The second of two Bible readings given at the Abbey of Saint-Jacut-de-la-Mer to the annual Synod of the Archdeaconry of France in the Diocese of Europe
“You would have no power over me, unless it had been given you from above” John 19.1-16
Yesterday we explored how St John’s passion narrative opens up the question, “What is truth?” in relation to our loyalties and our belonging. Today I want to look at citizenship in relation to power, and particularly its shadow side.
In the passion, different kinds of power collide: imperial, coercive, brutal power, and the naked defenceless power of love. These forces act on Pilate like a vice. In the conversation between the man of Rome and the man of God, Pilate is more and more helpless, tossed this way and that like grain in a sieve, half wanting to set free this prisoner who speaks about truth, half needing to appease the crowd who are thirsty for blood.
The shouts of “crucify!” rattle Pilate. But not half as much as when he goes back inside the praetorium and asks Jesus, “Where are you from?” Jesus is silent. And this has the effect of unnerving Pilate all the more. Not knowing where this extraordinary dialogue is leading him, he blunders on, returning to his favourite theme of power because it is all he knows. “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” It’s the speech of a desperate man. Jesus’ reply is the last thing he says before he reaches the cross. “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above”. And perhaps it begins to dawn on Pilate that this kingdom that is “not from here” is different in every way from that of imperial Rome. Yet the power Jesus acknowledges in Pilate to crucify and set free comes from the same source as his own, the power to lay down his own life and to take it up again, as he has said earlier in the gospel. That is to say, it comes ultimately from God.
This is not to give divine legitimacy to the human political system that has Jesus in its grip. Jesus’ point is neither to affirm the political system Pilate represents nor to subvert it. It’s simply to acknowledge that it’s a temporal, derivative power. Every Roman governor knew that the only power he held was like that. He was merely the local representative of the emperor, a servant of Rome. In particular, governors of Judaea were under no illusions about the significance of their patch. This remote unloved outpost of empire was no Gaul or Spain, or even Britannia.
Instead, Jesus turns Pilate’s riposte about power into a theological reflection on the divine origins of all human authority. That is to say, whoever we are, whatever we are, our power - hard power, soft power, collective power, individual power - comes “from above”. To recognise this is to learn how to handle power wisely and responsibly. Not to recognise this, to imagine that power is autonomous, is to become corrupted and destroyed by it. The demonic principalities and powers Paul writes about are destructive precisely because they think they are supremely autonomous and do not acknowledge where they themselves ultimately come from. “Only he who has measured the dominion of force, and knows how not to respect it, is capable of love and justice” said Simone Weil. This is Pilate’s dilemma.
Christian faith commits us to name accurately where power belongs and to confront its abuse by speaking truth to it. As we saw yesterday, this means taking the side of truth against the lie. It calls us to stand with victims who are exploited and abused, because unlike Pilate, they have no power of any kind, whether their own or given to them from somewhere else. There are Pilates in every walk of life, men and women whose judgments are governed not by what is right but by what others will think of them, what the majority want, what their superiors tell them to do, what will be in the pragmatic interests of their institution. I have suggested that one way of reading the Passion Narrative is as a judgment on Pilate and what he stands for: the cowardice that breeds confusion and mistrust by walking out on truth. No wonder Pilate was “more afraid than ever”. When fear dominates our motives to the extent that we are incapable of acting according to principle, we have lost our moral bearings.
I say we. Anyone who undertakes public office knows that they put their integrity on the line, whether in politics, business or the church. All of us start out committed to upholding the standards I mentioned yesterday like trustworthiness, accountability, integrity, transparency and selflessness. But if our high ideals are not to be a fantasy, we need to know ourselves, and this includes our propensity for self-deception. We know how easily the vision we start out with can become dulled with time. Our choices begin to lose their moral edge and spiritual integrity. It isn’t that all our good motives are discarded overnight, just that they are eroded bit by bit as the years go by. The little compromises that smooth the path of daily existence, the courage it takes to stand up for an opinion that may be unpopular but is probably right, our disinclination to take risks, our wish to please other people or be liked, our being satisfied just to be compliant – “doing things right” at the expense of “doing the right thing” - or simply the wearing-down effect of tiredness or boredom – all of this goes into making a Pontius Pilate. These words of Jesus offer a reality-check. They trace the authority of every institution and every individual back to its proper source in God himself. To know where our power comes from, as leaders and as citizens, is vital for our self-understanding. Only then do we understand that all work is both his and ours.
