“It is better that one man should die for the people.” Why does that line have so haunting a sound? Why does it sound like the refrain of a litany?
It haunts, not because of any particular poetic merit, but because it expresses a perverse truth that invariably fascinates. In caption, it rationalizes death, deals death, and justifies it. Caiaphas, the high priest, first used this phrase to justify Christ’s death. Christ’s person and message were upsetting things, upsetting the way life had been, upsetting a delicate balance of inter-relationships that had built up, like a complex ecology, over many years.
Caiaphas and the other leaders at that time did not, in fact, have a lot of personal things against Christ. They were just scared. There was more fear than malevolence present when Christ was condemned. It was fear that prompted Caiaphas to utter this phrase and so justify his acquiescence to an innocent death.
That fear, and that phrase, have always been the great rationalization for death and have justified our acquiescence to countless deaths; so much so that it is possible to construct a litany for death with this phrase as its refrain:
- When we favor capital punishment and support the idea that some persons, irrespective of what kind of lives they are leading, should be put to death, we are saying…better that one person should die for the people.
- When there is abortion, when an unborn child’s life is taken, our society is saying…better that one person should die for the people.
- When we refuse to properly care for the poor in our society, when we say we cannot afford welfare, Medicare, daycare, free education, and the support of mothers home with small children, when we let the poor fall through the cracks rather than upset our standard of living, we are saying…better that one person should die for the people.
- When someone is slandered in conversation and we, because of fear, say nothing, we are saying…better that one person should die for the people.
- When our countries bomb their neighbors to insure their own security, when our countries use unjustifiable amounts of money, talent, and resources to build up weapons of defense, we are saying…better that one person should die for the people.
- When our countries do not take in refugees because we fear that they will take some of our jobs and have an adverse effect on our standard of living, we are saying…better that one person should die for the people
- When our countries refuse to admit that so much of the discontent and terrorism of our age is the natural byproduct of a way of life, a system, wherein the rich benefit from the poor, when we do nothing about this because it would mean some very upsetting changes, we are saying…better that one person should die for the people.
- When, because of the pressures of our lifestyles, we draw too excessively upon the world’s resources, when, for the same reason, we cannot properly respect nature and by exorbitant consumption and its concomitant pollution we destroy the environment for future generations, we are saying…better that one person should die for the people.
- When a youth gang in Montreal brutally murders a homosexual man with AIDS on a subway, when in the mid-1960s, 38 people in New York City watch a woman being murdered in Central Park and, because of fear, refuse to intervene, both the aggressors and the bystanders (for different reasons) are saying….better that one person should die for the people.
- When Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Oscar Romero, Jerzy Popieluszko, Stan Rather, Michael Rodrigo, and Anne Frank are killed, when the KKK murder three civil rights workers in Mississippi in the early 1960s, when oppressive regimes around the world intimidate people and make them disappear, someone is saying…better that one person should die for the people.
Death’s great litany, echoing through the centuries, from Caiaphas to us…better that one person should die for the people, better this death than that our lives should be so upset, better this than that we should have to change!
Cardinal Jaime Sin of the Philippines once commented upon the place of courage within the spectrum of virtue:
Strength without compassion is violence
Compassion without justice is sentiment
Justice without love is Marxism
And…love without justice is baloney!
We all need greater courage. We need to pray for that. We need to pray to be less intimidated by our own weaknesses and fears, to be more courageous in moving beyond the comforts of affluence, privilege, and good name, to be less timid, less small, less petty, and more willing to sacrifice and perhaps even to die rather than to acquiesce to the death of an innocent person by uttering, however unreflectively and unconsciously, the phrase….better that one person should die for the people.