The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (1931)
by Ben Shahn
copyright 1931

Lent 2, Romans 5:1-11

Historical Description:

Few of us today could even imagine just how polarizing the Sacco and Vanzetti trials and executions of 1927 were to both the nation and the world. Accused of murder, the Italian immigrants became the figureheads of the debate of human rights, the justice system, immigration and politics. Tens of thousands protested for or against their innocence, and after their executions riots sprung up around the world in reaction. In the wake of the political storm that surrounded the trials, the American social artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969) painted the iconic The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (1931-32). To this day the painting remains both a striking social commentary on injustice and Shahn’s most famous work.

Devotional Reflection:

The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti faces the hard reality of justice head on. The image itself is cold and imprecise, with muted hues of blue to cast a sad and somber atmosphere. In the foreground of the image lie the open caskets of the two accused men, faces directed up towards those who had sentenced the execution who stand over them. There is little emotion in the faces of the three accusers, they do not rejoice or mourn. Their expressions are detached and cold. Although they have flowers in their hands, as if to represent their intimate involvement in the affair, this is betrayed by the direction of their eyes. Though the dead bodies face them, the accusers do not look back. Instead the accusers stare off blankly over the dead bodies, as if to distance themselves from the event. The heavy and momentous nature of the scene is further defined by the background image of a painting of a Supreme Court Justice. This subtle image looms over the heads of the accusers, the law of the land coldly present in the firestorm of controversy that became of the case of Sacco and Vanzetti.

Romans 5:1-11 also paints a picture of justice, but justice with a different outcome. Shahn’s painting reveals accusers that show no emotion towards those who they helped execute. The law in the painting is cold and justice is matter-of-fact. It is a reality in which we live, where people can die by the accusation of the law and indeed do. Romans 5 also shows a reality of justice – one that can be equally cold. Paul writes that people do not choose to die in the place of others. If justice is to be served under the Law, it will be done to the guilty, not to the innocent. Sure, it is possible that one may choose to die in the place of an innocent, righteous person who is accused, but Paul’s tone betrays the reality that this isn’t likely. No one would intentionally choose to suffer the justice of the Law in the place of a guilty person, would they? But God demonstrates His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. The Law is cold and merciless, but despite this Jesus faced God’s judgment in our place so that we could be released from it. He would carry the burden of the death of an accused murderer so that we, facing eternal judgment, could be forgiven and set free. The Law remains cold and hard and real, but the consequences of the Law have already been suffered by the One who rescues us from the power of sin, death and the Devil. So we look at the painting, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, and are reminded of what the Law of God does when it accuses, but when we look to the Cross we are reminded of what the Gospel does in the forgiveness of Christ.

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