(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on April 3, 2015)
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:33-34a, NRSV).
In 2001, sociologist Stanley Cohen published States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering. This is a fascinating book that I recommend to anyone who is curious about or perplexed by the persistence of suffering in the world. It is hard to understand precisely how genocide, human trafficking, racial oppression and other barbarities can still exist, especially after the atrocities of the North American slave trade, the Holocaust, Jim Crow, apartheid, Rwanda and others. Does civilization not learn from history?
Cohen investigates the phenomenon of denial. Denial is a broad term that can include outright deception and lying, but also making a claim in good faith only to discover later that this claim was incorrect. But there is another variety of denial that Cohen identifies. This is knowing and not knowing at the same time. The evidence is all around you, and yet your mind cannot let you believe what you see. A young man is addicted to drugs, but tells himself that it is under control. He loses jobs, relationships, yet he truly believes that he is not an addict. German soldiers during WWII load Jewish people onto trains never to be seen again, and yet they cannot bring themselves to consider that genocide is occurring. After all, they are just following orders. Prisons are disproportionately black and brown, but the general public tells itself that they must be inherently criminal, otherwise why would they be there? A family stops at a truck stop on the way to Florida and sees a young woman dressed in an unseasonably short skirt, and they tell themselves that she couldn’t be a victim of human trafficking. They think they have no place to get involved. A little girl shows up to school with bruises and a teacher tells himself that she must have fallen at home. They know. And yet they don’t know at the same time. It’s a very complicated socio-psychological phenomenon. Denial has real power to the degree that we can lie to ourselves and actually believe the lie. But to deceive ones self, by definition, there must a part of us that knows the truth.
And we do it all the time. Some might say that our psyches use denial to protect ourselves from pain, in order to keep from going into constant, helpless despair. But are we responsible? Were the Europeans who were in denial over the Holocaust culpable? Are the people who see and deny wrongdoing partly to blame? On one hand, we are responsible to look after one another, particularly the vulnerable. What kind of world are we asking for if we let people off the hook for not intervening when they can clearly see that a child is being abused? On the other hand, how can we be held responsible for something that our brains protect us from knowing?
Today is Good Friday. Today is the day that many disciples of Jesus Christ across the globe come face to face with the quintessential atrocity of history: nailing the Son of God to a cross. Obedient soldiers executed Jesus. But they were only doing their job, weren’t they? After all, it was Pontius Pilate who gave the order. But Pilate was only acting on the information of the temple authorities, wasn’t he? And those priests, elders and scribes were only trying to be faithful to their religion. And wasn’t it the crowds who were shouting, “Crucify him!”? Even his disciples betrayed, abandoned and denied him. The State. Religion. The Masses. The Disciples. Who killed Jesus? Are we implicated? Have we too been in denial? Are my hands not also bloody? Every time I look away from a suffering child of God, I hear the sound of hammers pounding iron nails through flesh, bone and wood.
On the cross, having been abused, stripped naked and pierced, Jesus prays to God that his executioners be forgiven, as they do not know what they are doing. But they had to know. And yet they didn’t know. The unknowingness of denial is tragic because it permits us to do or allow things to which we would never consent. The knowingness of denial is cruel because it reveals our refusal to stop evil.
But the grace of God is such that we are forced to take a hard look at the cross, and despite everything, we forgiven for what happened upon it. Crucifixion forces us to uncover our eyes, and resurrection shows us that we need not shield them ever again. For eyes that have reckoned with the cross and peered into the empty tomb are uniquely able to see the world the way God sees it, with love and compassion, with responsibility, with an inability to look away when God’s children suffer. As you wait for your chance to run to the tomb early on Sunday morning, linger at the cross for a moment and pray that God opens your eyes first. Pray in the name of the one who died so we might live, that we are saved from denial.