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Meditation 344
Why are we cruel?

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Not feeling like making my own breakfast this morning, I went out to a restaurant. Driving home, I passed a man carrying a huge cross, closely followed by two younger men carrying flags. This small procession was proceeding with almost no public notice. In spite of this being a very Christian city, this type of public display of faith is very rare here. But it did serve as a reminder that today, Christians celebrate the crucifixion of their Christ.

Much as I have criticized Mel Gibson's film of this story (Meditation 191 - Mel Gibson's Splatter Flick,) the truth is that he realistically depicts a crucifixion in all its horror. Not necessarily the truth about the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, which may or may not be a fictional event in a possibly fictional life, but the truth about crucifixions as they were really carried out in their thousands under Roman rule.

The Christian message (which I am not criticizing here, by the way) is that Christ underwent the pain and suffering as an essential element in taking on the sins of the world. Yet, he was not treated significantly different than many other, though not all, victims of crucifixion who were similarly beaten and scourged before being nailed to a cross.

Unfortunately, the Romans were not an anomaly. It is not difficult to find similar tales of torture preceding execution in various civilizations before the Romans came along, and long afterwards. Even into the16th and 17th century Europe, we find the Inquisition in all it's glory, and on the political side, executions for treason could include cutting off the nose, tongue, and "privie parts, " then being hung, drawn, and quartered.[1]

Perhaps we have gotten a little less bloodthirsty. We now strive for "humane" executions. But the capacity for cruelty still seems to lurk beneath the surface. Consider the atrocities currently ongoing in Darfur; and which continually resurface in the Congo, Burundi, and Rwanda. Observe that modern-day dictators seem to have no problem in finding those willing to enforce their rule through violence and torture. And even when democracies are involved, events in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate that armies can find those willing to inflict ignominious torture, even unto death in some cases, on prisoners whether innocent or guilty.

It would be nice to blame the ease in which some people can be led into deliberate cruelty on a sociopathic minority. But I don't think that is the case. Nearly all of us have a latent capacity for cruelty.[2] In general, we can control these impulses, but we have to recognize them to control them.

Let Christians celebrate this day in remembrance of the crucifixion of Christ. We can use the same story to reflect upon our ability to inflict terrible cruelties on each other; and how we must constrain this tendency.


  1. Do you really want to know? The victim would be hung until just short of death. Then he would be cut down, disemboweled and his entrails burned before his eyes, then his arms and legs would be tied to four horses, and his body pulled apart. If he was lucky, he might be beheaded before this final step.
  2. I don't exclude myself. I have spent the last several days imagining exquisite torments for the clueless idiot who let his pit bull (while walking him on a leash) attack me on Monday. I sincerely hope, that given the opportunity to act on this fantasy, that I would not.