HOLY WEEK 2014: Reflection for Good Friday

by M. Shawn Copeland

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 | Hebrews 4:14-16 | John 18:1-19:42

Let us kneel in love and thanksgiving … for the wondrous love of God

Today, the suffering, violence and brutality that we human beings inflict on one another are caught up in the memorial of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. God in human flesh embraces his fate and takes up the cross for love of us.

Enslaved Africans in the United States knew in their flesh what it meant to suffer. They never mitigated the horror, but they recognized their own suffering in Jesus’ torture and death. Forbidden by law and custom to learn to read and write, these humble women and men listened with open hearts and keen ears to the sermons that treated the passion and death of Jesus. Their oppression gave them an epistemological privilege — they understood his vulnerability and pain, they grasped his love. They took comfort from his loving solidarity and, in return, sought to comfort him. They poured out their love in songs and moans that transcended the boundaries of time and space. As Jesus stood with them in their sufferings, they would stand with Jesus in his.


Here is one of the most famous of these great songs of sorrow:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?
Were you there when they pierced Him in the side?
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

In this spiritual, the enslaved people comment on each act in the crucifixion of Jesus and name its effects in the natural world (the sun refused to shine), and in the heart and body of the believer (it causes me to tremble). Through the repeated inquiry, “Were you there?”, they invite each of us to stand at Golgotha, to admit our collusion in its evil. John Lovell, the foremost historian of the Negro or African-American spiritual, writes that in these lyrics, the makers of the spiritual show us a grave and “great wrong [being] committed under the eyes of frightened or uncaring people.” The crucifixion of this innocent man is an offense against the whole of humanity. We all share in the guilt, “not so much for what we do, as what we allow to happen.”

On this Good Friday, let us kneel before the broken, crucified body of Jesus. Let us kneel before the disappeared and murdered bodies of thousands of peasants, workers, vowed religious sisters and brothers, ministers and priests in Latin America; the raped and abused bodies of young boys and girls and women who have survived sexual assault by clergy and church workers; the torn bodies of prostitutes forced to trade themselves for survival; the rejected bodies of gays and lesbians; the swollen bodies of children dying in hunger; the scarred and bruised bodies of women, men and children suffering with AIDS; the despised bodies of red and brown and black and yellow women and men. To kneel before these bodies is a first step in grasping our collusion in their suffering and death; it is a first step in grasping the absolute gratuitous love of the crucified Jesus. Let us kneel in love and thanksgiving for the wondrous love of God.

* Quotations from Black Song: The Forge and the Flame – How the Afro-American Spiritual Was Hammered Out, by John Lovell, 1972.

This reflection was written by M. Shawn Copeland for the Pax Christi USA Lenten reflection booklet for 2003, To Live the Passion and Compassion of Jesus: Reflections for Lent 2003.

HOLY WEEK 2014: Reflection for Holy Thursday

by Dave Robinson

Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14 | 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 | John 13:1-15

The readings for today all speak to recognition, to identity at the deepest levels. The identity of Jesus as the Christ, as God among us, renders the foot-washing that much more powerful an image. The Christ kneels before us to wash our feet and calls us to do the same for each other in order that we live out our identity as disciples of Christ.

feetwashingSo too with the Last Supper. Our identity as Christians is proclaimed by Jesus’ words, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

Knowing who we are is necessarily bound up with knowing what we are called to do. How we are is part and parcel of who we are. “What I just did was to give you an example: as I have done, so you must do.” Jesus’ ministry has been an ongoing succession of teachings and actions that together give us a picture of authentic discipleship. When followed, they lead us to our true identity and away from the lies and false idolatries that distort who we truly are.

  • How do we follow this Christ in our daily lives?
  • Whose feet are we called to wash?
  • In whose service must we humbly place ourselves in order to fully proclaim our identity as disciples of the nonviolent Jesus?
  • Where in your life is God inviting you to let go of your need to control and protect in order to embrace the freedom of the resurrection?

This reflection was written by Dave Robinson in the Lenten reflection booklet for 2005, Into Your Hands: Reflections for Lent 2005.

TAKE ACTION: Call on Congress to support a shared Jerusalem, where the rights of all are respected

from the Third Thursday for Israel/Palestine campaign

Holy Week brings pilgrims from all over the world to Jerusalem, yet Christians who live just next door to the city must get permits to worship there and may be denied entry altogether.  Palestinian Christians are raising awareness about this and other issues through their April 7 “Kairos Palestine Easter Alert,”  which focuses on the deep impact of the Israeli occupation on every aspect of life in Jerusalem.

