Who[se] are we?
Week of November 22 - The Sunday of Christ the King
Bible: John 18:33-37
Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. 29So Pilate went out to them and said, ‘What accusation do you bring against this man?’ 30They answered, ‘If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.’ 31Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.’ The Jews replied, ‘We are not permitted to put anyone to death.’ 32(This was to fulfil what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)
33 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?’
After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, ‘I find no case against him. 39But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ 40They shouted in reply, ‘Not this man, but Barabbas!’ Now Barabbas was a bandit.
… 19:7The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.’… 12 ‘If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.’ …
In John 18 we are presented with the historically absurd image of Pilate, who holds the power of Empire, running back and forth between Jesus and his accusers. It should alert us to the fact that this is not something like a newspaper report. It is the "backstory to Calvary… the "why" of the cross, not only the "how."" (N.T. Wright How God Became King pp240-245 quoted in Nuechterlein) Wright goes on to say, "Learning to read [the gospels] in this way may be a novel art, but it is one we Western Christians should acquire as soon as possible." If we don't learn this lesson we risk trivialising the cross.
Pilate holds the political power, and wields it with arrogance: his attitude to the Jewish authorities is dismissive and insulting. But when they accuse him of being "no friend of the emperor," he crumbles instantly. Yet within this vacillating person, there is also principle and spiritual awareness; we could say he has heard the wind blowing. (John 3) "I find no case against him," he says. He understands there is much more than a political power play happening here.
In spiritual terms, John has drawn, in the figure of Pilate, a picture of us. We have heard that Jesus is King of the Jews, whatever that means— others have told us this, and like Pilate, we are called to judge Jesus and make our own decision. "Pilate … 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?’" The question from the synoptic gospels is unspoken, yet loud: "who do you say that I am?’" (Mark 8:29) Pilate is being judged as he judges Jesus, (Nuechterlein) and so are we.
Jesus tells Pilate he came to testify to the truth, and Pilate asks the question we should all ask: "What is truth?" The immediate answer, of course, is in Jesus' statement "I am the way, the truth, and the life." (John 14:6)
When we have become sensitive to the imperialism— I use that word deliberately— "which either deny[s] truth and salvation to persons of other faiths or see these faiths as diminished, but possibly salvific, reflections of Christian truth," (Epperly) we become properly cautious about the words John puts in Jesus' mouth. In John's context of a choice between the way of Rome, and the way of resurgent Jewish faith after the fall of Jerusalem some 20 or 30 years before, the only way to the Father must have seemed to be through the insights of Jesus. The other two ways offered nothing salvific. So John wrote: I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." But as Epperly says, "… our congregants assume imperialism and limited salvation unless we share alternative possibilities."
John provides a lens through which we may further explore "truth" in Chapter Eight.
Jesus 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. 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 lies. 45But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.
Paul Nuechterlein's Girardian Lectionary provides us with some of N.T. Wright's exegesis around this text. He sums Wright up by saying, "What Jesus comes to reveal to us is that our oppressors, like Rome, aren't the real enemy."
Rome provided the great gale, and the distorted ambitions of Israel [provided] the high-pressure system, but the real enemy, [the reas strength of the storm,] to be met head-on by the power and love of God, was the anti-creation power, the power of death and destruction, the force of accusation, the Accuser who lays a charge against the whole human race and the world itself that all are corrupt and decaying, that all humans have contributed to this by their own idolatry and sin.
In the scheme of all things, Empire is derivative and quite weak! Wright touches on this in another place:
The point about truth, and about Jesus and his followers bearing witness to it, is that truth is what happens when humans use words to reflect God’s wise ordering of the world and so shine light into its dark corners, bringing judgment and mercy where it is badly needed. Empires can’t cope with this. They make their own “truth,” creating “facts on the ground” in the depressingly normal way of violence and injustice. N.T. Wright How God Became King pp 144-5
This is why Jesus' kingdom is not from this world. It is dealing with a far more basic reality about our humanity than the structures of Empire. Empire is an attempt to live in the world, to create order out of chaos, and it fails. We are called to something deeper and wiser. Epperly speaks of "the … idolatry, of [Christendom] … fashioning … God in the image of Egyptian, Persian, and Roman rulers… The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.” The church is called to abandon any pretentions to Christendom, and any attempt at theocracy.
