“But, Chris, the Bible Isn’t Political”: Part 11

Jesus grew up a rural peasant, but on Good Friday found himself before Governor Pontious Pilate in his Praetorium. The chamber was lined in marble. Above Pilate’s seat was the imperial seal. Stately attire, statues, art, torches, guards, and spears. Everything in the scene conveyed the full might and grandeur of the known world, and here came a Galilean who was born among the cattle.

Pilate had little patience to hear a Jewish dispute against a rabbi from Nazareth, so he moved to the heart of the matter as it concerned him. “Are you a king?” he asked. Remember from earlier that this was a loaded question: Only Rome had the power to make kings, and decades before had made Herod “King of the Jews.”

“It is as you say,” Jesus responded.

This trial was actually one of three short trials Jesus endured on this day—first before Caiaphas, then Herod, and then Pilate. The literary work here is important. Don’t miss it.

  • Rome appointed Joseph Caiaphas to be the high priest.
  • Herod was one of the wealthiest individuals in the world at that time, owing to Rome installing his father as “King of the Jews.” The family continued to dominate the economic landscape well into Jesus’s lifetime.
  • And Rome appointed Pontious Pilate governor of Judea. His task was to route out and quash any rebellions that might form in what was an oft-troubled region of Judea.

The three individuals who tried Jesus each exercised a different kind of power, but each received their power from Rome. The gospel writers really, really, really want you to make this connection. In fact, this connection is the very thing at issue at the start of Jesus’s ministry. This is Jesus’s forty days of fasting and temptation in the desert, the beginning of the story:

  • Satan first tempted Jesus with the idea of turning stones into bread. Don’t read that simply as Jesus being tempted to eat. I’m sure that was part of it, but the real temptation was about economic power, a monopoly over the world’s grain supply. The power to turn stones in bread would have made Jesus, not Herod, the most wealthy man in the world.
  • Then, he tempted Jesus with the idea of jumping off of the temple and commanding angels to catch him. Anyone performing this stunt would instantly be recognized as possessing the authority of the temple institution. This would have made Jesus, not Caiaphas, the holder of the religious power in the triangle.
  • Finally, he tempted Jesus with all the kingdoms of the world. This is war power, which Rome had given to Pilate.

The gospel writers were thoughtful literary artists, and they want you to notice how what happened at the very beginning of the story connects with what happened at the very end. They want you to see that Jesus’s three trials on Good Friday were the same three trials he had faced in the wilderness.

So, getting back to the trial, Jesus had just affirmed that he considered himself a king, and then it was Jesus’s turn to get to the heart of the matter as it concerned him: “For this purpose I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who listens to the truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” responded Pilate, who we are to believe has suddenly become a philosopher. Kidding aside, do not skip over this question; it is crucial in the narrative. As you’ll soon observe, Pilate unknowingly answered his own question and, thus, tied together the whole narrative of Jesus’s ministry. Jesus’s declaration and Pilate’s response show off yet more literary flourish and are critical to the arc of the narrative. You will see this shortly.

Pilate sent Jesus to the barracks, which, to the absolute hatred of the Jewish people in Israel, he had set up directly adjacent to the Temple. After the soldiers flogged him there, they decided to have fun with him. They’d heard that this homeless rabbi claimed to be a king, so they placed a purple imperial robe on him, put a reed in his hand to resemble a staff, and then lodged thorns into his skull to resemble a crown. Having decorated their beaten-up prisoner to look like a Roman client king, they chanted “Hail King of the Jews!” and bowed down to him.

Of course, they meant it as a joke, but this was the precise moment Jesus had spoken of a week earlier.

During his march to Jerusalem, Jesus explicitly told his disciples that he was going there, in his words, to become king. (Except, in a way that would confound the Caesars for centuries.) Instead of entering Jerusalem on a war horse, he entered on a colt donkey. Then, for a week, he prophesied against each three interconnected powers of Rome—over and over emphasizing that his kingdom would be a difficult place for the powerful to enter.

And finally—garbed in purple robe, back bloody from being whipped, thorns lodged in his head, and mocked by the Roman soldiers—Jesus was now what he claimed he had come to Jerusalem to become. This beaten up peasant from Galilee was king of the world.

And having been corronated king in this once-in-history fashion, Jesus was brought back to the Praetorium to face down Pilate again.

“Where are you from?” Pilate asked. But, Jesus was king now, and he no longer answered to Pilate. Pilate had no power to interrogate him.

So he remained silent.

Don’t you realize I have the power to release you or to crucify you??!!” shot the incensed Pilate.

And there it was. This is what the gospel writers are wanting you to see. This is statement that completed the arc of narrative. In Pilate’s words, he had answered his own question from earlier.

What is truth?

I’ll tell you what truth is. Truth is power. The only truth is I have power over you. I can let you go, or I can release you because the world is run by men of power.

Economic power.

Religious power.

War power.

