Truth on the Scaffold

Last Friday I woke at 5:00am and followed a silent procession through the empty, narrow streets of the Old City of Jerusalem. We worked our way toward the Lion Gate until we arrived under the Roman numeral “I” which marks the first station along the Via Dolorosa. 

Some people think this phrase means the way of the rose, but actually it’s built on the word dolor, which means suffering or sorrow. The Via Dolorosa means the painful way, or the way of sorrow. It’s the traditional pathway that Jesus walked as He carried the cross from the place of His trial before Roman authorities all the way to Calvary.

We moved through each of the 14 stations with a pause, scripture reading, and prayer. Some wept as we considered Him being scourged, how He fell along the path, and what it must have been like to bear such shame. 

At the church that now covers the likely rock of Calvary where Jesus was crucified, I had an experience that was almost mystical. I could see in my mind’s eye Jesus on the cross, between two thieves, a knowing, loving face directed towards me. It felt like I was transported back 2000 years to the time when He was crucified. 

The cross is a picture of conflict, the world at cross-purposes. On the cross Jesus stood condemned by both religious leaders and government authorities. The anger and judgment He experienced offer a picture of all of the rage and pain and vengeance we demand from others. He is an image of the way that we hate ourselves, the deep shame we feel, and He bears it all silently. 

He is a picture of the thousand ways that we crucify one another, demanding perfection or blame or sacrifice or suffering or God knows what else. That which we should love, we kill. 

He is the nakedness of humanity on full display. Our vulnerability can be witnessed in His helpless attachment to the cross.

Yet from the cross He forgives. He does not become what is being dealt to Him. He refuses to crucify in return. He offers His life so that we can stop scourging and scapegoating others. 

As I walked the Via Dolorosa and then stood before Calvary, I could not help but think: here is everything that is wrong with the world. The injustice, the gratuitous violence, the crushing of innocence, the mocking voices — all of it here. But also, here is everything that redeems the world. Here is unconditional love. Here is courage. Here is the kind of suffering that redeems. 

James Russell Lowell looked over the scourge of slavery in the 19th century and wrote a poem called This Present Crisis. Lowell saw that in spite of America’s claim of equality for all, many men and women lived without freedom. But a new way was opening before America, a moment of decision.

Once to every man and nation, 

comes the moment to decide, 

In the strife of truth with falsehood, 

for the good or evil side; 

Some great cause, some great decision, 

offering each the bloom or blight, 

And the choice goes by forever, 

’twixt that darkness and that light. 

Slavery was unjust and wrong because at its heart, it was a lie. All men and women are not created equal, slavery suggests, and therefore some may be treated with harshness, oppression, and even cruelty. The quest for freedom involves the struggle between truth and falsehood.

I wonder if we’re in that kind of moment of “great decision” in our struggle between truth and falsehood. Our politics are marked by brash egoism and power-grabbing from both sides. We’re trying to crucify the opposition, whether we recognize it or not, to place all of the blame and wrongness of the world on the crossbeam where our enemies must suffer. 

What is true and what is false? 

True: All men and women are equal. The outstretched arms envelope all. All are worthy of love and dignity. All have God-given potential. All suffer. All stand vulnerable and naked. 

False: Some matter more than others. Some are deserving, some undeserving. The only way to overcome the struggle of the world is through redemptive violence. Some must suffer so others can be saved. The strong will always crush the weak. Some are powerful, others are powerless. Only the strong survive.

In Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, a little boy asks an old man, ”What is the world's greatest lie?" The old man replies, "It's this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what's happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That's the world's greatest lie.”

Now is the time to discern truth from falsehood, to work for justice, to assume agency over what happens in our world. Now is the time to decide: will we choose the way of continuing to harm and make others suffer, or will we take up the cross? Will we walk in the broad way of redemptive violence, or choose the narrow path of redemptive suffering?

Lowell’s poem continues:

Truth forever on the scaffold, 

Wrong forever on the throne,—

Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, 

behind the dim unknown, 

Standeth God within the shadow, 

keeping watch above his own. 

What I believe he means is that truth is always going to be challenged by evil men and women — the truth of justice, the truth of right. And truth seems to be crucified on the scaffold again and again.

But as Martin Luther King Jr. often said. “No lie can stand forever. Truth crushed to earth will rise again and again.”

It’s been two thousand years since the man from Nazareth walked the Via Dolorosa, carrying His cross. 

His promise remains: the truth will set you free.

His call is the same.

Follow me.