The crux of the matter
Look at the eyes of Jesus in this portrayal by Hieronymus Bosch. His tormentors mock him with loose smiles and focused contempt, but Jesus looks at us, to us, as if to invite us in -- as if to question our status as viewers, as innocent bystanders.
One of the tormentors wears a dog collar, but we know that those who abuse the vulnerable are not always so obviously savage. The killers of little Jamie Bulger were themselves children, and their stories are interwoven with our society's story. It may be morally convenient to see the tormentors of Jesus as grotesque figures, but the truth is always messier. The American soldiers who abused prisoners in Guantánamo Bay had stories too, and loved ones, and families who were shocked by their inexplicable behaviour.
Stanley Milgram's famous experiment suggests that many "normal", "ordinary" people -- people like you an me -- may be prepared to do similar things in similar circumstances given the right context. And the right context could simply be a perceived sense of permission, the nod from an authority figure. We prize our right to act in accordance with our personal conscience, but just how malleable that conscience may prove to be in morally fraught circumstances is a discomfiting question.
Then look at the figure in red on the left, his head-dress bearing the religious symbols of Islam and Judaism -- the crescent moon and the star of David. There were no Muslims when Jesus was mocked on the way to the cross, and the figure at the centre of the mockery was himself a Jew. Bosch's Jesus looks like a dislocated alien, when in truth, he was amongst his own. When we tell and re-tell the story of the crucifixion, we always layer the portrayal with our own perceptions, our own prejudices, our own place in space and time. To some extent, that is unavoidable. But if those portrayals indict others and leave ourselves as innocent bystanders, they become another kind of mockery.
The biblical account of what happened to Jesus, on a cross in April of AD 33, narrates both a particular crime and a universal dilemma. He was murdered because he got in the way of the powerful players of his day. He died because he refused to be less than he was. He was not prepared to compromise on his sense of identity or on the implications of his convictions. The religious and political elite did him in because he said the wrong things, he raised the wrong kinds of hopes, and the following he was gaining was a threat to the balance of power.
Ask enough questions about the structures of power in many societies today and you might find fellow-cause with Jesus. That is the dilemma we all face, and it is a moral dilemma: when to speak out for the rights of another, when to stand up in defence of the downtrodden, when to refuse to co-operate with a system that hurts people we hardly know, when to question the official justifications, when to look the powerful in the eye. Because Czesław Miłosz had it right: "There is no such thing as an innocent bystander. If you are a bystander, you are not innocent."
Picture: Christ Mocked (The Crowning with Thorns) c. 1490-1500, Hieronymus Bosch, The National Gallery, London.