Triduum Sacrum: Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion
Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12; Psalm 31; Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9; John 18:1 – 19:42
It was the night of 6 October 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming. A young gay man, Matthew Shepard, was beaten and tortured by two other men and then was tied to a fence abandoned and left to die. Eighteen hours later, in near-freezing weather, a passerby discovered the comatose figure and for a moment mistook it for a scarecrow. Matthew Shepard died in the hospital five days later without recovering consciousness.
One spokesperson said, he was tied up and left dangling “like an animal”. James Brooke in the New York Times wrote: “There is incredible symbolism in being tied to a fence. People have likened it to a scarecrow. But it sounded more like a crucifixion.” [See “Gay Man Dies from Attack”, New York Times, 13 October 1998.]
The death of Matthew Shepard like the crucifixion of Jesus, that is, the elimination of a person or group is the final stage in a process; the process of dehumanization. The process of dehumanization of a person or group usually begins with what we call them: monkeys, fags, towel-heads, animals, subhuman, parasites…or simply, “them”. We’ve heard the terms used often disguised as jest, or not. I’ve heard the term “animal” used by good people for violent murderers and terrorists, domestic and foreign. Maybe it is just the natural reaction of the human being to inexplicable evil but I still always cringe. To call a human being an animal is unfathomable to me who believes that the human being, every human being, even those horribly defaced by sin and evil is created in the image and likeness of God. And when God looks at any of us, God sees his Son. Not everyone, even good people, may believe that.
But animal, that is what the Romans were saying of Jesus and everyone they crucified. Jesus was less than a human being. What adds to the indignity and horror of Matthew and Jesus’ death is that neither deserved what was done to them. They were innocent. These were deaths that solely resulted from the evil within the hearts of people and in societal institutions.
We continue to dehumanize people. Refugees and immigrants, legal and illegal, Latinos and Asians are called rapists, criminals, and aliens. Have we forgotten our parents and grandparents were called Krauts, Polacks, meatheads, WOPs and Micks? We may have thought that the use of these terms by Archie Bunker in the TV sitcom, “All in the Family” removed the sting from them but for some people the humiliation remains and now we just have new terms.
Cow, ball and chain, the B-word, battle axe, sloppy seconds, left overs, trophy wife are used to dehumanize women. How many terms objectify women and diminish them to a single body part? Should we be surprised therefore at the sexual harassment of women in the workplace, on college campuses, or rape used as a weapon of war?
Consider the terms we white Americans use for people of colour, as if we are not a colour? We may think we have come a long way because we now use the euphemism, “N-word” in the media and in public but then, why is racism still prevalent in our country? We dehumanize gay men and women with terms that reduce people to sexual acts. Women and men in our criminal justice system become numbers like those tattooed on Jews in the Nazi concentration camps. The only difference is we don’t tattoo the numbers on our prisoners. But the dehumanization is the same.
Terms easily allow people and governments to turn fear and hatred into action; a young man beaten and tortured, a teacher – prophet put through the experience of a kangaroo court and executed. Governments still incarcerate people or force them to flee. We Americans did it to the Japanese during World War II, the Nazi’s did it to the Jews, the Myanmar government is doing it to the Rohingya and many people want to do similar things to people of the Islamic faith.
Have you experienced being dehumanized by a derogatory term or action?
What did it feel like?
What words or gestures, rooted in fear, have we used for other people and groups to demean them?
Some of you may be offended by me saying some of these words tonight or making reference to other terms that I cannot make myself say in church, especially on this, our most solemn of days. But if they can’t be said here in this sacred place among God’s holy people then they should not be said outside of these walls. Or maybe, maybe this is the place to proclaim these terms so that human beings can be redeemed from them and claim their rightful place as sons and daughters of God.
By Jesus being crucified and abandoned, he binds and identifies himself with every person or group who is treated as less than a human being. He becomes the animal tied to a fence. So that in the face of Jesus …“so marred was his look beyond human appearance…” you will see the face of Matthew Shepard. In the face of Matthew and every debased person you will see the face of Jesus.
[Passages and ideas taken from The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus by Fleming Rutledge, W, B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2015.]