The church has a particular responsibility in the way it orders its life, not only for what it models to the world but especially for what it should be in itself. In the Fourth Gospel, the church is not an institution constructed around power-relations; rather as I said yesterday, it’s a community of truth and love where leadership means washing the feet of other people and laying down your life. As Meurig said on our first evening, last month’s child abuse hearings in London that focused on the Church of England were painful precisely because they drew attention to how easily, even in the best institutions, what masquerades as benign power can quickly be distorted into power of the most malign and destructive kind. Yet there is no quick fix, no easy path to servanthood. Our transformation from people fascinated by power into servants who wash feet doesn’t happen just because we act it out on Maundy Thursday. It begins when we pay attention to the example of Jesus and make it our daily prayer to imitate him. Only then do we acknowledge that to live as Jesus did can never be the result of human effort. It depends on charisms, grace-gifts that empower us “from above”, so that we can become what we are incapable of being by ourselves.
I want to connect our citizenship of this kingdom that is from above, with the Christian virtue of humility. You can define it in different ways, but fundamentally, humility is to “know our place” in the divine scheme of things, and understand that whoever and whatever we are comes from the power and authority of God. St Benedict recognised this when he wrote his Rule for Monks. Humility is the theme of one of the longest and greatest sections of that remarkable book. It comes early on, for if a brother or a sister hasn’t begun to know their place in the monastery, how will they ever know it before God? The monastery is a “school for disciples” – this is why Benedict wrote the Rule. It’s tantamount to saying that it’s a training-ground in humility, for humility is learned through obedience. So the first of Benedict’s twelve rungs on the ladder of humility is to know that we are always under divine scrutiny; all our actions “are everywhere seen by the eye of God’s majesty” (chapter 7). To put it simply, humility is the renunciation of power as humans tend to understand, in other words, to embrace the wholly other kind of power that is to embrace truth and love.
To find that his power under this kind of scrutiny is precisely what is happening to Pilate. Everything that he has ever been has come under the gaze of Jesus. Jesus has cut him down to size. “You are what you are because of God”. What Jesus says to Pilate he says to all of us. Our human capability and potential, our “power” is given “from above”. That phrase, as I said yesterday, reminds us of the conversation Jesus has had earlier with another man who knew about power, the Jewish leader Nicodemus. I reminded you that in St John, the two words kingdom and from above occur side by side both in that conversation (3.1–8), and here in the Passion Narrative. Jesus tells Pilate that he must look beyond himself to understand the source of his power, just as he told Nicodemus that the only way he would see the kingdom of God was by being “born from above”. “Can you enter your mother’s womb and be born a second time?” asks Nicodemus. The other gospels say that we must indeed become like little children. What Jesus is telling Nicodemus and Pilate is that the journey of humility begins and ends in God. Without him, we shall never find it, and therefore never “know our place” in the world. Which is the same as saying, we can never become good citizens in the human sense, let alone the divine, we can never hold and use our power wisely until we know our place.
Jesus does not stop there, though he might have done. But there is more to say about power and its abuse. “Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin”. Who or what is Jesus referring to?
Pilate has already stated the facts himself, and has used the very word Jesus now picks up: “your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me” (18.35). But the process of “handing over” didn’t begin with them. As in all the gospels, John is in no doubt about where it originated. He uses the same word to refer to Judas Iscariot whose shadow has fallen across John’s Gospel from early on after the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus spoke about the one who would betray him. We have known all along about the central part he will play in delivering Jesus to his destiny. Yes, technically it was the high priest, not Judas, who delivered Jesus to Pilate. But Judas’ role has been symbolically much more significant. So Jesus acknowledges that without Judas, he would not now be standing in the praetorium facing judgment.
It is not only Judas and the Jewish authorities who are engaged in “handing over”. The word turns up again in the sentence which rounds off the long Pilate episode. His final act, John tells us, is to “hand him over” to be crucified. In the deadly game of relay that culminates in the death of an innocent man, many different players are involved. John sees the judicial murder of Jesus as a collusion whose central act is one of “handing over”: Judas to the priests; the priests to Pilate, Pilate to the crowd. But we need to notice how the word reappears one last time at the cross itself. There Jesus bows his head in death and “hands over” his spirit (19.30). Ultimately, what Judas, the priests, Pilate and the crowd do without knowing it is to “hand over” the spirit of Jesus for the world’s salvation. That is to reflect theologically on how human events unwittingly fulfil a divine purpose. Perhaps it recalls the words of Joseph to his brothers when they are reconciled: “even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Genesis 50.20).
