When I was in middle school I watched my closest friend be abused by another student in the changing room after gym class. I don’t remember the lead up to what happened or how it even started, but I remember with total clarity watching this girl slap my friend square across the face with all her force. Once. Twice. Three times.
I wasn’t the only one watching. We all watched – 25, maybe 30 of us – classmates and friends, who knew the difference between right and wrong, and who knew what we were watching was really, really wrong. We just stood there. We watched. Frozen and afraid. We watched. I didn’t yell out for them to stop. I didn’t run from the room to get a teacher. I didn’t step forward to stand next to my oldest, dearest friend.
I just watched.
It was the first time in my life that I witnessed violence against someone that I knew and cared deeply for, and I realize how lucky I am to be able to make that statement. But that experience revealed a truth about myself that I have been trying to run from since that day: the truth that in the face of violence and deep, deep wrongdoing, I am capable of doing nothing. I am capable of witnessing pain and trauma and injustice and standing still. My fear immobilizes me. I do nothing.
This truth is one of the reasons Good Friday is so very uncomfortable for me. I cannot read this graphic, difficult, and painful gospel passage without knowing right where I would have been if I had been part of that day. I would have been part of the crowd watching this horror unfold. I would have been Peter insisting that he was not one of the men with Jesus. I would have been Simon of Cyrene, carrying the cross. I would have been Pilate – if I could even fool myself into thinking I could achieve his level of bravery – and, not having the agreement of the crowd, I would have ordered the crucifixion despite my doubts.
I can try to console myself by saying that at least I wouldn’t have been yelling “Crucify him!” with the angry crowds. In fact, that’s how I’ve reconciled myself with this passage for decades. I wouldn’t have been that bad. But then the memory of that day in gym class floats back into my brain, and it reminds me that even if the words were not tumbling from my mouth, my silence is it’s own kind of violence. Silence leaves too much space for continued wrongdoing, and in the absence of audible dissent one can only assume that allowance, forgiveness, and even affirmation fill that space instead.
Now I’m not in the business of calling others out for their fallibilities – Lord knows I can keep myself busy naming and tending to my own. But I think it’s worth noting that I’m not the only one capable of watching, standing still, staying silent. I wasn’t alone in gym class in the 7th grade any more than one single person was alone watching Christ crucified hundreds of years ago. It took a whole crowd of people to revolt against Jesus, to call for his death, and to cheer while it took place. Any time one person or a group of people fall victim to violence, pain, and betrayal, it takes a whole lot of silent onlookers to allow that injustice to continue.
I don’t need to tell you that we are surrounded by violence still. Our communities, our nation, our world – it is plagued with suffering. Hunger, poverty, war. To think of it all is, admittedly, crippling and I think that adds to our silence as well. We can’t figure out how to help, how to make a difference, and we are paralyzed and overwhelmed by all the many ways that humans are harming other humans. And so we do nothing.
Now listen, this is not meant to be a sermon that implies all of us are immoral, irresponsible and content to sit idly by while people suffer. I don’t believe that. But it is meant to be a sermon that calls to our attention the astounding power that fear plays in our lives, and our very human desire for self-protection. Because I believe that is what is at the heart of our inability to act in the face of violence. Fear permeates our silence. I have tremendous compassion for 7th grade Meaghan, and how terribly afraid she was watching her friend be hurt. I have compassion for everyone else in that room, all of us wanting it to end and none of us having the skills to make that happen. I have compassion for the crowds in Jerusalem cheering for Jesus’ death. I have compassion for Peter. I have compassion for Pilate.
I am able to have compassion for all of those people, and for myself, because that’s what Jesus modeled for me on the cross. “Forgive them Father, because they know not what they do.” He knew. He knows. He knows we are afraid. He knows our humanity is fallible and our desire to protect ourselves is innate, even when it means turning our attention away from someone else’s pain and death. He knows. And he forgives.
But that forgiveness is not our free ticket to keep doing what we’re doing. His forgiveness does not give us permission to remain silent. His compassion does not mean we can’t be held responsible for the violence we perpetrate in the world around us – either aloud and through our actions or through our silence and complicity.
Quite the opposite. His forgiveness should transform us. His compassion should inspire us to be brave, to speak, to act. His death on the cross was ultimately for greater good – to show us the abundance of God’s love and mercy and forgiveness through the resurrection, we know that. But we also can’t fast forward through the impact of this day to only consider the resurrection. Yes, the darkness of this day is transformed into light through the incredible grace of God. But we must also look squarely at the darkness of this day to understand and acknowledge what we are capable of, and how we are capable of change. God’s mercy is present right here, at the foot of the cross, with a Savior who showed nothing but compassion and forgiveness for the people who wished him harm, or who stood idly by while he was killed. Yes, resurrection is our ultimate Christian story – but the story of this day stands alone. We can be transformed by this day, this death, this story.
At another point in our gospel Jesus says, “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.” Friends, when we commit violence against one another it is violence against God. We can try to separate ourselves from the angry crowd at the crucifixion all we want, but there is no denying our continued presence, silence, and neglect in the face of continued violence against our fellow humans and consequently against God. We have constant opportunity to make a different choice: to be transformed, to be inspired, to be brave. It’s so very hard, and when we fail we are forgiven and given another chance so we must keep trying. We must speak. We must dissent. We must protect those around us and not only ourselves. Practice in small ways, by choosing not to laugh and calling out a joke that isn’t funny, by showing up and standing next to someone who is being oppressed, by using the simple words “no” or “stop” when you see something that isn’t right. Fueled by God’s forgiveness, compassion and mercy, our practice of nonviolence in small ways will embolden us to be bolder, braver, and better at ending violence in bigger ways. And whatever you do for the least of these you do for Jesus Christ. It is the least we can do, given what he has done for us.