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  • by Russ Shumaker

They Know Not What They Do

They Know Not What They Do - Russ Shumaker

To step into Saint Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral is to enter a sanctuary of peace away from the parking lot freeways and the constant hustle that is Los Angeles. As the oaken doors solemnly close behind you, shutting out the bright sun of Southern California, your eyes slowly adjust to the dim light of candles and stained glass. Icons of saints fill corners, nooks and crannies offering reminders that you are not the first to pass this way.

Many have suffered, triumphed, failed, overcome on their journey through life. They act as witnesses to our potential, offer courage in the face of death and the unknown. They too sought God, and their presence in this place is a reminder of what they found. Incense teases your nostrils as it drifts gently upward. All your senses are present, attuned to the transcendent. You are at peace.

I have been here before, gazed at the images of Christ painted on the walls and domed ceiling. I am familiar with the way ancient Scripture comes to life in the brightly colored scenes I pass by on my way to a seat somewhere in the dark, uncomplicated pews. But this time, as my gaze moves around the room, one particular image captures my attention. Christ is on the cross. A simple, emaciated form, gazing down upon two Roman soldiers and three women. Across the top are written familiar words, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

They know not what they do.

This phrase, this image, ought to be tired. I am one of the endless streams of people who have contemplated renderings of the passion by artists like Grunewald, Rubens, and Caravaggio in galleries across Europe. And this is no da Vinci―for proof, look no further than the empty space in front of the image where a mosh pit of jostling, selfie stick wielding tourists would otherwise stand. To my untrained eye, this icon in a mid-century Los Angeles church had nothing fresh to offer. But somehow as I sit in Saint Nicholas Cathedral, I feel the full weight of Christ’s words for the first time.

They know not what they do.

The Roman executioners who had pounded the nails into his flesh and now stood guard did not know he was innocent. They did not know that crucifixion itself, as a long, torturous death, is a crime against humanity. They were simply fulfilling their duty in a backwater province of the empire, putting in the 9 to 5. Pilate had ordered the deaths of three revolutionaries that day, as an example to the brigands and zealots who were constantly threatening to rise up in violent rebellion. He would probably order the deaths of three more the next day.

The Centurion was nearing retirement and had plans to buy a small vineyard with his pension. Pension was calculated from an average of his three highest grossing years, so he was trying to increase his pay by performing as many of these messy executions as possible. He hoped the wine would offer relief from his nightmares.

The two privates standing there had lost a bet earlier that morning in the barracks and now they were stuck out here, standing around in the hot sun. Crucifixion meant listening to some lowlife moaning about his fate all day, and you wouldn’t believe the stench. The metallic smell of blood is something you never quite get used to. Plus, most criminals pissed and shit themselves just seeing the crosses being planted in the rocky soil.

Then there was the vomit...

Every soldier vomits the first time they perform a crucifixion, just like they do when they score their first kill in battle. It was nothing to be ashamed of, their sergeant said. Even the toughest soldiers still felt queasy about it, but they would not admit it.

“Crucifixions Save Lives,” the politicians say, “promote Pax Romana.” (The global peace brought about by Rome). In their flashbacks, soldiers saw severed limbs and distended, swollen bodies from fighting Gauls on the front lines. From youth, they had been taught that the military was a secure and noble job - a patriotic way to provide for a family and serve the gods and country all at the same time. Their parents had never been very kind to begin with. It was a hard world, and you needed to be tough. Harsh beatings for every offense were “preparation.”

They know not what they do.

Pilate was in a conundrum. Let this man die, who seemed innocent of the charges of insurrection against Rome, or have to put down another uprising from the zealot faction? Yes, there was the dream from His wife, but he was the leader of his household, and he didn’t really believe in that sort of thing anyways. He had long ago made the choice to go into government, and there are some necessary compromises that come with public service. If he had known he would end up in the arid deserts of Palestine, maybe he would have made another choice, followed his father into a business career. Or farming. Farming was a respectable occupation, and it would have been a lot less stressful.

They know not what they do.

Pharisees and teachers of the law were hand selected as children. They were the best of the best, top of their class, promoted from a life of manual labor to a life of honor and respect studying and teaching the Torah. The high priest had offered this advice early on, and they had taken it to heart: “If you want to succeed in this field, there are three things you need to do: publish, publish, publish!”

Sitting in a dimly lit room all day with a quill and some papyrus trying to think up an innovative argument tends to make people irritable. In that toxic environment, it was difficult to see straight. Plus, the zealots were increasing in numbers again, claiming to have found another champion who would assist them in overthrowing Rome. Don’t they remember what happened when Judas of Galilee fought the Romans over the census tax? Two thousand were killed, many of them crucified. Jesus had a provocative way of reading the Torah and the people were restless. Wasn’t it better for one man to die, than to bring the wrath of Rome down on our people once more?

They know not what they do.

Violence begets violence. Abuse begets abuse. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. We are born into an ocean and spend our lives learning to escape from the currents that carry us away from the shore. The liberal. The conservative. The theist. The atheist. The sure. The confused. All find their footing from time to time, only to be struck down by a passing wave.

I’m standing in Saint Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral, staring at the painting of Jesus on the cross, reading the words, but they are no longer tired. Christ’s words on the cross had always seemed obvious to me, so I had never given them a second thought. The Roman executioners were just doing their job and were not at fault. They didn’t know they were killing an innocent man. More than that, they didn’t know they were killing the Divine.

Christ was saying that this sin committed in ignorance didn’t count against them, and I had a hunch that it meant that all sins committed in ignorance don’t count against us. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” was proof that Jesus was just and merciful, not vengeful. Saint Nicholas Cathedral main photo above via:

Russ Shumaker -

Russ and his psychologist wife live in Los Angeles, U.S.A. He is fascinated by the intersections in life, where everything comes together into something meaningful that transcends expectations. Although he watches too many movies, he justifies it by writing about them. Russ is currently working on an MBA, has an MA in theology (emphasizing film, philosophy and culture), and a BA in ancient Greek/Hebrew. When the weather is nice (and it's always nice in L.A.), you'll find him surfing, running or backpacking up in the mountains. See all previous articles by Russ Shumaker

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