Sunday, March 20, 2016

Palm Sunday "24": Torture, Terrorism and Jesus

Sermon - The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Palm Sunday 2016

Watch the video for this sermon here:

Do any of you remember the show from the early 2000’s called 24 on Fox that starred Keifer Sutherland?  It was a riveting series. For those of you who’ve not seen it, each episode portrays one hour in the life of Jack Bauer, an agent in the fictional government agency called the Counter Terrorist Unit.  There are 24 episodes for each season (hence the title), so that one day is stretched out over the whole season.  I only watched two episodes and I had to stop, because it is a highly addictive show.  Each episode ends with a cliffhanger that compels you to watch the next episode.  It is very cleverly done, and, I’ll admit, is a very captivating series.

Let me tell you about the one episode I did see, because it is just so exciting.  In Season 4 we start out at 7 a.m., and there is a train wreck caused by a terrorist bombing.  At 7:33 a.m., the government agents are able to capture the terrorist suspected of bombing the train.  They bring him to the office, where Jack recognizes him as a terrorist who was traced to bombings in Europe.  But something doesn’t seem right because he doesn’t think this guy would risk coming to the United States for a simple train bomb.  His superiors, however, dismiss his concerns.  Nevertheless, Jack is able to find out that there is another attack planned for that same morning, and that the train bomb was really just a distraction.  The next strike is scheduled for 8 a.m.  But they can’t figure out what target is.  It is now 7:49 a.m.  The clock is ticking!

Jack sneaks into the interrogation room where they are grilling the captured terrorist, to no effect - he won’t talk.  Jack goes in with his gun raised and shoots the terrorist in the leg, demanding to know what’s going to happen at 8:00. “What is your primary objective?” Jack screams. The terrorist says it is . . . the Secretary of Defense! They’re planning to kidnap him.  Jack demands that they notify Secret Service immediately.  It’s now 7:57 a.m. 

Jack tries to call the Secretary of Defense’s daughter, Audrey, to warn her because he knows she is going to visit him (she also happens to be Jack’s girlfriend).  Suddenly, a rocket grenade sails past her face and hits a Secret Service vehicle, which bursts into a ball of flames. Jack hears the gunfire over the cell phone, as a van pulls up and gunmen fire at the Secret Service agents. Masked men abduct Audrey and her father into a van. Audrey screams for Jack, who can only listen helplessly.  It’s now 7:59 a.m.  Roll credits.

Phew!  That all happens in just one episode!  Want to find out what happens to them?  You have to tune in next the week.  After the second episode, I realized just how addictive it was, and I had to stop cold turkey before I got totally hooked!

It wasn’t just the addictive quality of the show that concerned me.  What bothered me even more is that I so enjoyed watching the drama of terrorism unfold before me on the small screen. And that I was actually doing a little fist-pump when Jack shot the terrorist in the leg.  It bothered me, especially in light of the torture scandals that erupted ten years ago from the prisons in Iraq, and the debate in Washington about the efficacy of using torture as a tool for national security.  And it continues to bother me in light of the recent presidential debates in which assumptions about certain groups of people being dangerous and terrorists dominates the rhetoric.

Now why am I talking about this on Palm Sunday?  What do terrorism and torture and presidential debates have to do with Jesus?

Well, as we’re heading into Holy Week, one way to understand the Passion of Jesus is as an example of the use of torture and what can happen when groups of people are swept into mob violence by the rhetoric of political leaders.  The beating of Jesus during his trial before Pilate was a form of judicial torture. Pilate, in his initial interrogation of Jesus, finds that no laws have been broken.  “But those who want to see Jesus killed ask Pilate to find some kind of evidence against him.  So Pilate has Jesus beaten in an attempt to extract new information.” (Vital Theology, p. 6).

It’s very similar to the episode of “24” that I watched.  The use of torture in this show is based on the “ticking bomb” argument -- if a captured terrorist knows when and where a bomb will explode - potentially killing many people -- an exception to legal conventions can be made and the terrorist should be tortured in an effort to produce the information and save lives. 

