Crucifixion remains one of the most gruesome forms of execution in human history. Most often, its victims died of asphyxiation; they simply lost the strength to pull themselves up to get a breath. Others died of wounds suffered prior to being crucified or from sepsis or even from being attached by predator creatures as they hung exposed and helpless. Practitioners developed many different styles and nuances. For example, a cross could be T-shaped, X-shaped, or even Y-shaped. A victim could be bound to the cross with ropes or nailed to it with spikes or metal shards. A cross might feature a footrest, a comfort only prolonging the process, or it might not. Typically, the person being crucified was stripped of all clothing, the ultimate humiliation of this degrading punishment. No matter the variation, the experience was designed to be slow, painful, and “excruciating”, a word literally meaning “out of crucifying.”
Crucifixions were very public events. They always took place in areas where many, many local citizens could observe the execution or would pass by during the course of their daily rounds. Often, victims were left on display long after death as a warning to everyone else to stay in line.
I want to help us think about how the sudden exposure to such a violent act would have affected those closest to Jesus, especially those who gather at the Cross. And I also want to help us think about the long-term impact this kind of public violence has on a society.
Keith Humphrey, a Stanford professor of psychiatry, writes of a time he and his wife were driving on a highway when a man wondered onto the road and was hit and killed by a car directly next to theirs. The couple witnessed the entire tragedy. Humphrey’s wife immediately began to scream and scream and scream whereas he turned to face directly forward, gripped the wheel tightly and stared into space, dimly aware that his wife was yelling somewhere in the distance. In the face of this sudden traumatic event, his wife exploded with emotion whereas Humphrey became numb emotionally and detached from reality; a psychological response for self-protection known as dissociation.
Humphrey’s experience illustrates how an initial response to a violent/traumatic act varies from one person to another. The biblical accounts of the Crucifixion record the wailing of women and the fleeing of men. This is not to suggest gender determines response, but it does mirror how Humphrey and his wife reacted. However you want to describe Jesus’ closest disciples fleeing in the face of confrontation, and however you want to frame Peter’s denial, from a psychological perspective it is consistent with dissociation; a feeling of needing to hide from the unimaginable horror unfolding around you.
Have you ever experienced a moment like this? I have. I was with a female friend and loved ones, and while I don’t want to speak of the details, she responded with a angry, emotional outburst whereas I have a distinct memory of shrinking in the place where I was sitting and receding away psychologically from the painful event unfolding before me. I recovered quickly, but eventually left the moment late in the evening and, coming back to Suffolk, I can still recall the feeling of how I wished the dark would not give way to the dawn so I could keep driving on forever as if nothing had happened.
Based on that experience, you will never hear me criticize Peter or the other disciples. In the crushing events unfolding before them, they reacted out of deep “fight or flight” response controlled by the most primitive part of our brains. It is a process we neither control nor understand at the time. Nor will you hear me praise or condemn the hysterical women. We are who we are. We act under crisis as we react. We recover in our own way and move forward. It is the moving forward and how we do it that matters most.
For Jesus’ mother and the others who huddle beneath the Cross, what this experience means to them is far beyond my imagining. Here is what we can know. Here is what folks with comparable experiences experience in our own day:
· A profound sense of guilt: an irrational feeling you could have done something to prevent what happened, rather than accepting the terrifying truth you lack of control over many things that happen in life.
· Difficulty sleeping and nightmares.
· A heightened sense of alertness while awake. Even mundane events will be interpreted as “fight or flight” moments, with all the body reactions associated with it.
Our present day understanding of human psychology provides a serious challenge to those who would deny the Resurrection. A person exposed to such a horrific, violent act normally would exhibit the following:
· An inability to redevelop a sense of trust in others.
· A perpetual sense of victimization.
· A lack of personal empowerment.
· An intense desire to find meaning in life through revenge.
· A heightened sense of needing to protect self and loved ones from danger.
· A profound, debilitating sense of shame, guilt, powerless, and doubt.
These symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, chronicled in our day, would have been a part of the experience of Jesus’ family and closest friends, unless something else – something incredibly powerful – intervened; something beyond the typical way events unfold. And the biblical record suggests something indeed does happen. Jesus’ family and followers rejoice, trust, forgive one another and themselves, shed their fears and any need for revenge, and become incredibly empowered.
While they were transformed, sadly, our society is not. We live in a culture marked by incredible violence. Each year, perhaps as many as 2/3rds of our children and young people witness an act of violence in their home, school, or community. Each year, 5% of our children and young people observe an event involving a gun. Studies indicate this kind of culture affects our children in specific ways:
· a desensitization to violence
· a greater likelihood of using violence as a means of resolving problems or expressing emotions.
· a significant deficiency in resolving conflict through non-violent means.
· a heightened inability to regulate stress and emotional response.
· a recessive development of the brain’s ability to focus and develop essential functions such as planning, memory, focusing attention, impulse control, and an ability to integrate new information into the decision-making process.
Just as Jesus’ family and followers lived in an incredibly violent society, so do we. It impacted them in very specific ways, as it does us. However, their deeply personal experience of the Resurrection transformed how they viewed life and engaged society. Do we have that experience and that vision? Can we, like they, work our way into the fabric of our violent culture and plant the seeds of the Gospel’s truth?