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I have a question about the story we heard from Matthew 28 this morning. Why did the Chief Priests and elders bribe the soldiers to tell a lie? I mean, this may sound like I’m stating the obvious … but lying is wrong.
It wasn’t even a very good lie. Even a casual reading of the story brings a lot of questions to mind: Like: if the soldiers were asleep, how did they know that it was the disciples who had stolen the body? How could the disciples, or anyone else, roll a heavy stone away from the opening to the tomb without waking everyone up? And why would they do this, given that stealing a body was considered a downright sacrilegious offense and punishable by death in those days? Not to mention the punishment that awaited soldiers who conked out while on duty?
Apparently, many commentators throughout the centuries have noticed how lame the Chief Priest’s attempt at a cover story really was. The fourth century’s John Chrysostom, for example, said this uncharacteristic incompetence showed how freaked out the established religious authorities were were by the mysterious and disquieting phenomena which surrounded Jesus’ life and death.
Be that as it may, Matthew nonetheless reports that this story — full of holes though it might be — has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day…
Ah, the staying-power of a false narrative.
In the aftermath of the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre just about one year ago today, the New York Times ran an editorial declaring that Republicans and conservative Christians had created a climate of hate that made them responsible for this horrible crime.
Never mind that Omar Mateen, the murderer in question, was neither Christian nor Republican. He was a Muslim and a Democrat who planned to vote for Hillary. Doesn’t matter: in a conversation the other day, a friend of mine used Orlando as prima facie evidence of Republican, Christian homophobia…
As the psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt explains, we tell stories not merely to entertain or inform, but to reinforce our tribal identities, to forge bonds that will allow our tribe to compete successfully against others. The story that the women told to the disciples about the empty tomb has bound Christians — ourselves included — right down to the present day. The story the chief priests and elders told — the one about the corpse-stealing disciples — was intended to bind and protect their tribe and, lame though it might have been, it worked…at least down to Matthew’s “Present Day.”
Only one of the stories, however, was true.
Until Michael Brown died at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, I was pretty darned happy with my progressive tribe. I was inclined to smugly agree that liberals (“Us”) were the smart tribe and conservatives (“Them”) the ignoramuses, an impression confirmed by the news and punditry I imbibed from my chosen media — NPR, the New Yorker, the New York Times. Though I counted myself an open minded and intellectually curious person, I certainly did not deign to listen to anyone who might tell a different story — Rush Limbaugh, say, or Fox News or the National Review.
The problem (or might it somehow prove a solution?) was that I belonged to more than one tribe. I belonged to the tribe of “progressive liberal” but I also belong to the tribe of “law enforcement.” Up until Ferguson, the two tribal identities hadn’t been in conflict.
Don’t get me wrong: there has always been a bit of cop-bashing on the American left. Like medicine and maybe leading the free world, policing is a profession people don’t actually know that much about, but they think they do and have strong opinions about how it should be done.
When it comes to law enforcement, this is by and large a healthy thing: we are a free people who understand ourselves as being endowed with rights that our government did not bestow and cannot take away. Americans should regard the police a little warily. A uniformed police officer represents the potential for a government to use its power not merely to protect citizens and provide for public order, but to forcibly deprive you of your liberty and even life.
History provides cautionary tales that can’t be ignored: it was German police officers who enforced the Nuremberg Laws that stripped German Jews of their civil rights. French and Dutch police helped their Nazi occupiers round up yet more victims. Those were American cops who massed at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and attacked the Civil Rights marchers in 1965.
The value and virtue of law enforcement depends heavily on the quality and virtue of the society being protected, and on the quality of laws being enforced. But even in a generally good society with good laws, trust is essential and fragile. A corrupt, brutal, biased or incompetent police officer or department is, indeed, a terrifying thing.
Still, policing didn’t used to be quite such a partisan issue. Wasn’t it the Democratic president, Bill Clinton who boasted of toughening up sentencing laws and of putting 100,000 cops on the streets, with help from members of the Congressional Black Caucus? Wasn’t it his wife, Hillary, First Lady and future democratic candidate for president, who explained ““We need more police, we need more and tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders?”
My first husband, a state trooper, listened to NPR and read the New York Times too, and, whether he agreed or not with every left-leaning person (his wife, for example) on the specifics of a given issue, he did not have cause to feel his “tribal” affiliations — law enforcement and liberal — were in conflict. Why would I?
One day in the early autumn of 2014, I was sweeping the floor of my husband’s studio and listening to “All Things Considered.”
“The body of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager shot and killed by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson, was left on the street for four hours.”
Up until that point, I hadn’t paid a whole lot of attention to the news stories about the death of Michael Brown. Not from indifference, but from experience. I’m familiar with how deadly force incidents are investigated and adjudicated. I knew it would be a considerable time before the Missouri Attorney General’s office announced its findings, and in the meantime, the AG was constrained by law from public comment. Everyone and anyone else would be free to weigh in, and most of what they had to say would later turn out to be nonsense. This is par for the course. Why get outraged before it’s clear what there is to be outraged about?
But perhaps because it was NPR, my “trusted source of news and information,” or perhaps it was simply the repetition of that one element in the story that had been repeated and commented upon so relentlessly that it was difficult for even me to ignore: four hours.
As the New York Times put it, “Just after noon on Saturday, Aug. 9, Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer on Canfield Drive. For about four hours, in the unrelenting summer sun, his body remained where he fell.”
“You’ll never make anyone black believe that a white kid would have laid in the street for four hours,” an African-American and chief aide to St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley was quoted as saying. “It defies any understanding of reality.”
