“The Blindness of Medusa”
By The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Scripture Reference: Mark 15.1-15
As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.
Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” They shouted back, “Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
I learned a number of lessons living in the North Country next to Fort Drum. Fort Drum is the most heavily deployed Army base in the United States. There are 15,000 soldiers, of which almost half are always deployed. We moved to the North Country as our nation invaded Iraq for the second time, adding to the thousands of troops already deployed in Afghanistan.
One of the lessons I learned from Fort Drum came from a general. He offered me a great insight. We were part of a procession and would be seated next to each other on the dais so we made chit chat. At some point in our conversation he offered something he carried on his heart. He said, “You need to know our country is not at war; the military is at war. If the nation was at war, then Detroit would be making tanks.”
There was a loneliness, a struggle, in his voice. It sounded like betrayal. I took his words to be: he felt more like a mercenary than a soldier.
Another lesson came from a colonel. He explained to me the pain of being called a hero. He said, “I am not a hero. Being called such only convinces me people have no idea what I am called to do.” Many soldiers made it clear to me that they wanted to be treated simply as neighbors, congregants, friends. No one asked to be called a hero. There was a deep need not to be such. “Look after my family,” was the only request a soldier ever made to me when facing deployment.
The hardest lesson was to realize the most important role I could play for Fort Drum was to show up at the monthly memorial services for the soldiers who died in combat. Those were tough services. Whenever I hear political speeches that bandy words like fight, war, crusade, I am taken back to those services. Cheap, violent words belie a deep falsity.
In 2005 as part of an adult forum, we read a series of books dealing with the War on Terror. The books embodied a spectrum of ideology. We wanted to talk and to listen.
The rule of the forum was to avoid any posturing or pontificating. If you cannot speak from direct experience, then speak with great humility and caution. Our forum had a wide array of folk. Some were ardent pacifists, people who opposed war as a matter of principle. There were some veterans, some active military, and lot of people who were trying to make sense of it all. America had just invaded a second country.
One of the books we read and discussed was written by Chris Hedges, War is a Force that Gives us Meaning. Of all the books we read, and they were all great, I believe Hedges’ was the best. What made his better was that he described a process, a process that led someone to be ready to kill. There were seven steps, or parts, to the transition from being the local baker one today, to being someone aiming a cannon at a local village and saying, “fire.”
Hedges was a reporter who was addicted to warfare and lived immersed in it for the better part of a decade all over the world. As a means of breaking his addiction and taking steps toward living in a world that didn’t include snipers and death squads and the raping of villages, he worked his way through the process; he articulated how someone leaves the mundane of life and steps into the powerful current of war and violence.
Again, I believe what made his book the best is that it described what most anyone could experience. This was the heart of his book. War and violence and hatred can be a force, once unleashed in you, that can give a powerful meaning and purpose and definition. What he captured so well is how, for the most part, we live in the midst of persistent ambiguity, a kind of muddy mundane. Moving through the seven steps that lead to war can enliven the soul as it rushes towards death.
The seven steps are intriguing. First you have to believe in the myth of war. War is something that must be, must be now, and it is a noble cause. You would be a liar, a coward, a farce if you did not believe.
Next you must see your place, your land, your country as worthy of the fight. The Fatherland in Germany; the motherland in Russia, the Home of the Brave from sea to shining sea. You must believe in the nation.
And then you must dismantle beauty and art and culture. The life of reflection and repose must be set aside for the immediate and the life threatening. There are no atheists in foxholes. The television show MASH always made this point with every time there was a play or a musical revue in the camp. Such was always broken up with casualties. War is not a time for poetry.
The fourth step is a philosophical one, or better put, an anthropological one. He says, we must follow the deep strain of violence that is imbedded in our hearts before we fire a gun at someone. It is as if we need to flip the switch of violence that is ever wired into our DNA.
And then, we must forget. We must forget the life of the workday and the weekend. We must forget the rhythm of the seasons and begin to think strategically. Time is now an opportunity for victory or the threat of violence. We must forget the time of being restless for a summer holiday.
The last two steps, the need for zealotry and the embrace of death as part of the day, these two seem to be the final leap. We can do the first five intellectually. In fact if you listen to the rhetoric and the shouts of extremism today, it is as if they are inviting the first five. The last two are not so much an intellectual step as they are a leap unto violence.
With these seven steps we move from being the local English teacher to the person who carries the magazine clip and waits to kill so to win, to protect, to destroy.
I thought of Chris Hedges’ book when I read our passages today. I thought of his book because of the shouts of the people.
Pilate is trying to flog Jesus and release him as his crime does not warrant death. He looks for a way out; he invites mercy for Jesus only to hear the shouts of the crowd, “crucify him.”
Although it has been months since we read the Palm Sunday passage, we need to remember that the crowd shouted “Hosanna,” five days before our reading today. Five days later they are shouting: put this man to death by cruel torture. The ones who called him “blessed” now demand he is cursed.
