Today is Maundy Thursday, the day faithful Christians memorializing the several events surrounding Christ’s final Passover meal, observed in the company of his closest friends—well, in the company of mostly his closest friends. This evening initiates the Paschal Triduum, the three-day sequence commemorating the passion, crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection. “Maundy” derives from the Latin mandatum, for mandate or commandment, commemorating, primarily, the “new command” that his disciples love one another as he has loved them. This and similar charges Jesus issues instructing his disciples to follow his example peppers this final evening. We see this when he washes his disciples’ feet and demands they do likewise, when he says he is about to go where they will later follow, when he says that whoever loves him will obey his commands, living as he has lived, and when he instructs that they are to eat the bread and drink the wine in remembrance of him.
The wine and the bread are a natural point of focus. They are grim symbols for the blood and flesh spilt and broken so that those who love him might be reconciled with God. This suggestion of a sacral dimension to death is nothing new. In God’s Gamble: The Gravitational Power of Crucified Love, Catholic writer Gil Baillie points to the ancient origins of ritual victim sacrifice for the sake of the common good. Such sacred violence usually followed a corresponding pair of gestures. First, someone somewhere reached out to acquire some good thing. Someone else saw this acquisitive gesture and was struck with envy, a sudden desire for the very thing the other desired. Human beings do this all the time. Imagine two children in a room full of toys. One of them begins to play with a stuffed bunny. The other has options aplenty but notices the first child’s interests and begins to want the bunny too. Imagine now that the first child sets the bunny aside, turning away. The second one moves in and snatches it up. The first child demands it back, for he had it first. Such rivaling desires, if left unconstrained, will lead to conflict. It is no different at the societal level. As two rival wills vie for a given thing—be it material or immaterial—other observers will themselves be drawn in, suddenly infatuated with something they might never have known they wanted. Eventually, the competition itself takes over and the desired thing, long forgotten, gives way to an undifferentiated brawl over nothing. Human beings long ago recognized that cultural procedures had to be adopted in order to attend to these conflicting passions lest everything dissolves into a war of all against all. Social cohesion depends on the discover of a release valve. It’s at this point that the second gesture is made—the accusatory one. Someone, or some group, is offered up as a scapegoat. The motion made, it is seconded, and the affirmations continue until, as Baillie puts it, there is found the stability of a near-consensus—a unanimity minus one. The victim’s fate thus sealed, the violence that follows is cathartic. The communal crisis is averted. Civilization has bought itself more time. Soon, the cycle will begin afresh.
Such pageants of ritualized violence are not limited to that age when all the nations had many gods—though I suppose it’s an open question whether that age ever really ended. A Joshua Mitchell Providence essay written in the midst of last summer’s race riots explores the American admixture of pagan and Christian logic. Americans, he rightly asserts, are torn between competing understandings of justice. Do we regress to pagan conceptions of justice and their demands for blood retribution through carefully prescribed modes of choreographed catharsis; or do we reinvest in an idea of justice grounded in a Christian conception of persons, which recognizes that justice requires something more than cathartic rage, however efficacious in the moment?
This desire for justice is deeply human, and the character of justice is such that even that desire for justice that can only come through violence is not always misplaced. One component of retributive justice is the proper obligation to give to each their due. Holding one another to account is to honor each other as agential beings and o acknowledge that choices matter. Pronouncements of guilt can be a grace—articulating aloud the perception that the alleged guilty-party has erred. If the judgment is true, it might work in the heart of the accused, forcing them to confront what they have done and possibly bringing them to repentance. Such justice also acknowledges the victim. To requite injustice is one mode of vindicating its victims—including both the direct victim and those who suffer alongside the victim.
This yearning for justice is beautifully—if tragically—illustrated in Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express. A little girl has been kidnapped and murdered and her malevolent tormentor has gotten away with the crime. Until now. He is tracked down by an assembly of the little girl’s loved ones—family members, friends, and other relations whose lives were in various and terrible ways disfigured by the murder. They successfully execute a carefully laid plan to kill the murderer. Judging whether their act is revenge or justice is a part of the film’s preoccupation. Also in play is the correlation of the murderer’s killing with ritualized violence. Twelve of the little girl’s loved ones take part—like a jury—in his execution, each taking turns stabbing him. The scene is extraordinarily rendered, and its careful choreography brings to mind the Great Sacrament. The killers share the same knife, stabbing their monstrous victim and passing the weapon between them, one by one. It is—to my mind clearly—a eucharistic image. As each delivers their individual strike, plunging the knife into the soft body of the accused, their faces are transformed into a marbled thing of grief, triumph, and rage. Broken people struggling for justice. The eucharistic imagery is arguably confirmed the next time we see the twelve all assembled together again. In the climatic scene, they are all sitting together at a single table, arranged in such a way as to unmistakably evoke Leonardo’s Last Supper. You don’t even have to take my word for it, Branagh confesses the connection in his director’s commentary. The tragedy is that their attempt at justice is terribly imperfect, and they know it. Human justice is only ever a feeble shadow of Divine Justice. It is only ever approximate. And it always comes at a cost.