Interviewed a month later by the St. Lewis Post-Dispatch, a chief medical examiner from Baltimore acknowledged “sometimes it’s a little disconcerting in an open scene for the family to see a body lying there.”
Other medical examiners interviewed for the same article concurred: “The best way to serve the public and the victim’s family is to do your job properly … and get as close to the truth as possible.… But for many in Ferguson, none of that will matter. Regardless of the evidence, the experts, the gunshots and the crowds, a young man’s body left on the street for four hours just doesn’t make sense.”
A year later, in a 2015 memoir he claimed to have written for his young son entitled Between The World And Me, Ta Nehisi-Coates would reluctantly admit that when all the evidence was in and all witnesses canvassed and deposed, Ferguson Officer Wilson’s version of events was substantiated and the shooting justified. Nonetheless, Coates would still consider the length of time Michael Brown’s body remained on the asphalt of Canfield Drive damning evidence of law enforcement’s exultant racism.
“The killers of Michael Brown would go free,” he wrote. “The men who had left his body in the street like some awesome declaration of their inviolable power would never be punished.” (Coates, p.11)
My first husband Drew was a white man and, as mentioned, a State Trooper. He died in the line of duty.
There were no angry crowds jostling and shouting beyond the crime-scene tape at the scene of his fatal car accident. No shots rang out, no bullets whizzed past the head of the forensic investigators, there was no need to wait for additional officers to rush to the South Warren Bridge to provide protection. It was a peaceful April day.
Eventually, as with the body of Michael Brown, the work of processing the scene was done, and Drew’s body was gathered up and taken to the state medical examiner’s office for exhaustive autopsy.
Eventually, I say, because the body of this, a white law enforcement officer, remained just where he fell for more than four hours.
Four hours is a long time.
It felt long to me — it was definitely “disconcerting” to find myself asking, again, where is he? and to have the Troopers tell me, again, his body is still at the scene.
I am quite sure it was terrible for Brown’s neighbors — let alone his mother and father — to see his body lying there as the minutes ticked inexplicably into hours Still, however it may be perceived by the traumatized uninitiated, four hours is not an unusual length of time for the primary piece of evidence in an actual or potential murder investigation to remain in situ while on-scene investigators photograph, measure, map and document.
This is especially true when a police officer is involved: Drew’s accident scene was processed with particular care because, as a State Trooper, he had been entrusted with the safety of the citizens of Maine. The police owed it to the public to determine, and be able to demonstrate with evidence, how and why the crash occurred. After all, Drew might have been drunk, drugged, reckless or suicidal.
He wasn’t. It was a simple accident … and still, the bound copy of the accident report I would later receive from the Attorney General’s office was over an inch thick.
The evidence at the scene of Michael Brown’s death deserved the same scrupulous investigation, especially since at that point, deliberate homicide could not be ruled out. If Officer Wilson had, for whatever reason, murdered Brown, his successful prosecution — and justice for Michael Brown — would have depended upon a thorough and conscientious forensic examination of the scene of his crime.
Ironically, a corrupt police department bent on shielding a violently racist colleague from legal consequence would certainly not have left Michael Brown’s body where it had fallen. They would instead have swiftly scooped it up and taken it away. They could have used the proximity of a threatening crowd and occasional gunfire as an excuse for doing so. Instead, the police in Ferguson conscientiously followed the proper protocol. The four hours Michael Brown’s body lay beneath the “unrelenting summer sun” was evidence of good police work, not bad.
Okay. I know this, because I work in law enforcement. But surely, I thought, any news reporter with even minimal experience of crime scene investigation would know this too? Perhaps this seems like a small detail, but there were more details reported that, in time, and after two highly-motivated investigations by the State of Missouri and President Obama’s own justice department, turned out to be false.
Michael Brown had not merely shoplifted from the neighborhood convenience store, but committed a strong-armed robbery. Michael Brown had attacked Officer Wilson and attempted to remove Wilson’s duty weapon from its holster. Michael Brown was not surrendering with his hands up when he was shot, but was lunging toward the police officer.
Neither the press nor politicians could know all of this right away. Still, they should have been capable of providing at least some context for those famous four hours. They ought to have been highly motivated to do so, given they might thereby have relieved at least a little of the anguish felt by the people of Ferguson. Why didn’t they?
I don’t know.
Why did the Chief priests and the elders bribe the soldiers to say that Jesus’ disciples had come during the night and removed his body from the tomb while they were asleep? Because the true story would not serve them? Because the true story would keep people from believing a narrative that would better bind their tribe, the one in which they were the heroes and saviors?
Their story, the one that declares Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, Jesus’ brothers and disciples to be con-artists, cheats and liars — That story, as Matthew says, has been widely circulated to this very day. But in the long run, friends, it is difficult to keep the truth hidden. Reality has a way of enduring and emerging from beneath the self-serving tales that panicked people and politicians tell. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus says, to the women who, because they knew him knew the truth. “Do not be afraid. Go and tell the true story, the love story. Tell my brothers to go to Gallilee; there they will see me.”
So they went to Galilee and they did see him. Some doubted, though. Was that because they’d heard the soldiers’ version of what had happened? Maybe. It is easy to make worried people believe what isn’t true.
But reality is what it is. God is still God, His name and nature love, and God will be with us always.
And as Paul writes to the Corinthians, those in whom Christ dwells “will do what is right even though we may seem to have failed.”
Blessing (in Greek) May the Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.