Good Friday Reflections on Blame and Blame-Shifting
While I was preparing for our Good Friday and Easter Sunday services, I came across a reflection on the Mark’s passion story by Amy Merrill Willis which she titled “The Politics of Blame-Shifting.” In it, Willis reminds us that there are multiple historical sources that describe Pilate’s brutal leadership in Judea and notes “Unlike the historical Pilate, the Pilate of the gospel narrative feels compelled from the beginning to appease the crowd and its leadership.” Why the difference between the Mark’s depiction of Pilate and the Pilate of history? Mark and later gospel writers were writing in their context, “when factionalism created social and religious rifts between the early Jewish-Christians and their Jewish neighbors in the synagogues.” Blaming Jewish people who were not followers of Jesus became more important in this context than blaming the Romans.
Even if we ignore the fact that Mark shifts the blame in the gospel (which we know not only because of historical accounts of Pilate but also because crucifixion was a specifically Roman form of execution used for rebellion – Jesus suffered a Roman death because he was seen as a threat to the “Pax Romana”), we see blame shifting happening within the gospel story. Mark’s Pilate’s actions are presented as a way of appeasing the crowd, so he can say “it wasn’t my fault.” It’s a common political practice, isn’t it? We hear blame shifted to other political parties, to other levels of government, and most worryingly to specific segments of the population. Blame becomes a way of avoiding one’s responsibility.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t identify mistakes and problems of the past and present, but when we got caught up in the question of blame we lose sight of what is happening – and what has the potential to happen. If we focus on finding the blame for Jesus’ death, it can lead to terrible actions, as the history of anti-Semitism attests. It also can mean we lose sight of what is happening. Rather than being a judgment on a single people or a specific person, Jesus’ death is part of a common practice for those in power trying to hold onto control. Human violence is commonplace, and those in power all too often use violence to target any opposition. Jesus came with a different message. He stood for everything that was not human violence, and he risked everything for his vision.
Blame is commonplace in our lives and in our politics. Even when we’re not talking in political terms, a focus on blame can be detrimental. When we blame others we can become self-righteous or resentful. Arguments between friends and family are en-flamed when each person blames the other for words or actions rather than listening to the deeper emotions and working together to find a way forward. Blaming someone else can also lead to us justifying our own actions that we usually would not. On the flip side, blame can be harmful when we spend too much time blaming ourselves, which can lead to guilt consuming our thoughts and emotions so that we can no longer live fully, sometimes to the point that it is difficult to act at all.
I wish I had a magic answer for how to avoid blame and blame-shifting. I know I catch myself getting caught up in blame all too often. But I do think the first step is always to pay attention to where it is happening in our words and the words of others. We can ask ourselves: who is being blamed? Is that person or group able to speak for themselves? Is there an alternative possibility? Where is this attention to blame causing harm by leading to action or inaction? When is blame important to assign correctly? Where do we need to let go of blame in order to move forward – into the hope and freedom of Easter?
Blessings, Rev. Emily Gordon