EDITOR’S NOTE: On Monday, November 24th, the chief prosecutor in Ferguson, MO announced that a grand jury had decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for any criminal charges in the shooting death of Michael Brown. Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, chair of the NAACP’s Legislative Activism Committee, said Tuesday that the non-indictment was itself an indictment of a broken criminal justice system, announcing a Journey for Justice from Ferguson to the Missouri state house in Jefferson City. The deep moral problem exposed by the legally justified killing of Michael Brown is a problem that extends far beyond any one officer or police department. Michael Brown, and millions of other young black men like him, have been condemned by institutionalized racism. In today’s meditation, Brandon Hudson points out that today’s condemned are not alone. Jesus himself suffered the same systemic condemnation before he was lynched outside of Jerusalem.
Immediately, while Jesus was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” So when Judas came, he went up to Jesus at once and said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. Then they laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to them, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a criminal? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.” Then all of Jesus’ disciples deserted him and ran away.–Mark 14:43-50
Stopped. Frisked. Hands in cuffs. Jesus finds himself bound by a detachment of soldiers and police sent from the chief priests, scribes, and elders. Keenly aware that he is public enemy number one in their eyes, he still seems taken aback at the wielding of violent weapons and forceful seizure of his body.
“…as though I were a criminal?” Jesus questions whether these men, with their swords and clubs, fully grasp who he is and the nature of the threat–or lack thereof–that he poses.
“Have you not seen me in the temple? Have you not heard me in the synagogues? I teach, I heal, and I proclaim good news to the poor. I do not rob or kill people.”
“…as though I were a criminal?” Although this is the first time Jesus poses the question, it is not the first time the concept of criminality has been associated with the one we call Christ. The confrontation between Jesus and the police does not exist in a vacuum but functions as the climax to what has been a strategic smear campaign aimed at undermining his identity and influence. In other words, the police do not come to arrest Jesus with a blank mental slate. They have preconceived notions of who he is that are dictating the terms of their interaction.
The chief priests, scribes, and elders have been working hard to create a counter narrative to Jesus’ messianic claims, which they fear will strip them of their social, religious and political power. They have been working hard to cultivate in the collective consciousness of the Jewish community an image of Jesus as a blaspheming, demon-filled conman. Jesus will find no consolation or confirmation among these leaders of the Jews; rather their sole intention is to bring about his condemnation, to bring about the condemnation of Christ.
The campaign to condemn Jesus begins where most evil and sin arise–in the hearts of human beings. The story goes that having just returned to Capernaum, Jesus is hanging out at home. Word spreads that he is back in town and the house is quickly packed with people spilling out of the door. Four men carrying a paralyzed man want to bring him to Jesus so that he may be healed. Undeterred by their inability to enter the house in typical fashion, the men remove part of the roof right above where Jesus is sitting and let their friend down on his mat. Amazed by the faith of his friends, Jesus says to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
Immediately, some of the scribes in attendance begin to speak against Jesus, murmuring to themselves, “Who does this man think he is talking like that? Blasphemy of blasphemies! Only God can forgive sins.” Perceiving their skepticism, Jesus demonstrates his divine authority to forgive sins by restoring the health of the paralytic. The crowds are astounded. The scribes are outraged. Thus, the battle over Jesus’ image begins: is he the Great Physician or the Great Blasphemer?
The campaign continues after Jesus officially appoints his twelve disciples. Returning from the mountain where his crew had convened, he finds himself—and his home—once again overwhelmed by a large crowd of people. The crowd is so large, in fact, that Jesus and his family cannot even eat. As an itinerant preacher who is constantly on the road, giving sermon after sermon and healing person after person, all Jesus wants to do is come home and have a good meal with family and friends. Imagine his indignation when he realizes that these folks are not trying to let him enjoy this moment.
“Seriously, are we doing this right now? Is there ever a time when you will let me be? I just want to have a quiet evening with my people…and I do not mean you. I am sure you all are in need of something—you always are—but it will have to wait until tomorrow. So gather your belongings and get out of my house!”
The crowd is shocked and offended. Words are exchanged. Upon hearing all of the commotion, Jesus’ family comes outside to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”
The scribes, present among the people, seize this opportunity to come for Jesus’ reputation. “See, we tried to warn you about this fellow, this one who speaks about the kingdom of God and the forgiveness of sins. Blasphemer! He has no concern for God and now you have seen first hand that he has no concern for you. Do you really think someone like this has the Spirit of God? No! He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of demons he casts out demons.”
Jesus refutes the scathing allegation but nevertheless the damage is done. The most respected men in the Jewish community have put it on the table that Jesus may not be who he claims to be. He claims to have authority from God, but we know his parents, he is just an ordinary man. He claims to have power over demons, but only because he has a demon himself. He claims to preach good news about the kingdom of God, but he is nothing but a blaspheming, demon-filled conman!
“…as though I were a criminal?” With the scribes’ theological construction of Jesus floating in their minds, the soldiers and police confront him in the garden. There is no blank mental slate. The police come to arrest Jesus filled with notions of his criminality. They come with a case against him, a case that is sealed by the weapons they yield. Swords and clubs are not for the innocent. Swords and clubs are not for the harmless. Swords and clubs are for the violent and dangerous.
Swords and clubs are for criminals and the condemned.
Swords and clubs are for the condemnation of Christ.
Brandon J. Hudson is a graduate of Duke University and Duke Divinity School. He directs Urban Hope, a youth mentoring program in Durham, North Carolina.