Shuck and Jive

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Executed God: A Sermon

Here is today's sermon.

The Executed God
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

April 5th, 2009
Palm/Passion Sunday
Mark 11:1-11
Mark 15:1-39

Is it a contradiction that Christians pray to and adore their imprisoned and executed God while supporting or tolerating the execution and imprisonment of so many today? The United States is now on a lockdown craze, and many confessing Christians have played a key part in building it up….this nation now incarcerates more than two million citizens. The massive number now confined—70 percent of whom are people of color—is nearly quadruple the figure of 1980, being "the largest and most frenetic correctional buildup of any country in the history of the world."
That is how my former seminary professor, Mark Lewis Taylor, opens his book, The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America. Mark Taylor is Professor of Theology and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary.

I took a number of courses from him because he was one of the few professors of theology who made sense to me. He helped me to understand the political and social realities behind the symbols of religion. More importantly, he helped me understand that unless we use the symbols of religion to do good we are wasting time, or worse, doing harm.

To quote James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time, quoted in The Executed God, pg. 1):
If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him.
In The Executed God, Taylor helps us reflect upon a symbol, the cross. What might the cross have meant in the first century and what might it mean today? How has its power as symbol been distorted to serve Empire rather than serve those who were victims then and who are victims today?

In our sanctuary we have a large cross. Quite beautiful. Christians wear jewelry in the shape of crosses. I am not criticizing that. But there is an irony there. It would be good for us to reflect upon what this symbol represents.

What is a cross? In the time of Jesus, in the time of Paul, and in the time of the Gospel writers, the cross was an instrument of state-sponsored, legitimated torture. It was a means of execution. This execution was public and dramatic. It was an instrument of the theater of terror through which the Roman Empire controlled the populations of its occupied territories.

As one entered the city, especially on Holy Days such as Passover, travelers would be greeted with the symbols of Rome’s power: soldiers, horses, and crosses. The soon to be executed would partake in a forced march through the city carrying the cross beam. Humiliation and beatings were all part of the show. It was a show. The crosses would be erected on a hill for all to see. The message was clear:

"We are here for the duration," said pompous Rome. "Stay in your place and we will let you live. Misbehave and you will end up like these guys."

Rome did these things not because it was especially cruel. It didn’t think of itself as such. As Empires go, it was better than most up to and including the present day. A great movie for Holy Week is Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. It is the best film about Jesus that I know. Although, it is about Brian, who is mistaken for the Messiah. It is of course an irreverent spoof. But very insightful.

In one of the scenes the Jewish Liberation Front is making demands of Rome. In its Monty Python way, the leader asks what has Rome ever done for us? A voice speaks up.

“The aqueduct? Sanitation?”
"Besides the aqueduct and sanitation, what has Rome ever done for us?"
"Education?... Roads?... Trade?... Peace?

As the Monty Python folks point out, Rome was the "normalcy of civilization" to use a phrase from John Dominic Crossan. Rome saw itself as a benefactor. It was good for the world. Through its executions and its public displays of order and power, it was preserving the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome.

Rome’s emperor was a bearer of good news, the savior, and the one to bring peace. Those were the kinds of words used for him. Its enemy was the terrorist. Its enemy was the one who did not respect civilization.

Its enemy was…Jesus.

Jesus was executed by legitimate, established authority. It wasn’t a mistake. Jesus, in the eyes of Rome, was considered a threat to its peace. His pithy little sayings and poems preserved in the gospels such as "blessed are you poor," "forgive us our debts," "give us our daily bread," were subversive statements. They reflected political, economic, and social realities of those who did not benefit by Empire’s peace. They were about real poverty, real debts, real hunger and a system of economics that elevated some on the backs of the majority.

What then is the cross?

We could contemporize the cross by wearing around our necks hangman’s nooses, or replicas of electric chairs. Perhaps we could wear a little gas chamber, a syringe, or maybe a little gold-plated bucket of water to symbolize the interrogation method of choice in America’s war on terror.

A clergy friend of mine when I was in New York state opened my eyes to the power of symbols. He was retired and he would preach at various congregations. I asked him to fill in for me a couple of times when I was on vacation. At first he was a little bit of a shocker to the congregation. When he preached he wore his robe like I do. But instead of a stole which is a symbol for my ordination, he wore a heavy chain.

He would explain right up front what it meant. He would say something like: “This chain represents the oppression and spiritual violence against my lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender sisters and brothers who because of discrimination are denied ordination to the ministry in the PC(USA).”

Then he would go on with the service, preaching about something else. The congregation was a little taken aback at first. I wish I could have been there. It is always good to have someone fill in for you to do that kind of thing. But after the initial shock, they got it. And they liked him. After a couple of times of filling in for me, folks in the congregation asked me, “When you go on vacation get that guy with the chain, will you?”

