Mark’s most horrific chapter opens with Jesus’ second interrogation. The anonymous Markan author tells of Jesus being given into the hands of Pilate who would’ve been historical Jesus’ most formidable opponent, although the author chose not to frame it according to this historical likelihood. What the author may have expressed with some accuracy is the curious but unsurprising transformation that follows. What began as a religious or spiritual charge of blasphemy against God from the Sanhedrin is conveniently metamorphosed into charges of treason against the throne – a necessary secularization that uncovers the historical reality that Jesus’ true and most lethal accuser was not the Sanhedrin but the State.
Although the high priests are unfairly and inaccurately scapegoated as the chief executives of Jesus’ murder, Markan attention to this shift in charges hyper-realistically portrays a profound reality for marginalized populations preyed upon by social and legal “justice” industrial complexes that are invested – quite literally – in our captivity and dehumanization. Whichever charge will result in conviction ends up being the “correct” charge.
Mark’s author even goes to the lengths of creating a foil in Barabbas or, translated, “son of the father” whose guilty release is inconsistent with the judiciary customs of the time and probably fictionalized. The motif of shame and ridicule is accentuated further with the entire company of soldiers – hundreds of men who have inconvenienced themselves to join in Jesus’ torment using props that might have been troublesome to acquire. When they are through, Jesus’ body has been tortured beyond its capacity, yanking Simon, the bystanding Libyan, into the narrative as Jesus’ body double whose “assistance” is more obligation than compassion.
The backhanded “altruism” escalates with Jesus being offered a spiced wine delicacy that, while potentially lessening his pain, could serve to ensure that Jesus’ death doesn’t offer him too early a release from the miserable experience. Christ refuses to entertain this insult and survives long enough to be lynched as soldiers gamble for bits of him to loot as souvenirs. The mocking continues from spectators including even the two crucified bandits who must have forgotten their nearly identical plight in favor of spending their final moments punching down.
Weighty darkness envelops the scene and Jesus, having little left to grasp the thread of life, shrieks at God in indignation. A final backhanded offer of sour wine serves as Jesus’ last displeasure while the heartless below speculate whether Jesus’ ancestor might come to his rescue. They don’t, and Jesus perishes. The veil rends in two which prompts the centurion to recognize the divinity before him. The women, bearing witness to his agony from a distance, had recognized God’s presence all along. A member of Mark’s notorious Sanhedrin displays the only authentic kindness in this chapter, asking permission to personally accommodate Christ’s battered body. Joseph of Arimathea and the loyal women are Christ’s final caregivers. Devastated and aggrieved, they ensure as dignified a burial as possible.
Keeping the embellishments in mind to avoid scratching the antisemitic Christian itch for fabricated Jewish villains, the Markan author could have been writing to a Jewish audience for whom religious authorities were their most imminent adversaries. This would be where the inflexible binary between fiction and nonfiction falters. Although Jesus’ primary accuser would have been Pilate and the State, the text likely reflects the lived experiences of those of us whose chief accusers are trusted religious authorities still acting as agents of the state. The Markan author shrewdly juxtaposes his synthetic priestly vigilantes with employed agents of the State whose cruel and violent mockings of Jesus are hardly distinguishable.
Ashon Crawley has birthed a body of work that compassionately responds to the cries of such living and departed victims of state violence meted by empire-sympathizing religious authority. In his multigenre exhibition “The Hammond Organ and the Problem of Black Sexuality,” Crawley “takes the electric mechanical instrument of the Hammond Organ, invented in the 1930s, to think about various problematics experienced in black social life.” In so doing, he eulogizes victims of the late 20th century AIDS epidemic which, unabated due to government neglect, quietly devastated Black communities over the course of four decades. Throughout his work, Crawley gestures toward the overrepresentation of Black church musicians among the dying and closely examines the organist in particular.
“…The musician of this object is often imagined in Black pop culture as queer and hypersexualized, and imagining the musician as both queer and hypersexual is an antagonism to the doctrinal and theological convictions of the very spaces from which they emerge.”
In spite of their alleged “depravity,” the organist, choir director, drummer, or praise dancer is exalted, famed for their “anointing” which the church is delighted to siphon for its own advantage. As Black queer church members are given royal treatment for serving as the artistic fulcrum of Black ministry, they are gossipped, derided, and eventually estranged from the community if their identity is confirmed. The purple robe is cast upon the lashed backs of our condemned queer and trans siblings, its thick fabric agitating the shredded tissue of their still-bleeding wounds. Hailed as ministers yet ridiculed as “tambourine players,” piercing thorns halo the minds from which innumerable scores of Black church anthems were so sensuously wrought into existence. Those same congregants waxing ecstatic by queer anointing in worship are the company of queerphobic soldiers; their ridicule lubricates the engines of the gendered, classed, and racialized caste system consuming us all.
“These musicians are lampooned as comedic, sermonized against as sinful, discarded as hellbound. And using these musicians as a category of Queer Blackness they constitute for their creative genius while excluding them from the possibility of the acceptable also gives a new history of labor extraction and exploitation uniquely grounded in Blackness as Queerness presaging contemporary crises of work, contract employment, and the gig economy.”
Crawley’s high-definition imaging of this injustice could hardly be captured without mentioning labor relations. Despite the Markan Pilate’s ahistorical reticence towards Jesus’ conviction, the escalating harm that follows is officially sanctioned because Jesus is “guilty” of claiming the “wrong” identity. It is “wrong” because the State cannot tolerate a peasant-rabbi unfit to clean dust from the emperor’s feet flamboyantly cross-dressing as a king. Otherwise, the empire’s kings may have to clean their own feet; to claim royal status is a transgressive queering of the hierarchical order that keeps the imperial enterprise in “working” condition. So, too, the American empire responds to our most liberated queer and trans siblings with perilous antagonism. So, too, must the United States police identity in order to shield its favored proponents from the labor it recognizes as undesirable. Gender and sexuality, as social constructs employed for colonial gain, are non-exempt.
