Kristin and I recently saw an exhibition of objects from first century Pompeii at The Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Afterward at our BestFriendDrinkingClub (BFDC) meeting we discussed how Jesus was conspicuously absent from the frescoes, decorative vases, and other image bearing objects.
Why, decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, was he absent from Roman cultural imagery?
BFDC came to the conclusion that, while Jesus is now a major figure in popular and religious culture, his death would not have been newsworthy to Pompeiians. At most it would have been a minor soundbite about some conflict at the edge of the Roman empire. Only after centuries of evangelism would this radical Palestinian become a household name.
How could the crucifixion be depicted today?
I was inspired by a recent trip to Albuquerque where our grandparents showed us some beautiful icons at their church, St. Marks.
Since returning from that May trip, I’ve been exploring iconography… researching how icons are made and applying the ancient meditative practice to contemporary America.
Throughout this process I focused on the nature of crucifixion. What was it before it became a part of this beautiful faith, before it was a vehicle of salvation? And what was it to 1st century Romans? A punishment so terrible it was reserved only for the worst criminals.
To appreciate the power of Jesus’ death we must imagine what his death would look like today.
Who are today’s worst criminals? How are they punished?
This meditative process led me to place the contemporary crucifixion in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. The men held there exist in an extrajudicial limbo. They have no rights, many have never been charged with a crime, and they endure tortures including solitary confinement and forced feeding.
This detention is for us what crucifixion would have been to Pompeiians and all Romans. They would never expect wisdom to come from the crucified. And they, like us, accepted barbaric practices as necessary evils. Ones that have to exist but are best left undiscussed.
Imagine Jesus and the penitent thief conversing through a chain link fence for a brief moment in the tropical sun. Their decades long crucifixion should evoke our Christian compassion and invite us to use our rich spiritual tradition to meet its call.
In July Abdullatif Nasser was released from Guantanamo Bay. 39 prisoners remain. Their presence forces us to ask ourselves tough questions about our place in American society. Do we seek the radical wisdom of the Abrahamic traditions? Or will we allow it to remain a regrettable soundbite that sometimes reaches us… in our own Pompeii?