Last night, Jesus once again gathered with his disciples, washed our feet and called us to love, and then shared the unthinkable news that he would be handed over by one of his own. No sooner did the words come from his mouth than the finger pointing and seat shifting began, most loudly by Peter, who exclaimed, "Surely not me!"
These words sound familiar to me. They blurt from my mouth almost as quickly as Peter's as soon as I'm faced with the reality of brokenness and sin in our world. Surely not me. Surely not my fault. Surely not my problem.
This Good Friday I hear these words echoing loudly, especially amidst the latest iteration of America's racial crisis.
Take, for instance, a mid-March report from South Dakota. The setting was not an upper room but a convention hall -- site of the annual Sioux Falls Collector's Classic Gun Show. Among the tables that day sat one vendor peddling a particularly horrific product called, "The Official RUNNING N -- R Target." For ten cents each, customers could take home for target practice an outline meant to be a caricatured silhouette of an African American man.
Unthinkable. Outrageous. The show organizers responded in turn, with shock and horror. "I'm very disappointed -- disgusted -- to see what was on that table," said the show director, "I will not see it again at this show." "This Judas will never be welcome here again," the organizers seemed to say.
However, such immediate dissociation from the individual act fails to acknowledge the corporate evil that such an act reflects. As much as organizers want to distance themselves from the offending vendor -- "Not us! Not our show! Not our town! Not our belief!" -- it does not change what the vendor said when asked about his targets: "I sold 500 of them already today." He left with a purse full of coins.
"Surely not me," I want to say. I would never buy such a target. But if I distance myself too quickly, I forget the corporate climate that allows 500 to be sold in one afternoon.
"Surely not me," I was quick to cry last month. I would never chant along with the SAE brethren on that fraternity party bus. But if I'm too quick to isolate the act and chastise the single offense, I fail to interrogate the system that enabled it and the heritage that passes such lyrics and privilege down through the years.
"Surely not me," I blurt out this week. I would never hang a noose from the branches of a tree at Duke University. But if I protest too quickly, I risk denying that my ancestors were among those who did unthinkably worse in the oak groves of my native Florida.
I want to keep it all focused on Judas. The traitor. The snake. The one who sold out the kingdom for a pocket full of dimes. It's much easier to look at Judas than it is to look at myself.
But this is the day of the Christian year that let's no one go free.
Up from the table in that upper room, Jesus' closest friends slept while his heart is breaking in the garden. Later, the zealous and protesting Peter finally denies him, just as predicted. As Jesus is lead out of town, most of the disciples are eerily absent from the gospel accounts. After his death, he is brought down from the cross and prepared for burial by hands other than theirs.' And, when he keeps his promise and on the third day finds his way back, none of the eleven are there to greet him. The gospel of John describes them holed up behind locked doors, encased by their fear.
"One of you will betray me," Jesus has said once again this year. It's true that only one runs away carrying guilt and silver, but all twelve find themselves complicit. The story does not let anyone go free. Jesus' death was a corporate act.
I suppose I could keep it all focused on Judas. But if I do, I deny that this is the day that Christ is led away to death not simply with a kiss and a transaction of coins, but also to the echo of "Surely not me!"