Lake Davis, near Woomera, 2016

The Whole World in His Hands

The Sunday of Christ's Reign
Gospel: John 18:33-8

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ 38Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’

What is truth? In the way John writes his gospel, he wants us to remember that Jesus has already said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life."

So… Jesus is the truth… but, what does that mean?

Well, there's some interesting dialogue back in Chapter 8, where Jesus is having an argument with religious folk:

They said to him, ‘We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.’ 42Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me. 43Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word.  [And why is that?44You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies45But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.

So Jesus is the truth— Jesus stands for something— which is opposed to the father of lies. The father of lies is that foundational lie which gives rise to all the other lies.

What is the greatest lie? What is the thing we worship which, at its very foundation, leads us astray?

The father of lies is that we can solve violence with more violence; the idea that we can make war to create peace; the idea that order and harmony can be created by violence.

Now, you might say, Andrew, violence is not good, but didn't you just pull that out of your hat? What makes it the worst thing, or the father of lies.

Well, the scholar Walter Wink, says the Babylonian Creation story, which dates from before 1200 BC is one of  "the oldest continually enacted myths in the world." That is, it's one of the oldest stories by which people live their lives. [1200 BC is the date of the written records; the story is far older.]

He says

… its basic mythic structure spread as far as Syria, Phoenicia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Germany, Ireland, India, and China. Typically, a male war god residing in the sky fights a decisive battle with a female divine being, usually depicted as a monster or dragon, residing in the sea or abyss (the feminine element). Having vanquished the original enemy by war and murder, the victor fashions a cosmos from the monster’s corpse. Cosmic order requires the violent suppression of the feminine, and is mirrored in the social order by the subjection of women to men and people to ruler….

In this myth, creation is an act of violence. … order is established by means of disorder. Chaos …. is prior to order. Evil precedes good. The gods themselves are violent.

Now: The interesting thing that happens around 600BC is that Israel is exiled to Babylon. And it's there that the Book of Genesis gets written down in its current form. And you can see the similarities between stories in Genesis, in the Creation story and in Noah, with Babylonian stories. So of course some folk want to crow, "See… it's not true! It's the same story!"

But what's clear is that the story "in Genesis 1 is diametrically opposed" to the Babylonian story. It is written to be— I quote, "a direct rebuttal to the Babylonian myth… "

It sounds the same only on the surface. But the "Bible portrays a good God who creates a good creation. Chaos does not resist order. Good is prior to evil. Neither evil nor violence is part of the creation, but enter later, as a result of the first couple’s sin and the connivance of the serpent (Genesis 3). A basically good reality is thus corrupted by free decisions reached by creatures." (Wink)

Wink says that "In this far more complex and subtle explanation of the origins of things, violence emerges for the first time as a problem requiring solution." In the Babylonian Myth, violence is how things are done. It's the way of the world. And one way of reading that extraordinarily bloody saga that we call the Old Testament, is to see the gradual exposure of the lie of violence. Violence is injustice. Violence is anti-God. Violence harms the innocent.

How do we see the world? Is it a fundamentally violent place where we must strive to create harmony, living almost as warriors who overcome and tame nature? Or do we see that fundamentally it is a good place, where we are at home, and meant to be a part of the good balance of things?

Once you see the foundational violence in the world view of much of our culture, it can't be unseen.  It is everywhere. This is not a dry study of old myths which are irrelevant. It is us.

Wink said

The Babylonian myth is far from finished. It is as universally present and earnestly believed today as at any time in its long and bloody history. It is the dominant myth in contemporary America. It enshrines the ritual practice of violence at the very heart of public life...

What crystallised it all for him was the realisation that he was watching the old myth of Babylon reshaped into the story of Popeye and Bluto and Olive Oyl.  Look at the underlying assumptions of so many movies and books: violence solves problems and brings resolution and peace.

But isn't the story of Jesus the same? There's a problem, so God violently kills his own Son to create peace— isn't that what it says?

