I have been haunted for years by questions about what happens to people who are clearly guilty but are exonerated when their guilt comes to trial. I lived through a life-altering experience as I completed high school. In my small south Arkansas town, three white boys in my class shot and killed a black boy in cold blood.
Everyone in our town knew that the three who murdered another boy were guilty. They talked openly about what they had done, after all. They talked openly in my own hearing, in the hallways of our school.
But they were exonerated by the legal system. Though there were disturbances in our town following the legal outcome—mini-riots, marches on the courthouse, stone-lobbing and window-smashing—nothing came of them.
Nothing ultimately came of the disturbances. These stark dramas centering on who counts and who doesn’t, who has a real human existence and who doesn’t, who has power and who doesn’t, who may wield weapons with impunity and who may not carry weapons without being regarded as an intolerable menace: they’re designed to remind us of our place in the scheme of things.
The whole process, from unprovoked murder in cold blood through the mockery of a trial that completely exonerated three people the entire community knew were guilty: it was designed to demonstrate to us, at a time when the traditional, the natural, the divinely established order of things had been disrupted by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, that things would remain as they had always remained. To be black was in the order of things to be without power, object and not subject. How could rock-throwing or window-smashing possibly change that stark verdict?
Years down the road, I have revisited this history time and again as Steve and I have become objects and not subjects in one drama after another designed to proclaim that very same message to the particular small world in which we happen to be caught in these dramas at any given moment: some people count. Others don’t. This is how the world is made.
The way in which we measure the counting of those who are subjects is to turn certain others into objects through whose objectified and powerless human flesh the subject proves his value. This is how power works. This is what power is.
It is what Pontius Pilate and his soldiers did to Jesus.
And what kind of rock-throwing or window-smashing could have made Jesus alive again after he hung on the cross and shouted out his final breath in a cry of anguish to a God whom he had trusted, but who had led him to such a humiliating and worthless death?
Guilt. Power. Life. Death. Subjects. Objects. The history of the world hangs on plain and simple words.
And it all too often seems to be a history in which the innocent suffer precisely to prove the worth of the guilty—and in which all of us end up bearing guilt due to our complicity in plays designed by someone else, in which we learn to our dismay that we have had a part in the action of the theater only when the dénouement arrives. And when it implicates us in a way we cannot avoid.
I’d like at some point in my life to see these stories tell themselves in some other way. I’d like to see Jesus brought down from his cross, laid in a tomb, and then rise triumphant from his grave.
But as someone who has had repeatedly to learn the exceedingly painful truth that my life counts for very little, that I am far more object than subject in most other folks’ scheme of things, I haven’t really seen that happen yet. What I see instead, time and again and in my own small, discrete human life, is the guilty walking away in complete freedom as they wipe the blood of victims from their hands.
And as life goes on. Pretty much the same. As it has always done.
The graphic: Hans Holbein the younger's "Body of Dead Christ in the Tomb" (1521-2), from Basel's Kunstmuseum.