Discrimination in the United States always begins with dollars. “If the cash value of a wife’s multifarious services (on the open market) were computed it would far exceed what a husband could afford to pay.” Michèle Barrett and Mary McIntosh, authors of The Anti-Social Family, are among the many who have exposed the savagery of capitalistic reliance on labor exploitation along manufactured gender lines. Queering the gender binary and the (amato)cisheteronormative nuclear family disrupts these colonial borders by which “undesirable” yet essential caregiving and housekeeping labor is performed at insultingly low or nonexistent wages – pittance relative to its invaluable societal benefit.
American Christians (with far more devotion to America than Christ) realized in the postwar era that feminine bodies must be confined in a domestic prison if men should have enough free time to resume the oppressor escapades upon their return from the oppressor olympics (WWII). Alexandra Minna Stern discusses the rise of the ghoulish overlords of modern gender roles in Eugenic Nation saying,
“Rather than focusing exclusively on restricting the reproduction of ‘undesirable’ groups, postwar eugenicists devised ‘family values’ specifically to promote the reproduction of white Christians in the face of increasing racial justice and feminist empowerment.”
This conflation of state and religious interests continues to corrode American culture right now. The most informed and/or most numbed among you may recognize this rhetoric as consonant with a portion of the endless vitriol found in the putrid manifesto of a genocidal hellspawn who murdered 10 Black people in Buffalo. The great replacement theory remains stagnant, reeking water in the unflushed toilet bowl of alt-right ideology that dogmatizes viewing the “other” as a threat. This is not unrelated to the transphobic frenzy following the heart-shattering Robb Elementary massacre in Uvalde – a random trans woman was framed as the perpetrator. We now must finally confront the implications this fascistic paradigm holds for our bodily autonomy with the overturn of Roe v. Wade by SCOTUS. While our moral imperative to transfigure our ministry leadership structures remains at its apex for the sake of trans and queer people, cisheteropatriarchal queerphobia, transmisogny, and affinity for all violence therein endangers everyone.
We Black co-bearers of the crossbar, inhabiting the liminal spaces between rage, sorrow, incapacity, and complicity, are dually obligated to seek liberation as we reconstruct from the devastation. The end of chapter 15 accentuates the disciples’ abandonment of their Messiah in their desperation to avoid incrimination by RICO-style state aggression. Simon’s the Cyrene’s proximity positions him as the closest thing to a companion Jesus had on the via dolorosa, but Simon is neither a friend nor can he save Jesus. While Simon’s presence provided Jesus relief if any was to be found, it also maintained the violent imperial spectacle culminating in Jesus’ elimination. Sharing the same choir stand, cishet and passing “comrades” find a subtly disharmonic companionship with our queer siblings, lacking safe means to defend these victims or refuse to spectate their punishment. Facing bankruptcy by the reparations owed, the best we can offer is hollow “support” like prayers, praise, and verbose essays that come much too late to commute their socio-spiritual executions.
By confronting these disturbing parallels, we find the same commodification and extractive disposability politics that murdered Christ endemic in our own “Holy Ghost-filled” spaces. Even after our anointed are cast out or killed, gambling soldiers traffic in queer sound, slang, apparel, and mannerisms as cultural artifacts we continue to benefit from as they grow increasingly dislocated from the multi-marginalized community where they were birthed and their value appreciated. Whether as State magistrates, minions, or marionettes, all who do not become malignant to empire participate in the state-sponsored spectacle of BlackQueer death.
Responding to Crawley’s work, Rev. Leonard Curry reflects,
“Are Black people – are Black Queer people – the floor for the Black community’s excess?…Do Black Queer people become a subordinate yet nonetheless fecund site for productivity, inspiration, or production? What metaphor is superlative here? Should we think about Black queer people as the soil, as the salt, as the silt of the earth? A place where you bury things? Where things can be shed and left but also a place for you to turn again and again for the production of new life?”
Curry’s questions reminisce a resurrection, of renewed potential for breath and change in so pessimistic a place as the grave. Don Abrams lives into this possibility for resurrection at the helm of Pride in the Pews, a grassroots organization ministering at the intersection of Black faith and Black Queerness.
“And even in the main sanctuary my queerness manifested in subtle yet subversive ways… in the slight brush of a shoulder in practice or an elongated glance exchanged during offering… through a flirtatious comment made or a strategically placed, lingering hand. These precious moments permeated Sunday services in-spite of what was said from or in.”
Our responsibility is not to be singular experts nor is it the responsibility of any nonBlack person to address or comment on Black people’s intracommunal contentions with internalized white dominance. We are blessed enough to have guides in those, like farmers, carefully tending this sacred ground. From Crawley and Curry’s interdisciplinary contributions to the care work of Pride in the Pews to the femme-bodied babies refusing to wear dresses on Easter morning, we live amidst countless oracles who have charted our way forward. May we be humble enough to follow them, lest we “saints” are left behind.
Casey Overton (she/they) is a radical communications strategist and spiritual activist who is deeply vested in the development of healing cultures. They are the editor of “Liturgy that Matters”, an enfleshed publication. She also serves as the associate director of communications for an organization that supports organizing and advocacy for housing justice. As a multispiritual worker, they love being immersed in cooperative interfaith dialogue while creating restorative space for those marginalized within or beyond faith institutions. She’s also an amateur poet, nap-taker, and time-bender. She resides in the stolen Powhatan lands now called Richmond, VA.