I began this week listening to a live performance of Beethoven’s Christ on the Mount of Olives. This telling of the death of Jesus Christ is an emotionally wrenching musical service that features three soloists. The soprano sings the role of an angel who serves as the narrator, while two male voices fill the roles of Jesus and his apostle Peter. The work is from Beethoven’s middle period–around the time he composed his Third symphony, Eroica, and also when he began to lament his onset of deafness. The interplay between the three soloists while the chorus sings behind them when the soldiers arrive on Mount Olive to take Jesus away to his trial and death echo with doom, fear, and foreboding.
When I was a youngster, I used to be an altar boy in the Catholic Church. The week before Easter was always a highlight of the Catholic year. The story of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection always got the priests going. As I grew older and gave up my altar boy activities but remained in the church, the ritual around the trial and crucifixion represented the persecution of those Bob Dylan called the “unharmful, gentle soul(s) misplaced inside a jail’ in his song “Chimes of Freedom.” That ritual represented the black men and women who had spoken out for their people or maybe only the poor man who had stolen some food to make it through the day. It was the each every character that Dylan sang of in that song and they were the Vietnamese killed by the US death machine. Simon of Cyrene, the man who carried Jesus’ cross part of the way up the hill of Calvary was the men and women around the world standing up to the Empire in the defense of those the powerful persecuted. When Pontius Pilate washed his hands of any role in the death of Jesus, he was the officious nature of the law which in all its pretense of neutrality seals the fates of thousands every day. The final act of crucifixion was representative of what would happen to those who dared to offer an alternative to the Empire and its leaders who cared only about power and profit.
Then came Easter. Always a time of hope for the Christians, it tells them that the only true hope lies in life after death. Blessings of peace emanate from every pulpit while wars and the injustice that feeds war abound. The way the priests in the churches I attended always told it was supposed to be full of hope, but the way I heard it was that the only true hope lay in death. This didn’t jibe with the message I’d been receiving about Jesus so I looked elsewhere. After all, why have a message of justice if one had to wait until death to see it work. Perhaps the resurrection was a metaphor for revolutionary change here on earth?
Today, as I watch the Easter week progress, I can only think of Patti Smith’s lead-in to her version of Van Morrison’s “Gloria.” “Jesus died” sings Patti. “for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” She continues, “My sins my own, they belong to me.” It’s not sacrilege as much as it is reclaiming the responsibility. To oneself and to the rest of humanity. Unlike the moral majority Christians who do whatever they want in the name of god and profit and then repent, Smith is taking responsibility for her life on this earth. It’s too easy, she says, to screw people over and then look to some god or son of god for your salvation. Not only is it too easy, it’s a bigger sin than the wrong you may have done. By simply stating that Jesus died for one’s sins, one can kill and pillage at will safe with the knowledge that Jesus took care of it already when he died on that cross. Wars can be waged and nations destroyed all because that crucifixion made it okay.
In the minds of these churchmen and women, the slaughter of the innocents is forgiven before it’s begun. The hypocrites of American Christianity look forward to their Easter sunrise services while their soldiers rampage through the land of their creation.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is forthcoming from Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org