12/10/2014 02:16 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2015

Ferguson, Staten Island and Golgotha

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A little over two millennia ago, the early Jesus movement was almost broken by an ancient, distant parallel to Ferguson or Staten Island. Their founder, Jesus of Nazareth, had been killed by Roman law enforcement. From the vantage point of the Roman Empire, Jesus was seen as a member of a notoriously troublesome and rebellious group, as a Jew who was causing trouble. In this way, the historical Jesus was an ancient counterpart to a black man in white America.

To be sure, the biblical record decisively affirms Jesus's innocence of the charges for which he was killed, and recent victims of police violence are not Christ figures. Nevertheless, whatever the wrongdoings of Michael Brown in Ferguson or Eric Garner in Staten Island, they were innocent of any crime that would justify a death penalty against them. And the circumstances of their unjustified deaths have parallels to that of Jesus. Their communities were unusually exposed to government violence. All of these figures, both ancient and modern, were killed by officials wielding the powers of such state violence. In none of these cases have their killers been brought to account.

The story of Jesus's death is now shrouded in layers of tradition, but the Bible preserves indicators of how difficult it was for his movement to grapple with the raw reality that its leader was crucified. The crucifixion narrative found in the gospel of Mark, likely the earliest of the four canonical Christian gospels, ends abruptly with women finding Jesus's tomb empty, and running away "because they were afraid." The Jesus found in this early crucifixion narrative is not the typical Greek hero offering eloquent speeches and welcoming death. Instead, Jesus prays to God to avoid execution and he is silent or evasive when questioned. The later gospels extend the story with traditions about Jesus's resurrection, balancing the desolation of Jesus's death on the cross with the glory of his subsequent appearances. But still, decades after his death, the apostle Paul could describe the cross as "a stumbling block to Jews, folly to gentiles" (1 Corinthians 1:23) and a prominent early critic of the church, Celsus, mocked Christians for following a figure, Jesus who was "punished to his utter disgrace." Now, Christians celebrate Jesus as cosmic king and savior. Then, his death had the potential to shatter the movement initially gathered around him.

The religion of Christianity grew out of the ashes of this traumatic experience. Where the Romans intended Jesus's crucifixion to terminate the movement built around him, his death instead made the movement stronger. Jesus's death became a core part of the founding memory of Christianity. Within the Roman context, it would have been unthinkable that anyone would claim association with a figure killed on a cross -- tortured, mocked and naked. Today Christians hang a cross around their necks as an emblem of their membership in the community initiated by just such a figure.

This devotion to a crucified savior has potential to balance contemporary tendencies to depict recent black victims of police violence, like Michael Brown or Eric Garner, as completely "other." Many white people see images of black men as symbols of dark threat. Meanwhile, Jesus is depicted in most white churches as white, a mirror of the skin color of church members. But the Jesus of history counters such images. He was a man of color, a Jew, killed by Romans for his suspected insurrectionist potential. Perhaps considering these parallels, seeing a crucified Jesus alongside recent black victims of police violence, would help undermine the racism that still characterizes contemporary American society.