Two years ago, I stood in front of a painting in Emory University’s Cannon Chapel, stunned at what I was seeing. I remember neither the artist, nor really the specifics of the painting, but do recall the theme. Execution. It was a painting of what is perhaps the most famous execution in modern human history, one I had seen depicted countless times before. Yet, on that day, I felt as if I was seeing it for the first time. It was a painting of Station 1: Jesus is Condemned to Death.
The Stations of the Cross are an ancient Christian liturgical form—part art display, part pilgrimage—that depict the Passion of the Christ. Through fourteen Stations, viewers move through Jesus’ journey to his death on the cross from condemnation to entombment. Each Station captures a freeze-frame moment of Jesus’ solitary suffering, intermittently alleviated (or, perhaps, intensified) by his encounters with others:
Station 1: Jesus is Condemned to Death. Station 2: Jesus Takes Up His Cross. Station 3: Jesus Falls the First Time. Station 4: Jesus Meets His Mother. Station 5: Simon of Cyrene Helps Jesus Carry the Cross. Station 6: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus. Station 7: Jesus Falls the Second Time. Station 8: Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem. Station 9: Jesus Falls the Third Time. Station 10: Jesus is Stripped of His Garments. Station 11: Crucifixion: Jesus is Nailed to the Cross. Station 12: Jesus Dies on the Cross. Station 13: Jesus is Taken Down from the Cross. Station 14: Jesus is Laid in the Tomb.
Though, as a Christian, I had encountered this walk before, it gained new meaning for me that day in Cannon Chapel. I was in the midst of what was quickly becoming a round-the-clock, faith-based campaign to save the life of Kelly Gissendaner, Georgia’s lone woman on death row. I had gone to the chapel to sit for a moment and decompress. However, instead of a spiritual escape, I found myself confronted by the very thing I was momentarily fleeing: the visceral reality of capital punishment. Religion, I was reminded, is not an escape from the pain of the world but an address to it. In the painting of Station 1, I encountered the particular suffering of a contemporary reality of injustice, embedded within the narrative of faith.
This Lent, an effort is underway to replicate this encounter across the city of Washington, D.C. with the Stations of the Cross D.C. 2017. First curated last year in London by Aaron Rosen, the Stations initiative is an innovative, interfaith public art project. Via interactive mobile app and podcasts, viewers take a self-guided pilgrimage through fourteen works of art across the host city. Rosen, a Jewish scholar of art and religion, finds a “multicultural and multi-faith resonance in the story of Jesus’ suffering.” He goes on to say, “there is not only a tremendous history of Christians utilizing the iconography of the Passion to articulate contemporary struggle and traumas, but there is also great opportunity for people of many backgrounds and faiths to find a productive language to speak to their dilemmas and anguish. Yom Kippur, Lent, Ramadan…these are all powerful moments in which suffering yields meaning.” Revd. Dr. Catriona Laing agrees. Interim associate priest at Church of the Epiphany in Washington and co-curator of the Stations D.C. 2017, Laing sees Lent as “an opportunity to voice the bad stuff – a time to acknowledge that all is not well.” Separate from Easter, Laing identifies the Lenten season as one of the “most Christian” and, perhaps fittingly, also one of the most open and accessible to non-Christians. Lent’s Christian idiom and simultaneous ability to speak to the world beyond the Church reframe the faith’s core of evangel. The season repositions Christianity within contemporary secular and multi-religious society. Laing notes that “while often, interfaith collaboration focuses on the positive and constructive images of God, here we look at the common human experience of suffering.”
Subjects of the art featured in Stations D.C. 2017 range from civil rights martyrs; to victims of torture at Abu Ghraib; to Syrians killed in the current refugee crisis; to Muslim, Jewish, and Christian female residents of Jerusalem, a city in conflict; to American soldiers; to the incarcerated, the hungry, and the homeless. Artist and death-row exonoree Ndume Olatushani created “Disrupting the Cradle to Prison Pipeline,” an art installation with prison jumpsuits and a solitary confinement cage, for Station 1: Jesus is Condemned to Death. Located at the United Methodist Building directly across from the U.S. Supreme Court, Olatushani’s art on injustice in the U.S. criminal justice system evokes the unjust sentencing of Christ before Pilate.
People will likely resist some of the contemporary connections drawn in the Stations of the Cross D.C. 2017. They did for me when, following my experience in Cannon Chapel, I drew parallels in my anti-death penalty activism between Kelly Gissendaner and Jesus in his Passion. Some Christians found it blasphemous to compare Christ with, in their words, “a hardened criminal” (apparently forgetting that some of Jesus’s last words were words of comfort and solidarity to the criminal with whom he was crucified).
While, on one level, the contemporary Stations D.C. 2017 is designed to provoke, on another, it simply presents realities that are provocative in and of themselves. As with the ancient Stations of the Cross, a straightforward accounting of what is transpiring in a situation of injustice does indeed shock and shame. However patent shock and shame is not all it does, nor all it is meant to do. As the Lenten theme of penance suggests, suffering and shame disclose truths (some about our own complicity) that should motivate us to act. Even without yet looking to Easter and the theme of life triumphant, the Stations present an empowering truth found in the suffering moment, one that surpasses the logic of oppression without eclipsing it. As the caption for Station 12, a painting from Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib series hanging in American University Gallery, states, the story of outrageous suffering redirects attention. Against the actions of powerful leaders who—whether through torture, terror, state-sponsored violence, or fiat (i.e. executive order)—inhabit some sort of God-complex, the downtrodden compel our gaze. Through the person of Jesus, the story of suffering refocuses perspective. Divinity and humanity are not found in the seemingly all-powerful, larger-than-life characters, but in those who have been diminished beyond belief. It is for and with these individuals, be they others or ourselves, that we are called to stand.
The Stations of the Cross Washington, D.C. 2017 is ongoing until April 16. Viewers can visit the Station in parts or in its entirety by downloading the interactive app with map and individual podcasts at www.artstations.org, where they can also find a full listing of events and press. In addition to iconic D.C. artwork presented in a new context, the Stations include three original pieces created for this project by Ndume Olatushani (Station 1), Leni Diner Dothan (Station 8), and Michael Takeo Magruder (Station 9).