The Passion of George Floyd

Have you ever wondered why the events of this week are known as the Passion of Jesus Christ?

I always thought the word referred to the strong emotions Jesus felt during the last days of his life. But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word originates in Christian Theology, and its primary meaning is simply “the suffering of pain.. the fact of being acted upon.”

Most of us think of our lives as what we do. But what is done to us is probably a greater factor — all the ways we are acted upon at work or school, by the government and the media, medicine and the law, other people, the police.

Those of us with comfortable lives occasionally have a chance to act for ourselves — to do what we want, or tell others to do what we want. But for poor and marginalized people — the homeless, dispossessed, people with disabilities, those in prison — - what is done to them is nearly all of life.

The great African-American theologian Howard Thurman saw Jesus in these people — the masses who live “with their backs against the wall.” He called them the Disinherited.

Jesus was a poor, disinherited Jew — lacking status or even citizenship in the Roman Empire. His people, Israel, were surrounded and oppressed by a dominant, controlling state. Their only freedom was how they would respond.

Some — like the Temple authorities — chose the way of accommodation. They accepted Roman supremacy, and tried to live with it. Others — the Zealots — wanted to fight to restore Israel’s glory.

Jesus rejected both ways. Instead he preached a radical change in the inner attitude of people. He told his disciples to follow him, and not be afraid… of persecution, torture, even death. “Blessed are you when people revile and persecute you … for your reward is great in heaven.”

In 1949, Thurman wrote that Jesus knew: “anyone who permits another to determine the quality of his inner life gives into the hands of the other the keys to his destiny… It is a man’s reaction to things that determines the ability of others to exercise power over him ..”

Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane is the turning point from action to passion. After years of speaking truth to power, he is handed over to his enemies. Things are no longer done by him, but to him. He is tried and convicted, flogged, mocked, crowned with thorns, spat on, stripped and nailed to cross to die. This is his passion, and in his passion he fulfills his vocation — he drinks his cup.

Fast forward to our own time — to the murder of George Floyd, and the legions of disinherited people whose lives have been squandered in prison, or snuffed out by official violence. The Passion of Jesus Christ represents our power over the rulers of this world — our freedom to react and respond, as individuals and communities.

Today we see the face of George Floyd painted larger than life on city walls that define the lives of the disinherited. That face — like the image of Christ — has become an icon. It has the power to change the quality of our inner lives — to transform humiliation and death into liberation and new life.

Copyright 2021 by Tom Phillips

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Tom Phillips

Tom Phillips is a New York writer, journalist, and critic-at-large.