite the text’s heavy emphasis on locating the victim at the center of the forces of torture” (pages 23-24).

If we take the Markan composition on its own terms, up close and personal, we will be changed. “Faith that emerged out of the scandal of the cross,” Cone writes, “is not a faith of intellectuals or elites of any sort. This is the faith of abused and scandalized people,” he says, “the losers and the down and out” (page 160). Perhaps that is why this text is submerged rather than studied.

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.

Equal Justice Initiative. Lynching in America (Third Edition). https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/.

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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