One of the key questions of the passion is this: how is it that the crowd went from shouts of joy to shouts of death in a matter of five days?
Part of the answer is blindness or how we become blind to the goodness of others. Where Chris Hedges detailed a powerful image of what war looks like, there is also a blinding. As you move through the steps you lose sight of the image of God in people. This happens in hate, in envy, in anger, in zealotry.
The crowds who shouted crucify him on Friday walked down the path or seven steps to war Hedges artfully transcribed. We know this because war broke out in Palestine shortly after Jesus’ death. The people were ready. So it was easy for them to move from seeing Jesus as a good person in one moment and then seeing a person who must die five days later. One moment they saw the truth, then, they were blind to it.
Last Summer I saw the most powerful image of this blindness. I saw the painting of Caravaggio in the Uffizi. Caravaggio painted the shield of Perseus. As the myth reveals, Perseus slew Medusa, the monster of envy, whose eyes caused death, whose stare killed. She had many eyes, but was blind as it were.
To slay Medusa Perseus had to see her, but not catch her gaze, not look directly at her only at her image in his shield. Caravaggio painted what Perseus would have seen in his shield used as a mirror.
To say this painting is disturbing is a gross understatement. Despite its horror and ugliness there is a powerful truth in the painting. You have to see the violence, the hatred, the anger, the rage, the envy in order to be rid of it. More to the point, you need to look in the mirror to see it.
That the people of Palestine had walked the path toward war, that they bought the myth that violence is good, believed the land was theirs alone, put an end to culture as beauty, and were seduced by the potential of violence: this is accurate. They forgot Jesus was the carpenter’s son, could no longer see he was a peasant from Galilee and no threat to their daily lives. This is obvious; we can see it. Their shouts and rage demonstrate a zealot’s ardor and a thirst for death. Crucify him! They wanted death. We can see this. We can see their blindness.
Yet, our reading today begs another question: why does the life of Jesus end this way? That the people were violent is clear. Yet why does Jesus die the violent death of the crucified? He asked the same question, “can you take this cup from me?” And he will shout his dissolution from the cross, “why have you forsaken me?” Why such agony? Why not the gentle death of Buddha? Why not the rising of Elijah to the sky?
I believe his violent death lets us see the blindness we all possess. We are ever prone to the blindness of Medusa, the lingering, persistent, genetic wiring of rage and anger and violence. We all possess this. And, like the Greek myth, you must gaze at Medusa in the shield of Perseus in order to be rid of her.
But once this is done, then what?
This is the beauty of the Gospel of Mark. Mark begins with this question. You see the limit of your control; you see the shallowness of your purpose; you see your blindness. You see all this and more and then you see baptism.
There is a vision that comes to us of being a beloved of God. We are one in whom God is well pleased. This is my son my beloved in whom I am well pleased. Consider the path that must be taken that leads to war. We must forget, dehumanize, hate and trust violence. All of this is cast aside in the vow to love the child, to embrace the broken, to welcome the stranger.
In baptism, we can see we have no land, no country, no place greater than the kingdom of God. This was Paul’s desperate plea: we are citizens of heaven. Cast your allegiance here.
In baptism we embrace beauty. The dove descends upon Jesus as he emerges from the water. Heaven and earth are commingled as only love can create. Here we find the power to recreate the world in humility— a world without arrogance.
Mostly, baptism is where we cast our lot with mercy. The broken come forward; the broken confess. They are not cast aside. The father says, bring a robe, a ring, sandals for his feet. The child I lost has returned. We must celebrate. The moment that calls out for retribution and vengeance and disdain finds only compassion and forgiveness. That is baptism.
You and I we must remember what is eternal. Faith, hope, love: these things remain; they abide. All you have, all your trinkets and treasures and trash: it all washes away. You can buy a bigger house, a big barn, a storage garage, but then you leave all the stuff to someone who sees it as a burden. Remember what is important at the end of it all; it is the moment we saw here in the baptism: this one is loved and cherished.
The little ones don’t know this, just as you didn’t, but at some point, baptism becomes utter and complete humility. I live for others; I die to myself Paul says. We don’t want to hoist such paradox on a child. But it is a mature faith. I save my life as I lose my life for others.
The last step of baptism is the mirror opposite of what leads to war. The last step of baptism is to love life.
The most profound point of Chris Hedges’ book was that he saw how you must learn to love death in order to wage war. The opposite is true of baptism. In order to abide in the kingdom of God you must learn to love that you are alive.
Open your heart and imagine what we hope most for the two we baptized today. Is it not that they would live unbounded in joy, unimpeded in hope, faithfully compassionate? These are the markers of those who love to be alive. Open your heart and believe for them. You took a vow. Live it out. Amen.
- Mark 15:1 - 15