Nearly twenty years ago, the rapper Tupac Shakur was gunned down in Las Vegas. The drive-by shooting of Tupac ended an extraordinary and controversial music career.
Tupac sang with a raw urgency and realism that expressed the hopes, fears, and life on the streets of America’s poorest neighborhoods. Lyrics like those of Picture Me Rollin’:
Mama, I'm still thugging, the world is a war zone
My homies is inmates, and most of them dead wrong
Full grown, finally a man, just scheming on ways
To put some green inside the palms of my empty hands
His life made Tupac controversial, especially his celebration of “thug” culture, from the tattoo “thug life” across his stomach to his profanity laced songs to his embrace of gangs and gang life to his arrest and jail time for sexual assault. It all seemed to come together in his violent death: a drive-by shooting as revenge for an earlier assault by Tupac on a guy from a rival gang.
An urban legend soon arose that Tupac was not really dead; but had just staged his death as an elaborate hoax. Even 20 years later, one finds his fans making comments like, “I refuse to believe he's dead, I don't want to admit it. I'll be here, waiting for him to appear until I die.”
His last album, released after his death, particularly fueled the messianic expectation and the suggestion that his death was a ruse. The cover featured a crucified Tupac. In that album he adopted the name Makaveli, the political philosopher who once advocated just such a ruse, and called the album, Don Killuminati, suggesting himself as the godfather of the favorite secret society of conspiracy theorists. Oddest of all, the video of one song on the album began with a dramatization of Tupac dying in a way that eerily matched the way he actually died; rehearsal, prediction, prophecy? Didn’t all this mean the return of the artist who promised a 2pacalypse?
Now, twenty years later, the idea that a rapper with “thug life” emblazed on his stomach and gunned down in the street was a Messiah who, like Jesus, would appear again after death sounds ridiculous. But that reaction is the same that Paul faced when speaking of Christ crucified.
Most people listening to Paul couldn’t imagine a crucified man as God’s chosen, God’s beloved, God in human flesh. It seemed as impossible as the image of a violent and profane rapper being God’s prophet.
The Romans, like those who came before them, used crucifixion primarily to kill people who challenged their rule; “rebellious slaves, the lowest criminals, or defeated foes.” Romans didn’t use it on their own citizens; rather it was for those other people, those conquered people. Death by crucifixion asserted Roman dominance and control. To die by crucifixion was a sign of one’s utter defeat and complete inferiority to Roman power.
Pagans couldn’t understand why Christians would worship a crucified person, a detestable person. Just one example: graffiti survives from the Palatine Hill in Rome that shows a man with the head of an ass on a cross; underneath someone wrote, “Alexamenos worships his god.” To pagans the declaration of a crucified man as worthy of worship sounded ridiculous.
Jews were even more doubtful. They viewed crucified people not only as lowly criminals but as people under a special curse from God. It was a sign of dishonor and divine judgment to be crucified.
Jews expected the Messiah to lead a successful revolt against the Romans, ending domination of the Promised Land, and inaugurating an era of God’s blessings. There could be no greater inverse of this expectation than Jesus defeated, hung on the Roman sign of domination, and seemingly cursed by God.
The antipathy of pagans and Jews for crucified people comes out in the words of Cicero, who lived in the century before Paul. Cicero said, “The very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen, but from his thoughts, his eyes, his ears.” In other words, even though they crucified people throughout the empire, the Romans would not mention it. Crucifixions and crosses were not a topic for polite and respectable company.
Biblical commentators often compare the ancient practice of crucifixion to today’s capital punishment, even suggesting we ought to gather under an electric chair instead of a cross. But I don’t think that captures the way crucifixion was an expression of domination as well as being an unmentionable act. It was not just capital punishment; it was a torturous death everyone knew of but no one discussed.
Instead, our equivalent might just be solitary confinement. It’s both a practice of complete domination over another human being and one we hardly mention in polite society. Yet 80,000 Americans each day are held in secure isolation - 23 hours a day in a small cell and a brief break outside, alone.
Robert Felton was held in solitary confinement for 14 and a half years. He grew up very poor and started stealing, which began a revolving door of crime and juvenile incarceration. Once out of the juvenile prison, he went to a bar to buy a drink; the bartender took his money but refused to serve him; a fight ensued. This time Felton went away to a supermax. Fights in prison extended his time and landed him in solitary confinement. Isolated and alone, he lost touch with reality, lashed out at guards, set his cell on fire so many times that the walls were covered in soot, and, by all of this, extended his incarceration longer.
The effect of all of this wore him down mentally. A profile on Felton put it simply, “He ceased showering, changing his clothes, brushing his teeth. His teeth rotted and ten had to be pulled. He began throwing his feces around his cell. He became psychotic.”
