Saturday, July 15, 2017

Everyday Crucifixions

When I was a kid I would go to mass every Good Friday (a "holy day of obligation," as we called it) to mark the occasion of the death of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I would sit or stand or kneel as appropriate in the pew as we made our way through the liturgy. That mass would inevitably include a passage from the Gospel of Matthew (this, at least, is how I remember it) in which Pontius Pilate presents Jesus, bloodied from torture, to the crowd and asks what they (what we) want to do with him.

"Crucify him!" we would shout from our pews, in accordance with the Scriptures.

The priest, playing the part of Pilate, would protest Jesus' innocence, and we would shout once again from our Bibles, "Crucify him!"

Pilate/the priest would then declare his own innocence of Jesus' execution, to which we would respond in one voice, "His blood be upon us and our children." And then Jesus would be delivered to his cross.

I feel like I witnessed a crucifixion this week. Hastily assembled evidence to suggest that someone might have the temerity to hold a different view of things from The Powers That Be (the PTB, as my friends and I used to refer to people who made our decisions for us). A trial on Twitter. A crowd, caught up in righteous indignation and bloodlust (and, I'd imagine, a fair bit of fear), beating a body bloody before a final chorus of "Away with him!" If this whole thing doesn't kill the guy, I'll be surprised.

Our litany at the mass was predicated on the start of the scene, in which Pilate offers the crowd one of two people to pardon: Jesus or Barabbas. This offer was, as the Scriptures tell us, a custom—a courtesy to Jews under imperial rule, perhaps, as they celebrated the Passover (recalling their historic deliverance from imperial rule). It occurs to me that perhaps every year Pilate made the crowd this offer: to pick a prisoner to pardon, and thus condemn another prisoner to be crucified. It occurs to me that this custom was its own kind of liturgy, one that implicated the crowd in every execution. The guilt or innocence of the person to be pardoned and the person to be crucified would be immaterial; the point would be the theater of it. The crowd would have gotten in the habit of sending people to a humiliating death.

The Romans sustained their empire for centuries. The crowd remained under imperial control that entire time.

There are no firm numbers of people crucified by the Romans, but estimates run to the thousands. Imagine giving your assent to each torturous death. Imagine once a year, from your own birth to your own death, participating in this theater of pardon, inviting the blood of the unlucky runner up on yourself and your children. What would it do to your soul?

There were some in the crowd that day who surely remained silent. (It's even possible that some people shouted in favor of pardoning Jesus and crucifying Barabbas. No one shouted such things in the Good Friday masses I've attended. But I do suspect some people, both at mass and in the crowd that day, kept their mouths shut.)

Some of those people likely were self-congratulatory: They knew in their hearts that Jesus was innocent of the charges against him. They may have consoled themselves, as Jesus was led away to be crucified, with the confidence that they were better people than the crowd: They knew better, and so they stayed silent.

There were others, I'm sure, who remained silent because they didn't have a voice. Mothers and daughters and sisters, the Bible tells us, were at Jesus' crucifixion in silent, mournful witness. Their participation or nonparticipation in Pilate's liturgy was irrelevant to the PTB because they were women, marginalized among the marginalized.

I'm sure there were others who had a voice but said nothing out of fear or despair or resignation. After all, in the face of such awful displays of terrific power, what really is there to be said?

Imagine that every year you opted out of this theater of pardon, and it went on without you. What would it do to your soul?

I feel like I witnessed a crucifixion this week. It wasn't the crucifixion of God. Just another ordinary, run of the mill crucifixion. But I participated in this theater nonetheless, and I watched a man be ushered off to the final humiliation of his life. And then I went back to work.

The good news, I suppose, is that there was a time when God took just such a theater, just such a soul-wrenching act, and saved us all through it. And if God can make good of the execution of God—the mass betrayal of God—then I suppose he can make good of every little crucifixion we lend our voice to, every little crucifixion we sit silently and watch.

It's Saturday now. May this latest victim's blood be on us and our children. I think God could make some good of it.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Lest We Forget How Fragile We Are: Sting and Peter Gabriel in Concert

The inner life of every person is a secret world. We can speculate, even intelligently, about why people do what they do, but we can do no more than that. So our speculation is informed as much by our own secret worlds as it is by those we're observing.

I enter into this reflection on the concert my wife and I went to last summer with this in mind mainly because of the responses I've gotten from people when I've talked about it. It was a shared performance by two rock music legends--Sting, who fronted The Police at Shea Stadium in New York (the first to do so since the Beatles) and whose music I have been known to require interns to listen to; and Peter Gabriel, who led the band Genesis before they became crossover sensations/pop sellouts and who, more successfully than pretty much anyone, made art-rock commercially viable, not to mention morally relevant. Some of the people I've talked about the concert with have rolled their eyes and complained about washed up has-beens coasting on their aging reputations. Others had no idea who I was talking about. Their reactions, frankly, probably explain why I left this post in draft for nine months.

But for me, Sting and Peter Gabriel have nothing to prove, and the fact that they're still willing in their sixties to subject themselves to the gruel of a massive tour is simply a gift that I gladly accept. Regardless of how long its been since they charted a single, their music is still relevant, made weightier by the passage of time and the unrelenting stream of ephemera that claims chart status. There are charting artists today who will still be performing their songs forty years from now, but they are few; time will reveal which of them measures up to these two guys in the harsh light of history. In the meantime, I respect history, so I made my wife buy us tickets for my birthday, and off we went.

Sting is a jazz guy--he likes to improvise, to play with the basic structure of his own music. I've seen him live three times and he's never performed "Roxanne" the same way. (Props for segueing into "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone," thid time around. although I don't think it really worked.)

Peter Gabriel, by contrast, is a performance artist disguised as a pop star. I remember as a kid struggling to understand him pulling a costume over his head and saying into the microphone, "A flower." He's not singing or playing so much as he is performing. So every move he makes, every step he takes, is tightly choreographed (see what I did there?). If Sting likes to be in the moment, Peter Gabriel likes to make a moment. So if you've ever trolled the Internet looking for video of him performing your favorite song live, it probably looked and sounded pretty similar to what I heard and saw on this tour.

This contrast in styles and even philosophies of performance had an impact on the show. On balance, I think Peter Gabriel won the night--his performances were more memorable because he set out to make them so. Only someone as naturally melancholy as Peter Gabriel could write a song as resilient as "Don't Give Up" or as joyous as "In Your Eyes." Sting's performances, though, were less predictable and more fun. The transitions between the two were awesome, even if the on-stage banter between them got a little awkward.

Anyway, here's the set list:

Zaar (recording)
The Rhythm of the Heat
If I Ever Lose My Faith in You
Together
Digging in the Dirt
Invisible Sun
Games without Frontiers
Shock the Monkey (Sting)
Secret World (Peter Gabriel)
Driven to Tears (Sting)
Together
Fragile
Red Rain (Peter Gabriel)
Dancing with the Moonlit Knight ("They're selling England by the Pound"), leading into Message in a Bottle (Sting; Peter Gabriel sang background)
Don't Give Up (Peter Gabriel)
Mercury Falling (Sting)
Big Time (Peter Gabriel; Sting sang background)
Englishman in New York (sung together)

Solsbury Hill (Peter Gabriel)
Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic (Sting)
If you Love Somebody Set Them Free slow jam (Peter Gabriel)
Roxanne/Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone (Sting)
Love Can Heal (Peter Gabriel, dedicated to Jill Cox)
Desert Rose (Sting)
In Your Eyes (Peter Gabriel; Sting on backup vocals)

Encore—Together
Every Breath You Take
Sledgehammer