I’m writing this on Palm Sunday. This is the day we remember Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when the crowds hailed him as the King who came in the name of the Lord. A few days later, the crowds — possibly even some of the same people — were calling for his crucifixion.
One of the things that always strikes me about the Passion story as a story is that there really aren’t any villains in the piece. There’s no Richard III or Count Fosco or Hannibal Lecter who intentionally does wicked things for admittedly wicked reasons. Jesus says he has been born for one end, to bear witness to the Truth. That alone seems to be enough to doom him. It’s impossible to parse Judas’s motives, but the priests arrest the Truth as a blasphemer, his friends desert the Truth out of fear, his enemies slander the Truth out of envy, the mob, stirred by rabble-rousers, cry out for the Truth’s death in a frenzy, and the sophisticated political leader dismisses the idea of Truth entirely (no doubt hoping for a university post after retirement) and so utters the Truth’s death sentence with an eye toward keeping the public peace. There are no bad guys exactly. Just people who put their various feelings and interests above the Truth. That’s all it takes to get from here to an atrocity. And you would have to be very much self-deceived not to see how easily you yourself — any one of us — could fall into the role of the priest, friend, man on the street or politico and so contribute to the Truth’s crucifixion.
I wrote a crime novel with this theme once. True Crime is about a white man who is railroaded onto death row when officials become embarrassed by the preponderance of black criminals condemned to die. No one conspires against this white man; no one lies or plots to kill him; they simply care about other things — race, fairness, the public peace, the appearance of virtue — more than they care about the Truth.
The anti-hero of this novel is a newspaperman named Steve Everett. He’s not a good person. A lot of people dislike him and with reason. He’s selfish, cynical, unfaithful and hard-boiled. And yet it’s out of these negative qualities that his one good trait arises: he cares about almost nothing, except doing his job, finding the facts.
“I don’t give a rat’s ass about Jesus Christ,” he says at one point. “And I don’t care how you feel either. I don’t care about justice, not in this life or in the next. To be honest, I don’t even care about what’s right and wrong. I never have. All I care about… are the things that happen.” (It’s worth noting that when the novel was turned into a movie, the condemned man was made black, and the speech above was mutilated.)
Because he puts the Truth before God, his fellow man, justice and morality, Everett is the last man standing in defense of all of them. That’s because Truth is the cornerstone on which every good structure stands. Without a commitment to Truth, our religions, brotherly love, justice and morality topple into meaningless ruins. Even when it’s carried by an imperfect vessel, the Truth and only the Truth can set us free for every other good thing.
Like the people in the streets agitating for George Zimmerman’s arrest, like the Hollywood millionaires seeking to direct angry lynch mobs to his house, like the Democratic lawmakers publicly denouncing him as a murderer, like the “news staff” at NBC editing their tapes so that he sounds sinister, like those at the Huffington Post branding him a racist, I also have no idea what happened between Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin the night Zimmerman shot the 17-year-old Martin dead. It’s not because I have any particular feelings about either of the men involved in the fatal confrontation that these knuckleheads and their shenanigans weary me beyond my ability to express.
It’s just that I look at these people — who are supposed to be citizens, who are supposed to be role models, who are supposed to be leaders, journalists and opinion-makers — each one of whom could download the wisdom of the ages in seconds onto a machine the size of his palm — not one of whom can muster the simple humanity to wait until he knows “the things that happened” before he rushes to judgement on another man’s life — and it seems to me that, two thousand years after the first Palm Sunday, it’s still Good Friday for the Truth.
To my Christian readers, have a blessed Holy Week.