Sometimes a writer changes forever the way you see things. W. H. Vanstone is one of these for me, in his two books Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense and The Stature of Waiting. That second book has shown how the word “betray” is used as a marker in the gospels. It indicates a transition in Jesus’ career. Up to the passion, Jesus is the active agent in events: teaching, doing good, bearing witness to the kingdom of God. But once he is “handed over”, his role becomes passive. Out of the very power that is his by right, he chooses to renounce power. He becomes the one who is “done to” by others, culminating in his suffering and death. The true significance of Judas’ act, says Vanstone, is that he is the means through whom Jesus has become the victim, his destiny no longer lying within his own control but in the hands of others.
This helps us to see the connection between what Jesus has just said about Pilate’s “power” over him and Judas’ guilt in “handing over” Jesus to Pilate. Throughout St John, Jesus has exercised power - as the bringer of light, life and love, he acts with the authority and power of God himself. But now, instead of being in control of his own destiny, he is subject to the power of someone else, Pilate who can crucify or release him at will. That the Son of God by whom worlds were made should now have become the object of someone else’s power marks a new phase in his abasement. And because of Judas’ key role in this, he is guilty of a “greater sin”.
John is unsparing in his judgment on Judas, whom he calls “the son of destruction”. More than anyone else, he is the man who has used power for evil ends; or, we might say, been taken over and possessed by an evil power intent on destroying truth and goodness. “The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him” says John (13.2). At the last supper, “Satan entered into him....So after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.”
What does John find so unforgivable in the career of Judas that he uses the dramatic image of the night to symbolise his inner condition? It goes back to how he pictures the church as an upper room community. I think we can say that the sin of Judas as John sees it is a sin against both the truth and the friendship of that room. There, Judas is portrayed as the direct antithesis of the disciple “whom Jesus loved”. When Jesus predicts that one of them will betray him, it’s the beloved disciple next to Jesus at table who asks him who it is. Jesus answers with an action of friendship, by giving Judas a piece of bread. The word companion literally means someone with whom we break our bread: here in France children’s friends are their copains. Yet Judas abuses the privileged position friendship gives. He throws the gesture of intimacy back into Jesus’ face and leaves the table. There’s a pointed contrast here for St John. As the one abandons Jesus, another, the beloved disciple, stays with him all the way to the cross: loving ‘to the end’ just as John tells us that Jesus loved his disciples to the end.
We can speculate about what John thinks drove Judas to hand Jesus over. Traditionally it comes down to envy or greed. But the Fourth Gospel probes the psychology of Judas more deeply. As I’ve said, the first references to Jesus being ‘handed over’ occur immediately after the story of the feeding of the crowd, when Jesus foresees that people want to take him by force to make him king (6.15): here, at last, is the messiah who will rid Israel of Rome and give her back her freedom! This suggests that Judas is not the envious or greedy disciple so much as the disappointed friend. As the gospel unfolds, it becomes clearer that what he has hoped for in Jesus is not going to be realised. The delicate irony in John’s use of the friendship-symbolism of bread points to these failed expectations. Jesus begins by multiplying loaves and hopes of kingship are high. But they are progressively dashed as Jesus’ meaning becomes clear, and by the time we reach the upper room, all he gives Judas is a single morsel of bread. The kingdom is not going to come; or as we know by now, it is not going to come in that form. Maybe Judas thought that Jesus’ arrest would force the issue, but that is to speculate beyond what the gospels tells us.
But in the Fourth Gospel he is not simply the lonely, isolated erstwhile friend whose destiny is to become the most tragic individual in history destined, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, to be chained forever at the icy centre of hell with those other two great traducers, Brutus and Cassius. He stands for an entire community that has turned against Jesus and made him the object of their hatred. This is the shadow side of citizenship that, as John sees it, sets itself up against the kingship that Jesus has come to bear witness to. John has underlined this collective rejection of Jesus at the very outset of his book. “He came to his own, and his own people did not accept him” (1.11). The theme of how his mission results first in misunderstanding and then in open hostility is present in all the gospels, but in St John it features from the start. Subsequent episodes in the Gospel flesh out that initial statement about the man who was not welcome in his own community. In a long and bitter debate about his messiahship in John 8, Jesus rounds on the religious leaders and accuses them of being from the devil (8.44). And when Jesus tells Pilate that the hander-over, the traditor, is guilty of a greater sin, we can’t avoid the conclusion that St John sees an entire community implicated in his action. ‘Judas’ is not only the individual man. His name in Greek means “the Jew”.