Besides being a place of pilgrimage, Jerusalem is home to over 800,000 residents, 62% of whom are Jewish, 35% Muslim, and about 2% Christian.    Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, having unilaterally annexed the eastern portions of the city following the 1967 war in a move not recognized by the international community, including the United States.  However, even as the final status of Jerusalem remains officially undetermined–awaiting a negotiated peace agreement– the facts on the ground continue to change in such a way that Palestinians are increasingly deprived of basic human rights.

Take a step for peace today:  Contact your elected officials and ask them to support a shared Jerusalem where the rights of all are respected.  Ask them to insist on a halt to home and property demolitions, an end to settlement expansion, fair residency laws, and freedom of movement for education, worship and all aspects of daily life.

Click here for the entire action alert and backgrounder.

INTERVIEW: Franciscan Mission Service interviews Marie Dennis, Co-President of PC International

from Franciscan Mission Service

Marie Dennis has several ties to Franciscan Mission Service, including past involvement with Maryknoll organizations and current involvement with Pax Christi International. In 2007, we presented her with the Anselm Moons Award. She also was a Souposium speaker and facilitated our returned missioner retreat in 2013. In this installment of our Lenten series, “Poor and Free: A Spiritual Yes to Less”, Marie addresses the nuances and complexities of responding to social injustices with generosity and joy.

Franciscan Mission Service: Your work has called into question the ethics of just-war theory. In free-market capitalist democracy, how is it possible for Christians to translate spiritual poverty into public policy?

Pax Christi International Co-President meets with Pope Francis in October at the Vatican.

Pax Christi International Co-President  Marie Dennis meets Pope Francis in October at the Vatican.

Marie Dennis: Actually, I believe that spiritual poverty (Blessed are the poor in spirit …) is much more challenging than we are led to believe. Spiritual poverty moves us beyond “detachment” from the material possessions that we continue to accumulate toward real simplicity of lifestyle and – most importantly – into relationship with those who are impoverished in order to interpret reality from their perspective.

From that vantage point, we can begin to evaluate laws or public policy proposals and business or consumer practices by how they affect people who are poor and we can work with impoverished people to change the structures and transform the systems that create or perpetuate poverty…

Read the entire interview by clicking here.

IMMIGRATION: PCUSA signs onto letter to stop deportations

547712_10151386507149157_1947364312_nPax Christi USA signed onto the letter below, being circulated by the United Methodist Church, asking President Obama to take action to stop deportations.

Dear President Barack Obama,

Your Administration has now deported two million individuals. The mass number of deportations comes in spite of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) memorandum, issued in 2011 regarding prosecutorial discretion with the purpose of focusing resources on individuals who pose a threat to public safety. The prosecutorial discretion policy has not worked.

We are dismayed that record levels of deportations continue, including valued members of our congregations and communities. Many individuals continue to be apprehended, detained, and placed into removal proceedings despite exhibiting severe vulnerabilities. These include individuals who are parenting children, who have severe mental health issues, and who are survivors of torture or persecution. Further, we recognize that many of those who have been deported would likely have been eligible for citizenship under most of the immigration reform bills currently being considered in Congress.

Mass deportations have not created public safety. On the contrary, they have terrorized entire communities through separating families and creating fear and distrust of law enforcement officials. Mass deportations have not brought about momentum for immigration reform in the House. Movement has stalled and deportations serve no purpose in the drive for genuine, solution-based reform. Therefore, we ask for the deportations to stop.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy has been largely successful for the individual beneficiaries, their communities and the nation. We urge the Administration to renew DACA status for those who have it, to extend the application timeline, and to implement a similar process for the family members of DACA recipients and for all undocumented immigrants who make contributions to their communities. These contributions should include parents of minor children, regardless of immigration status; those who volunteer in local organizations in their communities; those who serve or provide assistance to others in need; those who hold memberships in congregations or places of worship; those who might have criminal records in the past but who have showed a change in character and behavior; and those with criminal records or who are currently incarcerated, but who have participated in victim/offender mediation programs. Expanded DACA recipients should also include those who are unable to work due to social, physical, or emotional challenges. We also urge the Administration to include DACA recipients in Affordable Care Act implementation and to clarify that DACA recipients should not be restricted by state policies or practices from receiving driver’s licenses or access to higher education.

Only by instituting this kind of open and transparent process can healing come to a community that has suffered so much under the past five years.

