Here, between the corners of this flat, concrete square—
is the crushing weight of contradiction, everywhere:
Cameras, hidden, in pedestrian plain sight.
One guard pats me down at the fence with steely, cold precision—
while a second scolds a tiny toddler squeezing through another. (The one that protects the towering monument above from an onslaught of wayward intruders.)
It could have been the Fourth of July
Thousands bow to the body of a man who killed millions of their own, laying flowers at his grave. They are gathered, recycled, and resold to the next thousand in line.
Buses unload slow-moving veterans beaming with pride; well-worn uniforms hang loose around their frail frames. School children blaze past them at light speed, waving flags they’d still salute, if only the children would just slow down.
. . . but for the distant echo of tanks rolling and people screaming.
Huge crowds assemble here in patriotic mass. It could have been the Fourth of July . . . but for the distant echo of tanks rolling, and people screaming, and their blood crying from the ground. (Ghosts can be deleted, but never erased.)
Everything about this space feels alien to me—and yet hauntingly familiar.
We peer down through snorkel-mask windows into another world.
The black rock offers our bearings, so we dare not drift too far away.
It is morning, cool and calm. My husband dives beneath the waves for a glimpse of the moray eel, swapping burrows below. I will not follow. I’m content with my perch here, 20 feet above. So are the needlefish, who hover with me at this place where water meets the sky.
But are we really safer here?
A school of reef fish shimmers below. They slice through the current hypnotically. Hundreds, maybe even thousands moving in unison—a silent, symphonic masterpiece. I am mesmerized with every twist and turn.
I try to imagine one, breaking away with Nemo-like fortitude.
Impossible, I think, in a crowd, lulled to compliance by its own melody. Like so many before.
They say it’s a survival instinct. There’s safety in numbers. In life, we’re told, you just have to go with the flow.
Is it, safe, really? Is it life?
Sometimes I see myself in the crowd. On tiptoes, I strain to catch a glimpse of the One—they say—called a man back from the dead. The donkey is plodding slow enough, over the padded pathway of cloaks and branches, for a well-timed selfie. I catch the crowd’s contagious fervor and snap a branch off an obliging tree. I unfurl my flag of leaves in the air as he approaches, then toss it on the path. (Not my cloak—it’s new—but this branch will do.) Talk, like the branch is cheap. With no thought to the words, I join the chorus of voices around me, like it’s the seventh-inning stretch at a Cubs’ game, as Harry Caray conducts the Wriggly Field wave:
“Hosanna to the Son of David.”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest!”1
It’s not a week later, and I’m on tiptoes again, straining over the sea of others for a glimpse the man. Everything is different, and yet hauntingly familiar. Here, outside the governor’s palace, is the crushing weight of contradiction—everywhere.
We’ve turned, like a school of silver-scaled fish frightened by a shadow, on the One we welcomed and worshiped days before.
Why? Because, everyone did.
A plot twist,
an about face,
there will be no selfies today.
Yeah, and a hasty delete of the one with me, the donkey, and the Nazarene. Now he stands battered and blood-stained before us, with a purple robe draped around his bruised body. A thorn-weaved crown presses against his head.
Cries of “Hosanna in the highest” have faded to “Take him away! Crucify him!”2 (“Hosanna” is a Hebrew expression that means “Save.” It’s like we knew . . .)
The governor steps to the Stone Pavement and declares the man’s innocence. Our leaders, his guilt.
The crowd’s anger is infectious and temperatures rise. I feel it burning within me, too. I taste a fleeting moment of collective power as I see the governor trimmer with intimidation.
“I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he says. “It is your responsibility!”3
Talk is cheap—so I wave my fist in the air like a flag for our refrain:
“Let his blood be on us and on our children!” we cry.4
And so, it was
If you haven’t discovered the anonymous street artist, Banksy, you need to. In preparation for one exhibit, I recently caught the 2010 documentary he directed, called Exit Through the Gift Shop: A Banksy Film. Try to pin Banksy down—as an artist, or a person, or even an idea—and you will fail. So, I won’t here. (And, I likely have this movie wrong, too . . .) I can only tell you that this film moved—no—shook me as few have. It chronicles a man (Thierry Guetta) who obsessively attempts to film street artists in action. Guetta’s intersect with Banksy catapults him, haphazardly, into the limelight. In an uncanny plot twist, the documenter becomes the documented as Banksy chronicles Guetta’s awkward stumble into overnight fame. Guetta’s LA debut is a brutal exposé of sophist-style street art and the crowds who gush over his “exhibition.” They explicate its deeper meaning and then purchase thousands of dollars of his “art” because . . . everyone is. I turn off the TV and smirk at the irony of it all.
An hour later: “This isn’t an official Banksy exhibit,” my husband clarifies as we prepare to leave for it. Sure enough, he’s right. We check the over-priced tickets and the reviews—and I smirk again—as I find myself smack dab
in the middle
of the very same crowd.
“People who enjoy waving flags don’t deserve to have one.”
There’s a part I skipped: It’s sandwiched somewhere between Jesus’ Triumphal Entry and his trial before Pilate. Often overlooked—the disciple, John, reveals in this scene an essential piece of the story. Here, I should have placed myself, not on tiptoes toward the back of the crowd, but front-and-center as Jesus juxtaposes life and death with a weight of crushing contradiction:
“The man who loves his life will lose it,” he says, “while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.”5
And soon after: “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” (A foreshadowing of his crucifixion, John asserts.)6
Was that weighty enough, I wonder, for me to lean in for the rest?
The rest that would have plucked my tiptoed feet from the shifting sands of culture, and crowds, and movements, and legislation, even court decisions? From Twitter wars, and Insta-reels, and Facebook weigh ins shouted at the highest of volumes through cyber-megaphones? From leaders who waive the truth while subtly distancing themselves from it.
. . . to a rock where my footsteps might finally fall firm.
“You are going to have the light just a little while longer,” Jesus warned. “Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. The one who walks in the dark does not know where he is going. Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light.”
“When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them.”7
Would I have laid it down . . .
[The flag clinched so tightly in my fingers’ vice-like grip? The one everyone else was unabashedly waving . . . because everyone else was.]
. . . to take up my cross,
and follow after him, instead?
1 Matthew 21:9
2 Matthew 27:22
3 Matthew 27:24
4 Matthew 27: 25
5 John 12:25-26
6 John 12:32-33
7 John 12:35-36