This is hard to say for someone like me who is Jewish by birth and whose mother was a holocaust survivor. The anti-semitism that has poisoned Christian attitudes to the Jewish community for centuries has found St John’s Gospel a text that has fed its hatreds. There is no getting away from the disparaging references to “the Jews” throughout the story John tells. Instead of asking for the release of an innocent man, they clamour for a murderer and thug. Despite their hatred of the Romans, they appeal to Pilate to crucify Jesus on the disingenuous grounds of loyalty to the state. And worst of all is their response to Pilate’s question, “shall I crucify your king?” They cry out in a terrible unison, “We have no king but the emperor”. There is not a trace of hesitation or doubt in that cry. It’s the ultimate surrender of their birthright, the betrayal of their identity as the people whose king is God alone.
We can’t gloss over how the Passion Narrative was exploited by Christians early on to blame Judaism for the death of Jesus. And the first thing to acknowledge is how late in the day official Christian recognition of these facts has come, together with the first serious attempts to address it as an issue in Jewish-Christian dialogue. We are learning as we read and handle texts to be careful about the historic resonances they carry for different communities, especially for those that have been or still are voiceless, without power, made victims in some way. Women, people of colour, the LGBTI community, those with disability, people who are stigmatised, immigrants, abuse survivors and many others know what I mean. As we learn to sensitise ourselves to how discrimination has been justified by recourse to familiar texts, we must go back to the scriptures and ask whether we have unwittingly (or even willingly at times?) colluded in readings that can exercise a destructive power over some groups and individuals. I see this as especially urgent when antisemitism is once again raising its head today, as we have seen in the alarming increase in attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions in Europe in recent years (including France). You could call this being humble before the text, knowing our place in relation to it.
Historians tell us that how a society treats its Jewish minorities has often proved to be the bellwether of how that society upholds the virtues of civilisation such as honour, respect, kindness, toleration and human rights. As we know, the assimilation of Jews into the mainstream of the historically Christian European nations was not a straightforward process. My grandparents, living and prospering in a middle-class suburb of Düsseldorf in the early 1930s, did not see the signs of regression until it was almost too late. They could not believe that the hard-won integration of the Jewish community over two centuries into German society, including fighting for their country in the Great War, could ever be reversed. What the rise of Nazism should have taught us is that so-called progress is never irreversible. Which means that our societies have to maintain constant vigilance against the inequality and discrimination that pave the way towards racial hatred and the violence it begets. Antisemitism among the far-right of Germany, a nation acutely aware of the burden it carries because of its twentieth century history, should worry us greatly. And where there is antisemitism, there are always other expressions of hostility based on race, colour, political opinion, religious belief, gender and sexuality. It was not only Jews who ended their days in the Nazi death camps.
“You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” You can see how, in a society that was already looking for a scapegoat in connection with Jesus’ death, St John’s telling of the story about Judas the representative Jew would provide a ready candidate on whom to project anti-Semitic tendencies. I mentioned the key work of the anthropologist and theologian Rene Girard in that connection yesterday. This is why I’ve been talking about how we affirm good habits of reading that allow the text to speak into our political and social situations in ways that offer resources for the mending of all that disintegrates and destroys in human life.
However, Jesus’ words to Pilate must not be read in isolation from all that he has said up to this point. I’m thinking of sayings like “I have come that they may have life, and have it in all its abundance”; and “I, if I am lifted up from the earth will draw all humanity to myself”. And most of all, his prayer that “they may all be one: as you, Father are in me, and I am in you, may they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me”. I know that in their strict sense, these sayings apply to those whom Jesus has called to him, the society of friends that is St John’s way of speaking about the church. But the scope of his gospel forbids us from the narrow reading of these texts. From its opening words “in the beginning” to its vision of the cross as a cosmic event, there is what I would call a tendency towards convergence in St John, towards the integration of all that is split off and at risk of being scattered. Alone among the gospels, it’s John who quotes Jesus’ saying, after he has fed the five thousand, “gather up the fragments so that nothing may be lost”. This, it seems to me, is the work of the grace and truth we see in the glory of the only-begotten from the Father. That is the ultimate power of love about which St John has so much to say, the love that binds all things together and remakes the world as God intended it to be. And such is its power that even the “greater sin” Jesus speaks of to Pilate is capable of forgiveness and reconciliation, that transformation in the life of communities and individuals that the gospel is about.
