On the Cross Hung Jesus, the Historical Materialist

Holy Week opens the space for us to be sad, mad, and lonely. We can look to the blooded Christ, abandoned by his closest friends, and recognize that hope’s flame has been extinguished. Unfortunately, too many churches over-spiritualize the cross showing how Jesus knew the events surrounding his death. Even the letter to the Hebrews seems to say something similar: Jesus, “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2). Through all the pain and anguish, Jesus knew, hanging there, that this was not going to last forever. Was the writer to the Hebrews saying that Jesus transcended pain altogether? I don’t know, but certainly the Gospels do not try to hide the flogging, crown of thorns, carrying a heavy cross up a hill at the weakness point of his life, then being hung and nailed to it. That’s just gruesome.

Jesus, according to the Gospels, was a victim of history. 

It matters that he is seen as such.

Between the two world wars, Walter Benjamin lived as a Jew in Europe. He was interested in art, culture, history, politics, literature, philosophy, and theology. And they were never separate categories for him, but would mixed together into beautiful essays and theses. In his famous “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” he wrote that each generation has a “weak Messianic force” (Thesis II). We have the power to remember the victims of history. He commanded Historical Materialists to “brush history against the grain” of the elite and victors (Thesis VII). As well, we cannot understand time linearly as the “beads of a rosary,” but that we must “establish a conception of the present as the “time of the now” which is shot through with chips of Messianic time” (Thesis XVIII A). In other words, when we remember, recall, re-historicize the victims of history, we are giving them another chance in the present. In this way, we are weak Messiahs because its only the Messiah(s) who can re-member these victims, to restore their bodies and lives.

When the criminal hanging next to Jesus on the cross asks him to remember him, he’s asking Jesus to become a Historical Materialist. He’s asking him to not let the victors dominate the story. He’s asking Jesus to not forget him, to not forget those who have been killed by the Empire, to re-vive his life through stories although it may be nothing compared to world history.

It matters how we remember the victims of history, whether it’s Jesus, Michael Brown, the Trail of Tears, Laura and L.D. Nelson, Andy Lopez, Aiyana Jones, and the millions more oppressed through slavery, colonization, and killed by the powers-that-be.

Let us remember them that we might change the present. 

Christ with thieves