Good Friday (C): Were You There?
By: The Rev. Lee Curtis
I stood kicking my toe into wet dirt in Jackson, Georgia. I was gathered with a group of men and women standing vigil outside of the State Prison where Georgia still decides to execute its citizens. That night, it was Warren Hill. A man who barely qualified as a “competent” adult. He slipped through the cracks of Georgia’s singularly punitive penal code that required a higher burden of proof for intellectual disability than any other state in the union.
I started humming “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” A private question. A private chorus. “Were you there?”
Was I there? Sitting on a hillside in middle Georgia waiting for the coroner’s van to pull up from the long road heading north, letting us know that the deed was done and that we could go home. Standing in a crowd of people making small talk. Praying and eating Snickers bars as we tried to stay awake. Some of us flicking nervous cigarettes in a corner looking for headlights. On a cold January night, more than a few of us would have been happy with a coal fire.
The old guard was there. The men and women who could still remember when the Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional, and who were heartbroken when they declared it constitutional again. They were present at every execution. Burning a Paschal Candle in quiet protest as they occupied the only bench in the area. Everyone else was happy to concede it to them. They had earned it.
A new guard had formed, a small core of Episcopalians and Roman Catholics who made it a practice to stand vigil. Over the years they had formed an ad hoc liturgy. Standing in a circle. Saying the Lord’s Prayer. Psalm 23. Prayers of Intercession. Amazing Grace. It was still new enough to be scary, but worn enough to be ritual.
Then there were the rest of us. The new kids. The ones who were trying it on for size. Forming a sense of who we were as clergy and lay activists. The live-tweeters. The digital vanguard, intent on letting the rest of the world know the evil that was being done in Jackson. Praying that our batteries held out and that someone was listening.
Just outside of our “protest zone” was a smattering of police. Some in riot gear, some in state-issued fatigues. They were mostly nice. Some were even sympathetic, but sympathy wasn’t enough to forget about the batons and zip ties that hung off their belts.
We were there. All of us on purpose. An execution isn’t something that you stumble into. You aren’t present without a reason, and without a story behind that reason.
It wasn’t something you could get from the newscasts or the headlines. We were always just “a handful of protesters” amidst a litany of dates and charges and failed appeals. It was never a story that could be wrapped up on the 11 o’clock news. You had to be in it. Feel the cold. Smell the dirt. See the riot police off in the corners of what little light we had.
Good Friday is one of the days of the liturgical year when we have to fight the urge to “report” on the crucifixion; to remind congregants that it happened, that it means something, and that there will be more to come on Sunday. We’re stuck with one of the longest pericopes of the year, in one of the most fraught weeks of the year, in one of the most emotionally draining liturgies of the year. The temptation is real.
There is no better witness for us in this struggle than the corpus of Spirituals that stem from the African-American tradition. While they are rich in their constructive theology, they only lead us there through a particular metaphor read through the lens of a particular experience, communicated compellingly and succinctly.
The Spiritual “Calvary” features only five lines of text that aren’t repeated:
- Don’t you hear the hammer ringing,
- Don’t you hear Him calling His Father?
- Don’t you hear Him say, “It is finished.”
- Jesus furnished my salvation.
- Sinner do you love my Jesus?
“Were You There when they Crucified my Lord?” has only four non-repeated lines:
- Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
- Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?
- Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?
- Were you there when He rose up from the grave?
The brilliance of the Spiritual tradition is that it invites us into the moment of Christ’s crucifixion and gives us the license to place ourselves in the story as we will. It allows us to be Peter with the sword, and Peter denying Christ. It allows us to be Pilate, questioning and capitulating. It allows us to stand with the two Marys at the foot of the Cross and weep. The Spiritual tradition demands nothing from us except our imagination and our presence.
Holding the entirety of St. John’s Passion narrative in our heads is a difficult task, even for the most biblically literate reader, but following the tradition of the Spirituals gives us room to play. It gives us room to breathe, and stand in awe of the mystery of God giving up Godself for us.
As I was standing with the crowd in Jackson, Georgia’s own Golgotha, I wasn’t overcome with insight about my theory of atonement. In all honesty, I was shaky about the fact that Christ was indeed overcoming the sin and death we were so hell-bent on creating. In a moment of fear and darkness my theology of the Cross came bubbling up in the voice of Mahalia Jackson: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
 “Calvary” Negro Spiritual; arr. Carl Haywood (b. 1949), from The Haywood Collection of Negro Spirituals. Lift Every Voice and Sing II. Church Publishing, Inc., May 1, 2002.
 “Where You There?” Negro Spiritual; arr. Charles Winfred Douglas (1867-1944) Lift Every Voice and Sing II. Church Publishing, Inc., May 1, 2002.
The Rev. Lee Curtis is a twenty-something Episcopal Priest serving as Urban Missioner at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he works on building community for those flocking back into the city’s booming downtown. He received his Masters of Divinity from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 2013, and served his first two years in ministry at a small parish in Southwest Atlanta. He currently lives in Indy with his wife, Hannah, and Son, Shepard. Sometimes he gets way too worked up and blogs at thebrokechurchman.wordpress.com.