Monday, November 23, 2015

Clash of the Kingdoms

The scriptures referred to are John 18:33-37.

It was the end of the Convention Eucharist. The other Deans in the Diocese and I were sitting down after having served at the altar. Rather belatedly the Very Rev. Willie Faiella joined us, whispering startling news. There had been a terrorist attack in Paris. Moments later, Bishop Frade, rather than giving the blessing, announced that terrorist attacks had killed at least 60 people there. He led us in prayers for those killed and wounded and even for our enemies. I, like everyone there, bowed my head. But my heart was not in the prayer for our enemies. I was angry. I wanted to see the perpetrators punished. I wanted them destroyed. At that moment one of the imprecatory psalms, where the psalmist asked God to pour out his wrath on evildoers, was more to my taste.

Of course, violence rarely ends conflicts. Violence begets retaliatory violence. As Hosea 4:2 says, “...bloodshed follows bloodshed.” Only in the movies do the bad guys either get totally wiped out or totally surrender. In real life, people fight back. You punch me; I punch you back. When a group is attacked violently, they respond with violence, especially if they are defending or avenging their country, their people, their families or their most cherished beliefs. Don't we do the same? Why do we expect people from other races, cultures, or nations to act differently, to just roll over and take it?

That's why, especially in the last 100 years, the aggressor in most wars rarely wins. Germany was the aggressor in 2 World Wars, abetted by other nations. They lost. The Korean War was begun when the North invaded the South. It ended (though technically it hasn't) in a literal draw: the border between the two has not changed. The conflict in Vietnam goes back to its conquest and colonization by the French in the 1800s and when the Vietnamese eventually revolted neither France nor the United States were able to hold it. The Soviet Union could not pacify Afghanistan and after more than a decade our success there is not something you would want to bet the farm on. Iraq is hardly a victory. And in this day of particularly horrific weapons and tactics, of terrorism and asymmetrical warfare, not even having superior forces assures that a nation will win. War, especially today, is a fool's game.

In our gospel for today Pilate is trying to determine whether he should bother with Jesus at all. Why didn't he just crucify him right off the bat? Possibly because he did not want to do the High Priest any favors. He has not had a good relationship with Caiaphas. They had locked horns before and Pilate had to back down from bringing the Roman standards, seen by the Jews as idols, into Jerusalem. So he is not going to get rid of anyone who would be a thorn in the priest's side. Pilate will not be Caiaphas' lackey.

It is, however, Passover. Jerusalem is swollen with pilgrims, not just from Judea and Galilee but from all over the empire. The whole reason Pilate has moved from his headquarters in Caesarea to Jerusalem for this week is to keep a lid on any rebellions that might break out during a holiday that is, after all, about the liberation of the Jews from an empire.

So he wants to see if Jesus is a revolutionary against Rome or merely a Jewish criminal that the priests can deal with on their own. Pilate might also be more sensitive to this issue because his sponsor, Sejanus, commander of the Praetorian Guard, the Emperor's bodyguard, was in political trouble. When the Emperor Tiberius went into semi-retirement in Capri, Sejanus was the most powerful man left in Rome and shared consulship with Tiberius. He was betrothed to Livilla, twice married to successors of Emperors. He had been her lover and her husband, Germanicus, died shortly after hitting Sejanus in an argument. He was suspected of poisoning the future Emperor. In October, 31 AD, Tiberius sent a letter about Sejanus to the Roman Senate. Sejanus went, expecting to have more powers bestowed on him. Instead the letter denounced him. He was arrested and, without trial, taken to prison where he was strangled. There followed a violent purge of his family and supporters.

So while Pilate was described by Philo and Josephus as cruel and corrupt, and in Luke 13:1, we are told of a group of Galileans whom Pilate had killed while offering their sacrifices at the Temple, his atypical behavior in regards to Jesus might be partly because his political support in Rome was on shaky ground. And indeed the crowd saying that sparing Jesus would be seen as disloyalty to the Emperor turns out to be the tipping point in Pilate's decision to crucify Jesus. Later, in 36 AD, Pilate would recalled to Rome because of a petition from the Samaritans about his brutality and his career would come to an end.