REFLECTION: Dominique – lessons in forgiveness

dave-atwoodby David Atwood, Pax Christi Texas and Founder of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

If I ever had a doubt about my work to abolish the death penalty, that doubt came to a crashing halt when the State of Texas executed Dominique Green, a young African-American man from Houston, on October 26, 2004.

I had been visiting Dominique on Texas Death Row for many years. When I first visited him, he was an angry young man – angry at his mother and father, angry at society, and angry at the criminal justice system that sent him to death row. But over the years, I saw him change. He forgave his mother who had abused him as a child and caused him to leave home and live on the streets of Houston. He forgave the gang members who had pointed to him as the person who had pulled the trigger that sent Andrew Lastrape to his grave during a robbery in Houston. He forgave everyone in his life whom he felt had failed him in some way.

Dominique Green

Dominique Green

Dominique became educated and grew to be a man in prison. In addition to myself, several people from Italy, including several members of the Sant’ Egidio Community in Rome, visited and wrote him on a regular basis. His interest in forgiveness came in part from reading Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s book No Future Without Forgiveness. He wanted to meet Tutu and this was made possible by well-known author, Thomas Cahill, who knew the Archbishop. After Tutu visited Dominique on death row, he spoke to the press and stated that Dominique was a “wonderful advertisement for God….I was very humbled to be in his presence because I felt to be in the presence of God…(Dominique) is not the monster that many would expect or think, but a human being, a human being that has grown…He’s like a flower opening and you see the petals coming up, particularly when he is speaking about his concern for others…He is a remarkable young man and it would be the greatest of tragedies if someone like Dominique was executed.”

Dominique not only forgave the people who had hurt him, he also taught other prisoners on death row that they should forgive the people who had hurt them. This extraordinary transformation caused Thomas Cahill to write a book about Dominique that he titled A Saint on Death Row .

As Dominique’s execution approached, his appeals attorney, Sheila Murphy of Chicago, asked if I could locate the family of Andrew Lastrape in Houston and ask them if they wanted Dominique to be executed. When I located the family, Bernatte Lastrape and her two sons Andre and Andrew, they all gave a resounding “no” to the question of the execution. They wanted to give Dominique a second chance at life. Bernatte actually wrote to Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and asked them to spare Dominique’s life. Bernatte wrote, “All of us have forgiven Dominique for what happened and we want to give him another chance at life. Everyone deserves another chance.” Perry and the Board refused to do so, showing the hard-heartedness of the politicized Texas criminal justice system. As the execution date got closer, Andre and Andrew traveled to death row with me to meet and reconcile with Dominique. It was a most extraordinary experience. When Andre came out of prison, he said, “Texas is going to put a righteous person to die like an animal, putting him on a table, strapping him up, putting those needles in his arms, putting him to sleep. We’re not dogs. We’re human beings just anybody else. He’s a human being just like me, just like you.”

Andre and Andrew also attended the vigil outside the execution chamber at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas, to protest Dominique’s execution. I was inside the prison attending the execution of a man who had transformed his life and had a lot of wisdom to share with society. It was very painful experience to see Dominique die before my very eyes. Before the execution, Dominique made me promise that I would fight against the death penalty until it was abolished. His last words to his friends as he lay on the execution guerney were, “Thank you for your love and support…I have overcome a lot…I am not angry but disappointed that I was denied justice….But I am happy that I afforded you all as family and friends…..You all have been there for me…It’s a miracle…I love you…Thanks for allowing me to touch so many hearts….I never thought I could do it. “

After the execution, we held a funeral for Dominique in Houston. Then my wife and I took his remains to Italy. The Community of Sant’ Egidio built a monument to his memory in Rome.

Guilty or Not?

Dominique was one of four boys who robbed Andrew Lastrape in Houston in October of 1992. He was the youngest of the four boys and the three older boys pointed the finger at him as the person who shot Lastrape during the robbery. Dominique always maintained that he was not the shooter. What I found most distrurbing about the legal proceedings was that Dominique was the only one to get the death penalty. Two of the other African-American boys in the gang got prison sentences and the one white boy in the gang did not go to prison at all although he was involved in the robbery. It appeared to me that Dominique’s legal representation had been very poor and he had been railroaded to death row.

