A Reflection for Good Friday, April 14, 2017
Of all these characters, the third is by far the most human. He is the one we relate to. But he is also the one that history judges the most harshly. The executioners, for their part, can scarcely help themselves. They know not what they do. It is only the indifference of the Pilates and the Peters that allows them to gain access to instruments of destruction.
These three characters are alive among us. The executioner, the heartless heart of power, is manifest in a society that has just declared a massive reduction in international food aid at the very moment that a famine is ravaging East Africa. It is visible in a government that is willing to respond to images of suffering in Syria with weapons that kill, but not with a refugee program that saves people’s lives. It is visible in a society that facilitated an air war in Yemen that has killed thousands, that a bare two weeks ago was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of civilians in the city of Mosul – even as it has just passed orders to bar citizens of both countries from seeking refuge in the United States.
In the face of the executioners, most of us will not aspire so high as to become the persecuted prophet, who makes the unimaginable sacrifice of their own life so that life itself, the life of the human community, may go on. We meet this prophet in the ethnic Rakhine who risk death or imprisonment by their own security forces to bring life-saving medical supplies to Rohingya internment camps; we see her in the Central American mother who endures an unimaginable journey to the U.S. so that her children will not be killed or forced to become killers themselves; we see her in the undocumented parent who spends months living in sanctuary in a church so that the world’s heart might be moved to change.
Most of us are neither prophets nor executioners, I say. We are Simon Peter. We are followers of the good, but with an instinct for self-preservation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. We are people who might admire the prophets from afar, but who when asked by the authorities whether we know them might deny them three times, before the rooster cries.
Fortunately, there is hope in the Gospel story for such as us. History may judge the Simon Peters harshly, but Jesus did not. When he came back, the story goes, he even appointed Peter to the head of his followers. As the poet Elizabeth Bishop writes, “even the Prince
of the Apostles long since
had been forgiven, and […] ‘Deny deny deny’
is not all the roosters cry.”
Apparently the persecuted prophets can find some use for us. Let us respond to their call. Let us cast our lot with them, and refuse any longer to be instruments in the hands of the executioners. Even if we cannot always be prophets ourselves, we can be the first of disciples. We can follow the prophet in the way of death that is not death, because it is chosen in defiance of the forces of death, in defense of greater life.
The following poem is called the “Conscientious Objector,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and it is about this act of refusal...