The Jesus I'd Rather Not Look At

The Jesus I’d Rather Not Look At

When I first saw The Tortured Christ, by Brazilian sculptor Guido Rocha, it didn’t ask my permission, it just went ahead and seared itself into my subconscious. Every couple of months since then, The Tortured Christ pops up, uninvited. All of the sudden he’s there, his blood splattering on the carpet of my brain and his screams ricocheting off the walls. It’s rather uncomfortable.

I’d prefer a visit from the placid Jesus–the one who’s taking his torture like a champ, the Jesus that dangles on the end of necklaces, Jesus-asleep-on-the-cross. But, this Jesus keeps showing up–skin retracting between his ribs, muscles seizing in agony–and, honestly, when he stops by, I don’t start humming worship songs or try to gaze deeply into his eyes. I want to look away.

The truth is, there’s a lot of things I’d rather look away from — not just Rocha’s Christ — 11.4 million Syrians who have been displaced from their homes. Four and half million of them eke out an existence on the border of other countries, without heat in the winter or basic health care, relying on UN food coupons to keep them just beyond the grip of starvation.

I’d rather not notice the man who holds a plastic cup at the intersection several blocks from my house. It gets complicated to think about the addictions that might be driving him to the streets, the shattered family he represents, or the burden of what it means for me to get involved.

I’d rather not think too long about Trayvon Martin’s mother. I prefer to glance over articles about racial injustice in America than to imagine how many nights she’s sobbed in bed, knowing that she won’t see her son again, or how she makes herself get up each morning despite the burning emptiness inside.

It’s easier to look away, to keep of these people unnamed, to let them hang quietly on their crosses without disturbing my life. But, then I see The Tortured Christ. He didn’t look away. Like any of us, he wanted to avoid the pain — his desperate prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane and his bloody sweat attest to that — but that didn’t keep him from stepping into injustice, despair, and torture.

He was victim to political intrigue — a human sacrifice made by government officials desperate to keep the peace (and their own positions) intact. He was abused by the very people entrusted to care for his spiritual wellbeing. He was condemned by his fellow citizens — people he had taught, fed, and healed. He was betrayed by one friend and abandoned by the rest.

His back was ripped open by whips embedded with shards of stone and glass. The soldiers turned his face into a spitting target and left gobs of mucous hanging from his cheeks. He was hoisted, naked, into the air until the weight of his body tore his shoulders from their sockets. He had to push himself up against the stake in his ankles, searing pain through his legs, just to take a single breath. Eventually, his lungs filled with fluid and, when he couldn’t raise his chest enough to breathe, he suffocated to death.

He did not look away from suffering. Instead, he dove into it, all the way down to where sin and death are rooted, and in that darkness he planted hope. This is the “Good” in an otherwise horrific Friday. Without Christ’s agony there would be no hope. Grief, suffering, and despair would have the final say.

When we look away from suffering–whether The Tortured Christ, the refugee widow in Jordan, the homeless man at the corner, or Trayvon Martin’s mother — we’re distancing ourselves from the God we worship, the God who, for our sake, suffered.

This Easter let’s look, really look, at Jesus. We might be tempted skim past his suffering, to float through a Good Friday service, grab popcorn, and hit the couch for a comedy, but let’s not miss the tortured Christ. He’s the one who plunged the depths of human agony–our agony–so that he could offer us hope, even on the darkest days.

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Photo by (flickr CC) Alex Berger