More than 150 men and women in American prisons were exonerated in 2018, according to a recent report by a registry that tracks wrongful convictions. Combined, these individuals spent more than 1,600 years in prison, a record for the database, which has data back to 1989.
The leading culprit in convicting innocent people was official misconduct, according to the report by the National Registry of Exonerations. Nearly one third of these cases involved a police corruption scheme in Chicago through which a police officer framed individuals on drug charges.
As Christians around the world celebrate Easter this weekend, the news cycle will be captivated by the debate about the US justice department’s decision to exonerate Donald Trump of any crimes related to Russia hacking the US presidential election in 2016. Trump is, according to his own attorney general, no criminal. But we who worship the resurrected Jesus would do well to pay attention to who is being called a criminal in our common life. Because the Gospel story is clear: Jesus was numbered with the transgressors.
To translate that into our 21st-century context, Jesus was considered an illegal by the ruling authorities of his day. His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday was an intentional demonstration of people power over-and-against the ruling authorities. By blessing and healing the rejected people of Palestine, Jesus had built a popular movement that mimicked the pageantry of Rome to celebrate the revolutionary vision of God’s reign, which offered a real alternative to Caesar’s reign.
Thus Jesus rode into town on a humble donkey, not a warhorse. He drove the exploitative money changers out of the temple and celebrated Israel’s ancient vision that the “stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone”. We cannot forget the politics of Easter: Jesus was crucified as a criminal because the movement he had started threatened the established order maintained by the political and religious authorities of his day.
Mark’s Gospel says that, when Jesus was executed, they crucified two criminals with him – one on his right and one on his left – and the scripture was fulfilled which said, “He was counted with the lawless ones.” While Trump and his white evangelical enablers have been at pains to prove that he is no criminal, the reality of the Easter story is that Jesus identifies himself with those who are labeled lawless and dangerous to the status quo. In the midst of policy violence and racist attacks against undocumented Americans, refugees and asylum seekers, Jesus stands with those labeled “illegal”. To celebrate his resurrection is to proclaim that the lies being used to pit people against one another under this administration cannot last forever.
Blaming immigrants for the problems created by this injustice is the latest divide-and-conquer strategy of those in power. Just as they had to criminalize Jesus to turn the people against him 2,000 years ago, people invested in maintaining the status quo are criminalizing immigrants and those who stand with them today. While the president and his justice department mock the laws written to constrain their power, they use law to create scapegoats who bear the burden of our present crisis.
While Trumpvangelicals want to use religion to whitewash this violence against our immigrant neighbors, the Easter story offers a clear rebuke. Jesus was crucified as an illegal and rose from the dead to demonstrate that God’s reign is greater than any political system’s efforts to pit us against one another. The Acts of the Apostles tell us that followers of the resurrected Christ were first called “Christian” at Antioch because there was no other name for the beloved community of former enemies that emerged among people who insisted that a crucified criminal, not Caesar, is Lord. A truly revolutionary vision was unleashed in the world that first Easter.
Two thousand years later, we recall that vision anytime we remember our commitment to a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. More than at any time in American history, a fusion coalition of black, white and brown voters in America today offer the potential of electing leaders who could push us forward toward that vision. This is the political reality that threatens the political and religious authorities. When they criminalize brown immigrants and Muslim neighbors, they do not demonstrate their strength, but rather their weakness. They are confessing that, without fear and division, they cannot maintain control.
When Christians confess that Jesus is risen, we celebrate that the one who was criminalized got up to unite us all and is leading us forward together. In the midst of political chaos, Easter offers concrete hope that we can revive the heart of democracy through fusion coalition building for the common good.