This is why I believe that these chapters of St John speak into our dilemmas about peoplehood, nationhood, belonging and citizenship. I believe we are at a profoundly significant moment in the history not only of Britain and Europe but of the world. Maybe every generation feels this about the times they live in, but not since the Cuba Missile Crisis have I felt such a loss of hope for the future of humanity. Wherever we look, the threats posed by climate change, the hardening of extreme political views, endemic violence and the fragmentation of former alliances, not to mention the fractiousness of public debate and the sidelining of basic human virtues like generosity, kindness, collaboration, sympathy, respect, tolerance and the love of goodness, truth and beauty. Maybe getting old is making me grumpy?
I’m afraid that the outcome of the EU referendum was to me a symbol of just such a walking away from the covenants and alliances that have served us so well, imagining that it’s better to be isolated than together, regarding sovereignty as something to be grasped at rather than shared, demeaning the common good across our continent and beyond, tolerating the rhetoric of closing our borders to immigrants who contribute so much to our country. I’m not of course saying that the Referendum created these attitudes. Rather, it forced them into the open by putting to the electorate a simple, binary question about being in or out of a family of nations and peoples. The exposure proved toxic. We all know how ugly the discourse has become. And that was perhaps something we did not expect.
But I believe that the way John explores the questions of power and citizenship speaks into our current dilemmas. Pilate and Judas are I think symbols of institutional self-interest, the kind of citizenship that serves its own ends. It feeds on the collective myths about privilege, power and destiny that are only too familiar to us who contemplate the populist nationalisms all over the world today. Phrases like “America first”, “Take back control”, “What’s in Britain’s best interests” elevate the nation-state into an entity that risks becoming an absolute, an end in itself. This seems to me to fly in the face of the kind of citizenship John is talking about, where friends associate as a community of love and truth, and serve one another by washing feet.
It’s not that a Jew ceases to be a Jew, or a Roman a Roman. It’s not that we don’t love our country and are privileged to be its citizens. But when we meet as friends of Jesus Christ and citizens of his kingdom, we always know that we are subjects of the same rule and authority, and this transcends all other kinds of belonging, whether it’s the tribe, the race or the nation. To me, the EU symbolised the capacity of nations not to give their own cherished national identities absolute status but to go beyond them by building a coalition of reconciliation, peace-making, protecting the environment, defending human rights, and promoting the common good. (These are purposes we did not, and still do not hear nearly enough of in the Brexit debate.) We achieved this hard-won position by pooling our sovereignty, the power we have to change things. Perhaps God’s kingship, the kingdom that is “not from here” is more like pooled sovereignty than it is about “taking back control”. For in God’s scheme of things, power is not coercive but collaborative, God working in and through our human agency with all the freedoms we continue to have as men and women created in his image and exercising responsibility within the created order. “Build bridges, not walls” says Pope Francis. Instead of pulling up drawbridges, we need to reach out to one another in truth and friendship, celebrating the citizenship we have in common both within the human family, and as brothers and sisters under God. This is what I think we see prefigured in the passion story.
Which is why it’s not comfortable reading. It’s a searchlight that probes both our outer and our inner worlds, scrutinises our collective and personal motives, exposes our ambivalence about the moral good. It can seem as though there is no mercy in this pitiless exposure of who and what we are. But if we stay with it, we discover that it is about grace as well as truth, which turns out to be the power of love. The cross’s judgment upon us is also our salvation: the light that scrutinises us also brings hope. We bring to it our shadows and our distorted vision, and discover that it this light of truth and grace flows from an open door. Our great refusals don’t have the last word after all. By grace we can become citizens of God, and therefore, citizens of the whole world, of all humanity. That will teach us how to understand our citizenship within the human circles of belonging I spoke about at the outset. For that open door is nothing less than the invitation to come back in out of the night, be welcomed at God’s table, have our feet washed by the suffering Servant, and in that humane place of warmth and trust, to learn to love one another once again.