Crime and Sacrifice

At Easter, Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from death and the tomb. We praise God who raised, and thereby vindicated, the falsely accused Innocent One who three days earlier was executed by crucifixion at the hands of an occupying Roman military force. Considered one of the cruelest, most humiliating methods of capital punishment, the cross was reserved by the Romans for slaves who were thieves and for rebels who were not Roman citizens. Especially during the highly charged atmosphere of the Passover festival, which commemorates the Israelites' earlier liberation from the oppressive Egyptians, the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and his troops were on red alert for insurrectionist threats from Zealots among the Jewish population.

Meanwhile, the religious council in Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin, accused Jesus before Pilate of being precisely such a malcontent: "We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is an anointed king" (Luke 23:2b). They apparently hoped that focusing attention on this man from Galilee might forestall any Roman counterinsurgency reprisals. In a succinct articulation of this sort of consequentialist reasoning, Caiaphas, the high priest, averred: "[I]t is better ... to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed" (John 11:50). This is a quintessential case of scapegoating.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2007
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