Crucifixion and Abu Ghraib

By Jennifer Halteman Schrock
10 Apr 2009

This year I am reading the crucifixion story through the lens of an unknown photographer’s camera. One of my responsibilities as a member of the Lenten planning committee at Berkey Avenue Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana, has been to choose visual images to project during the scripture readings. For me, these kinds of juxtapositions are a form of Bible study that can break open the text in new ways.

With the pastor’s sermons in hand, I searched for images to pair with Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion. Certainly there were many traditional paintings to choose from. One particularly jarring representation is Matthais Grunwald’s Crucifixion, which shows Christ with lacerated skin and lips already blue from asphyxiation.

However, I found myself drawn to a more recent time and place: Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison where US military personnel tortured and shamed prisoners in 2004. One of the most widely disseminated photographs from this ghastly chapter of the Iraq War is a fuzzy snapshot of a man with a pointed black hood, balancing on a box in a black cape. Wires attach to his extended palms and he has reportedly been told he will be electrocuted if he falls off the box.

Could this man’s experience teach me something about the story at the center of my faith? Does Jesus’ crucifixion speak to what happened at Abu Ghraib? I re-read the sermon I was working from. “Polite upperclass Romans would not talk about crucifixions; they were just too awful to speak about,” the sermon said. That checked out. This was the only photograph from Abu Ghraib I would even consider sharing publicly.

I turned to Mark 14 and 15. Previously, I’d read Jesus’ trial before the high priest (Mark 14.53-65) as an argument between annoying relatives engaged in doctrinal hairsplitting. This time their debate emerged as a sinister interrogation, manipulative and cruel. The randomness of Pilate’s justice chilled me; the blindfold in Mark 14.65 was a blow to the solar plexus, and Jesus’ lack of control over his clothing made my teeth chatter. The beatings, the slapping, the jeering were no longer contained in a tidy three-day package with a happy ending. They sprawled over 2000 years.

It seems that God is well acquainted with places like Abu Ghraib. This Holy Week, may the suffering that Christ endured while on trial as a “terrorist” fill us with compassion. Let us remember those who still suffer violence and torture. Let the rage we feel against hatred and cruelty be refined into acts of mercy and courageous defiance.

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(c) Jennifer Halteman Schrock is Merry Lea public programme coordinator at Goshen College, Indiana, USA. She is writing in a personal capacity.

From a series of Lenten meditations distributed by Goshen College, and reproduced with kind acknowledgement.

Goshen College is a leading Mennonite liberal arts institution. Donations may be made online here.

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