At this point, Pilate is just trying to establish if Jesus is a threat to public order. If he is a revolutionary, he will be executed. If he is merely a religious rival of Caiaphas and his death might cause his followers to riot, Pilate will refuse to play into the hands of the High Priest. What Pilate doesn't need at this time is more turmoil in his province. So he asks Jesus straight out if he considers himself to be the King of the Jews. And Jesus replies, “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.” In John, “the Jews” usually means the religious leadership, not the people as a whole.

What is interesting is that, of all the ways that Jesus could distinguish his kingdom from those of this world, he chooses to emphasize its lack of violence. And that does make it unique. Most kingdoms begin with and are maintained by violence. The Pax Romana was sustained by Rome's military might. Which is why Pilate is so stymied by Jesus' response. To a military man, a kingdom that won't fight makes no sense.

It makes no sense to most people today, including a lot of Christians. You don't hear a lot of sermons preached on verses like Matthew 5:38-39 where Jesus tells us not to resist the one who is evil but turn the other cheek. Or Matthew 26:52-54 where Jesus tells Peter, who has both drawn a sword and drawn blood to defend his Lord, to sheath it because all those who take up the sword will perish by the sword. Or Psalm 11:5 which says the Lord hates those who love violence. Or Matthew 5:44 where Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who mistreat us.

Not to retaliate, to break the cycle of violence, is not our natural inclination. We all want to lash out when attacked. In fact, those who injure others have almost always been injured by others. Abused children become abusers. Children learn from those who raise them to use violence as a tactic, as an acceptable way to deal with others and get what they want. But it is not inborn. One way we know that is the case of James Fallon.

Fallon is a neuroscientist who studies the brain scans of serial killers. As a control, scans of the brains of supposedly normal people, like his own family, were included. He had gotten good at recognizing brains with low activity in the frontal and temporal lobes, indicating lack of empathy, defective morality and poor self-control. At the bottom of the stack he found one that was definitely that of a psychopath. When he looked up the code, he discovered the brain he had diagnosed was his own! He was astonished. How could he, a happily married man who had never killed or raped anyone, have the same brain as a serial killer? After double-checking the PET scanner and undergoing genetic tests that showed he had high risk genes for aggression, violence and low empathy, he concluded that he was indeed a psychopath, albeit a good one. Yes, he was motivated by power, was very competitive, not even letting his grandchildren win at games. He could be a jerk and was good at manipulating others. His family admitted they knew of these tendencies. In addition, his mother told him that their family included 7 murderers, one of whom was Lizzie Borden! The difference, he concluded, was that he was loved. His parents had suffered a number of miscarriages before he was born and so he was cherished. And since he has discovered his diagnosis, Fallon, once a believer in genetic determinism, has discovered the reality of free will. He has been trying to be more conscientious in doing what is right and thinking more about others' feelings.

As Jesus tells us, love is the key to human behavior. And his kingdom is founded on love. Which is why violence is not welcome there. Religions often tout peace but they allow for violence. Christianity shares a lot with Judaism, except this: a good deal of the Old Testament is about conquering the land of Canaan and the wars of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Jesus' kingdom does not spread by violent conquest. The Quran retells a lot of the stories from the Old and New Testaments and even accepts Jesus as the Messiah, though not the Son of God. But Mohammed was a military commander as well as a religious leader. In fact, you can tell how his fortunes were going by whether a passage in the Quran sounds conciliatory or belligerent towards Christians and Jews.

All earthly kingdoms and nations, including our own, are founded by violence and often by the extermination and subjugation of the native inhabitants. Thus any religion that is part and parcel of the national culture contains calls for violence. But Jesus never calls for his disciples to commit violence. Rather he warns us that we may be victims of violence by others because of our faith. We are not to repay this evil with evil but with goodness and love. We are not to prey upon those who oppose us but to pray for them.

