Every year, there’s something in Holy Week that resonates particularly strongly for me. This year, it was the words of those complicit religious leaders.* “We have no king but Caesar.” When I talked about this with the senior pastor and our intern after the Good Friday service, I tried to distance myself from those words. I talked about how they resonate in our current political situation here in the United States because of the religious leaders (not me! not me!) who support the Herod who is currently in office.
That is one current interpretation of those words, certainly. But watching Jesus Christ Superstar live (JCSS) last night changed that whole dynamic for me. The distance between me and those religious leaders saying, “We have no king but Caesar” narrowed considerably.
In JCSS, the words come from the crowd, the religious folks, everyone encircling Pilate and Jesus at the critical moment. The crowd reminds Pilate that he must answer to Caesar, that he might get deported or lose his job if he can’t keep the peace. That feels familiar: the urge to compromise with the death-dealing religious and civil leaders to protect job, power, privilege, or status.
I also found myself identifying with Judas. It’s easy to separate myself from his betrayal of Jesus when I’m reading the familiar story. But watching Brandon Victor Dixon play a very human Judas last night, it was impossible for me to see Judas as just a villain. In fact, I recognized myself in him. His humanity and his struggle were very apparent. The embrace that he and Jesus shared even as the religious leaders were coming to arrest Jesus at Judas’ request was heart-breaking. Judas’ tearful remorse and his longing for Jesus’ love, alone in the middle of the stage sobbing, “Does he love me too? Does he care for me?” moved me to tears. I recognize myself in Judas, and in Pilate, because JCSS presented these very human characters in all their complexity.
As we did some intense anti-racism work with my organization last week (just before the three days of Holy Week began), I felt that privileged sense of being overwhelmed by all the work we need to do, the fear that we can’t possibly do it all, and the desire to just give up. As a white woman, it’s not my life on the line because of racism, so I have the privilege of thinking about giving up the work and just living my life as part of the system, rather than challenging it. But to do that not only denies justice, it erodes my own humanity.
We do not have the option of both following Jesus and allowing Caesar to have the last word. We must choose. The image of a beaten Black Jesus kneeling in the midst of a hostile crowd reminds me that the results of capitulating to the system have not changed in 2,000 years. Capitulation ends in death and dehumanizes those of us who participate in it.
Of course, the fact that we recall this story some 2,000 years later also reminds us that death does not have the last word. As we begin these Great Fifty Days of Easter, I’m imagining the powerful image of John Legend’s Jesus speaking to Mary at the tomb, and her joy when she realizes that he’s alive. I’m still committed to the idea that the world can be better than it is.
*I want to acknowledge how John’s Gospel has been used to promote anti-Semitism throughout most of Christian history, as part of a long history of oppression and Christian supremacy. The truth is that any religious institution and its leaders are subject to corruption, and in 2018, I argue that Christian religious leaders are complicit in all types of oppression.
Rev. Marie Alford-Harkey (she, her, hers) is a pastor with Metropolitan Community Churches and the president and CEO of the Religious Institute, a national multifaith nonprofit dedicated to advocating for sexual, gender, and reproductive health, education, and justice in faith communities and society. Marie is a Southern-born product of public schools and universities. She is a social justice warrior and Jesus-follower, who is married to the love of her life, Rev. April Alford-Harkey, an Episcopal deacon. They live in Milford, CT with ministry dog Sandy and cats Memphis and Emily Jane.
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