Over Holy Week, the days before celebrating the resurrection of Jesus on Easter, Christians are called to meditate on Jesus’ last days. On Good Friday, in churches and often in city streets, it is customary to retrace the “Way of the Cross,” symbolically following Jesus from his trial before the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate to his torture, crucifixion, death and burial. For American Christians in Holy Week, 2012, news headlines of wars in far-away places must not be seen as distractions from our meditations and liturgical observances but rather as a necessary means to realize the implications of Christ’s passion for us here and now.
The Roman Empire employed crucifixion as its preferred method of executing suspects deemed threatening to its imperial power and to the “Pax Romana” it imposed on the known world. The history of empires is banal and predicable even in its cruelty and the United States is more clearly than ever the successor of this imperial tradition. Empire will always be on the technological cutting edge, from bronze swords to nuclear missiles, with each advance extending the reach and the catastrophic potential of successive imperial powers, but the history of empires is really one single tragic story told over and over again with incidental variations.
Today those deemed threats to the U.S. Empire and its “Pax Americana” are increasingly targeted by Predator and Reaper drones armed with missiles and bombs. Just as Rome considered Jesus a “high value target” for execution, it is unlikely that today’s world empire would view Jesus’ life and teaching with any less suspicion. Were Jesus to preach today as he preached in Jerusalem two millennia ago, instead of a cross of wood the instrument of his passion might be a hellfire missile fired from a predator drone.
While the revolution Jesus preached was nonviolent, this did not matter to Rome and such distinctions are equally lost on the U.S. Empire, whose military, Homeland Security and FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force are at least as zealous in persecuting unarmed advocates for economic and political justice as they are in pursuing terrorists. Jesus called for a jubilee abolition of debt, for redistribution of wealth and for freedom to those in prison. His nonviolent stance did not keep him from meeting in dialogue with the zealots who advocated violent revolution. This would be all the evidence the U.S. Empire needs to detain an “enemy combatant” indefinitely at Guantanamo or indeed, to put him on a CIA hit list.
Mouthpieces for the present empire defend assassination by drone citing the fact that arresting some suspected threats would be difficult to impossible- they travel the desolate reaches of the empire, passing in and out of porous borders. When they do enter populated areas, they are surrounded by crowds of supporters, which translates in U.S. parlance as despicably using civilians as human shields.
The military and law enforcement authorities of Rome and its colonial client states were likewise frustrated in their attempts to track and arrest Jesus. When things got hot in Judea, Jesus and his disciples were known to slip out of the Roman Province of Judea into Herod’s Tetrarchy of Galilee and from there, hop a boat to the jurisdiction of the Decapolis. The mightiest military force on the planet in the year 33 of the current era could not arrest Jesus in Jerusalem “for fear of the crowds,” the Gospels tell us.
In order to bring him to “justice,” Rome needed to recruit and bribe one of Jesus’ inner circle for inside information and then wait to find him alone in a dark garden. That empire required a sham trial before their governor could sentence Jesus to die. Today’s mightiest empire uses unmanned drones to find and kill threats to its power with no trial and from long distances. Victims are named by the military or the CIA on evidence that is kept secret from any court. Rather than being hounded by spies and dragged to a cross by mercenary boots on the ground, threats to the U.S. Empire are now hunted by drones high in the sky, scanning the cities and the wilderness, sending high-resolution video feed to their “pilots” thousands of miles away in Nevada, California or New York and it is from that safe distance that the trigger is pulled to launch the fatal missile.
While drones are touted as weapons of precision, their Hellfire missiles and 500 pound bombs are not surgical instruments. Weddings and funerals, when attended by “high value targets” are fair game and hundreds of celebrants and mourners have been killed by drone strikes on these events in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Villages and urban neighborhoods where such “targets” are suspected to be residing or visiting are devastated along with their inhabitants. War is hell, it is admitted in moments of candor and an empire cannot allow itself to be deterred by fear of “collateral damage” from pursuing its objectives.
With the flexibility that drones offer the present empire, Rome would not have needed to wait for Jesus to surface in Jerusalem at Passover, but could have killed him at its leisure along, incidentally, with anyone in his vicinity. If they had drones, the Romans might have taken out Jesus at Cana along with the other wedding guests. A hellfire missile might have found him welcoming the children or at the funeral of his friend, Lazarus. The hit might have come as a 500 pound bomb dropped on the upper room, interrupting the last supper.
U.S. drones, it is reported, hover over the aftermath of an attack and target rescue workers and those who attempt to give the dead dignified burial. Had Rome the technical capability and lack of compunction of the U.S., Joseph of Arimathaea might have paid with his life for his work of mercy, laying the tortured corpse of Jesus in his own tomb. Mary and the women who later brought ointments to bathe and anoint Jesus’ body might never had made it to the tomb; or they might have been burned beyond recognition themselves before they could deliver the good news that the tomb was empty.
Of course this meditation is the result of wild and perhaps irresponsible speculation. I wonder, though, if it is so far off as it seems even to me. More than this I wonder what it means for me as a privileged citizen of an empire, to venerate the holy cross and to worship the tortured messiah who died on it while my government unleashes hellish droves of machines into the sky to spy and to torture and kill in my name.
Brian Terrell lives in Maloy, Iowa and is a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence. He spent Good Fridays of 2009 and 2011 in jails in Nevada and New York after protesting at U.S. Air Force drone operation centers.