The verdict in the murder trial of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito smells bad – really bad. And it smells bad because we’ve smelled it before, as my daughter Hannah points out in her powerful essay Witch hunting in the 21st century.
The judicial process is messy and, often as not, the higher the stakes the more opaque truth becomes. We need to be reminded of this constantly – and are, if we are lucky enough to listen to or take part in a performances of one of J.S. Bach’s Passions settings, which are typically performed in the Spring around Eastertime. We are entering the Passion season.
“In church music,” Wikipedia informs us, “Passion is a term for sung musical settings, normally at least partly choral, of the Gospel texts covering the Passion of Jesus, the events leading up to the Crucifixion of Jesus, and emphasizing his suffering.”
While it may seem a stretch (and, for some, heretical) to compare and contrast the trial of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito with the passion of Jesus as told through Bach’s Passions, the story of politically-motivated legal charges leading to sham trials, compromised verdicts, and resulting incarceration – or crucifixion – is one that bears repeating because the reality of such events is ongoing.
It is the humanity in Bach’s music and his understanding of human frailty that allows me speak of Amanda Knox, Rafaele Sollecito, and Jesus Christ in the same sentence. The greatness of Bach’s St. John and St. Matthew Passions comes from the fact that as performers and listeners we are forced to take on all the roles in the passion drama. We are the narrator, the accused, the judge, the vicious mob, the horrified spectators, the consolers and the consoled. We aren’t allowed to distance ourselves by observing from behind a one-way mirror. We are forced to name names – and we name ourselves.
You can experience this profound cognitive dissonance by watching and listening to this vivid performance of the St. John Passion conducted by Sigiswald Kuijken. The entire performance is riveting, but if you’re short on time, watch and listen from 0:53:45 to 0:59:12, and imagine yourself present at the trial of Jesus.
Here is an English translation for the selection of the St. John Passion referenced above:
Evangelist (Narrator) And struck him on the face. Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews:
Pontius Pilate (Judge) Here he is; I bring him to you to let you know that I find no fault with him.
Narrator: So Jesus came out, wearing a crown of thorns and purple robe. And Pilate said to them:
Pilate: Behold, what a man!
Narrator: When the chief priests and their attendants saw him, they shouted:
Priests: Crucify, crucify!
Narrator: Pilate said to them:
Pilate: Take him away and crucify him yourselves, since I find no fault with him.
Narrator: The Jews answered him:
Priests: We have a law and by that law he ought to die, because he has claimed to be the Son of God.
Narrator: When Pilate heard that, he was more afraid than ever, and going back into the hall he said to Jesus:
Pilate: Where do you come from?
Narrator: But Jesus gave him no answer. Then Pilate said to him:
Pilate: Do you refuse to speak to me? Surely you know that I have authority to crucify you, and I have authority to release you?
Narrator: Jesus replied:
Jesus: You would have no authority at all over me if it had not been handed down to you from above. Therefore the deeper sin lies with those who handed me over to you.
Narrator: From then on, Pilate tried to find a way to release him.
Chorus: Through your captivity, Son of God,
freedom must come to us.
Your prison cell is the throne of grace,
the refuge of all the devout.
For if you had not entered into servitude,
our servitude would have had no end.
* * *
How flawed our ability is to determine and deliver justice! (We are human, after all.) How deep the remorse that follows a miscarriage of justice.