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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Good Friday Choices
distributed 3/25/16 - ©2016

I hadn't planned my Holy Week this way, but the three hours that I spent at the Colorado Senate yesterday -- on Maundy Thursday -- gave me painful new insights into the Good Friday story. Coming from that context, Pilate's question to the crowd, "Which of the two do you want me to release for you?", seems shockingly relevant.

Good Friday embodies the difficult choices and the profound consequences that confront us in today's tumultuous world. We need to name the places where Pilate's question is still answered in ways that bring death to the innocent.

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To accurately hear the dramatic, chaotic story of Good Friday, I had to let go of a misleading assumption. For a very long time, shaped by devotional literature, church newsletter articles, sermons that I'd heard -- and maybe even sermons that I'd preached -- I had pulled together two different crowds, and made them into one.

Just last week, a wise pastor wrote to her congregation about the two crowds.

It was a mob scene that first Palm Sunday. People lined the road into Jerusalem ... everyone chanting 'Hosanna! Hosanna!' And it was a mob scene five days later, when some of those same people squeezed into the courtyard of the Roman garrison to shout 'Crucify! Crucify!' Same man. Same crowd. Different words. Mobs are like that. They can turn on a dime.

Like that pastor, I'd come to think of the two Holy Week crowds as a story of changed allegiances and betrayal, with the joyous folk of Palm Sunday switching their mood and being the ones to call for crucifixion. That makes for good sermons about our own alternating loyalties, but it isn't true to the biblical account.

The two crowds were probably fairly small -- maybe a couple hundred people in each. Jerusalem was a pretty large city. The figures are hard to come by, but the holy city probably had a population of about 30,000 at that time. During the Passover festival, swarms of pilgrims came, making a total of 80,000 people crammed into Jerusalem and surrounding towns.

A tiny fraction of that population took part in the Palm Sunday parade. They were folk who had heard Jesus, and been inspired by his radical message. They caught the exciting possibilities as Jesus challenged conventional religion, and as he danced with resistance to the Roman occupation. They were folk looking for new ideas, new leadership, new possibilities. And I'll bet that many of them stuck close to Jesus as he stirred up trouble in Jerusalem that week.

The crowd on Friday was different. Luke's gospel names the core of that group: "When the day came, the assembly of the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes gathered together, and they brought him to their council." The assembly of the elders, gathered in council, took the lead. They may have tapped into the swarms of visiting pilgrims, on a holiday trip to observe the established traditions of Jewish Passover. The tens of thousands of pilgrims came to rejoice in the Temple and the rituals. They weren't looking for change, and they easily could be swayed to see Jesus as a threat.

I don't see any evidence of significant overlap between the two crowds. I see no reference to palm-wavers who suddenly switched sides and called for blood. The Good Friday crowd, incited toward mob violence, needs to be taken on its own.

On that Friday morning, the elites of Jerusalem, the religious authorities, those deeply vested in the status quo, gathered their supporters to get rid of this dangerous Jesus. They forced a fraudulent trial, and they demanded that a public flogging wasn't enough.

That's when Pontius Pilate asks his question. The Roman ruler had a tradition of releasing one prisoner during the Passover festival, and he gave the Friday mob a choice. There was Barabbas, "a notorious prisoner" convicted of insurrection and murder. Or there was Jesus, who went around teaching and healing, and who had just that week overturned tables in the Temple.

Pilate asks, "Which of the two do you want me to release for you?"

Which of these two do you want walking beside you on the streets of Jerusalem this afternoon? Do you want the known terrorist who might kill somebody, or do you want the one who is sure to raise hard questions about what is good and right and holy?

The Friday crowd, "stirred up" by the chief priests, decided that it was safer to have the killer. Barabbas might pose some physical threat, and he might provoke the Romans into a crackdown against insurrectionists. But Jesus was going to challenge their identity. He was going to question what it means to be good and righteous. He was going to make them re-think their lives -- not just once, but over and over again.

Which of the two do you want? A physical danger, or a spiritual one? A practical risk, or an existential one? That's a question that is all too relevant in today's world.

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Through the last six weeks, I've been supporting a piece of legislation in the Colorado legislature. House Bill 16-1004 is a short adjustment to previous legislation dealing with the Colorado Climate Action Plan, a document that must be produced by the administrative branch of the state government.

The 2015 Climate Plan (no "action" in the title!) was the first such report. It was descriptive, but didn't propose programs, goals or measurements to direct the state's response to the climate crisis. So two Representatives (both Democrats) proposed a bill this year that would require some actual goals and standards to be part of future reports. Eco-Justice Ministries joined a coalition of community groups working to support the bill.

I testified in February at a House committee hearing, where there is a Democratic majority. A couple of the Republicans on the committee raised questions and spoke strongly against the idea that the state should have such goals. But the bill passed the committee, and the House, on a party-line vote.

Yesterday's hearing was for a Senate committee, where there is a Republican majority. 19 of the 24 people speaking before the committee supported the bill. None of the Republicans on the committee spoke, or asked questions. The committee won't vote on the bill until next week, but all the predictions are that there will be another party-line split, and that the bill will die.

It was Maundy Thursday when I sat through the hearing, and when I talked political strategies with our coalition partners. Holy Week was on my mind.

I don't want to equate a small and technical piece of legislation with the righteousness of Jesus -- or elevate committee votes to the scope of the Good Friday crowd's demand for blood. But Pilate's question kept nagging at me.

HB 16-1004 is a spiritual threat to some factions in Colorado. It would make the state government admit that business-as-usual cannot continue. Our identity as a major producer of coal, oil and natural gas would be challenged. A strong and measurable Climate Action Plan would challenge beliefs that the "free market" is better than government planning at solving problems. If this little bill becomes law, then year after year an official document would come out making the state admit that we're in deep trouble, and that our hopes for a fossil-fuel enriched prosperity are deadly. A real action plan would recognize that Colorado has to join with governments, communities and businesses around the world in making a rapid transition to a carbon-neutral future.

Next Wednesday afternoon, the Senate Agriculture committee will vote. In some way, they will be voting on Pilate's question. Which of these two do you want? Will you affirm the status quo, and accept the very present risk of un-moderated climate damage? Or will you embrace hard questions and exciting possibilities about who we are and how we should live?

In Jerusalem, long ago, the murderous crowd was stirred up by the chief priests and the city's elites, who saw Jesus as a threat to their power and their world view. In Colorado, this spring, I understand that the Republican members of the House and Senate have been under intense pressure from the self-described "conservative political advocacy group" Americans for Prosperity, which sees intentional climate action as a threat to their ideology and their interests.

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The two crowds of Holy Week are different. The Palm Sunday crowd celebrates change and new possibilities. The Good Friday crowd chose to kill the peaceful teacher because of the threat he posed to religious identity and entrenched power.

It is not that we are all fickle and indecisive. It is not that we put down our palms to demand crucifixion. Good Friday reminds us of vested interests and fearful identities which are unwilling and unable to accept the risk of change. It is a painfully contemporary story.

Today is Good Friday. On that day, in long-ago Jerusalem, the entrenched power won, and Jesus died. In 2016, entrenched power is still strong, and it is still willing to bring death and destruction to keep its hold. That's true about climate change, water access, pollution and toxic waste, endangered species, and countless other issues.

Good Friday is an occasion to remember the choices that must be made, and to name the values and interests on each side. For Christians, Good Friday is bearable only because we live in hope of the resurrection.

Even on Good Friday -- especially on Good Friday -- let us stand on the side of Christ. Let us stand on the side of hope, possibility, love and justice.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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