So to sum up, so far: Jesus is talking about a "wise ordering of the world" which is not based upon the current ascendant political power, the political pragmatism which creates "facts on the ground in the depressingly normal way of violence and injustice." Both Empire and Jesus' accusers are born of the deeper "anti-creation" power which is "the father of lies."
All of this leads us to ask, "Who is the father of lies?" When we speak of Satan we need to remember that "he" is a personification of one part of the mystery of who we are. If we make Satan too much of a "person," too much of a "real being," then we risk making "him" one more excuse for our own shortcomings and evils. Ironically, "he" becomes a scapegoat.
But there is something deep in us and within our corporate existence— it is a part of humanity as it currently is— which cannot be ignored. We cannot write Satan off as some kind of superstition. The reality this name tries to describe is real.
Girard complained that "all the theologians who were up to date "demythologized" the Scriptures with all their might, but they didn't even do the prince of this world the honor of demythologizing him."
He theorised about our species' early humanity.
Let us go back to the moment when the divided community [at risk of destroying itself] reestablishes its unity against a single victim who becomes the supreme scandal because everyone, in a mimetic fervor, holds this one to be guilty. Satan is the violent contagion that persuades the entire community, which has become unanimous, that this guilt is real. … In transforming a community of people with distinct identities and roles into a hysterical mass, Satan produces myths and is the principle of systematic accusation that bursts forth from the contagious imitation provoked by scandals. (You can read some of René Girard's I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), the beginning of Chapter 3, "Satan," pages 32-38 here)
Satan is the contagion which blinds us to the lie of redemptive violence which Walter Wink said "is the real myth of the modern world…"
In short, the Myth of Redemptive Violence is the story of the victory of order over chaos by means of violence. It is the ideology of conquest, the original religion of the status quo…
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 [and Australia.] It enshrines the ritual practice of violence at the very heart of public life, and even those who seek to oppose its oppressive violence do so violently…
The Myth of Redemptive Violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational, and primitive depiction of evil the world has ever known…
Redemptive violence gives way to violence as an end in itself. It is no longer a religion that uses violence in the pursuit of order and salvation, but one in which violence has become an aphrodisiac, sheer titillation, an addictive high, a substitute for relationships. Violence is no longer the means to a higher good, namely order; violence becomes the end.
Some bibles translate ek tou kosmou toutou as "My kingdom is not of this world..." as though somehow we could withdraw from all this. Or even that Jesus is not concerned with this world! Ek means out of or from: Jesus' kingdom is not derived from this world, or from its violence. But it does not withdraw from the world. It lives in the world, and confronts the violence, but not with violence.
When they bring Jesus to him, Pilate is confronted by the violence of the mob. Jesus asks him which King he will follow. The mob ask him the same question. Pilate chooses, ultimately, not Caesar, but violence. In the name of Caesar he submits to the father of lies.
To say Christ is King is to say nothing until it is clear to which king we belong. Is Christ king in the image of "Egyptian, Persian, and Roman rulers," the absolute potentate ruling by violence? Or king in the image of American firepower— and its deputy sheriff? Or is Christ the one who constantly calls us not to forget that father of all lies that violence can create order and peace, or indeed, create anything at all? "The Greek word lethe means forgetful. With the "a" as a prefix, the etymology of aletheia, or truth, would seem to be literally to not be forgetful, or to stop forgetting." (Nuechterlein)
Under the constant barrage of The Violent Story, will we refuse to forget the story of a new creation, a new way of living, a rescue and resurrection indeed, from foundational, endemic violence? How this new creation for which we hope, and in which we trust, will happen, is beyond our understanding. But one thing is clear: if we forget it, or if, like Pilate, we succumb to political pragmatism, we have not been practical. We have given way to, and taken the way of, the father of all lies.
How does this have any practical application this 2015 Sunday of Christ the King on the streets of Beirut and Paris? Or in our street where one of our local residents is denied access to the church property under any circumstances?
We have framed this exclusion as our failure, not his. We simply do not have the resources to serve him whilst keeping others appropriately safe. That is our failure. Our goal, a long way off, is to become a church which could let him in the door. What a change if we were to say,
that every necessary soldier in the street
is witness to our failure
to do justice, love mercy
and love our neighbour as ourselves.
Would the government of Australia ever say this? Perhaps our role is to be found in Origen's words about the king in Against Celsus:
We do not indeed fight under him,
although he demands it;
but we fight on his behalf,
forming a special army of piety
by offering our prayers to God.
and these prayers
are not to forget
but to live love
to the limits we are able.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!