The Way of Complacency

by Susan Palwick

Christians spend much of Lent meditating on Jesus’ Way of the Cross, the sufferings leading to his death. We imagine ourselves being condemned, carrying our crosses, falling under our burdens. But on Good Friday, we are called to do something else: to reflect on our roles, not as the tormented Christ, but as his executioners.

Those who play that part make a journey, too. It is far easier than the Way of the Cross; it requires far less effort. This Way requires us only to ignore injustice, to look away from whomever we define as “the least of these.” For each Station of the Cross, there is a corresponding Station of Complacency.

First Station: Jesus is Condemned. It’s not hard to condemn Christ. All we have to do is demonize anyone we don’t understand: the poor, the addicted, the mentally and physically ill. We assume the worst about this person’s motives and behavior. We stop seeing this person as an individual, as a unique child of God.

Second Station: Jesus Carries His Cross. We force the condemned person to carry the blame for our own fear and anger, or responsibility for her or his own affliction. We may insist that the homeless simply don’t want to work, even if jobs are scarce. We may blame the sick for poor choices.

Third Station: Jesus Falls for the First Time. We wait for the person on whom we have laid this burden to crack under the pressure, and then use this event as further evidence of unworthiness. For instance, if a recovering addict relapses, we see a personality flaw, not the difficulty of recovering from a chronic illness. We deny the possibility of change or redemption.

Fourth Station: Jesus Meets His Mother. We claim to revere family values while failing, individually and as a society, to ensure universal access to prenatal care, childcare for working mothers, and quality education. When children have problems, we blame the same mothers we have not done enough to support.

Fifth Station: Simon Helps Jesus Carry His Cross. We delegate compassion and good works to others: clergy, charities, the Peace Corps. We admire them from a distance while feeling mingled pity and contempt for their doomed idealism. We canonize them and give them money, but do not on any account get our own hands dirty.

Sixth Station: Jesus Meets Veronica. This station grew out of a medieval French legend that an anonymous woman stepped forward and wiped Jesus’ bloody face with a cloth. Veronica completes the trinity of those who care for the outcast and rejected: mothers, idealistic do-gooders, and anonymous servants. Therefore, if mothers and Peace Corps volunteers are not available, we assure ourselves that other people are responsible for offering help, even if those others are mired in their own poverty, overwork, and stigma. Nursing home aides function well here. So do corrections officers, public defenders, drug counselors, and social workers.

Seventh Station: Jesus Falls for the Second Time. We condemn as weak, lazy and ungrateful those who stumble even after they have received help. We tell ourselves that if those people can’t improve themselves with the help of their mothers, their social workers, and the Peace Corps, they’re clearly a lost cause. We deny the possibility of change or redemption.

Eighth Station: Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem. The women were professional mourners, paid to grieve loudly for Jesus while ignoring the plight of Jerusalem and of their own children. Continuing this tradition today, we support the exploitation of tragedy by the news media, but take no action to address root causes. We cry whenever there is a school shooting, but resist efforts to pass stricter gun regulations.

Ninth Station: Jesus Falls for the Third Time. We support “three strikes and you’re out” laws. We deny the possibility of change or redemption.

Tenth Station: Jesus Is Stripped. We take away any last recourse of those who are already defeated. We cut funding for healthcare, food-assistance programs, unemployment benefits, and other social services.

Eleventh Station: Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross. This one sounds inescapably barbaric, but we don’t hammer the nails ourselves. We vote for people who will do it for us. We acquiesce to stratospheric healthcare costs, wars of opportunity, denial of civil rights. We tell ourselves that we’re just following orders, or that we’re just doing our jobs, or that saving people’s lives is someone else’s job: their mothers’, or their social workers’, or the Peace Corps’—or God’s. We tell ourselves that it’s them versus us.

Twelfth Station: Jesus Dies on the Cross. We refuse to mourn for “those people.” We insist that troublemakers get what they deserve. We rejoice at the deaths of enemy combatants and criminals executed by the state.

Thirteenth Station: Jesus Is Taken From the Cross. We allow unjust and preventable deaths to remain invisible. We do not question or protest the casualty count, on either side, in wartime. We do not question why the violent deaths of affluent people are front-page news, while the violent deaths of the indigent go unmentioned.

Fourteenth Station: Jesus Is Laid in the Grave. We favor “final solutions,” such as capital punishment or drone strikes, that dehumanize their targets and deny the possibility of change or redemption. We tell ourselves that once “those people” are done away with, they’ll be gone for good. Then we go home and get a good night’s sleep. The body has been laid in the tomb. The tomb has been sealed with a stone. It is finished. What else could possibly happen?

Are there any of us who have not walked the Way of Complacency? Naming these stations, I see myself in too many of them. Where I see myself, I am called to practice both repentance and compassion. Where I do not see myself, I must try to avoid the danger of demonizing other people. The Stations of Complacency take many more forms than I have outlined here. No doubt I am most blind to the ones where I have lingered the longest.

The lesson of Good Friday is that we are all guilty, but we are also all forgiven. In one of his last utterances on earth, Jesus begged, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”

And so Good Friday leaves us with a question. Once we do know what we do, once we have learned to recognize the Way of Complacency—what will we do about it?

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