Sunday, April 7, 2013

Accusers or Defenders? Reflections on The Crucible

As I shared the other day, I reencountered two classic works of literature this past week. I already wrote about my thoughts on watching the 2011 film version ofJane Eyre. Today I want to explore my reaction to watching a production of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible.

I had not seen or read The Crucible since high school. I remembered the basic plot but had forgotten most of the details. I had not ever, to my recollection, seen it performed on stage. Although I knew of the connection between the play and the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692-93, I was not prepared for the strong reaction I experienced as I watched the performance of a local Christian high school. In the director's notes was written:
It is our hope that as we leave the theatre following the production, we will heed the lessons of history to search our own souls.
Watching this play, particularly after viewing Jane Eyre only days before and after reading Danielle's reflections on visiting a slave prison, certainly has caused me to search my soul.

The Salem Witch trials were conducted in one of the most religious communities in America. To cite the director's notes: “The Puritans believed God had chosen them to establish a model community for the rest of the Protestant world and envisioned themselves as a 'city on a hill.' Their leaders created a theocracy founded on biblical principles, whose purpose was to prevent any kind of disunity that might open them up to destruction.” When I read this, I immediately think that this remains the ideal of certain groups of Christians. God has established the United States to be a city on a hill to the world and as such we need to found our laws and culture on biblical principles. Although I do not agree that God has established the United States as a city on a hill, I am certainly inclined to support the idea that we should found our laws and cultural norms on biblical principles.

But then I consider the results of this in New England. I watched the performance of The Crucible with a deeply troubled soul. At times it pained me to see these “biblical principles” applied in such a way that innocent people were accused, condemned and many of them hung merely on the basis of suspicion and ungrounded accusations. Certainly the issues involved were more complex than simple religious fervor, but the insistence that they were doing the work of God as they tried, condemned and executed these people (mostly women, which is also significant, although some men were also accused and executed) for witchcraft makes me question the very principles which they sought to uphold. They believed they were upholding the teachings of Scripture, when in fact they were violating the very teaching of Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Their own fervor blinded them to the travesty of their actions.

Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible at the time of the McCarthy trials, in which suspected Communists were accused and condemned publicly. He saw a distinct parallel between the two events. As I watched the play I saw parallels to our current society as well. Out of fear of perceived threats to the “biblical foundations” of society, out of insecurity and fear in light of cultural transformation and the economic difficulties we have been passing through for a few years now, I see a tendency among some to react with a similar witchhunt – looking for a group or groups of people whom we can blame for the “decline” of our country. The “illegal” immigrants are to blame, or the homosexual community with their “gay agenda.” We may not be able to put them on trial in a court of law anymore (thank God for that), but we still see them put on trial in the court of public opinion. We see our legislators in many states and in our national Congress, working too often to enact laws that restrict, exclude and punish those we blame for our issues, rather than looking for positive solutions that embrace the diverse mix of people that form our nation.

Where is the Church in all this? Are we, like the Puritan leaders of 1692, leading the witchhunt, seeking to accuse and condemn those we determine to be sinners? Or are we defending those unjustly accused, standing with them, affirming their dignity, worth and value as children of God against the voices that would cast them out? Will future generations look back on us as we now look back on the Salem witch trials?

I want to stand for those who are accused, condemned and outcast because they are different than the majority. I want to stand for those who do not have power, influence and privilege in our country. I don't have to affirm everything such people may or may not do. That is not the issue. The issue is that they are also children of God, uniquely created just as I am and worthy of full embrace as brothers and sisters. Jesus didn't exclude those who were on the fringes of society, the ones that the “righteous” people so readily condemned. No, he embraced them, ate with them, loved them, while directing his critique to those who considered themselves righteous. Do I care more about maintaining an outward appearance of righteousness, or do I care more about loving the real people God brings into my life?


  1. I had the chance to perform this play in college (I played Giles Corey, one of the men who was killed for refusing to bear false witness) and it has always had a profound effect on me. I think it is this sort of pointing the finger and condemnation that makes our interpretation of the Crucifixion and Resurrection so important. Is violence necessary to purge us, and our communities, of unrighteousness? Or did Jesus actually come to demonstrate a different way, a Third Way, of atonement and reconciliation?

    1. I am asking myself that question more and more, although I hadn't expressed as concisely and clearly as you have: Is violence necessary to purge us of unrighteousness? Do we have a fundamental prejudice in our theological matrix that inclines us to accept, even to promote violence because that's what's needed to cleanse and purify? What if, as you suggest, Jesus came to demonstrate a different way? Have we totally missed the point?