I do wear a cross around my neck. I wear it not because I think it means that Jesus died for my sins. I don’t wear it because it means what I saw on a church signboard this past week: “The Cross: God’s love written in red.”

I don’t believe it represents God punishing Jesus for humanity’s sins, or making something sacred out of suffering, violence, or torture. I wear it because it reminds me of what side I need to be on. It means for me that to follow Jesus, to follow the way of the cross, and to follow the executed God, is to follow the way of resistance to all forms of domination and oppression.

On Palm Sunday there were two parades. As John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg show us in their book on Mark, The Last Week, the other parade was a military parade. Mark doesn’t need to tell his readers about that one. It was all too well known. As Passover week begins, Rome enters with swords, helmets, shields, and horses to keep the peace at a volatile time. They come from the west.

From the east comes Jesus on a donkey. It is a spoof of Rome’s parade and Rome’s peace. This parade might be thought of as an act of civil disobedience. It is a parade of the forgotten, the indebted, and the oppressed. Symbolized by the children waving branches, it is the parade of life and hope for the little ones, their struggle, and their hope.

In which parade will we march?

When I say to be on a side, that does not mean I am proposing a duality between good guys and bad guys, us and them. Ultimately, it is a unity of all humanity, in fact all creation itself. The executioner and the executed, the prisoner and the prison guard are caught in that same matrix of disunity and oppression.

The way of the cross is a starting point. It is standing with, walking with, and yes, perhaps dying with, those who are most vulnerable, the victims of abuse in all of its forms personal and institutional. The way of the cross is standing on behalf of Earth itself. An image I saw recently had a picture of Earth imposed on a cross. That is a symbol for on one hand Earth at risk to human abuse of it, and it is a liberating symbol that the presence of God is found in our resistance to Earth’s destruction.

Some may ask, and rightly so, if I am equating Christian faith strictly with political activism of some sort. Isn’t it more than that? Isn’t it about personal transformation and so forth? My answer is yes of course. The way of the cross can be seen as a symbol of personal rebirth and transformation. It is dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being.

The way of cross is more than the way of resisting social, economic, and political injustices. But as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan remind us in their latest book on Paul, the way of the cross is not less than that.

If what I am saying today sounds new to some of you or at least different than what you or I grew up with (it is certainly different than what I grew up with), then it shows that Christianity has forgotten its starting point.

Today’s passion story is the account of the phony trial, humiliation, forced march and execution of Jesus. Mainstream biblical scholars do not view this story as an historical account of what happened to Jesus. It is Mark’s story writing about Jesus as a figure who represents what happened to those who resisted Empire in Mark's own time.

Jesus was not the only person executed, of course. Hundreds, perhaps thousands were executed. His story provided the framework for resistance, for the way of the cross, for the way of following the executed God. This story resonates with the stories of people still today who find themselves on the wrong side of Empires and who experience political, economic, and social oppression.

Lest we think this story is simply about the futility of resisting Empire, Mark’s story is written in the context of a greater hope, of a Lord larger, deeper, and wider than Caesar. It is the story of a Resurrection hope.

In light of Resurrection, the cross becomes a symbol of hope, the story of the reality of execution to be sure, but more importantly, a reminder that executions do not have the last word. That story is one of joyful, creative, resistance and victory.

That is Easter’s story. I’ll save that for next week.


  1. I have sent the link of this website to my Passion Narratives exegesis class that is reading Mark Taylor's book.


  2. Great! I hope. Now I am worried about all possible misrepresentations, heresies, and the trials of 'peer review.' : )

  3. John,

    Are you reading the gospel of Mark or the gospel of Marx? From your interpretation it is difficult to know.

  4. Adel -

    By the standards of the Roman Empire as well as the standards of the modern American empire, Jesus was a socialist. Deal with it.

  5. I have not been around to read a sermon lately, but John, you never disappoint.

  6. Thank You John. Excellent as always. I have linked to it from the Buddy. We have snow here.. I suppose I should be grateful that it is not mud. j

  7. Snow? Egads! That reminds me of Northern NY. Sunny and 70 in East Tennessee. Can't beat it!

  8. Um, John. Hate to tell you, but it's probably going to snow on Tuesday. Ah, Spring!

  9. No way! Stuff just got a-bloomin'! I hope things haven't bloomed so much that a frost kills them like it did a couple of years ago.

  10. Well, if it does get that cold, we better hope it DOES snow - enough to protect those tender shoots, and such. Better start doing your snow dance!

  11. Great sermon, John

    "What might the cross have meant in the first century and what might it mean today?"

    Interestingly enough, the cross does not appear in Christian art until after the practice was terminated, maybe even 100 years after. It's not something that Christians who had first hand knowledge of crucifixion could handle.

