Jesus and Pilate

Jesus and Pilate    Wilmot Nov 22, 2015

What a wonderfully rich and tense scene the gospel puts before us today as we contemplate the Reign of Christ.  Jesus and Pilate facing off – one of them the representative and deputy of the all powerful Roman Empire, one of the most successful empires the world had known, that held together the various peoples from Britain to the Middle East by the iron grip of its military discipline and ruthlessly efficient administration.  The other a totally insignificant Galilean carpenter, about to become its next victim, crushed by the machinery that fed the Empire’s power.  And yet – this powerless victim is, we believe, the very power that undergirds all creation; and this authoritative Roman, it seems, is just another helpless functionary in an inhuman system that leaves his hands tied.  And these two now proceed to debate the nature of kingship, of power and authority.

The Reign of Christ (or, as it used to be called, the Feast of Christ the King) is a fairly recent addition to the liturgical calendar.  It was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, and adopted by Anglicans and other denominations in the seventies as we picked up the lectionary and other aspects of the church year from the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council.  The date of its origin is significant: in the early 20th century, at the time of the rise of communism and fascism, totalitarian ideologies that demanded absolute and unquestioning allegiance, the church moved to remind us that no secular state has a claim on our absolute allegiance: that belongs to Christ alone.   Now recognizing the kingship of Christ doesn’t mean, let us be clear, that our religion gives us permission just to ignore the laws of the land.  The power of government has a role in providing stability and the rule of law in the interests of the people.  Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. But for Christians this power is not absolute.  The authorities and institutions of this world can claim our conditional obedience – conditional on them working for the best interests of all.  But our absolute allegiance, our hope and our worship, that belongs only to one whom Pilate is about to send to the cross.

Just a couple of weeks ago I was saddened to read of the death of Rene Girard.  Rene Girard was a philosopher and cultural critic, one of those French intellectuals who are the darlings of professors of humanities and graduate students.  Unlike most French intellectuals, however, Rene Girard was a Christian, and his thought is a deep conversation with theology and the Biblical tradition.  I have found his ideas insightful and illuminating.  And I bring him up today because his ideas speak to the nature of power and violence in human society.

Girard is fairly pessimistic about the role of violence in human society.  Violence is a power that runs through human history, exerting a malevolent influence upon us.  What makes violence so powerful, is that it contains within it the impulse to copy it.  Whenever we experience violence, our urge is to strike back, to get even, to replicate the violence we have experienced and send it back to the one who has violated us.  And so we become at least a bit more like our enemies, until the cycle of violence drags us both down.  Violence functions exactly like a cancerous gene, that causes our cells to copy it and become themselves cancerous.

Now this tendency to imitate violence, the propensity of violence to beget more violence, would drag us down into complete chaos, if human society hadn’t found a remedy for this.  For Girard, the remedy is that society needs to find a scapegoat.  At some point warring parties, if they are not going to destroy each other completely, turn and direct their violence toward a third party, someone too weak to strike back.  It is, as one sermon I read on this puts it, as though two schoolyard bullies stop fighting each other and turn on the weak kid with the stammer.  It is a pattern as old as human civilization.  Indeed, according to Girard, it is the pattern of all human civilization, the thing that has made civilization possible between warring people.  Religion has a role to play here, too, and a shameful one: it is religion’s role to declare the scapegoat guilty, so that society can turn on them with a good conscience.

Well, it seems to me that Girard’s ideas have been written large over the news this past week. That violence begets violence is something we see with depressing regularity.  How disappointing and yet predictable the French president’s response to the Paris attacks: the declaration that France is at war, the ramping up of the bombing campaign in Syria.  Indeed, he reacted exactly the way ISIS wanted him to react, fell squarely into the trap they set for him. He sounded exactly like George Bush in 2001 – and what did Bush’s reaction do? He gave a handful of radicals the power to influence human history, brought untold suffering to millions of people, and dragged the moral standing of his country in the world down.  Have we learned nothing after 14 years of acting out copycat violence?

As for the scapegoat – how shockingly savage has been the wave of reaction against the Syrian refugees that has swept across the American political spectrum, and spilled over into Canada. What is going on there, that we so quickly turn to blame those who are the first victims of the very violence that has struck us?  Faced with the sense of our own impotence, with the knowledge that we can’t just solve this by wiping out the bad guys, we turn to blaming the weakest, because that feels like it brings some sense of order and control.

These are the same principles being played out in the scene between Pilate and Jesus. Pilate wields the power of Empire, the power of this world.  It is a power founded on two tools: on the Roman legion, which conquered the world, and on Roman justice, which kept order by the ultimate threat of the cross. In other words, it is a power founded on violence. Jesus wields a different kind of power: “My kingly power is not that of this world.  If it were, it would be based on violence: my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over.”  The power that Jesus claims, his kingship, the reign of Christ, is a very different power from the violence that underwrites power in this world.  And it is this different, alternative, non-violent power that claims our ultimate allegiance.

John’s account especially of Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion make the theme of the scapegoat evident.  The whole scene is played out in the violent tension between the ruthless Roman governor, and the restless mob outside. By working together to crucify Jesus, the innocent victim, open violence is avoided, and peace is maintained, at least on the surface. “It is expedient, says the chief priest, that one man die for the good of the people.”  And Luke remarks tellingly that from that day forward Pilate and Herod became good friends.  Nothing binds potential enemies more than coming together to kill someone weaker than themselves.

And this is where Girard’s theories about violence reach their interesting theological conclusion.  For Girard, all this is background to understanding the death of Jesus. Jesus went to the cross to unmask the lie of the scapegoat: the tendency to blame the weak and the victim.  It is the traditional role of religion to keep the peace by declaring the scapegoat guilty and worthy of death, as the Sanhedrin does with Jesus. It is a role that religion unfortunately still takes on far to often: blaming the weak and the marginal –  the single mother, the cultural outsider, the poor, gays – and so reinforcing the moral claim of the powerful. But when the sinless Son of God willingly takes on the role of the victim, this blaming is exposed for the lie that it is.  Jesus’s death is a radical subverting of the tradition role of religion.  The followers of Jesus can never again blame the weak, but are called always to solidarity with them.  And the hope of the world is to accept the very different kind of kingship and power that Jesus models for us, and to turn away consciously from the old patterns of violence and scapegoating that just keep bringing more hatred into the world.

I will give the last word to one of the heroes of the Paris attacks, a young man by the name of Antoine Leiris, who issued a statement the day after his beloved wife was murdered at the Bataclan theatre. I have no idea what M. Leiris’ religious background is, and it doesn’t matter: he gets it.

“On Friday evening you stole the life of an exceptional person, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred.
I don’t know who you are and I don’t want to know, you are dead souls. If this God for whom you kill blindly made us in his image, every bullet in the body of my wife is a wound in his heart.
So no, I will not give you the satisfaction of hating you. You want it, but to respond to hatred with anger would be to give in to the same ignorance that made you what you are.”
Us two, my son and I, we will be stronger than every army in the world. I cannot waste any more time on you as I must go back to him who has just woken from his sleep. He is only just 17 months old, he is going to eat his snack just like every other day, then we are going to play like every other day and all his life this little boy will be happy and free. Because you will never have his hatred either.”

And that, my friends, is what the kingly power of Christ looks like.