Lessons Learned

Through my years visiting Dominique and other men on death row, I have learned many things about how the death penalty is applied in Texas. First of all, our criminal justice system is imperfect. Several innnocent people have been sentenced to death. Many factors enter into whether someone is sentenced to death or not, including the quality of the legal defense, the race of the offender and the victim, and where the crime takes place. Poor people are at a great disadvantage when it comes to avoiding capital punishment in Texas because they simply do not have the funds to hire the best defense attorneys. The death penalty is truly “arbitrary and capricious” despite attempts to improve the criminal justice system.

Second, I learned that rehabilitation in prison often occurs, but means nothing to the politicians who run the system. Mercy and clemency are almost unknown qualities in Texas. Dominique was a prime example of this, but several other rehabilitated people such as James Allridge have been executed in Texas.

Third, many families of victims do not want the death penalty for someone convicted of capital murder. The Lastrape Family is a wonderful example, but there are many people like them. They know that an execution will not bring back their loved one nor bring them the healing that they desperately want and need.

Fourth, the death penalty does not deter others from committing violent crime. I have been told this by several death row prisoners and professional studies have shown this to be true. However, what might reduce violent crime in society are more effective crime prevention measures. Many people on death row were horribly abused and neglected as children and many have untreated mental disabilities. The millions of dollars wasted on the death penalty could be better used to actually prevent violent crime as well as help the victims of crime.

A Higher Road

Although Dominique Green was involved in a crime where an innocent man was murdered, his transformation in prison has a lot to offer society. His ability to forgive, and the ability of the Lastrape family to forgive, are excellent models for society. Just because someone kills, we as a society don’t have to kill in return, and we should not. We can choose a more enlightened response, a higher road, that involves forgiveness, rehabilitation and the wise use of taxpayers’ dollars.

Dominique’s Legacy Lives On

Many people would be surprised that a death row prisoner, one that had been executed, would leave a legacy. But Dominique Green definitely has left one. He taught many people, including other death row prisoners, the importance of forgiveness. He showed people that prisoners, even those on death row, can change and contribute to society. And he motivated me to continue the fight against the death penalty until it is finally abolished. Without his example, I may have given up trying to abolish the death penalty in Texas for it is, indeed, difficult work. But in Dominique’s memory, I will never give up.

REFLECTION: Models of resistance to unjust power

jzheadshotby Johnny Zokovitch
Director of Communications, Pax Christi USA
from the Peace Stories blog of PC International

Perhaps the most important—and the simplest—lesson I received during the time when I was studying for my Master’s degree in biblical studies was this: Read the text carefully, going sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase, slowly, closely examining every word. Part of paying close attention to the story itself–identifying characters and what we know about them (social status, gender, occupation), the setting, the action taking place, the dialogue, and so on–helps us to often see how different the passage can be from how we may have remembered it, from how it was told and interpreted for us by our churches, family members or even in the popular culture (i.e. in movies, TV, books, et al).

The Mother of Moses, 1860 by Simeon Solomon (1840-1905)

The Mother of Moses, 1860 by Simeon Solomon (1840-1905)

The birth narrative of Moses in Exodus 2:1-10 is a good example. In the opening verses of this passage, we read about how a woman had a baby boy and kept him hidden for three months (the genocide of Hebrew male babies was Egyptian state policy at this time). When she could keep him hidden no longer, she put him in a basket and … and what? The New Revised Standard Version of the Scriptures reads, “she put the child in it (the basket) and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river.” Nearly everyone I know is familiar with this passage, remembering the story of the baby in a basket, floating down the river – a scenario found in movies from The Ten Commandments to The Prince of Egypt. But the text itself says nothing about the baby floating down the river; instead it shows a mother, fearing that the authorities are coming for her baby, putting the baby in a basket and strategically hiding him among the reeds on the bank of the river. Furthermore, in verse 4, the sister of the baby is “stationed” at a distance to keep an eye on the baby.

Our popular understanding of this passage, a mother putting her baby in the river and abandoning it to fate, is challenged by a closer reading of the text. What is actually communicated is that this mother, faced with an imminent threat to her child (because of the genocidal policies of the empire in which she lives), enacts a concrete and strategic plan to protect her son–a plan which took intelligence, forethought (having the bitumen, reeds and pitch on hand; picking out a safe place along the river bank), and strength of character to carry out. The baby being placed in the reeds and the daughter keeping an eye on him (far enough away not to draw the authorities to his hiding place) suggests the mother’s intention to retrieve the baby once the threat has passed. Our understanding of the woman in the story changes from a powerless woman simply acting in desperation to a woman who understands what she must do for her family’s survival—she is “street-smart” and adept at finding ways to resist the oppressive system she is living under…

Click here to read the rest of this reflection.