Today is Ash Wednesday, which opens the Christian season of Lent, a time marked by the purple robe placed around Jesus when he was shamed and tortured by his guards.
They taunted Him for those whispers and cries that He was God’s anointed, mocking the notion that there was any kingship but that in Rome.
We have seen photos of such taunting. They came to us from Abu Ghraib. The guards exulted in their power over the despised enemy, as did the Romans over this Judean. Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” was criticized for its violence. Critics called it a snuff film. But that’s what the Romans were doing – snuffing out the threat posed by this peasant claim of a divine revolution.
What does it mean for Christians that our altar is vested in purple? Do we see Jesus there, beneath His crown of thorns? When the bread is broken, do we see Jesus there with pierced hands? What does it mean that the central image of our faith community is brokenness?
These are important questions. Religion and power are usually a deadly mix. We know (a little) about the crusades (that they happened, but little more). We know (a little) about the Inquisition. We know (a little) about the Thirty Years’ War that devastated Europe with war, disease and famine. (In the German states, between 25 and 40 percent of the population perished.) We know about Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland; Hindi and Muslim in India; Sunni and Shia in Iraq. We know about Germany’s “Final Solution” against the Jews (and 3 million others).
But such wedding of religion and violence is not the fault of religious traditions; it is the fault of the human heart that uses religion to divide the world into “us” and “them,” and to cloak our conflicts in a righteous banner. (How else dare we kill our fellow humans but with the claim we have God’s command?)
During Lent, the altar is vested in purple. The pastor is vested in purple. We should drape the cross in purple – we should drape the building in purple – to be clear that Jesus renounced the sword.
And, yes, in the Old Testament, God commands the Israelites to war against the Canaanites, but Christians confess that Jesus is the fulfillment of Scripture and He said, quite simply and directly, “Love your enemies.” And, yes, love of neighbor sometimes requires the use of force to protect the neighbor from violence, but we are still left with an altar dressed in purple and a crucified Messiah.
Jesus said that greatness lies in service. That all were neighbors. That bread was to be shared. That “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
Too many Christians in this country are looking for a wedding of religion and power. Jesus wedded religion and “weakness” – that strange and powerful “weakness” that looks down from the cross and says, “Father, forgive them.”
The Rev. David K. Bonde is pastor of Los Altos Lutheran Church, 460 S. El Monte Ave. For more information, call 948-3012 or visit losaltoslutheran.org. This column previously appeared in the March edition of the Los Altos Lutheran Church newsletter and at the blog JacobLimping.wordpress.com.