It was a game. It was a game of cruelty. It was called basilinda. The word from Greek for “King.” The Romans had two kinds of games by this title. One was a harmless family game where lots were drawn and a child was made “king for a day” that allowed it to then give orders and rewards to other children playing.
The other was a parody of the being a King. It was played by soldiers who made up the death squad for a convicted criminal. A condemned man would be taken to torture before being executed if the soldiers were feeling particularly vindictive. The lots (made of knuckle bones) were tossed and the condemned man moved from place to place on the board. At one spot a prisoner might be slapped. Another spot might cause the the soldiers to kneel in mocking homage. One space required a robe be placed on the prisoner. Yet, another a crown of thorns. And eventually the prisoner would be advanced on the board to a final place. An image of a sword served as the finishing point where a non-Roman would be taken off to be crucified.
I know it sounds familiar. It is what is being described in the gospel accounts of the torture of Jesus of Nazareth before his own crucifixion. And yes, civilized Rome, with its genius of Law and Order bringing peace to a chaotic world allowed it to happen. Soldiers played the game. Prisoners watched. Pontius Pilate himself may have watched many men be treated this way. It sounds like something that responsible people could not let happen. And yet it did. It was not only in one place either. It did not happen to only one person. It was one of the perks of the job.
Once, during a Bible study discussion, a class member asked why would anyone describe that? Another student answered, to show how brutal civilization is.
I once stood on ancient flagstones in the old city of Jerusalem and saw the markings for this game. No, I do not claim to have stood where Jesus stood. The best dates given for these stones’ placement as pavement is the second century A.D. But, the game was far older.
It often eludes Christians on Good Friday that Jesus did not die in any special way. The gospel writers gave us the accounts of what could happen to any carpenter under Roman suspicion. What happened to Jesus was not cosmic child abuse. It was not murder of an innocent for the sake of the guilty. It was a murder that exposed the evil and violence that made the “Peace of Rome” and the “Sanctity of the Temple” possible. Jesus died for the very things he taught.
One cannot read the Beatitudes and ponder them very long without realizing the world will try to destroy anyone who puts them into practice. Eventually there will be conflict with what humans think will get them whatever it is they believe they want. The fourth gospel is clear that Jesus is not a sacrifice for sin. He is the paschal lamb that overcomes the sin of the world. He becomes a symbol of liberation. He is a liberation from the world’s ways. Then, he gives us the ways of heaven.
The season of the great fast of Lent is approaching. How often do we believe punishment should be the goal of justice? How angry do we get when we see evil being done and then catch ourselves wanting a greater evil to be done in response to it? Are we ready to give up such desires so that we may find ways to bless those who need blessing? Can we drop the focus on those who do evil? Can we begin to focus on being with the victims? With whom did Jesus die? Didn’t one of those get a promise of Paradise?