The kingdoms of this world have strict rules on who is welcome to visit and who is acceptable as a candidate for citizenship. There are generations of Turkish workers who have been born in and lived their whole lives in Germany but are not citizens. However, the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims is not merely an extension of the kingdom of Israel. Not all Jews are automatically citizens and he commissions us to make disciples of all nations. God's kingdom is not ethnic; it has no borders to defend and it crosses all other borders not by force of arms but by the contagious nature of its ideas and ideals.

Nations designate certain persons as enemies and call for their elimination by death or imprisonment or exile. The kingdom of God deals with its enemies by seeking to turn them into friends and allies. And because we are forbidden to pass judgment on the eternal fate of anyone and are commanded to forgive others if we wish to be forgiven, we cannot write anyone off as irredeemable.

Earthly kingdoms treat this world as if it's the only one, regardless of the pieties their leaders mouth. They care about worldly wealth and power more than the riches of heaven or the power of the Spirit. And so they will do terrible things and cooperate with the corrupt and overlook what they deem to be necessary evils to achieve their ends. They will do deeds that will derail their eternal destiny to obtain things which ultimately will not last. The citizens of the kingdom of God are acutely aware that what we do in this life can have eternal consequences and that no temporal thing is worth alienating ourselves from God.

Earthly kingdoms make policies based on fear. They fear the immigrant, the refugee, the person who is not like those in power. Which means they also fear the poor, the person of color, the person who speaks a different language or who celebrates a different culture, even when they are citizens of that kingdom. And so they crack down on those people. They monitor them more closely, punish them more harshly, keep them separate physically and socially and economically from others. Their actions send the message: “You are not one of us.” And then they are surprised when those same folks say they feel excluded from society and do not trust those in power.

The kingdom of God is based on faith, not fear. It is based on love, not hate. Jesus knew what it was to be an outsider. He spent his early years in Egypt, a refugee from the violent persecution of King Herod. He was a Galilean, considered by the more sophisticated folks of Jerusalem to be a hick, and by the Romans to be a resident of a often rebellious province. He was not formally educated as the priests were and they let him know that. He taught women the Word of God, which was considered scandalous. He reached out to the downtrodden and despised, prostitutes and tax collectors, Samaritans and women caught in adultery. He identified with those who were naked, thirsty, hungry, sick, imprisoned or immigrants. He put people before religious rules. He did not defer to the rich and respectable. He made those in power nervous.

The kingdom of God and those who truly act as its citizens do make those who hold power in the kingdoms of earth uneasy. If you are willing to deny yourself and take up your cross and follow Jesus, who knows what you will do? Those who live for this world are predictable. Even violent fanatics are predictable. They are driven by their desires and especially their fears. The fanatics do not actually trust God to accomplish his ends; the secular powers do not actually trust the markets or their economic or political systems or self-evident ideologies to work. And so, secular or religious, they violate the very principles they proclaim to obtain or keep the upper hand. What they really put their faith in is power and its necessary corollary, violence. Because you need violence or the threat of violence to maintain power. You need to let the world know that you are willing to shoot people or drop bombs on people or strap them on people to get your way.

The kingdom of God doesn't work that way. Jesus did not kill others or send his followers to kill others. If Jesus' kingdom was from this world, his followers would have fought to save him. Instead, he died to save them. Had he been from this world, he would have said anything to save himself, even deny his kingship. But he stood for the truth. And the truth is that God is the God of life and love and forgiveness and healing and wholeness and peace. And the truth is that those things and the kingdom built on them will outlast the kingdoms of this world. And the truth is that the ruler of that kingdom, the one we must obey, is Jesus, who is the very image of that God. And if we put all our trust in him, he will remake us into his image.

It takes faith to believe that the kingdoms of this world do not ultimately rule this world. It takes faith to believe that people will outlast kingdoms and civilizations and not the other way around. It takes faith to believe that following Jesus, no matter the risk in this life, is ultimately safer than trusting in the fleeting power this world grants and relying on violence to triumph. It takes faith to love others and welcome them and talk to them and deny your fears and desires and to put the needs of others first. Pilate put his faith in one of the greatest kingdoms this world has ever known. And yet we only know him as a footnote to the story of a man who didn't--Jesus, whose kingdom is without end.   

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