Actually, it's not. It's a rewrite of the story, just as Genesis is a rewrite of Babylon's myths to rebut them.

I reckon one of the great insights of twentieth century scholarship came through Rene Girard who started out as an atheist scholar of literature. He was so startled by what he found— he wasn't looking for it— that he converted to Christianity! He also observed the underlying myth of violence in human culture, especially our universal practice of finding scapegoats when something has gone wrong.

Girard says, that Jesus was the last scapegoat. He exposes the lie that the scapegoat restores peace. He exposes the lie that violence brings peace.

Essentially, one way of reading that extraordinarily bloody saga that we call the Old Testament, is to see the gradual exposure of the lie of violence. He said that the Old Testament, and finally, the death of Jesus, shows us that the scapegoat is innocent, and that violence brings a false peace.

Yes, Jesus died for us, he said. But we killed him, not God. We sent him to his death, not God. Jesus did not have to die, but we did not listen to his message of the fundamental peace and justice that is generated from living for our neighbours as we live for ourselves. If you've ever been troubled by the violence that seems to characterise Christianity, Girard's work is a revelation.

Jesus refuses violence. When he is arrested, he stops Peter using his sword to defend him, and heals the man— the very man* coming as part of the mob who will have him killed. In his conversation with Pilate he says my kingdom is not like yours… "it is not from this world." It is not derived from the myth of violence.

Some folk have suggested that "my kingdom is not  of this world" means Jesus had no interest in politics; he was about some spiritual kingdom. He is everywhere interested in politics. He stands firmly in the tradition of Amos, Micah, and Hosea, the prophets who cry out: do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.

But he says to Pilate. If my kingdom were like your kingdom, my followers would fight to prevent me being handed over. But it is not like your kingdom. The early church radically refused homage to Caesar. They refused to do military service; they were pacifists.  

The great lie, the father of lies, is that violence will produce peace and justice and harmony. Jesus' non-violent, just way of living, is the truth. Violence does not save us; Jesus does.

How can that be even remotely practical in the world of ISIS and Assad, of Russia and America, and of Australia and its concentration camps?

What if we changed the underlying story? What if we said the idea that violence solves problems and brings peace is a lie, the father of lies? Would we trust Christ the King enough to live in this violent world as though his different kingdom were real?

What if we said this:

We confess
that every necessary soldier in the street
is witness to our failure
to do justice, love mercy
and love our neighbour as ourselves.

In this
I will honour my father and his companions
who endured the trauma of war
and carry it still:
I will honour them
as bearers of my sin.

Not only will I refuse fighting.
I will give my life to the just cause
down to the lie of the last cheap t-shirt
which clothes the violence of the sweat shops,
and pay what is proper,
refusing the advantage of my privilege,
living gently,
seeking justice,
seeking peace.

This is to call out the father of lies.
It is to trust— aka have faith— in Jesus' claim that the Kingdom is at hand
among us and within us
instead of within comfortable houses and fine food.

In John 18-19, Jesus is on trial. But Pilate, who knew he was innocent, caved into the threats of the mob. Pilate was judged too, and found wanting when he chose allegiance to the Emperor. Would we be judged as followers of the King of Peace or the father of lies?

Sources:
Creation Myths: http://www.religioustolerance.org/com_geba.htm
Walter Wink: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/cpt/article_060823wink.shtml
To find an accessible introduction to the work of Rene Girard, follow the articles currently being posted by Richard Beck in memory of Rene Girard, who died on November 4. They are not yet in a sidebar menu, but begin here, and scroll up through the blog posts. They update the original posts of 2006-7. Beck notes a good introductory article to Girard here.
Andrew Prior: Who[se] are we?

* The man who has his ear cut off is Malchus. Malchus means king (melek) If you appreciate the synchronicity of myth and symbol, how odd that the king is the servant of the high priest, and that Jesus heals the hearing, the ability to understand the meaning of life. The gospels constantly call us to see and to hear.


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