This past week the New York Times published photos taken of the hundreds of peaceful demonstrations that occurred throughout the country. Protests of the tragic and unprovoked killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by law enforcement officers who knelt on his neck and back for eight minutes until he died while lying handcuffed on the ground pleading for mercy.
Among the images of the demonstrations and protests, one, in particular, caught my attention and spoke deeply to my heart. It showed a group of young people walking and praying on June 3rd in Detroit, Michigan. In their midst was seminarian Michael Bruno, bowed with his head, holding up a large crucifix, preceded by Fr. John McKenzie leading the rosary.
Gazing on the crucifix, three phrases came to mind. The first was from John’s gospel: “They shall look upon him who they have pierced.” The second was from the Stations: “We adore you, O Christ and we bless you. For by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.” And the third was the words of Mr. Floyd: “I can’t breathe.”
I can’t breathe.
I was reminded that biblical scholars and archeologists tell us that one of the particularly cruel aspects of crucifixion was that the crucified person eventually died of asphyxiation after an agonizing struggle to breathe. During his agonizing three hours on the cross, scholars believe that Jesus struggled to breathe until his body was so deprived of oxygen that he died.
For days now, the entire nation has been confronted by the image of another dying man who could not breathe. His agony captured on film, and the callous heartlessness of those who killed him has been impossible to ignore. I think of how too many unarmed African-American men and women and other people of color who have been killed in encounters with law enforcement officers or white vigilantes or while in police custody.
They shall look upon him whom they have pierced.
Pondering the tortured body of Jesus on the cross in the photo, I was also reminded of how in the first-century crucifixion was the punishment of slaves and those who were not citizens of Rome. They relied on the threat of crucifixion to terrorize their slaves and their subject peoples into submission. To assert that the death of George Floyd and so many other African-Americans and people of color are the results of systemic, structural racism in our country stretching back 400 years, is to say that their deaths were meant to be exemplary, to violently coerce into submission those held in bondage, first as slaves, and then as second-class citizens or to forcibly demonstrate to them again and again that their lives and fates do not matter.
Yet, the death of George Floyd has forced us as a society to “look upon” those who are on the cross. The protests over his death have indeed been driven by righteous anger at the terrible injustice done to him. But, they are also a cry of pain by the crucified peoples in society who are living with anguish and sorrow.
- How is it possible that after all of the real progress towards equality and justice that our society has made since the civil rights era that there are 2.3 million people in jail and prison today, a disproportionate number of whom are African Americans?
- How is it possible that one out of every three black boys born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime?
- How is it possible that black parents still have to live with the fear they or their children will lose their lives for “going to the store while black”; “jogging while black”; “sitting in their living rooms while being black”; “bird watching while black” or even“sleeping in their homes while black”?
- How is it possible that in a country with one of the most advanced medical systems in the world, a disproportionate number of the more than 100,000 persons who have died in the pandemic have been African-Americans and other people of color due lack of access to medical care and pre-existing conditions resulting from poverty and stress?
His death and the protests that have followed require us not to look away but to fix our gaze on all of those who are bleeding and dying from the physical, psychological and spiritual wounds that continue to be inflicted on them by our society’s shameful legacy of slavery and de jure and de facto segregation and discrimination.
We adore you O Christ and we bless you. For by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world.
As a boy in 1968, I remember seeing the poignant (and tragic) photograph of a striking sanitation worker in Memphis holding a sign declaring: “I am a man.”
Gazing on the cross, we are reminded that Jesus lived, died and rose from the dead out of love for every single person. That no-one is excluded from the love, mercy, compassion and blessing of God.
While hanging on the cross, as he struggled to breathe, Jesus prayed to his Father to forgive those crucifying him out of hatred and malice. He assured the repentant thief of his place in paradise. Thirsty, Jesus asked for water and entrusted his mother and the beloved disciple to each other. In his final words, he offered his life and his spirit completely to God on our behalf.
The cross of Christ in this moment is a call to repentance and conversion and a sign of hope and redemption. In Christ Crucified, who died to deliver us from the bondage of sin, we must find a way forward, even (or especially) in this difficult time with its seemingly intractable historical and contemporary crimes, injustices and inequities. His cross reminds us that the love of God, which finds its most profound and transformative expression in the suffering and death of Jesus, is more powerful than personal and social sin and the worst moments of our nation’s history. His cross reminds us, too, that in his Body and Blood is the power to heal, renew and transform us and draw us together. By his death and resurrection, Jesus has triumphed over death itself and the powers of violence and hatred, racism and discrimination.
Let us lift high the Cross of Christ.