November 25th was Christ the King Sunday on the church calendar, which is one of those funny irksome titles Jesus ends up with after he's dead and gone and back again. The people who put the Revised Common Lectionary together (Lectioneers) gave us John 18:33-37 for the week.
What we see in the passage is Pilate's interaction with Jesus. Just before we get there, though, we overhear Pilate outside his headquarters interacting with the Jewish authorities who have brought Jesus to be judged.
As a Prefect, Pilate had some limited judicial authority in Judea. Keep in mind, Rome would rather have their provinces govern themselves to a degree than to dictate everything that went on in a province. The whole colonial system works better if an illusion of self-governance is maintained. So as a good bureaucrat, Pilate asks, "What accusation do you bring against this man?" and, "Why not take Jesus yourselves and judge him by your own law."
But the authorities who apprehended Jesus maintain that they would have him judged by a different law, so Pilate has to go back into his headquarters to question Jesus.
Interesting to note that often the crucifixion of Jesus is seen as a miscarriage of justice. If Pilate had been braver or the Jewish authorities had been more faithful or if the crowd had seen that it was Barabas, not Jesus, who deserved death (if it had never been left up to the crowd at all...) then Jesus might have lived.
In fact, if the wheels of Roman justice and the Jewish authorities had been working more efficiently, Jesus would have been put to death much sooner. In this case the gears of human justice moved imperfectly and so Jesus lives longer than he would have.
Anyway, Pilate asks Jesus straight out: "Are you the king of the Jews?" And instead of answering, Jesus asks this funny question: "Where'd you hear that from?" Like, is that your idea or someone else's? Pilate is a little bemused. He says, "Look, you're a Jew, not me. Your people handed you over to me, so what did you do?"
Now Jesus seems to answer the first question. He speaks about his kingdom. Not a kingdom of this world but a kingdom from somewhere else. Maybe a kingdom that is coming or is only now entering the world. Jesus' kingdom is unexpected, it intrudes in this circle of reality and upsets it. And importantly, it doesn't function the way the powers of this circle of reality expect a kingdom to function.
So the question is, how do we expect a kingdom to function? How does a king or a queen actually behave? I bet when most of us think of kings and queens we think of the British Royal family. “Wasn’t Megan Markle’s wedding dress beautiful?” and “Isn’t Prince George cute in his little prince outfits??” So, basically we think of glorified celebrities that only go away when they die.
But when we think of a kingdom, we should really think of somewhere more like Saudi Arabia. Think of a person or a family who controls all the wealth of a nation just because they said it should be so. Think of a man who, if you cross him, will send 15 men to murder you, cut your body in to pieces, and dissolve you in acid. This is how kings rule: through force.
How then are we to think of Jesus as a king?
I’m not satisfied by the line of thinking that Jesus is the best possible king, a king who is a servant to his people, a king who rules with love, mercy, peace, and forgiveness. All of this is merely a reaction against the concept of kingdom we already know. As a reaction it will always be defined by the thing it's reacting against. If we understand Jesus to be a king on the world’s terms, but a really really good one, then he is by definition limited by those terms.
But Jesus says something different. To the question, “Are you a king?” he answers, “My kingdom isn’t limited to the terms of this world, people won’t fight and die over it, I won’t force it upon anyone.” Jesus never claims to be a king, and when he speaks of the kingdom, he suggests a reign of god unburdened by the baggage of the old ways of doing things.
Anyway, Pilate doesn't get it. He wants an answer that conforms to his understanding of the world, he wants to hear something that means something to him, that fits into his scheme for the way the world works. He says, "So are you a king or not?" Jesus answers in verse 37, “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.”
Our Lectioneers let the passage end there. But the passage actually ends with verse 38. Pilate responds to Jesus: "What is truth?" Jesus doesn't get a chance to answer, but we witness the Empire's answer soon.
The clearest definition of the truth of empire that I’ve read comes from a quote by Karl Rove (President George W. Bush's campaign manager and Republican political operative). When he was questioned by a NYT reporter about he nature of truth he said the following:
“America is an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
He means truth under empire is defined by empire. Empire is the ultimate subject of history and when the empire acts it creates new worlds, new truths, new realities. We can see, I think, that this is true. As I said before, even those who would fashion a different reality than empire still do so in reaction to empire, the ultimate truth maker.
"Martyreo Aletheia," Witness to Unconcealedness
We quickly turn from Pilate’s cynical question about the nature of truth to Chapter 19 where Pilate takes Jesus and has him flogged. Pilate activates the truth making machine of empire. The power of empire is now visited upon Jesus body. He is stripped. He is whipped. He is mocked. Thorns are forced upon his head. He carries the instrument of his death to the site of his execution and there he is murdered by the Roman state. Finally the wheel of justice turns freely as Jesus breathes his last breath.
Yet, in this death, Christians claim, Jesus has borne witness to all truth.
I'd like to suggest that this truth is, on one hand, an entirely new thing and, on the other, also the only thing—the only true thing, the radical truth at the root of existence. What is that truth?
I want to suggest our answer is in Advent.
Advent is a period of dark expectation. I don’t know about you but I feel an expectation for something new to come. I feel hope that I almost wish wasn’t there. As the days grow shorter and colder, I feel that they mirror the character of my own imagination for what’s possible.
Still, as this year ends, I look toward the four themes of Advent: hope, joy, peace, and love. And I look toward the generativity of the Spirit at work in the world, to the simple hope of a new baby and his mother’s love, to all the possibilities contained within the life of a single child.
Kings and Emperors seek to contain these generative forces. They work to cover difference, and to manage new possibilities so that they might achieve stability. Of course, stability often turns to stagnation, and Empire will always leave a few on the margins (the poor, the weak, the lame) as it pulls powers and resources to its center.
Between Jesus and empire there isn't some third synthesis that gives us a unified vision of both. There’s a shift not just in paradigms or cultural lenses but in circles of reality. I want to suggest that Christ is something new–the embodiment of an in-breaking reality: the embodiment of the end of one world and the beginning of another—another way of being, not stagnant, but open to the creative, loving existence of the presence of God.
If that’s all true, I don’t know exactly what to do. I had a friend once who told me if he believed in God nothing would stop him from running down the middle of the street completely naked. Maybe if I really believed all of this that’s what I’d do too…
But for the time being I look forward to quietly preparing myself, not for a glorious king, but for a poor baby and the love of his mother.