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Truly Understanding The Agony Of Crucifixion

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In the weeks before Easter, during the traditional season of Lent, Christians fix their hearts on the death of Jesus Christ. They reflect upon what he endured because they believe that it was redemptive, meaning that in some miraculous way he suffered what he did for all men. Other faiths do not agree, of course, and the various ways of thinking about the death of this single human being has defined the contours of history ever since.

Yet there is a way in which the meditations of Christians at Lent may overlap somewhat the thoughts of most men about suffering, particularly the suffering of a man being crucified. It takes nothing away from the Christian remembrance of Christ's death -- from absorbing its spiritual meaning -- to think for a moment about the purely human experience of crucifixion. The practice of impaling a man to watch him die hideously is not unique to some distant, barbaric time. It has unfortunately been an ongoing part of the grisly, shameful side of human history and this is a story we ought to know -- to better understand both the glorious and the ghastly in human nature and even to better understand the events of our own time.

Crucifixion was first devised because every other form of death was thought to be too quick. Most ancient tribes had some version of the practice. They were eager to learn from each other and improve their craft. The Romans became the reigning masters, though neither the traditional methods they perfected nor their cruel innovations died with them. The dark art lived on.

In the medieval era, Christians crucified Jews to remind them of their sins against Christ. Islam absorbed the practice also, with Surah 5:33 of the Quran calling for the crucifixion of those who war against Allah or his Prophet. The Japanese had their version, called Haritsuke, which appeared from time to time over hundreds of years, even into the last century. A Canadian soldier may have been crucified during World War I and many more died by this method in the Iraq of Saddam Hussein. Tragically, crucifixions may still be taking place in Sudan. We know they were occurring just a few years ago.

Why has this perverse torture survived? Because it is effective. The ancient world had tried strangulation, drowning, burning, boiling in oil and death by spear but found them all too quick -- and boring. Crucifixion slows the process of death, makes the pain more acute and draws a crowd. It also makes criminals and enemies tremble and this has kept it in use.

All crucifixion involves pinning a victim to an unmovable surface so he cannot pull free. Just beyond these essentials, though, is where the cruel art and demonic fun take over, the goal being to produce the most agony, writhing and screams. And to send a message. This may be why the Romans crucified the Apostle Peter upside down, if he did not choose it himself -- to suffocate him, symbolic of silencing his preaching -- and why black men in the American South and in South Africa have been crucified with spikes through their genitals. It was both torture and symbol of determination to end a race.

Yet, it is just at the moment of these vile deeds -- the crucifixion of a living being -- when the human spirit has sometimes revealed itself heroically. After Spartacus led his famous slave uprising and was killed in battle, 6,000 of his fellow warrior/slaves were crucified along the Appian Way. They never ceased to taunt their Roman oppressors, even from their crosses. The Romans also crucified Jews, Josephus tells us, lining the walls of Jerusalem with impaled men. Yet while bleeding out their lives, these valiant Hebrews shouted Psalms to encourage one another. During World War II, an Australian POW was crucified along with two others for slaughtering cattle to feed his comrades. While his two friends died of the ordeal, this man, Herbert James Edwards, hung on that Japanese cross for 63 hours, "just to show the bastards who he was," a fellow soldier said. Edwards was rescued, survived the war, and lived until 2000.

We Christians make no apology for believing that the crucifixion of Jesus was unique, that it was mystically the death of one man for all the world. Yet it is the very fact that our God became a man that makes us turn our hearts to mankind, and in that light we see what men have endured on crosses throughout the world. We see what tormentors have done to the hated and the oppressed. And we see what character has been revealed at just such horrifying moments.

In our faith, the human and the divine are blended. When we honor the sufferings of our Christ, it moves us to honor all who have hung on crosses, all whose lives have ended in the evil of crucifixion. It helps us remember the heroic possibilities of men, and that greatness that can arise even in moments of torture.

This season of Lent, we make the suffering and heroism of mankind our mediation, just as we do the suffering and heroism of our God.