But many studies have shown that this is not how torture works.  Rather, it takes a considerable amount of time to gain a psychological advantage over prisoners. “[And yet this “ticking bomb” theory] has been used to legitimate the widespread use of inhumane methods of interrogation.” (Vital Theology, p. 2).

I find it disturbingly problematic that those who have the power to make these decisions in our own government and military and in presidential debates -- while claiming to be Christian -- believe that there is just cause for using torture and carpet bombing and other means of violence to combat terrorism.  I find it even more disturbing that there isn’t more outrage expressed by those of us in Christian pulpits and pews that this kind of rhetoric is being used.

And I wonder why this is?  I wonder if shows like 24 and Homeland and Sleeper Cell, make us not only numb to the use of violence, but, in fact, make us secretly cheer on the sidelines.  We live in a culture where suspicion about the foreigner and violence and torture are held up as ideal models of behavior.  It’s glorified on television shows and in movies and video games.  We’re exposed to it almost daily.  It has been become actually institutionalized since the first Gulf War twenty-five years ago.  And it encompasses our national conversations about everything from our Latin American neighbors to the south, to Syrian refugees across the Atlantic, to African Americans within our own country.  Violence has become our first response against ever perceived threat.

I remember reading the book, Night, by Elie Weisel, which is an account of his experience in Nazi concentration camps during WWII.  At the beginning of the book, Elie, a boy of 15, is still at home with his family when they hear rumors of Nazis deporting Jews to these camps of torture, but they do not believe it could possibly be true.  And even when they watch the foreign Jews being carted away on a cattle train, one of his neighbors just sighs with resignation, “What can we do?  It’s a war.”

And we hear this same kind of resignation today:  “But there is a war going on!” some people will argue.  “We have got to defend our way of life.  We have got to do everything we can to ensure national security.  We need to use any means possible to stop the terrorists, and the Muslims and the blacks and the Mexicans and the (fill in the blank).”

Let’s explore that line of thinking for a minute.  Imagine the story of the Palm Sunday told from the Roman’s point of view.  Imagine if the Roman Empire had a Fox network and a show called 24.  This series takes place about 2000 years ago and focuses on a Roman soldier in the Counter Terrorist Unit based in Jerusalem.  In season 4, the soldier witnesses a wild parade of insurgents roiling around a man riding into the city on a donkey.  Thousands are gathered for one of their religious festivals called Passover.  These Jews are nothing but trouble.  Always threatening insurrection.  There’s something about their religion that just makes them dangerous.  And here they are waving palm branches like flags and shouting about how this man was sent by their God. It’s 7:02 a.m.
"Palm Sunday in Jerusalem" by Rod Anderson
Later, the soldier is standing guard as the strange man goes through entrance of their holy temple, knocking down tables, overturning money boxes, and inciting his followers to riot.  Behind him, the soldier overhears the leaders of the temple figuring out a way to assassinate this man, but they are fearful of his followers who may riot during the festival.  In the meantime, the soldier is ordered by his superiors to keep an eye on this man, because he is a possible terrorist.

And their suspicions prove correct.  The soldier hears the man threatening to blow up the temple, openly criticizing the religious leaders, and warning his followers that they must prepare for a holy war when the “Son of Man” comes - a code word, no doubt, for a political coup.  It’s now 7:33 a.m.

But the Counter Terrorism Unit has an ace in the hole. They’ve gotten a defector named Judas from the terrorist camp to give them information about where the terrorist is staying and how they can capture him.  The soldier leads a battalion of men under the shadow of night to arrest the suspect and take him into custody.  It’s now 11:55 p.m.   

They’ve only got until sunrise - because then, the crowd will realize he’s missing and will riot in the streets.  The clock is ticking!  The man is interrogated by the chief priests to little effect.  They beat him to try to extract information from him, but he refuses to talk.  So they have the soldier take him to the Secretary of Defense, his boss, Pilate.

Pilate has no luck with him either.  The most he can get out of him are some cryptic phrases about his “kingdom” and testifying to “the truth.”  He assigns the Roman soldier to oversee a more severe interrogation involving whipping and beating. 

He whips him again and again, demanding to know what he has planned. “What is your primary objective?” the Roman soldier screams. The terrorist says it is . . . the Kingdom of God. The soldier demands that they notify Secret Service immediately.  It’s now 7:53 a.m. 

