(RNS) — The current Broadway revival of the 1998 musical “Parade” has been receiving lots of praise for many reasons. It’s particularly worth the attention of Christians as we celebrate Good Friday.
“Parade” tells the true story of a Jewish accountant in Georgia who was wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl, and later lynched. The death of Leo Frank is an important moment in U.S. history — both the Anti-Defamation League and the modern incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan emerged out of his 1915 conviction and murder.
Composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown and book writer Alfred Uhry tell us the story through multiple viewpoints: Frank and his wife, Lucille, whom he frequently underestimates; members of the Black community, who wonder whether anyone would care if a Black man was falsely accused; the district attorney who is pressured into finding a suspect to blame, then wooed by white supremacists to run for higher office; the governor, who eventually investigates the case at the cost of his political future; even 13-year-old Mary Phagan herself, her grieving mother and her peers.
But for me, the most striking moment in the new production actually happens at intermission. The first act ends with Frank convicted of the murder, shortly after he’s called “Jew” for the first time. While the rest of the cast disperses, Frank, played by Ben Platt, sits down at a simple table. The lights go up, the act is over, but Frank remains seated there the entire intermission, deep in thought and alone.
The moment first struck me as a bit of a stunt. Plenty of audience members took the opportunity to snap a photo of Platt. But as Frank variously stared into space, laid his head on the table or sipped from a cup, I just watched and waited with this man facing his own death. And I found it made his suffering more present and real.
There’s unexpectedly no sense of blame, either. Having sung “These people make me tense” near the start of Act I, in Act II Frank will be much more gentle with them, understanding, even. His suffering and grief have somehow opened him up to a deeper well of humanity within him. Watching him opens us up, as well.
In the Easter season, we practice a similar moment of waiting on Good Friday. Alongside fellow Christians around the world, we spend our Good Friday services quietly witnessing to the story of Jesus’ persecution and death. In contemplating Jesus’ cross, we are drawn into his life in a more intimate and challenging way, just as we do Leo Frank’s. But our view of Jesus’ Passion in the Gospel of John, the text for this and every Good Friday, in crucial ways lacks the complexity of Frank’s story in “Parade.”
The Passion that we read in John encourages a simplistic and therefore dangerous way of thinking. The phrase “the Jews” appears 18 times, 12 of them in reference to those calling for Jesus’ death. It is “the Jews” who ask Pilate to execute Jesus in the first place, “the Jews” whom Pilate goes back to after he speaks to Jesus and finds no guilt in him, “the Jews” who “cried out” when Pilate tries to release him. Talking to Jesus about his arrest, Pilate says, “Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me.”
The clear takeaway, that “the Jews killed Jesus,” is an idea that has inspired 2,000 years of prejudice, hatred and persecution, despite the fact that it is entirely nonsensical. Jesus himself was a Jew. So were his disciples, his family, his followers and friends. And the Jewish leadership was no singular cartoon villain, either, but a complex of different groups with specific problems about what Jesus had been saying and doing.
We know all this, and yet each year on Good Friday we continue to read this version of the story. Meanwhile, a recent report from the ADL found that 85% of Americans today believe at least one anti-Jewish trope, a jump of almost 25% in just four years. Incidents of antisemitism in the United States are also are at the highest levels in over 40 years. In February, white supremacists actually protested outside the first preview of “Parade.”
A simple solution would be not to use John’s Passion on Good Friday. It’s just too easily misused and misunderstood. But that wouldn’t solve the deeper problem of appreciating Jesus’ identity and mission. Anyone who walks away from Good Friday wanting to blame or persecute anyone has missed the point. Jesus’ life and death, like the intermission of “Parade,” call us to reach for greater complexity. How can we do that here?
Perhaps we should put the issue front and center. The pope chooses a theme for every year. For 2016, the Year of Mercy, the church around the world created programs and opportunities to help Catholics experience the loving mercy of God. The U.S. bishops have the ability to call for a national movement, as they have in the upcoming three-year National Eucharistic Revival beginning in June.
A period like this, dedicated to Jesus’ Jewish roots, could invite every diocese to provide programs that help Catholics appreciate what growing up Jewish looks like and means. It could call on priests and deacons to learn and preach more about Jesus’ Jewish heritage, and offer more nuanced portraits of Jesus’ opponents like the Pharisees or Sadducees. Our parishes and dioceses could also partner in social or service programs with local synagogues and Jewish schools.
Today the Catholic Church often describes the Jewish people as our older siblings in faith. A year dedicated to Jesus’ Jewish roots could make those bonds more real.
Like the quiet intermission in “Parade,” the Good Friday service is not meant to incite outrage or blame. It’s a moment in which we’re drawn into the life of a suffering Jewish man, and invited to let that experience break open our hearts and change our ways.
The Gospel of John’s Passion gets in the way of that. How can we complicate its narrative, and our own?
(The Rev. Jim McDermott is an associate editor at America magazine. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)