Palm Sunday

“’These obstinate Jews, who can live with ‘em? They’re a tough people.’”

I happened to hear these words on Palm Sunday, from the pulpit of St. Philip’s Church in Charleston. But before you jump to conclusions, notice the double quotes: I’m quoting the Right Reverend Mark W. Lawrence, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina; he’s quoting Pontius Pilate—in Lawrence’s brilliant ironic depiction, the infamous governor sits in a robe in an easy chair in a high-rise apartment, sipping a martini, resting from a particularly unpleasant day at the office. And which stiff-necked Jew is the complacent Pilate speaking of? Jesus. Not I, says Pilate, I didn’t crucify him.

But he wasn’t the only one washing his hands of guilt in Lawrence’s stirring sermon. Not I was its refrain. Judas says it, the High Priest says it, the crowd says it, but the apostle Peter says it too, pouring out words of regret that he ever got sucked into this hopeless mission. Then, most remarkably, the preacher in the pulpit of St. Philip’s Church says it of himself, and finally of the whole congregation. In Lawrence’s sardonic rendering, all implausibly tell themselves that if they had been there they would have acted differently. No one accepts even the smallest part of the guilt.

I was there to witness a young friend’s confirmation, as I had done with his older sister two years earlier. The interior of the sanctuary is fairly spare and elegant, with clean square lines and hardwood benches—even in the boxes in the balcony—but with a prominent high podium leaning out like a ship’s crow’s nest over the congregation. Those in the church that day were among the flower of Charleston society, and the simplicity of the décor was a choice, not a constraint. Yet these leading South Carolinians were being told by their bishop that he was not going to let them or himself off the hook; all, he implied, shared the guilt for crucifying Jesus.

Surprising, perhaps, to a Jewish observer, and certainly expressed with exceptional eloquence in the sermon. But for most Christians, this is a tenet of faith. Consider the service itself, which doesn’t change from year to year. At its heart, there is a dramatic responsive reading from Matthew, describing events leading up to the crucifixion. Parts are given to the Narrator, the Two Witnesses, the High Priest, Jesus, the Elders, a Servant Girl, Peter, Judas, and Pilate, but a critical part is given to the Congregation, which plays the role of the mob.

It is the Congregation that accuses Peter of being with Jesus, while Peter repeatedly denies it. It is the Congregation that yells “Barrabas!” when Pilate offers to release either that thief or Jesus. It is the Congregation that mocks him, saying “Hail, King of the Jews!” It is the Congregation that says, “His blood be on us and on our children!” It is the Congregation that shouts, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

Perhaps you would not have been surprised to hear four hundred or so of the finest men, women, and children of Charleston shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” but I was. I was brought up to think that Christians blamed the Jews and only the Jews, and this is certainly true for some Christians. But a deeper understanding of Christianity leads to a different conclusion: We, good Christians say, are the ones who killed Jesus—not the Jews or even the Romans, but all humanity. Atonement for that sin is part of the essence of being Christian.

At least that’s how the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina sees it. The congregation solemnly took communion and filed out of the church, back into their lives. But they were subdued, having been told in no uncertain terms that they too would have killed Jesus, and I suspect that that sobering realization took them about as far as they could be from blaming the Jews.

To hear an audio version of the Rev. Lawrence’s sermon, go to this page and click the link at the bottom (Windows Media Player required).