Solitary confinement is awful. Senator John McCain experienced it in Vietnam. McCain said of the experience, “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”
Solitary confinement is like the ancient practice of crucifixion - a form of torturous domination we practice but don’t discuss in polite company. Which means that if we want to understand how ridiculous Paul sounded then we have to hear him preaching Jesus in jail, a messiah of the supermax, my savior in solitary.
Foolishness. Yet it’s the kind of absurdity which shaped Paul’s life. As he said, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” What would it mean for us to say the same? What would it mean for us only to see and hear and know Christ crucified? I think it would mean living our lives with acute attention to where people experience the pain of domination and those things in our culture which remain taboo to talk about. A church following a man crucified two thousand years ago will talk about a savior in solitary today.
Cicero wanted to keep crucifixion far from the thoughts, the ears, the eyes. But that’s where my faith in the crucified Christ leads me; the spirituality of the cross leads me to see and name and work against all the hidden dominations which grind people up. I want to offer three snapshots of what the foolishness of a savior in solitary might cause us to see, say, and know.
First, what do we see? During the First Iraq war our army advanced with ferocious speed across Iraq, conquering the country in days. A photographer traveled with the army, documenting the war effort. As the Iraqi army fled Kuwait its convoy of trucks became snarled in traffic, hemmed in by minefields, nearly immobilized while American fighter jets bombed it. The photographer, arriving later, documented the carnage. One photo showed an Iraqi soldier who tried to climb out the dashboard of his burning truck; he died, engulfed by flames, half-in, half-out.
It could have been the defining photo of the war, or even, of war; but editors in the US refused to run it. Our country celebrated the First Iraq War as a ‘video-game’ war of precision strikes; the photo cut against the grain of that myth of a sanitized war, confronting the viewer with the awfulness of death. The photographer, unable to publish his photo, said, “If we’re big enough to fight a war, we should be big enough to look at it.”
As followers of a crucified Christ, we need to be foolish enough to look at human misery, especially when we cause it; to see human suffering. God took on human flesh and suffered on a cross so that we couldn’t look away from human pain.
Secondly, what do we talk about? This last week I was called as a potential juror in Milwaukee, a case of a young adult accused of illegally carrying a concealed weapon. The witness list made clear the case would pit an African-American defendant against the word of a white police officer. The defense attorney questioned us, the potential jurors, about racial bias. She asked, “Imagine you are walking to your car in one of our poorer and more violent neighborhoods late at night; you hear footsteps behind you. If you turned around to see the person behind you was white, would you feel relieved?”
No one said yes. It was a courthouse miracle: a random group of residents in one of America’s most segregated counties turned out to be a 100% unbiased jury. Or perhaps none of us were foolish enough to admit our racial bias. I know that’s why I didn’t raise my hand to the lawyer’s question.
The defense attorney then explained the question came from Jesse Jackson, who said he himself would have been relieved. Jackson’s point was that bias affects us all. Can we speak these truths?
I’m becoming ever more convinced - as perhaps you’ve heard in my sermons over the last year - that we need to talk about racism and privilege, bias and prejudice. Jesus was not born in Rome but underneath the heel of Roman power; to follow Jesus means to me that we talk about racism and its affects on our hearts.
Lastly, what do we know? To answer that question I want to turn back to Paul and Corinth. Corinth was a city of strivers, a city of success, of fortunes and reputations made. Paul wrote to people caught up in the rat race of ambition but who were not making it. “Consider [yourselves]: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” Paul wrote to people of no account. And he invited them to stop pretending: stop pretending they were successful, stop pretending they were perfect, stop pretending they were in charge.
It reverses logic of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve wanted wisdom but they became foolish. Now Paul invites the Corinthians to claim their foolishness as the start of true wisdom. Acknowledge weakness, find strength; acknowledge vulnerability, find tenacity; acknowledge folly, discover wisdom.
Disciples of a crucified Jesus, we don’t have to pretend things are perfect when they are not; we don’t have to pretend we’ve conquered an addiction when it still coils around our lives; we don’t have to pretend not to feel fear and loneliness and despair. We can claim our own weakness.
Tupac, channeling the Apostle Paul, spoke to this when he said,
you wouldn't ask why the rose that grew from the concrete
had damaged petals.
On the contrary,
we would all celebrate its tenacity.
We would all love it's will to reach the sun.
Well, we are the rose -
this is the concrete -
and these are my damaged petals.”
The crucified Christ didn’t fear his weakness; as his disciples we can be roses with damaged petals.
Paul calls us to be the absurd disciples: seeing what damage domination causes, speaking the truth, and living with the fragile beauty of roses grown from concrete.
Alleluia and Amen.