On Good Friday, many Christians reflect on what are known as the seven last words -- the final statements Jesus Christ said while on the cross, as recorded by the canonical gospels. For some people in prison, these words can be particularly affecting.
David Carr, a professor at Union Theological Seminary, teaches a course called "Trauma and the Bible" to female inmates at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York state’s only maximum security prison for women. Half of the students in the course are prisoners finishing degrees in sociology in the Marymount Manhattan College Bedford Hills College program, while the other half of the students in the class are enrolled at Union Seminary.
Although Carr has spent years studying, teaching and writing about the Bible and trauma, he said teaching the course at Bedford Hills has been illuminating for him.
"Each week these students, many of whom have experienced traumas of their own and been incarcerated for years, have taught me," he said.
Some of Carr's students -- six prisoners and one Union Seminary student -- wrote reflections on Jesus’ seven last words, offering a glimpse at how life experience and circumstances can influence the impact Jesus' words can have on people.
Read the students' reflections:
“Lord, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34
As a practicing Jew, with very little knowledge of the New Testament, I am surprised by how often I use this phrase “Lord, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I say it aloud to others or silently to myself. I say it lightly, with humor at times and at other times, far more earnestly, when I need to remind myself, in the face of the daily indignities of life in prison and the larger destructive forces in our world, to focus on our common humanity, rather than resorting to anger and judgment against others. This phrase slips so easily off my tongue that I can overlook its deeper wisdom, and the poignancy of imagining it as Jesus’s last words.
I picture the scene of Jesus, a rebel, on the cross, and the cries for blood from the crowd, so caught up that they are blind to their own situations under Roman rule. And I ponder this last utterance: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” As someone who participated in a robbery in which three people were killed, I acknowledge my identification with that mob. I too have felt the fever that took hold of them and how it is to lose myself in the group, to allow my political passions to be distorted by the allure of violence, to dissociate myself from my own fear and healthy inhibitions in order to prove myself: to willfully not know. Coming to terms with my crime and the harm I caused to so many, began with choosing to wake up -- to land in my reality -- to become aware, no matter how painful that was.
Working with other women in here, I see how many of them responded to terrible traumas by shutting down. Yet we are most dangerous to others and ourselves when we are in that dissociated state, of refusing to know or care. I urge them to land in their reality and I admire their courage to risk all the feelings that arise when they face their truths. It is worth it, I say to them. For I know the restorative energy that comes from feeling remorse and taking responsibility.
This brings me back to Jesus’ words: “Forgive them.” The power of those words! Here he is, bereft, in agony, ridiculed. By his choice to forgive, he raises himself up from the abyss of victimization. He takes back the power, by knowing the truth -- his, theirs, ours, all of it.
Reflection by Judith Clark, Marymount Manhattan College Bedford Hills College Program
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:43
The interpretation I’ve always heard of these words is that Jesus was promised Paradise for sacrificing his life for humanity’s sins. I disagree with this concept because it’s vague in various ways. It depicts a paradox where God is kind and merciful, yet he allows an innocent man to suffer for every man’s sin. But every man is endowed free will and thus, is responsible for his own actions.
The paradox continues because God is held as an all-powerful entity; this verse also refers to the concept of Jesus as an intercessor to salvation with God when Jesus sacrifices himself and ascends to Paradise. Why would an all-powerful God need to create a son and sacrifice him viciously to provide a way for communication with his own creation?
God is depicted throughout the entire Bible as a God who is powerful, loving to his creation, and most importantly an entity beyond the human imagination -- who clearly does not have human traits. If in fact, he did have a son, or needed help to give salvation to his creation, is this a God we can imagine? The God that people usually imagine here is a less-powerful, dependent entity who is unjust for allowing an innocent, pious man to suffer for what he did not do.
My reflection on these last verses is one of disagreement. Realistically, although God could, God did not need to sacrifice a righteous man to preserve humanity. Clearly, humanity is still in sin, and that would mean that God’s “sacrifice” here was futile, an unacceptable theory since God wouldn’t make futile decisions. In my opinion, these words from God to Jesus are improbable and lean towards blasphemy more than anything.
