Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Holy Week Reflection

Today I came across a guest post by Elizabeth Siwo-Okunde, a woman with whom I studied in seminary, that really moved me. It's posted on the blog of Marie Fortune, founder of the Faith Trust Institute, which focuses on preventing violence against women and children. Elizabeth is from Kenya, and she runs her own nonprofit benefiting orphans in her home country. Elizabeth always speaks and writes powerfully about violence, and this reflection is no exception. Here she tells the story of Christ's passion in a new and haunting way:

A group of terrified women watch as their friend and relative is humiliated, violently beaten, and killed while the authorities refuse to help. If the women speak up or even cry aloud, then they could suffer the same fate as their loved one. Some bystanders see the situation but do nothing, pretend not to know the victim, and pretend that the situation is not as dangerous as it appears. Other bystanders, spit on the victim, tease the victim and even encourage the violence. But these brave women redefine the word bystander in that they stand by the victim. In standing by their friend, they provide their friend with a comforting presence in the midst of a violent death. The women stay to witness the final few words of their friend and watch to see where the lifeless body is taken. They watch as the body is placed inside of a private area with a gate made of stone and sealed shut.

The women wake up early in the morning to care for the violated body of their dear friend and to provide a proper burial. As they go to the place where the body is kept, they have one major problem: “Who will roll the stone away?” The stone permits the community to go on with life “as usual” as though the violence never happened. The stone prevents people from mourning and offering appropriate care for a loved one. The stone blocks the image of the bruised body from the minds of busy bodies. The stone hides the horror of the humiliation. The stone allows power, profit, and fear to decide who will or will not be held accountable for their acts of violence. The stone stops people from seeing the suffering while allowing people to create their versions of the violence—versions which attack the victim’s character and declare that the victim somehow wanted or “deserved” the violence. These brave women know that the stone will determine what happens next. Through their tears and their fear, they have the courage to go to the stone.

There is a stone that conveniently hides the stench of violence against women and girls and the various forms that it takes. The stone is often placed there and sealed shut by well-intentioned individuals who are offering their help. It is also placed there by power-hungry people, profit-driven programs, misguided media, and those who are more concerned with covering up the truth than with saving lives. The stone is reminiscent of the door that is slammed shut and bolted to try to silence Tamar after she is raped (2 Samuel 13:1-22). A stone that heavy cannot be rolled away by one person or organization. It takes the courage of people who are willing to wake up when others are still sleeping and living life “as usual.” It takes the miracle of cooperation and earth-shaking, love-filled, truth telling in order to roll the stone away and seek justice. When we roll the stone away, some of us will be so mortified by what we see that we will take action. Others of us will immediately run and share the news so that everyone will know what we have seen and experienced. Still others of us will not believe what is happening and will feel safe in silence. Nevertheless, the stone must be rolled away.

Even as we face what seems to be the impossible task of rolling away the stone, we must stand by the victims and survivors, just as the group of women stand by their friend and relative named Jesus when he is beaten and killed. They stand by him when his body is taken away and the evidence is hidden from the community. They stand by him when they ask, “Who will roll the stone away?” The only way to go to the stone and roll it away is to stand by the victims and survivors of violence.  The stone must be rolled away in order to expose the world to the truth. When the women go to the tomb of Jesus, it is simply another morning—another sad morning. But that morning becomes Easter morning when the stone is rolled away.
In this story, the stone is both the rock in front of Jesus' tomb and the sin of violence. As Rose Marie Berger illustrates, the Passion narrative notes those who abandoned Jesus: Judas, Peter, and the unnamed man who ran away at Gethsemane. But Elizabeth's reflection is from the perspective of those who stand watch while Jesus dies and who bury him.

Confronting violence is never easy. Most of us would rather think about something else. But Holy Week, when we observe our faith by telling the story of Christ's passion, forces us to meditate on one of the most brutal acts ever committed by humankind. What does it mean to hear this story of violence done to our Jesus, and what does it mean to sit in sorrow on Good Friday and Holy Saturday? Elizabeth points to a ministry of bearing witness- standing by Jesus as he suffers, and standing by those to experience violence in our time. By bearing witness to terrible things, we tell the stories of those who have been traumatized and who may not be able to tell their own stories. In so doing, we expose the ugly truth of the sin of violence to the world and we teach those around us that violence is wrong. Our rebellion against sin starts here: at the cross; at the tomb.

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