Marching for the Guilty

Tomorrow I am going to march through St. Louis to mourn injustice. The Mourning March has been organized as a prayer of lament to gather the sorrow of our city and direct it to God. We’re marching on Holy Saturday, which is the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, between crucifixion and resurrection, between death and new life. Holy Saturday represents the delay between injustice and peace. It’s a day that confounds both triumphalism and nihilism.

Holy Saturday was the one day in history that Jesus was dead and not raised, and his disciples mourned. This year Holy Saturday lands on April 4 exactly 47 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who saw the promised land of justice and peace from afar, but whose marching feet would never touch it. Tomorrow is also 34 weeks since Michael Brown was killed.

If you’re like several people I’ve talked to, you’re wondering why Michael Brown is mentioned in a paragraph with Jesus and Dr. King. Actually, if you’re like several people I’ve talked to recently, you’re angry about it. I understand; but I think you might be missing something about the cross. I’m sure that doesn’t help your anger, but I wonder if you’ll give me a few more paragraphs to explain.

The cross is a strange thing, scandalous and impossible to atheists and Christians alike, though for different reasons. There were thousands of people crucified by the Romans, so many at one point that they ran out of wood. And there were two other crosses on Good Friday for men whose crimes merited death under Roman law.

Two crosses were justifiable and one cross was justifying. Two crosses were for the sinners hanging on them and one cross was for all sinners. Two crosses destroyed the guilty and one cross destroyed guilt.

Jesus was known in life as a friend of sinners, which was not intended as a compliment. The religious anxiety over guilt was at least as extreme in his day as in ours, necessitating a distance and detachment from the world of sinners. To commune with sinners meant to participate in their guilt.

Today it’s the same. We say we know the one who has drained guilt of its power, but our posture says we’re not really sure. We say we love our neighbor, but it turns out we love the ideal neighbor or we love the ideal of loving our neighbor, not the actual human beings in the world around us. We don’t draw near the guilty because we’re afraid their guilt will stick to us or that perhaps we’ll only be condoning their sin. We can’t participate in sin. God won’t tolerate it.

But Jesus loved real people. He didn’t live in a world of abstractions; for him the word was always becoming flesh. He associated with the guilty. More than that, he died among the guilty. More than that, he died for the guilty. Even more than that, he became guilty. He participated in the guilt that was not his. St. Paul says he became sin. That’s not just language of participation, but identification. It’s the kind of statement that would offend us if we didn’t know it was in scripture.

Jesus doesn’t seem as anxious as we are about being associated with guilty people. People who share his confidence that forgiveness has conquered guilt and that mercy has triumphed over judgment also share his compassion for sinners. On Good Friday Jesus marched with and for sinners. Tomorrow I join the march to remember.

We’ll let Bonhoeffer, who once said, “Guilt is an idol,” have the last word:

“Because Jesus took upon himself the guilt of all people, everyone who acts responsibly becomes guilty. Those who want to extract themselves from the responsibility for this guilt, also remove themselves from the ultimate reality of human existence. Moreover, they also remove themselves from the redeeming mystery of the sinless guilt bearing of Jesus Christ and have no share in the divine justification that covers this event. They place their personal innocence above their responsibility for humankind, and they are blind to the unhealed guilt that they load on themselves in this very way. They are also blind to the fact that real innocence is revealed in the very fact that for the sake of other people it enters into the communion of their guilt. Through Jesus Christ, the nature of responsible action includes the idea that the sinless, the selflessly loving become the guilty.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer