RELIGIOUS FAITH AND HOMICIDAL MOTIVES
DURING HOLY WEEK
©Wendell Griffen, 2017
12Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them* with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii* and the money given to the poor?’ 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)7Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it* so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
9 When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
It is not comfortable to read this passage from John’s Gospel account of an event that happened days before the Passover began during the last week before Jesus was executed by the Roman Empire. Yet, this passage is fitting when one considers its relevance to current events.
The account of how religious leaders schemed to kill Jesus is chilling. One wonders how people trusted with the teachings and traditions of divine love, liberation, justice, and hope would plot to take the life of another person. It is painful to realize that religious faith does not make one immune from hate, professional envy, and malicious schemes.
Yet, the painful truth is that religious faith can be used – and has often been used – to rationalize conduct that is hateful, malicious, and even murderous. Notice that I did not say justify such conduct. Hateful, malicious, and murderous conduct is never morally justifiable, whether the persons engaged in it are religious or not.
However, this passage and history show that religion has often been used to rationalize oppression. In John’s account, religious leaders schemed to kill Jesus because they considered him a threat. His ministry of unconditional love and extravagant inclusion threatened their sense of cultural, ethnic, and religious elitism. His authoritative interpretations of their sacred writings had begun to take root in the hearts and minds of people they sought to control. Jesus was a moral, social, commercial, and political threat. Efforts to discredit him had failed. Efforts to distract him from his ministry had failed. Efforts to entice the public away from him had failed. So, the religious leaders decided to have him killed.
Do not forget that Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin, Steve Biko, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, and Dorothy Kazel were killed – after living and acting as agents of liberation, mercy, justice, and hope – because they threatened notions and institutions of moral, social, commercial, and political empire. Like Jesus, these prophetic people were killed because agents and officials of empire considered their messages of inclusion, justice, compassion, and peace subversive.
John’s account also reports that the scheme to kill Jesus also targeted Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from death. Lazarus was targeted because he was living proof that Jesus was doing something divine. Religious leaders threatened to kill Lazarus because he wouldn’t remain dead, and because his return from death was at the call of Jesus.
As faithful people across the world enter Holy Week and observe Holy Thursday, Good Friday, the beginning of Passover, Holy Saturday, and Resurrection Sunday/Easter, the State of Arkansas in the United States of America is determined to kill seven men over a ten-day period beginning April 17, the day after Resurrection Sunday/Easter. While the world meditates about divine love, forgiveness, justice, and hope, Arkansas officials plan to commit a series of homicides. Acting in the name of empire and operating under the authority of law, they plan to use medications designed for treating and healing disease to kill men who are defenseless because those men were convicted of killing other defenseless persons.
This week, religious people across the world are engaging in rituals and exercises that symbolize belief in divine love, mercy, freedom, forgiveness, hope, and peace. This week, religious people acting in the name of empire in Arkansas are also plotting to kill seven men. Like Lazarus, these condemned men are children of God. Like Lazarus, these men have deadly histories.
The moral and ethical dwarfism at work in the plot to kill Jesus and Lazarus is still with us. That moral and ethical dwarfism, coupled with the willingness to commit murderous acts in support of moral, social, commercial, and political empire, is a defining mark of every failing, and failed, empire.
Premeditated and deliberate killing of defenseless persons – including defenseless persons who have been convicted of murder – is not morally justifiable. Using medications designed for treating illness and preserving life to engage in such premeditated and deliberate killing is not morally justifiable.
Any morally unjustified and unjustifiable killing produces moral injury. Beginning a week from today, and three days after Good Friday – on Monday, April 17 – the political, religious, commercial, and social captains of empire in Arkansas will commence a series of morally unjustified and unjustifiable killings. Each death will be a new, and permanent, moral injury. These deaths will join the existing long list of atrocities, oppression, and other moral injuries associated with our state to cause people around the world to associate Arkansas with bigotry, hate, and other forms of injustice as long as human memory continues.
Those moral injuries will not die. They will not be forgotten. They will never be undone. Instead, they will be defining and indelible wounds to our moral consciousness that will haunt every coming generation of Arkansans until the end of time.