A well-known African American spiritual asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” By a series of questions focusing on aspects of the crucifixion, it highlights the horrible suffering that Christ endured, for those who witnessed it and for those who reflect on it even long after the fact.
Of course, the straightforward answer to the question is “no.” This is not mere flippancy; I don’t know that I would have been there, had I been living in Jerusalem at the time, though the disciples ought to have been there. If I had been there, it wouldn’t have been as John or Mary; there were others there, too, who expressed their mockery and scorn for Jesus. On the other hand, I’m always a little uneasy around crowds, so perhaps I wouldn’t have been there.
Around Good Friday, I have sometimes sought to imagine what the experiences of Holy Week would have felt like for those involved. This year, I thought to wonder where I, or rather my counterpart in that society, might have been. And in that vein I offer a fictional historical autobiography:
[NB: the anti-semitic attitudes expressed in the following work of fiction accurately represent the hateful views of the Roman oppressors of the Jews; they are in no way my own!]
For a Jew, the guy called Jesus has achieved a certain degree of fame, and some people, when they hear that I lived in Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate, will ask me what really happened then. It was a bad affair, really, as Pilate found out to his dismay, and I did not wish to get too involved. I was a newly purchased steward in the household of a centurion, so I was well placed to observe, however. I remember that it was a busy week.
The thing about Jerusalem, before the pacification by Emperor Titus, was that its population would balloon out shortly before any festival, and this was one such time. I have no use for such rabble, but Jewish peasants would come from all around Judaea, and some from further afield, even from Rome itself, for their arbitrary festivals. Every errand took longer, since the streets were clogged with the Jews from all over, and some items could no longer be obtained from the market, I suppose because the visitors had consumed them all. Festival times were always a test of one’s patience.
They were also a time of high alert for the army, as so many Jews in one place could pose a security risk for the state. So my lord had more to do, which made him less pleasant to be around.
I had heard of this man named Jesus before the events leading to his death. He had been to Jerusalem a number of times, and made something of a sensation among the Jews, and even some of us who should have taken no interest in their superstitions were intrigued by the man. I had seen him from afar, though never heard him, and he seemed a docile enough workman. I did not expect much trouble from him.
So I was surprised when, while the Jews were converging upon Jerusalem for their festival, this Jesus did a fool stunt and had himself acclaimed king. I couldn’t really understand what they were saying, as I have never made a study of their Hebrew dialect, but the palm branches and riding over garments in the street were clear enough. I avoided the commotion, of course, since I am not moved by the force of the mindless crowds, but I heard of it from the other slaves. This Jesus was playing with fire; perhaps the poor rustic did not know how such a move would appear to our enlightened Emperor, were he to hear of it. Even so, the whole excitement seemed to fizzle out; Jesus came in, spent some time in their temple (for the Jews had only a single temple, before it was necessary to destroy it), and left the city. Over the next few days, I am told, he entered and exited the city repeatedly, but he was just debating with the Jewish leaders, which is of no interest, because no threat, to Roman sovereignty.
The next I heard of this Jewish pseudo-king was his trial. Evidently he had been arrested overnight, and the Jewish authorities were asking for his death. I was with my lord the centurion at the trial, as it turned out, when Pilate was arguing with the Jewish priests. He was accused of all kinds of strange things, but they were no concern of anyone other than those Jews. Curiously, he refused to defend himself, but perhaps he didn’t understand what was being said. Pilate tried to reach an agreement with the Jewish leaders, to secure the peace, and thus offered torture or scourging rather than an execution. I said to myself, “the poor blighter,” affecting the imperial accent as well as I could. But when the crowd started demanding his crucifixion, and the Jewish priests threatened to report to the Emperor that this Jesus claimed to be a king, Pilate found himself in a corner. Some have called Pilate an incompetent coward, and I am under no compulsion to defend him, but even apart from his incompetence I saw then that this was a bad business from first to last.
Crucifixion is an ugly way to die, and I had no desire to see another. I am a cultured man, not one of these common barbarians who enjoy mocking the unfortunate. So from the trial I made my way back to my master’s house and returned to the frustrating work of trying to secure the supplies that were necessary to run the household. Fortunately the feared revolt did not, then, materialize, and it was not for another generation before it became necessary to enforce the pax romana more completely upon the fractious province of Judaea.
May the Lord have mercy on all of us who, in our busyness, our elitism, and our cowardice, have looked upon the Lord of life with contempt.