Meanwhile, the crowd has gathered around their headquarters, demanding the release of one of the political prisoners, as was customary during the festival.  The Secretary of Defense knows this is a delicate situation.  If he does not satisfy them, they could rise up and cause mass chaos, which would threaten the security of the entire Roman nation. 

So he brings out the terrorist, who now wears a crown of thorns twisted by the Roman soldier himself.  And they bring out another insurgent named Barabbas, also accused of terroristic activity.  Pilate tells crowd to choose which one he should release.  The camera focuses first on the face of Barabbas, then on the bruised and bloodied face of the beaten man.  “Who should I release to you?” Pilate calls to them.  It’s now 7:59 a.m.  Roll credits.

Phew!  What an episode!  Want to find out what happens next?  You’ll have to tune in on Maundy Thursday, and then the next episode on Good Friday, and then Saturday Vigil.

You see, we live in a culture and a world where what was done to Jesus can be done to any human being - including an Iraqi citizen, or an American citizen; a 17-year-old black boy wearing a hoodie, or a 3-year-old Syrian boy washed up on the shores of Turkey; a criminal terrorist or an innocent man. 

And yet when I talk with my clergy peers and ask whether they address the topic from the pulpit, the answer, more often than not, is “no.”  The prophetic and public voice of the church has been mute on these issues for many different reasons.  Because it is a difficult subject to discuss.

But here’s the thing:  we have a mandate from our Lord to engage this issue.  We need to address this question knowing full well that what was done to Jesus still happens in our world today.  Not that I expect you to write your Congressman about this, or attend a protest in Washington, or become an aid worker for refugees, or take down your Confederate flag - although you may choose to do any of these things. 

I guess what I want is for us, as Christians, to be critical consumers of our culture.  I don’t want us to swallow everything we are offered without questioning its source and its consequences.  I want us to be able to critically observe a show like 24 and the debates we watch and the newscasts and talk shows hear through the Christian lens, and not allow ourselves to be taken in and unquestioningly swayed by the mass media and news coverage and political spins that engulf us every day.  I want us to be able to look at something like this and say, “Hey wait, I’ve seen this before.  This same kind of thing happened in the Bible.  It happened to the one I worship.  It happened to Jesus.”  And in light of this realization, to be able to ask the question, “Am I really buying this?”

Because the crowds gathered around the Roman headquarters that day swallowed it hook, line and sinker.  They were convinced that what they were doing was right, for the safety of their country, for the security of their temple, for protecting their way of life.  But in the next episode on Good Friday, we see that they were wrong.  The defenders against terrorism became the agents of terror themselves.

Sometimes being a Christian means taking a long, steady look at yourself and asking, “Am I wrong about this?”  And then having the courage to hear God’s answer.


“Pilate Seen Employing Torture”, Vital Theology, Volume 2, Issue 10, Jan. 20, 2006; David W. Reid, Publisher and Editor

“Where’s the Outrage? Glancy Asks”, Vital Theology, Volume 2, Issue 10, Jan. 20, 2006; David W. Reid, Publisher and Editor


  1. Thank you, Leah! Well done & well presented. How do we stimulate the Church to address this difficult subject? How do we raise climate awareness? How do we point out the connections between the two without seeming shrill and impractical? Sometimes it seems that we have a terrible choice between irrelevance and impertinence. How can we be prophetic effectively? Do we act like Nathan and point fingers at the king? Do we act like Jeremiah and walk naked down Main Street while screaming about the doom of our nation and buying worthless property? Do we follow Amos and expose our family shame as a metaphor for the failings of our society? How do we emulate Esther in taking advantage of our position to save lives while finding favor from the king? How do we adapt to changing culture like Ruth to support the few wise and sensitive ones who are left? Can we proclaim the truth boldly and effectively like Mary Magdalene against societal convention? Let's continue a public exploration and discussion and invite others to participate. Perhaps then we can be like Miriam and sing a new song of thanksgiving and gratitude!

  2. These are excellent questions - just the kind of thing I'll be exploring in my next book, tentatively titled "Preaching in the Purple Zone: Homiletics in the Red/Blue Divide."


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