It is 1:41PM on Good Friday. I am at the midpoint of the traditional three-hour observance of Jesus’s hours on the cross. As I relish the alone time and silence at my house, the word collaborator continues to haunt me as it has all during the previous 44 days of this Lenten season. It has popped up everywhere—in my reading and hearing and thinking. The word collaborator carries a heavy backpack of meaning—both good and bad.
My friend Cindy Guthrie, who died about ten years ago of ovarian cancer, was a great collaborator. She was a storyteller, a theologian, and a visionary. When I would get a hare-brained idea like, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun if you told a story and I danced sometime,” she would say, “Let’s do it.” Within a month we’d be performing an original Cindy story for some organization or conference. We presented storytelling/dance workshops together. Our cooperation enhanced our individual art forms; our work was fuller and more creative because we shared ideas and brainstormed together. Our collaboration was one of the best artistic experiences of my life, beneficial to both of us and hopefully to others as well.
Collaboration also has a dark side. During World War II in Paris, men and women who were not sent off to death camps were often categorized, too simply, as either collaborators or resistors. You either helped the Nazis or you didn’t. Resistors were the men and women who actively sought to aid in the defeat of the Nazis. They risked their lives carrying information or housing downed Allied airmen or hiding Jews in their homes. Or maybe they just sent a Nazi on a wild goose chase when he asked for directions.
Collaborators were people who in any way helped the Nazi cause. Working in an office, performing on the stage for the entertainment of the occupiers, doing everyday jobs, or socializing with Nazis could be seen as collaboration. This soft collaboration was often just people trying to do their jobs, mind their own business, and keep their families from starving. The oversimplified labels of collaborator and resistor sometimes became rigid categories of harsh judgment or stellar praise after the War ended. The even darker side of collaboration involved people who sold out their Jewish neighbors, spied for the Third Reich, or used their relationships with the enemy to amass vast wealth from the war machine.
It is easy to be self-righteous and express disgust at people who had dealings with the Nazis. But if I am honest I suspect I would have been a collaborator of some sort. I doubt I would have been a spy for the Nazis but I’m pretty sure I would have been too afraid to risk my security or my life to be a resistor. I am used to a comfortable, law-abiding life. Brought up with the ladylike notion of “don’t make waves, be a good girl, always be friendly, respect authority..,” I might have been silent in the face of atrocities, choosing to ignore the disappearance and abuse of people around me, hoping that someone else would take care of it and get things back to normal. Maybe I underestimate my capacity for courage and risk, but I completely understand the desire to maintain a regular life and lay low even when the world is falling apart.
So why do I bring this up on Good Friday? There are similarities between the circumstances of people in 1st century Jerusalem and mid 20th century Europe. In the face of the power of the Roman Empire, many well-meaning people collaborated with the enemy without wanting to. They kept quiet and did their work to feed and protect their families. Other not-so-well meaning locals saw an opportunity for wealth, influence, and power by kowtowing to the Romans and suppressing their own people. Jesus had little tolerance for this collaboration. He was a resistor, a serious inconvenience and a troublemaker to those in the government. He did not fight with weapons but with story and the Word and complete reliance on God. When he was arrested and sentenced to death, the authorities were terrified of his persuasive resistance to their ultimately puny power. I once again suspect I might have collaborated with the status quo. Maybe I would not have screamed “Crucify him,” but I doubt I would have had the courage to scream “Release him!” I am pre-resurrection Peter down to the core. Peter’s denial seems like a sane, protective response: “I do not know or understand what you are talking about.” I do not know the man!” (Mark 14:68, Matthew 26:74 NRSV)
I cannot really know how I would have behaved in 33 or in 1943. I can fantasize that I would have been more courageous and less self-protective than I imagine. But I doubt it. So what about now? I must ask the hard questions about what form of subtle collaboration I practice in the present. What is the present version of “Empire” that draws me from Jesus and the kingdom of God? If I want to be a collaborator with Jesus, the choices I must make may adversely affect my personal wealth and my security. But if I ignore the plight of the suffering, the poor, and the abused now, then I replay what I fear I would have done in 33 and 1943. If I keep my head down and play the good-little-girl card, I will be just like the people who in response to Pilate’s question “Shall I crucify your King?” said, “We have no king but the Emperor.” It was the safe, make-no-waves response.
It’s now 9:24 PM. My husband and I have just returned from a Passover Seder with our closest friends in Memphis who are Jewish. This is about the 10th time we have been privileged to spend this evening commemorating the history of our spiritual ancestors at their Passover table. As we sat with about sixteen people we heard these words:
“Although it is the Pharaoh of old who is the tyrant of this Haggadah, it is not he alone of whom we speak tonight. We speak this evening of other tyrants and other tyrannies as well. We speak:
Of the tyranny of poverty
And the tyranny of privation.
Of the tyranny of wealth
And the tyranny of war,
Of the tyranny of power
And the tyranny of despair.
Of the tyranny of disease
And the tyranny of time,
Of the tyranny of ignorance
and the tyranny of color.”
As Jesus died on the cross again today on this Good Friday for the almost 2000th time in our retelling of the story, I learn over and over of the radical nature of his life and death. The real power in the world is God to whom all other powers will eventually surrender and bow down. But the way this happens is not by God’s use of weapons of mass destruction or military coercion but by the sheer power of transforming love, by Jesus’s willingness to claim solidarity with the broken and the suffering. His suffering is God’s ultimate promise to be with us no matter what. I am struck by a quartet of words that start with “co.” If I hide under the bed and stay silent, I cooperate with the systems that discriminate and oppress. Then I will start to collaborate, to justify my inactivity and accept the unacceptable. If I collaborate, the next step is collusion then ultimately complicity. I really don’t want my life to end with the regret, “I sure wish I had had the guts to stand up for justice, to love my enemy, and to really follow Jesus.” But am I really ready to collaborate with “Love so amazing, so divine” that “Demands my soul, my life, my all.”? (When I Survey the Wondrous Cross)