Reflection by Tallulah Gillespie, Marymount Manhattan College Bedford Hills College Program
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. John 19:26-27
Tortured, humiliated, and dying on a cross, Jesus manages to tell his mother and his beloved disciple to take care of one another ... to fill a void within each other who suffer the trauma of his death.
These words struck me because, as Jesus is dying, he still manages to consider his mother’s pain. It is hard to imagine what new relationships, forged from traumatic events, will be like. His disciple can never take his place in his mother’s heart. There will always be an emptiness in her hollowed by memory. It is hard for me to believe that anyone can ease the pain of watching someone you love be murdered right in front of you. But the thought of being given comfort and a sense of security during such cruel times, the idea that you should not and will not be alone to cope with your pain ... moves me.
It brought up the idea of surrogate families for me -- the ones where someone steps into your life and fills in the absence of someone else. My life has been filled with incredible strangers who stepped into my life and, today, love me more than any family can compare. The image of “beloved disciple” however, someone so faithful to God and trustworthy to care for Jesus’ mother, it makes me think of my sister, Pauline. She is no “substitute” though -- she really is my sister -- but prior to the tragedy that surrounds my incarceration, we barely knew each other. She has every reason to justify hatred towards me. She has every right to shun and abandon me as the rest our family has. But she doesn’t. I know her outspoken love and loyalty for me comes at a high cost to her. Pauline is the bravest woman I know. She was the first person to step into my life when I was stripped of everything that made me human and had the courage to still love “something” like me.
Trauma brought us together and although we cannot forget or change the past, we carry each other forward. There is something about having someone by your side when you are suffering that saves you. Even when life seems so dark, this person stands there in that same darkness, waiting for you. It is a gift to know you don’t have to suffer alone.
Reflection by Connie Leung, Marymount Manhattan College Bedford Hills College Program
Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? Which means “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark 15:34
I have heard the Crucifixion narrative every year in church and we are usually instructed to leave service, go home and “sit with it” -- sit with what Christ did on our behalf, sit with what he said, sit with how he must have felt. I always intended to do as my pastor instructed but I allowed life to get in the way -- the phone rang, my mother needed help cleaning the house, there was food to prepare for Easter dinner, or last-minute shopping needed to be done.
However, when you are in prison, there is no excuse for not “sitting with it.” After my first Good Friday service here at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, I had no choice but to go back to my cell and reflect on Christ’s words. The cell doors closed and I was utterly alone. It was then that His last words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46/ Mark 15:34) took on a whole new meaning for me and maybe for the first time, I was able to grasp the extreme desolation, rejection, and abandonment Christ must have experienced on the cross.
Everywhere you turn in prison, you see women who have been abandoned and are truly alone. Phone calls go unanswered, visits do not show, the mail starts to dwindle, your friends change, and the pictures taped to the peach-colored cinder block wall start to fade. Even if you have a wonderful and strong support system, there is an unconscious fear that by the end of your sentence you will be left completely and totally alone. But who could fault them? I was sentenced to prison not them. It seems that everyday my family bares the burden of my mistakes.
These feelings are overwhelming and I am sure there are many others who have experienced or witnessed a depth of loneliness, abandonment, and rejection far worse than anything I have seen or felt. I know my Savior has. Being nailed to the cross, Jesus already knew what it meant to be forsaken -- he was intimately acquainted with rejection, abandonment, and mockery. As Christ cries out in torment and rejection, not only is he fulfilling the messianic psalm, but more than that, he is experiencing the full and furious wrath of God. The theologian R. C. Sproul states: “This cry represents the most agonizing protest ever uttered on this planet. It burst forth in a moment of unparalleled pain. It is the scream of the damned -- for us.” I alone deserve it but do not feel it. He does not deserve it yet took the full wrath for me. He was forsaken so I may be forgiven. The Roman cross was meant to humiliate, dehumanize, and destroy Jesus, as well as his followers. However, the cross of Christ, for me, is a symbol of hope, change, restoration, and a second chance.