    "The soon to be executed would partake in a forced march through the city carrying the cross beam. "

    Another little piece of trivia: The beam used to lock the gates of a city look just like the cross beam, and are carried exactly the same way. They were called the "key" to gate. The "keys to the kingdom of heaven", and a cross beam of a cross look exactly the same.

    " This parade might be thought of as an act of civil disobedience."

    It probably was. The palm was the symbol of the Macabees and independence from Roman oppression. The Macabean coins carried the palm on one side. "Hosanna" meant "save us" and the palms were a nationalistic protest against Roman oppression. At least that is one way to look at it. "In the name of God, save us from Rome!"

    (I can hear the song from Jesus Christ Superstar playing in the background)

    (But instead of kicking the Romans out of the Antonina Castle, he started by challenging the puppet priests and kicking the money changers out of the Temple.

    The people wanted a war (they eventually got one). Jesus wanted to change their relationship with God. It would have political consequences but it had to start in the Temple.


    As usual, you flat out don't get it. I am guessing it's because the Gospels were not written for people like you. As I see it, people like you are routinely portrayed as the bad guys in the gospels. That is why you jump to Marx. If the Pharisees had known Marx they probably would have said the same.

    But where do you think Marx got his inspiration?

  12. Thank you, John! I am so happy that the Covenant Network linked to your blog a few weeks ago! Very interesting and so encouraging to read!
    "What then is the cross?" ....I think of it as also, in addition to standing against oppressive Empire, standing against oppressive Religion. I have always thought that folks wrongly labeled Abelard's understanding of the cross as "example" theory -- I think Ab was talking about "revelation" -- revelation that God is about "mercy and not sacrifice" -- healing people who needed healing no matter what the Ten Commandments might be thought to say -- refusing to back down even to the point of the cross -- which changes our relationship with God if we have been thinking of God as anything other than the love, mercy, and justice we see in Jesus. Thank you, John -- and thanks to the congregation "that loves you"!

  13. Rev. Shuck,

    With all due respect to your professor, I think the formation of the Gulag in the Soviet Union was a much more frenzied an a larger correctional buildup.

    This pointless hyperbole casts a dubious light on the whole of your sermon.

  14. It is a national disgrace that the U.S. incarceration rate is five to 12 times that of other industrialized countries as well as being the highest in the world. As Churchill once said, "The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country."
    --Marie Gottschalk, link

    "Writing for the National Criminal Justice Commission, Steven Donziger has report that, 'Since 1980 the United States has engaged
    in the largest and most frenetic correctional buildup of any country in the history of the world.' Indeed with just 6% of the world's population, the United States now holds 25% of its prisoners..."
    James Samuel Logan, Good Punishment, 2008

    "Nationally, 1 in 3 Black and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001 are at risk of imprisonment during their lifetime. While boys are five times as likely to be incarcerated as girls, there also is a significant number of girls in the juvenile justice system. This rate of incarceration is endangering children at younger and younger ages.

    This is America's pipeline to prison — a trajectory that leads to marginalized lives, imprisonment and often premature death. Although the majority of fourth graders cannot read at grade level, states spend about three times as much money per prisoner as per public school pupil."

    Cradle to Prison Pipeline

  15. "Since 1980, the United States has engaged in the largest and most frenetic correctional buildup of any country in the history of the world. During this time the number of Americans in prison and jail has tripled to 1.5 million. For some minority groups, the rate of incarceration has increased tenfold. About 50 million criminal records—enough to cover nearly one-fifth of the entire U.S. population—are stuffed into police files. Hundreds of billions of dollars have poured from taxpayers' checking accounts into penal institutions and the businesses that service them. Several million people have come to depend on the criminal justice system for employment."

    National Criminal Justice Commission

  16. "Adam Liptak, NT Times The United States has less than 5 percent of the world¹s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world¹s prisoners. Indeed, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes - from writing bad checks to using drugs - that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations. Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized nations say they are mystified and appalled by the number and length of American prison sentences.

    The United States has, for instance, 2.3 million criminals behind bars, more than any other nation, according to data maintained by the International Center for Prison Studies at King¹s College London. China, which is four times more populous than the United States, is a distant second, with 1.6 million people in prison. (That number excludes hundreds of thousands of people held in administrative detention, most of them in China¹s extrajudicial system of re-education through labor, which often singles out political activists who have not committed crimes.)

    San Marino, with a population of about 30,000, is at the end of the long list of 218 countries compiled by the center. It has a single prisoner.

    The United States comes in first, too, on a more meaningful list from the prison studies center, the one ranked in order of the incarceration rates. It has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. (If you count only adults, one in 100 Americans is locked up.) The only other major industrialized nation that even comes close is Russia, with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. The others have much lower rates. England¹s rate is 151; Germany¹s is 88; and Japan¹s is 63.

