Rowan Williams, the Trial of Jesus, and #BlackLivesMatter

Rowan Williams and Black Lives Matter

Last week I picked up a copy of Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgment, by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. I’m only a few pages in, but already I’m finding the book eerily applicable with regard to the US’s ongoing racial crisis. Predating the Black Lives Matter movement by more than a decade and writing on a different continent, Williams draws attention to the same abuse of power being protested in the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland (among many, many others):

As Kafka said, it is as if we know we are guilty, but not what we are guilty of. We are going to die, but we are denied the satisfaction of knowing why.

This is where [the Gospel of] Mark’s trial scenes speak most eloquently to our own century, to the contemporary horrors of the dissolution of law. Think of the show trials that took place in 1930s Moscow; the racist murderers acquitted in the American South a generation ago (even now, you can hardly say that issue has gone away, either in the USA or nearer to home; the case of Stephen Lawrence is a prime example); the national leaders put on trial by the new military regime. This is the world of the door broken in at five in the morning, the interrogation block, the questions you cannot understand, to which you cannot guess the right answers, the hustling from place to place in sealed vans, the wrapped bundle dropped by the side of a country road. Calm and stony, the authorities state their case. He was guilty of extensive tax offenses. He was in a disturbed state at the time of arrest. No, we cannot guarantee to supervise prisoners all the time. Yes, it would be outrageous to make political capital of this by suggesting that government employees were in any way involved. No appeal will be considered; interference by foreign governments would be most unwelcome. Sentence was passed seven years ago; administrative complications have delayed the execution; it is irrelevant that he has been described as mentally retarded; his race is immaterial to the decision…

[O]ur age…has virtually normalized these nightmares in so many states and has hugely increased the resources that can be used for surveillance, just as it is our own age that has made such practices alarmingly common for some categories of supposed offenders, even in countries with healthy legal traditions. If the scenes sketched above appear to belong in distant countries with barbarous governments, reflect for a moment on the experience of those charged with illegally entering Britain in recent years. [pp.3-5, emphasis mine]

To Williams’s laundry list of nightmarish (but neither unfamiliar nor uncommon) scenarios, we might also add victim-blaming, along with the dubious smear tactic of linking marijuana to supposedly violent or irresponsible behavior.

The Archbishop goes on to draw parallels between those who suffer injustice at the hands of the Law today with the identity of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.

This is where the meaning of [Jesus’s] trial becomes clear, where we see what truth it is that this trial establishes. Jesus before the High Priest has no leverage in the world; he is denuded of whatever power he might have had. Stripped and bound before the court, he has no stake in how the world organizes itself. He is definitively outside the system of the world’s power and the language of power. He is going to die, because that is what the world has decided. It is at this moment and this moment only that he speaks plainly about who he is. He names himself with the name of the God of Israel, ‘I am,’ and tells the court that they will see the Human One seated at God’s right hand, coming in judgment. Humanity does not live in this world of insane authorities, but with God. When God’s judgment arrives, it will be in the unveiling of a true human face as opposed to the masks and caricatures of the High Priest’s world. [pp.6-7]

May the masks and caricatures of those who abuse their power be unveiled, and soon.

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4 thoughts on “Rowan Williams, the Trial of Jesus, and #BlackLivesMatter

  1. I’ve always enjoyed the meditative, prayerful quality of Williams’ writings and talks, even as he speaks to ongoing political and social justice issues. Though the tone and style are quite different, the last passage from Williams here bears some resemblance to this statement I really liked from Moltmann in The Crucified God:

    “[T]he death of Christ was the death of a political offender….If this crucified man has been raised from the dead and exalted to be the Christ of God, then what public opinion holds to be lowliest, what the state has determined to be disgraceful, is changed into what is supreme. In that case, the glory of God does not shine on the crowns of the mighty, but on the face of the crucified Christ. The authority of God is then no longer represented directly by those in high positions, the powerful, the rich, but by the outcast Son of Man, who died between two wretches. The rule and kingdom of God are no longer reflected in political rule and world kingdoms, but in the service of Christ, who humiliated himself to the point of death on the cross.” (p. 327)

    Though Moltmann’s emphasis is primarily on the crucifixion (and resurrection), Williams’ seems to be on the ascension, the common point seems to be the total shift in our understanding of where Truth lies brought about by the whole Christ-event, and the way this exposes the powers that be.

    Really great reflection, man. I enjoyed reading it a lot. Our world needs to hear more of this, Christians need to hear more of this. We need to hear more about how God is in the streets and with the suffering and the oppressed, not with the rich and the powerful, or even the comfortable and sedated.

    Liked by 1 person

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