Reflection by Sarah Cushman, Marymount Manhattan College Bedford Hills College Program
“I thirst.” John 19:28
Reflecting on the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross in order to cleanse us from our sins fills me with joy and inspiration as “I” too take a step forward and commit to walk in newness of life through the symbolic act of baptism. On Saturday, April 4, I will finally get to undergo the holy Christian sacrament of Baptism.
As Jesus exclaimed these ordinary, yet powerful words, “I thirst,” he yearned for the culmination of his mission on earth, as well as the fulfillment of scriptures. However, he exposed his vulnerability, as his innate humanity enveloped the magnitude of his sacrifice.
Through an act of surrender and a hunger for a deeper connection with God I declare, too, that “I Thirst.” Being thirsty places me in the right place, at the right time, stirring within me a yearning to the point of physical need; I need, I want; I desire to quench my thirst.
I have waited for years for this Saturday. I claim the time is right, the moment is now, my eyes have been opened, and my heart has been readied, similar to the Samaritan woman at the well to whom Jesus gave “living water” (John 4). I search for spiritual maturity that can only be achieved through an earnest and diligent relationship with God the creator.
As I sacrifice a weekend visit with my children in order to partake in this holy celebration, I rid myself of any thoughts of insecurity, inadequacy, and fear, and confidently immerse in the foundation of living water; leaving behind old things and embracing all that is new, and as Jesus once did, I accept in faith the path laid out before me.
This Easter not only will I celebrate the triumphant resurrection of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I will rejoice with great conviction in the authenticity of my commitment towards a fulfilling new chapter of my life, and as I bury my heart in his hands and submit to his will, I’m baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Reflection by Assia Serrano, Marymount Manhattan College Bedford Hills College Program
“It is finished.” John 19:30
This verse is powerful and gives me hope that there is an end to suffering. I chose this verse because it signifies that nothing is permanent and an individual’s suffering is only temporary. Just as there is a beginning, there is an end to everything. When I first began the sentence issued to me of 25 years to life, I did not have hope and I did not believe I would ever say it is finished. As a 19-year-old, I could not imagine what my life would be like. Now that I am 42 years old and at the end of this prison sentence, I have a hope restored that I did not have before. I can finally see the end of not only this prison sentence, but of my suffering.
When Jesus spoke these last words, “It is finished,” His time on earth ended. Many see it as a time of sorrow or sadness, and yes, His pain and suffering did warrant sadness, however, His time on this earth was only temporary; just as our time here on earth is temporary. Jesus experienced betrayal, violence, and abuse as a human. All these are things that we ourselves have experienced. When Jesus died on the cross, His life as we know ended, but in truth, His life began and He was free. He was beginning a new chapter in a better place.
When an individual sees the words spoken by Jesus, “It is finished,” they may see the words as negative. After serving 23 plus years in prison, I can look at the words that Jesus spoke in a positive light and find comfort in them; knowing that nothing lasts forever and the end to suffering is near. The words give me hope and strength to get to the ‘end’ of this chapter of my life. I know that once I am released from prison, I too can speak the words, “It is finished” and begin my life anew; in a better place.
Reflection by Claude Millery, Marymount Manhattan College Bedford Hills College Program
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Luke 23:46
At 9:55 p.m., on June 13, 1985, I took a deep breath, gathered the last of my waning strength and pushed, delivering my firstborn. While pushing, I screamed with excitement, relief and gratitude. I will never forget the pain or the shout. In enormous pain and discomfort, I yelled like a banshee. My yell, however, was not one of fear or anguish. I yelled for sheer joy. After 9 months and 12 hours of labor, the moment had arrived: my baby was here. It was time to welcome her.
On the cross, in the midst of pain and suffering, Jesus musters his last ounce of strength to cry in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” thereby delivering humankind from their sin. Jesus’s last action on the cross was one of deliverance and hope. In pain and suffering, Jesus reminds us of his humanity and steadfast love. He also minds us that he does not belong here on earth and returns to his Father.
The cross is a symbol of everlasting life and deliverance. Out of pain and suffering comes hope and everlasting life.
Reflection by Lorna Woodham, Union Theological Seminary in New York
Prof. David Carr is author of Holy Resilience: The Bible's Traumatic Origins
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