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    painting of a crucifix in the woods

    With Mary at the Foot of the Cross

    Meeting Extreme Violence with Nonviolent Response

    By Brandon James O’Neil

    February 23, 2021
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    • Mario scorziello

      Thank you for article. A timely word for our present condition. When everyone is clamoring over rights Jesus is asking us to do as he did, pick up our cross and follow him. Blessings to you all. Jesus is LORD.

    Depictions of Jesus’ crucifixion are often sanitized, his white, unbroken body suspended delicately from a few nails on a tidy, well-made cross. Students of the Bible are sometimes shocked to learn the gruesome details of this mode of execution, including the additional humiliations that Jesus received on Passion Week. The four gospels depict the scene as the coming together of national, local, and personal grudges – with foreign military occupiers, local religious leaders, and one betraying disciple using the Galilean healer and prophet as an outlet for bloodthirst. It is no wonder that the finger pointing has continued for nearly two thousand years. Pontius Pilate tried to wash his hands of the death, but the question of who killed Jesus can only be answered with the recognition that they all did – Jew and gentile, Jesus’ friends and his enemies.

    The mothers’ cry is not a languished prayer of victimhood but a hopeful recognition of their ability to help bring God’s peace to their family, neighborhood, and nation.

    The all-too-human tendency to perpetuate violence ended up killing Jesus. But when a loyal disciple took up a sword to defend his master against the police coming to arrest him, Jesus detached himself entirely from this all-too-human tendency: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). And again, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36).

    The disciple’s reaction can be perfectly justified. Today we call it “Stand Your Ground”:

    An individual who has not or is not engaged in the commission of a crime at the time he or she uses deadly force may use deadly force against another individual anywhere he or she has the legal right to be with no duty to retreat if … the individual honestly and reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent the imminent death of or imminent great bodily harm to himself or herself or to another individual. (Michigan’s Self-Defense Act of 2006)

    “Stand your ground” was this disciple’s motto that night in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus’ rejection of violent reaction – and his subsequent healing of the arresting officer’s ear – erased the distinction between aggression and self-defense. Violence is violence, no matter who holds the weapon.

    Having rejected the world’s weapons and justifications for self-defense, Jesus carried his cross up to Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. The crucifixion became the ultimate demonstration of Jesus’ ethical imperatives, “love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44) and “do not resist an evildoer” (Matt. 5:39). Yet, as noble as it is to die for such principles, it is one fact of the scene that always breaks my heart: that Jesus’ death was witnessed, not only by his murderers and those for whom execution was routine, but by his own mother. Probably only a mother can understand the depths of Mary’s mourning at the foot of the cross. As Edward Caswall’s English translation of the Stabat Mater Dolorósa depicts, “Through her heart, his sorrow sharing, all his bitter anguish bearing, now at length the sword has passed.” Today, that same sword passes through the hearts of mothers separated from their babies at the southern border of the United States and still waiting for reunion. It passes through the hearts of mothers in Yemen whose babies die of malnutrition and cholera. It cuts deep into the hearts of refugee mothers whose drowned babies wash up on the beaches of Greece and Turkey. Our world’s mothers understand Mary’s sorrow as she helplessly witnesses her son’s execution, his blood dripping on the stones and dust, knowing that his condemnation and torture were unjust and undeserved.

    painting of a crucifix in the woods

    Caspar David Friedrich, Cross and Church in the Mountains, detail (public domain)

    But Our Lady of Sorrows did not become Our Radicalized Lady of Vengeance. She did not take the sword from her heart and point it toward the Romans – the holders of her occupied homeland – or toward the religious hierarchy that conspired in the murder. This is not to say that Mary remained endlessly in her sorrow, doomed to become another victim of the crime against her son. She became a pillar of the early Christian church, present at Pentecost, and constantly devoted to prayer (see Acts 1:14). Seeking vengeance would dishonor her son’s mission. Instead, she carried it on, making her life an “amen” to Jesus’ final prayer, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Like her son, she rejected the human reaction that takes “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

    In a cosmic sense, Jesus’ death broke the endless cycle of human violence.

    The Israelites expected an insurrectionist Messiah who would end Roman occupation and restore their national independence. They instead encountered a seaside miracle-worker who prepared for a kingdom “not of this world” and commanded his followers to “put your sword back into its place.” These were not another set of tired platitudes; they were the revolutionary principles for which he died. In a cosmic sense, Jesus’ death broke the endless cycle of human violence.

    Martin Luther King once declared, “To return hate for hate does nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Someone must have sense enough and religion enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil, and this can only be done through love. . . . Often love is crucified and buried in a grave, but in the long run it rises up and redeems even that which crucifies it.” We might add that often love is weeping at the scene of crucifixion and anoints the body for its placement in an unexpected and early grave. Just as Jesus ended a cosmic cycle of violence, Mary is, as Mairead Corrigan Maguire professes, “the Mother of Nonviolence,” her presence at the crucifixion and subsequent role in the nascent church “a powerful symbol of nonviolent love.”

    Our world’s mothers embody so much of this love, even when their children are denied healthcare, justice, education, and resources. Where are the armies of wronged mothers, perpetuating “an eye for an eye” violence? Is there a mother denying life to another mother’s child because her own is hurting or killed? Like Mary, they stand at the feet of crosses, the scenes of death, injustice, and humiliation. But like the Sorrowful Mother, they do not passively accept this mistreatment. Sorrow is an impetus to righteous action. They share creatively and manifestly in Mary’s love through their nonviolent solutions toward the stilling of conflict. Their cry, “Give peace in our time, O Lord,” is not a languished prayer of victimhood but a hopeful recognition of their ability to help bring God’s peace to their family, neighborhood, and nation.

    Contributed By

    Brandon James O’Neil studies English at the University of Iowa and is managing editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.

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