We're able to inflict much pain and damage because of our ability to depersonalize people we don't know or can't see, as well as to rationalize away effects of our actions that aren't immediate.
If I slap you, it's hard for me to deny that it's your face that my hand is touching. I have to see you and be aware of you as I decide to hit. Yet I can wear a bargain shirt without thinking about the children who made it in a sweatshop. I can chart my pension without thinking about the exploitation, pollution, or questionable bioethics of the companies it is invested in. I can protest war or advocate it without knowing the everyday families whose lives that war forever change. If I sit in a traffic jam on the Schuylkill or run unnecessary electronic devices, I don't see the global temperature increase.
This week the Vatican released a 21st Century update of its list of deadly sins, which includes contributing to pollution and the widening gulf between rich and poor, and creating genetic mutations whose results we cannot know for generations. The list has provoked controversy and satire. But its value, like those of social statements by the ELCA and recent environmental proposals by evangelicals, is that it forces us to think about the far-reaching consequences of our actions and to realize that they affect, hurt and sometimes kill real human beings just like us, and damage the environment God has given us to steward. It starts to break down the rationalization of “its a victimless crime” that allows us to depersonalize so many.
Pilate participates in this depersonalization. In this reading his prisoner has already gone from “Jesus” to “this man.” In Jewish culture, one's name was so important that there was a naming ceremony for young boys, and one's person and one's name were inseparable. That's why it was so significant that God allowed Adam to name other creatures. Removing Jesus' name from the proceedings of public execution removes his humanity. He is just a cog in the unstoppable wheel.
What does this mean for me? Jesus gave up everything to go to the cross. He laid aside his divine nature, which could have ended this torture and execution at any time. And he laid aside every shred of his humanity, allowing, at last, even his name to be taken away, so that he could die, anonymous and alone. His name taken away, he identifies with me – and with the nameless and faceless poor, marginalized, sick and broken around the world.
If humans can do this to God, to a teacher living among them offering hope and healing and good news, who can't we depersonalize to get our own way? Yet if we can get angry at the dehumanization of Jesus, can we not also start to recognize him in the nameless others he identifies with and jam a beam in the machine, trying to reverse the cycle of depersonalization that plagues us?