This cost is perhaps partly what is at play in King David’s dashed hope of building the Temple. 1st Chronicles tells us that David is refused the privilege of constructing a Temple for the Lord because he is a man who has shed much blood. Instead, his son Solomon, who will be a man of peace, will build it in his stead. This seems terribly unfair. For starters, most of the blood that David has shed has been done in God’s service, fighting wars God had him fight. Moreover, the peace his son enjoyed was the fruit of those wars. Even more, much of the material—the gold, silver, bronze, timber, and rock—that will be used to construct the Temple include the loot of warfare. What gives? The Book of Numbers tells us that a soldier who has shed blood must stay outside the camp for seven days. This does not mean the soldier is guilty, only that he is dirty. Is this the judgment on David? The violence that David deployed, the blood he shed, carried a cost—even if it was morally right to do it. My own studies of moral injury tell me enough to know that killing leaves an indelible mark. As Allan Ladd puts it in Shane—and as taken up in the better Western Logan, “There’s no going back from the killing. Right or wrong, it’s a brand, and the brand sticks.” Keeping the cinematic and literary allusions, one thinks here of Frodo at the Grey Havens. “I tried to save the Shire,” he says to Samwise. “And it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so Sam, when things are danger someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.” The just war tradition, while deeply Hebraic, is not a religious scheme for utilizing violence to save the world or purge it of guilt. It is simply a mechanism to prompt and limit force to bring about approximations of justice that, however partial and imperfect, are, in the face of sufficiently grave evil, the only things with a realistic chance at setting up the conditions that make peace possible.
We see in the ritual of the crucifixion the same human exertions to harness violence as time-proved means to purge guilt. But, this time, the scapegoat mechanism does not work. Jesus threw a stick in the spokes of the sacrificial system. The ritual failed to eventuate in the required catharsis, for the death of the utterly innocent victim is proved a false and debilitating remedy. The onlookers stumbled away beating their breasts. This was not an act of contrition, but a recognition of their utter failure and subsequent hopelessness. Never again would a scapegoat mollify the longing for absolution.
When Jesus takes up the cup and the bread and passes them along the table, he institutes the first eucharist. No one else knows it yet. But they register the new commands—that they too are to love one another as he has loved them, that they are to wash one another’s feet as he has done. The human tendency to mirror and model our behavior off another’s, our appetitive drive to long for what others long for so that envy turns to conflict is, in this moment, given its true purpose. We were made to imitate Christ. We were made to be Sons and Daughters of God—to be perfect as He is perfect. This desire to imitate is not a diminution of human freedom, but its fulfillment. To return again to Baillie, human flourishing finds its objective measure in “how well we have replicated in our lives the pattern, the Logos.” Our efforts to do so yields the intrinsic meaning of our existence. Golgotha is God’s final appeal. There Christ makes his final case for love, forgiveness, and mercy.
It is just and mete for ecumenical purposes, if no other, to understand the Christian faith as a religion of the Book. But Christianity is not ultimately a set of rules, ideas, or doctrines. Christianity is about a Person, three-tiered, and the yearning humanity has to commune—to be in communion—with him. Again, the eucharistic imagery abounds.
The wine and the bread–the blood and the flesh–of the Last Supper, and the consequent events of the unfolding Triduum which follows from it, reveal that violence is sometimes necessary in a world in which we long for peace but in which the enemies of peace have not surrendered their say. But it reveals also that this violence must only ever be deployed with the intention of winning that peace—or its partial approximation in limited circumstances. Retribution, protection, the vindication of victims, are all component parts of this approximation and have a role to play. Peace has never been a virtue, per se, it has only ever been the fruit of virtue. Meanwhile, the love that we are, ourselves, supposed to mimic to one another is the love of a man who we have seen—all week—is a man of peace but no pacifist. War and violence and harsh justice must sometimes be. But only for the sake of love and the goal of peace and of setting up the conditions that give these great goods a chance. Keeping faith with Christ in this effort, however modest, is our only business. The rest is not up to us.