The disturbing video of Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of Mr. George Floyd until the life went out of him is a contemporary image of Jesus’ crucifixion. The Black Lives Matter protests that followed Mr. Floyd’s death are a contemporary reflection of Jesus’ resurrection. That video can well serve as our Holy Week meditation.
Comparing the death of George Floyd to the death and resurrection of Jesus may strike some as disrespectful, inappropriate, or even blasphemous, but I think the death of George Floyd has much to teach us about Jesus’ death and resurrection, about what it was really like and about.
Naming Traditionally we have referred to Jesus’ crucifixion as his “death.” But Jesus did not just die. He did not die of old age nor catch some terrible disease nor was he crushed by a falling arch. He was executed. His execution by Rome is the critical aspect of his death. We could argue whether he was guilty, but the problem would be to determine what the charges were. Given Roman standards for crucifying peasants, it certainly was legal. The standards weren’t that high or strict.
To say that Jesus died for our sins is a theological way to avoid what Paul says forthrightly is the scandal of Jesus’ execution. It is a scandal because Jews demand signs and Greeks wisdom (1 Cor 1:22). The crucifixion says in bold letters that Rome won and Jesus lost. The empire triumphs; it always does.
The scandal of the cross is so great that there has been a long tradition of denying its brutality and violence. For many centuries it was not pictured and when it finally was, it was mostly in stylized form. We have no image from the ancient world of a crucifixion, even though there were hundreds of thousands of crucifixions.
Newspapers and TV news have consistently referred to the “death” of George Floyd. But why not call it his execution? It may be extrajudicial (a jury will decide that), but it’s still an execution. The police officers standing by, apparently nonchalantly, while the life drained out of Mr. Floyd would seem to say that there was nothing illegal or problematic in Officer Chauvin’s behavior. We don’t call it an execution, because to so refer to the death of George Floyd would raise embarrassing and troubling questions about white America’s colonizing of Black people and our imperial behavior. The police have historically been commissioned to control Blacks and to keep them in their place, both socially and literally. So, referring to the death of Mr. Floyd obscures our, the white community’s, complicity in his execution, just as referring to Jesus as dying for our sins helps us avoid the political implications of his execution. It spiritualizes Jesus’ execution and depoliticizes it. But politics is spiritual; politics and spirit are not a dichotomy.
For me the most shocking image in the execution/death of George Floyd is the sheer lack of emotion in the face of Officer Chauvin. He looks completely inert. He is going about his business. From what we can see of the other officers, especially Officer Tou Thao, they look unconcerned.
This lack of emotion, of empathy, is the face of everyday violence in the maintenance of empire. Shocking violence has been reduced to the everyday.
Mr. Floyd’s calling out over and over, “I can’t breathe,” is ignored. At one point he calls out “Mama.” A vain cry for his mother?
We have a video of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the police. We have no such eyewitness account of Jesus’ crucifixion. The gospel attributed to Mark is probably the first extant attempt to envision Jesus’ execution, some half-century later. (See Art Dewey, Inventing the Passion). While that account is the gospel writer’s fiction, it looks fiercely at the cruelty and violence of crucifixion. It does not dwell on the suffering and violence as does Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, but neither does it flinch from the view.
The very last words of Jesus in the Gospel attributed to Mark are a cry of despair.
And at three o’clock in the afternoon Jesus shouted at the top of his voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani” (which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”) Mark 15:34.
In Paul’s metaphor, these last words of Jesus paint his death as a scandal, a tripping block. Jesus dies alone, abandoned by his students and it seems even by God, like George Floyd who dies pinned to the ground with an officer’s knee on his neck, crying out for his “Mama”—“I can’t breathe.” As difficult as it is to look at George Floyd’s execution, so it would be to really see Jesus’ crucifixion. The ordinariness of it is what is chilling.
When the centurion sees Jesus die in this fashion, he says, “This man really was God’s son!” (Mark 15:39). This has most often been seen by traditional interpreters as a confession. The centurion, unlike the disbelieving priests, makes a confession of faith in Jesus. But many modern scholars have challenged this interpretation. The author of this death scene intends Jesus’ last words to be provocative, confronting. The centurion’s remark on the surface is sarcastic. “This guy’s a son of God? You kidding?” Imagine Officer Chauvin saying about Mr. Floyd as he dies, “This guy is one of good guys? Are you kidding?”
The tradition has really tried to avoid the implications of Mark’s image of Jesus’ execution. The Gospel attributed to Luke begins the tradition of conforming Mark’s story to the Greco-Roman tradition of the noble death. In that gospel, Jesus’ last words on the cross are “Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). And unlike in Mark’s gospel, these are not his last words. After Jesus’ resurrection he will appear and speak to his students.
Luke also changes the centurion’s confession, eliminating any possibility that it might be interpreted sarcastically. “Now when the Roman official saw what happened, he praised God and said, ‘This man really was innocent!’” (Luke 23:47). That is, we made a mistake. Really? Not much chance that would have happened.
In defending Officer Chauvin, the defense lawyer’s strategy will be to double down on the negative character of the Black man George Floyd.
The liturgy and later gospel stories of Jesus’ resurrection appearances have obscured the earliest understanding of resurrection. The resurrection appearance stories all come from late in the first century at the earliest, depending upon how one dates the Gospels attributed to Matthew, Luke, and John. These gospels all fill in the great gap in Mark’s story of an empty tomb and an absent Jesus. Jesus is appearing to folks all over the place.
For Paul the resurrection is the reason for resistance to Rome’s version of the meaning of Jesus’ execution. From Rome’s point of view Jesus’ execution denotes him as a disgraced, worthless, and cursed slave. Crucifixion means Rome wins, the crucified one loses. Resurrection does not reverse this. Rather it affirms that this judgment does not stand. It has a different, more radical meaning. It is important to notice that Paul preaches the Anointed crucified (1 Cor 1:23). He does not say he preaches the Anointed raised. For Paul, “God’s Anointed freed us from the curse of subjection to the Law, by becoming a curse for us, since it is written, ‘Anyone who is crucified is accursed’” (Gals 3:13). God recognizes in the cursed slave Jesus not Rome’s victim, but God’s choice. God pronounced this crucified and cursed slave the Anointed. This is the radical oxymoron at the heart of Paul’s gospel, his good news. Rome had enslaved the nations; in the Anointed’s execution God had freed them. Resurrection is inherently a political matter.
Following the death/execution of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement declared the obvious: BLACK LIVES MATTER. This is the resistance of resurrection. It says, as Paul says, that a rejected, devalued life matters.
The memorial raised to George Floyd near the grocery store where he was killed is like Jesus’ empty tomb. His absence is a proclamation that this shall not stand.
Joshua Rashaad McFadden for The New York Times
On this Good Friday and Easter we would do well to mediate on the video of George Floyd’s execution and ask ourselves whether we have gone over to Rome’s side. And maybe in the services of Holy Week, a community should view and meditate on the passion of George Floyd as like the passion of Jesus the Anointed. If the execution and resurrection of Jesus has any meaning, it is political. It is a judgment against empire.
Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Bernard Brandon Scott is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. Brandon is a charter member of the Jesus Seminar and an editor of the Christianity Seminar book After Jesus Before Christianity (forthcoming).