Armies, economies, and temples. These three make up an iron triangle: always in tension, and yet mutually reinforcing. According to Pilate, the triangle is the thing that rules the world. But Pilate didn’t know that Jesus had outlasted the triangle three years before. Jesus could have chosen to be a billionaire. Satan offered this to him. Jesus could have commanded the authority of the temple. Satan offered this to him. Jesus could have become the next world conqueror, the successor to Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar. Satan offered this to him. But Jesus declined the whole system. In his forty days of fasting and temptation in the desert, Jesus had overcome the iron triangle. And he did it again on Good Friday.

“For this purpose I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who listens to the truth listens to me.” Do you feel the weight of those words now? What Jesus did on Good Friday was expose the triangle for the lie that it is. If your imagination has no space for a world that is not ruled by the iron triangle, you have not been properly formed as a follower of Yeshua. And that gets me to this sad tweet from the president of the largest Christian college in the United States:

The kingdom that Jesus described is a direct threat to the triangle (the Caesars understood this well), and yet the church as I’ve seen it in my life has mostly operated in a way that effectively defends it. While the war powers and the economic powers openly work towards their patently greedy ends, my observation of the church has mostly been to either (1) team up directly with the other parts of the triangle (“we have no king but Caesar”, “what is truth?”), or (2) to draw our attention away from the abuses of the triangle (“this world is not my home”) and effectively render Jesus subservient to the triangle. In this understanding, Christ is king the decisions we make as private individuals but not king over anything else. Christ has nothing to say to whoever occupies the White House (excepting, of course, when it involves abortion—a topic found zero times in the Bible).

But in a world in which Jesus is not king over Caesar, Jesus would find himself back in the Praetorium still under the authority of Pilate’s questioning. Pilate would still be interrogating Jesus, and Jesus would still be compelled to answer. This is not the story that the Gospels tell.

We are eleven posts in and have finally reached the point of the title I chose for this series.

While the kingdom of Jesus described and performed is one in which the triangle bows down to him, the modern church mostly works in the service of having us bow down to the triangle. When the war powers and the economic powers work to crush the life chances of the world’s most vulnerable, our church leaders tell us that the spiritual thing to do is to just focus on going to Heaven—in effect releasing the triangle from the authority of Jesus. Focusing on earthly things like systemic poverty and justice and peace, we are told, is below us. The triangle spends incredible sums of money propagating these ideas in the churches and books and films and speaking engagements of prominent religious leaders who defend the triangle.

Many church leaders and church congregants are innocently caught up in this system and are simply blind to it. These are the ones to whom I hope my writing reaches.

But still many church leaders are outright in the business of securing White House invitations.

This is Caiaphas.

When Pilate brought Jesus out to Caiaphas, whom Pilate hated, he mocked him with, “behold, your king.” Of course, Caiaphas wanted no more to do with this outsider to the power triangle than did Pilate, but his response reflects more and more the direction I see churches trending today.

“We have no king but Caesar.”

Joseph Caiaphas is Israel’s teacher. He should know better, and, for this reason, among Pilate, Herod, and Caiaphas, Caiaphas was the worst of all.

Caiaphas got Pilate’s “truth.” In this rare moment of candor, Caiaphas took off his mask and revealed that he was playing the same game that Pilate was playing. His words were the same as Pilate’s in the Praetorium: The world is run by men of power.

Again, some people are stuck in the Christianity of Jesus as savior of the afterlife. It’s wrong, but it’s an honest mistake.

Mr. Falwell on the other hand, is mostly an echo of Caiaphas. He is America’s teacher, and yet so obviously, life for him consists of proximity to power. He is the defender of the triangle and his position in the triangle. Caesar does not bow to Jesus. Pilate does not bow to Jesus. Herod does not bow to Jesus. Caiaphas does not bow to Jesus.

This speaks loudly today. This is why the church has lost its prophetic voice—what Walter Bruggeman calls its “voice from elsewhere.” We aren’t a voice in the wilderness preparing for the kingdom of the world; we are rightly recognized as merely the third leg of a power triangle. So obvious is this to most people that they want nothing to do with the church.

Frankly, I’m happy about this. I’m happy that young people are dropping out of churches as they are currently constituted. I don’t sit around worrying about losing numbers. I hope it only happens faster. Why? Because when Jesus said, “everyone who listens to truth listens to me”, that means that when people are leaving the triangle that Jesus condemned in the wilderness and on Good Friday, they correctly recognize it for the falseness that it is. As we see church numbers decline, I’m reminded that the world isn’t full of cynical people like Pilate and Caiaphas and Herod, but the large crowds of ordinary people who received news of the kingdom with rejoicing.

Religious leaders play their game in the White House, get the blessing of the powers, and then bless whatever power gives them power. They bless our devastating wars. They bless our massive concentrations of wealth.

You know you’ve seen this. You know that the economic powers and the war powers enjoy in America freedom that they do not enjoy in less religious countries. You know that the wellbeing of people who live in the most religious parts of the America is worse than the wellbeing of those who live in its least religious parts. Where there is broad human flourishing in the world, the war powers and the economic powers don’t have the religious powers in their service to deflect attention.

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