In September 2022, I traveled to Oberammergau, Germany, to attend the village’s world-famous, once-a-decade Passion play. I’m working on a book about how local communities reinterpret the Stations of the Cross to claim divine solidarity in the face of injustice, a project that has led me to Passion rituals of many kinds. Last Good Friday, students invited me to join an ecumenical Atlanta congregation composed predominantly of people living on the street as they carried a cross down a gentrified stretch of busy Ponce de Leon Avenue to lament the racialized displacement wrought by recent urban redevelopment. The next day, a community in Atlanta’s Peoplestown neighborhood memorialized Jesus’ Crucifixion beside the burned-out Wendy’s parking lot where police officers killed Rayshard Brooks in 2020. I’ve become captivated by the question of what it is about the Stations of the Cross—this quintessentially traditional, medieval devotion and its fourteen-station template—that makes it such a rich site of theological agency for communities on the margins.
Aside from its source material, the Oberammergau Passion play has little in common with these urban Ways of the Cross. Its origin story begins in 1633, when village leaders assembled under a wooden crucifix in the parish courtyard and begged God to save the plague-ravaged community from further death. In return, they promised to perform Christ’s Passion every ten years. Plague deaths miraculously subsided, and the following year, villagers made good on their vow. With a few notable interruptions, villagers have staged the Passion about once a decade for nearly four centuries. The play was slated to debut for the forty-second time in 2020, until—ironically—the pandemic forced a two-year delay.
Under three-time director Christian Stückl, Christ’s Passion in Oberammergau becomes a wrenching, intimate, sometimes chaotic psychological theo-drama. Performed in German on an open-air stage, the play is nearly six hours long, in addition to a three-hour break in the middle for dinner. Scenes are punctuated by “living images”—color-saturated, summarily haunting tableaux from Hebrew Scripture that, in Stückl’s vision, strive for longue durée rather than biblical typology—and carried by a full orchestra and chorus performing a score adapted from one composed some two centuries ago.
But what has made the Oberammergau Passionsspiele a source of global fascination has arguably less to do with its content and more with the traditions associated with its production. To participate, a person must have been born and raised in Oberammergau or have resided there for at least twenty years. (Anyone under the age of eighteen can perform, no matter how long they’ve lived in town.) Everyone from the village has the right to participate; the 2022 production featured a cast, chorus, and crew of nearly two thousand people, around 40 percent of the village’s total population. Preparations begin years in advance. To achieve that rugged first-century look, villager-actors refrain from cutting their hair or trimming their beards beginning on Ash Wednesday the year before the play. The lives of the Bavarian village and its people revolve around the play in ways that feel beguilingly incongruent with Western Europe’s otherwise late-modern secular milieu. It’s impossible to listen to a cool and self-described religiously ambivalent German twentysomething talk about eagerly putting his life on hold for a year—leaving university, quitting his job, moving back home with his parents, all for the chance to join his neighbors on stage in a play about Jesus’ Crucifixion—and not come away wondering what exactly is going on here.
But it’s another question raised by the play that I find most exigent: What is tradition? And, faced with tradition, who are we? Adherents? Agents? Something else? In 2000, Columbia University English Professor James Shapiro published an exposé that traced the play’s anti-Semitic history and complicity in Nazi persecution of the Jews. When the book debuted, most community leaders still approached the play’s troubling past with a mix of denial and shame. Twenty-three years and three productions later, actors discuss the history with frank sincerity. In August 2022, the American Jewish Committee honored Stückl with the Isaiah Award for Exemplary Interreligious Leadership for catalyzing a village-wide reckoning with the play’s legacy. In sustained consultation with Jewish groups, Stückl exorcized the play’s anti-Semitism and reinvented the production to accentuate Jesus’ Jewish identity. In the conservative Bavarian village still haunted by the region’s Nazi past, the decades-long process of revising the play was politically arduous and personally risky. It’s also clear that what seemed at the time to be a departure from tradition was in fact, for the play, a necessary act of salvation.
Change has come in other ways, too. Before 1990, concerns that any woman in the play appear properly virginal meant that only unmarried women under the age of thirty-five were allowed to perform. Deputy Director Abdullah Karaca explained that after the rule was changed, four hundred women who had previously been excluded signed up to act. The play widened to incorporate them, creating new roles and amplifying crowd scenes. Today, no one would guess that the old women around town whose long gray hair signifies their participation in the play had ever been excluded from the tradition. Karaca, who portrayed Nicodemus, was as sensitive as anyone to the ever-widening circle of inclusion: he was one of two Muslims in the 2022 production. Nowadays, Karaca noted, the question on many people’s minds is whether the residency requirement should be amended. Those who want to maintain the rule invoke the sanctity of tradition. But, he explained, the rule was only instituted in 1960 to keep World War II refugees from participating. It called to mind the scores of Confederate monuments across the U.S. South erected not by grieving Civil War widows, as some would like to imagine, but by Jim Crow–era segregationists seeking new ways to terrorize Black citizens with the white gaze. How much of what we call tradition is just the loosely calcified discriminations of some recent past? When is change an act of fidelity? How do we learn to tell honest stories about the things we’ve inherited?
Scholarly accounts of urban Good Friday processions like the ones I’m researching all seem to include a quotation from a participant firmly disavowing the idea that their ritual is a “Passion play.” The idea, I guess, is that Passion plays are benign and apolitical, part of a dusty genre of lacy, sentimental piety. A via crucis that winds through the streets of San Antonio or Atlanta or Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, on the other hand, is something different, something real: defiant, rooted, prophetic. It’s a reasonable conclusion—but, I now see, an incomplete one. Every Passion play, whether on stage or in the streets, is an act of filling in the blanks; to fill in the blanks is to do the work of tradition. I went to Oberammergau because I viewed it as the consummate Passion play, the pious control group against which the radical nature of the other Passion rituals I planned to examine would become even more apparent. Yet as I delved into the play’s complicated history and the work it has taken to remake and redeem it, such distinctions have become blurrier. I’m still not sure where Oberammergau will fit into the narrative I’m crafting, but I do know that it won’t be as a foil.