    WASHINGTON POST More than one in 100 adults in the United States is in jail or prison, an all-time high that is costing state governments nearly $50 billion a year and the federal government $5 billion more, according to a report .

    With more than 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States leads the world in both the number and percentage of residents it incarcerates, leaving far-more-populous China a distant second, according to a study by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States.

    The growth in prison population is largely because of tougher state and federal sentencing imposed since the mid-1980s. Minorities have been particularly affected: One in nine black men ages 20 to 34 is behind bars. For black women ages 35 to 39, the figure is one in 100, compared with one in 355 for white women in the same age group."
    Progressive Review

  17. Betty!

    Thank you. I am happy Covnet connected us!

  18. "states spend about three times as much money per prisoner as per public school pupil."

    A clear case of "pay me now or pay me more later"

    It is interesting to note that there is no sin or crime in the Bible for which imprisonment is the proscribed punishment.

    Stoning yes. Mutilation sure. Imprisonment never.

  19. Jodie - an interesting point. Crime is low (not taking time to throw in statistics) in Saudi Arabia, compared to here. Hands get cut off, executions are routine for relatively minor crimes. It is a strongly repressive government that also exacts ugly punishments on people.

    Is it better to live there than here? I would think not.

    Is there no middle ground? I would like to think so.

    The more interesting question, I think, is how did we get here, and why? Who's making the money?

  20. At its peak, the Soviet Gulag held 9 million prisoners, with a smaller population too. Four times the current US rate.

    Most of the prisoners are in there for drugs, or crimes related to drugs. And federally mandated minimum sentences makes sure they are in for a long time.

    Legalize marijuana and you'll see a substantial reduction.

  21. Gulag Population Statistics

    US Prisoner Population

    According to these graphs, the statement appears correct.

    Pretty sobering when attempts to justify the increased rate of incarceration in U.S. prisons with the Soviet Gulag.

  22. Yeah, two points:

    1) Are we equal to the Gulag population (the Soviet Union had a larger population than the US) or did the Gulag population actually hit 4 times our prison population? That number seems inflated.

    2) What have we come to that our only comfort might be "hey at least we are not as bad as the Soviet Union once was under Stalin"

    Personally I think that putting human beings in boxes and cages and forgetting about them as they get old is appalling. Better to have never been born. It is no wonder that Jesus brought it up when he listed the kinds of people he would accept into his kingdom.

  23. According to the graphs I posted in the last comment, the Soviet Union had fewer prisoners at its height than the United States does today.

    The statement that Harry objected to, is in fact, not hyperbole.

    As his comment inspired me to further research, the issue regarding prison growth is worse than I thought before.

    When I lived in Northern NY, there was a move to put a state prison there. The idea was sold to the area that it boost the economy, create jobs, etc.

    What does that create then? A prison business. You need more and more prisoners to keep the economy moving.

  24. That is really sickening. Seriously. I really feel a burden about this.

  25. Yes, it really is all about the money, I think. Here in Carter County all the broohaha about this expanded jail is because the state will pay the county to take prisoners from elsewhere. I don't have stats in front of me, but I recall hearing that something like one out of four in the Carter County jail are actually local.

  26. Since the 1970s the prison-industrial complex has exploded in size and continues to grow exponentially. It now exceeds $40 billion annually and rising. On average states now spend 60 cents on prisons for every dollar spent on higher education, up from 28 cents in 1980. And several large states are so hell-bent to lock people up their annual budget for prisons exceed that for education. Also, the overall rate of prison spending growth has greatly exceeded that for education for the past 25 years. It's shocking that the annual per prisoner cost today almost equals a year's tuition at Harvard.

    --The US Gulag Prison System, April 21, 2006
    By Stephen Lendman

    Somebody's making a lot of money locking people up.

  27. Yup,

    You know the money isn't going to the prisoners. Or even the guards.

    So where is it going?

  28. I've found 4 companies that run correctional facilities in the US as well as other countries:
    Wackenhut (could not determine number)
    Cornell Companies, Inc (owned by Veritas) with 78 facilities.
    Corrections Corporation of America with 64 facilities.
    GEO Groups, Inc. with 52 facilities, mostly in Texas, So. Cal., Florida and Guantanamo.

    CCA had revenues of $379 million in 2007 (up 28%).

    GEO Group reported $20 million in profits for the last quarter (ending 01/31/09).

    According to Contrarian Profits, Cornell Companies Inc. (NYSE: CRN), a leading provider of corrections and treatment services for both adults and juveniles, saw its fourth quarter profit rise 37% on Thursday.

    You can find some interesting information about these groups here:

    Wow. Looks like I may have an Open Pen article brewing!
    Thanks, Harry!