Deep Water

BeautyBeyondBones

So tonight, forgive me, but I’m going to reblog one of my favorite posts from 2016.

We’ve been dealing with a family emergency, so I haven’t had 2 minutes to sit down and write to you, my dear friends.

So thank you for giving me an extra couple days here. This post is ringing true in my life right now more than ever, perhaps it will for you too. Happy New Year friends. 🙂


Ever feel like your life is a broken record?

Like there’s something that you just. can’t. break free from? Just can’t quit or fix or resolve?

How many times have you gone to bed and thought, “Well, I’ll try again tomorrow.”

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Ask anyone who’s breathing and they can relate.

“Go out into deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Luke 5

This is a pretty famous story in the bible. The gist is this: 

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Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men?

#ChristmasinAleppo

image of Nativity Story movie poster
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8241723

I wanted to write this post last Sunday, December 11, third Sunday of Advent. During this season, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” is practically my mantra. Last Sunday, I came out of church and checked the time on my cell phone. There were three headlines from my newsfeed about bombs around the world: One was certainly in Aleppo, another in Egypt, and another I think was in Turkey but I don’t remember for sure. I felt like shouting to all of them, “Don’t you know this is Advent? Don’t we all want peace and goodwill?”

There is so much going on in the world now that makes you wonder about Advent, which is supposed to be a time of hope and preparation for Christmas. Christmas is supposed to be when we remember the birth of the Christ child, whose birth was announced with angels declaring “Peace on earth, goodwill to men.” And I don’t care what religion you are, you cannot tell me that is not the desire of every human heart.

Syria has been on my mind for a while. The situation there has been called the worst humanitarian crisis in history. And now what is happening in Aleppo is appalling. You see one report on 60 Minutes, and the enormity of suffering is overwhelming. They have been living like this for months, even years. A city thousands of years old, part of the Assyrian, Babylonian, Seleucid, and Roman empires, so very much a part of Biblical history, that in 2011 had a population of two million, now seeing destruction of Biblical proportions. Constant bombardment and temporary cease fires just so they can draw people out of hiding and shoot them down.

What got to me most was seeing mothers desperate to find a safe place for their children, and there is none to be found. In the choir, we were practicing “Breath of Heaven.” Most people call it a Christmas song, but it’s really an Advent song. The music and words together really capture what I can only imagine Mary must have felt in the first days of her pregnancy as she is running away from her hometown to stay with her kinswoman, Elizabeth (Luke 1:36-45). And as I read, heard, and sang the words, I kept thinking of these mothers in Aleppo. Where is peace on earth and goodwill for them? Do I even have a right to enjoy Christmas when there is so much suffering over there?

Religion In a Time of Despair

I know it’s not the only place of suffering in the world. They aren’t the only mothers as desperate as a girl of about twelve or thirteen, pregnant before marriage, who knows no one is going to believe her when she says God is the father of the baby, and wondering how she will care for him in a world that welcomes neither her nor her baby and might stone her to death for impurity and/or blasphemy. But this situation was fresh in my mind. I saw the connection. I felt it. I’m not going to say I understand what they are going through, because there is no way you can know something that horrific if you haven’t actually lived through it.

This is what I think religion can do for us if our hearts are open for it: To see and feel the connection each of us has with all of humanity, even those who are ten thousand miles or whatever away. If I say I want to honor Christ in all I do, what does that mean for them? It means seeing that the story of every mother crying out for the health and safety of her children is Mary’s story. It means seeing the baby Jesus in every baby whose home, family, and life are threatened by powers that view them as a means to an end.

The True Meaning of Christmas

There are two songs specific to the season that drive this home for me. One I’ve already talked about is Amy Grant’s Breath of Heaven. The other is an older, traditional song but with a new twist: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day by Casting Crowns. The words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow already told well the struggle between wanting to believe in “Peace on earth, goodwill to men” that Christmas promises and living in a world that seems so bent on violence and hate. The music, however, was boring. Casting Crowns redid the music and adjusted the words just a little so that the mood of both match perfectly. The combination is arguably the most beautifully heartbreaking and hopeful song of the season.

Spiritual Exercise: If you really want to experience the meaning of Christmas,

  1. Stop getting bent out of shape when someone says “Happy Holidays.” With all that’s going on in the world, do you really think Jesus wants you wasting your outrage on that?
  2. Read the scripture in Luke 1:26-40; 2:8-14
  3. Let the words “peace on earth, goodwill to men” sink in
  4. Watch a news story on the plight of the civilians in Aleppo
  5. Then either watch the videos or listen to these two songs.

Amy Grant, “Breath of Heaven,”

Casting Crowns, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, with lyrics

Below: the original artist, no lyrics

WARNING: BE SURE YOU HAVE TISSUES NEARBY.

But What Can I Do?

Hopefully now you feel some of the compassion Jesus felt when he saw the people were like sheep without a shepherd. What can you do? You can pray, of course. I would recommend making that a part of whatever you do. But if you want to back up your prayer with more substantive action, click here for a link to an excellent article. Here’s a summary.

  1. Educate yourself and stay informed. Add Syria and Aleppo reports to your news feed.
  2. Donate to charities doing the work we can’t. Charity Navigator offers a list of vetted charities actually doing what they say, so you can avoid the scammers.
  3. Show your support and outrage. Write letters to the editor. Attend or organize protests at the embassies of Syria and Russia. Write directly to the governments of Syria, Russia, and Iran through Amnesty International.
  4. Tell your Senators you want them to support the Caesar Bill. It has already passed the House.
  5. Talk and/or post about it
  6. If you have special skills, for example, translator, doctor, lawyer, volunteer with agencies that need those skills
  7. If you’re feeling really bold, welcome a refugee into your home

Grace and Peace to you this Christmas season.

DAA

P.S. If you like this, you might also like…

Previous posts about Syria

Previous posts about Christmas

 

 

3 Reasons Why Faith Matters in Recovery

#faithanddepression #12steps

A couple of months ago, I got a notice that someone liked one of my posts. It happens sometimes. (Why do you look skeptical?)

Because we’re both on WordPress, the email gave links to a few of his posts. I clicked one where he talked about reading his official diagnosis from his therapist, and it got him down. I knew what he meant. When I got tested for depression, the therapist was very helpful after the fact. But when I read the report, it was probably the most depressing thing I had ever read.

If you are considering getting tested for depression, I do want to encourage you to do it. It was very enlightening for me. But I’ll give you the same advice I gave this person: Do not read the report unless you absolutely have to. (This is if you are having a therapist test you rather than taking an online screening). Keep a copy of it in your file cabinet, in case one day someone needs to see it, but DO NOT READ IT YOURSELF. In his case it was too late, though. So I whatever it said that got you down, ignore it. It was not meant for you. Only two parts of the report will help you: The diagnosis (clinical depression, bipolar, whatever), and the recommended treatment. Nothing else in the report will be helpful to you. In fact, it may do more harm than good.

He said, “Amen to this. Focusing on the treatment is much more productive. Of course, being depressed, my mind enjoys wandering to the negative. Fighting it, one day at a time. Thanks for your perspective!”

That might have been the end of our exchange, but it sounded like he needed a little more encouragement, so I responded…

“That’s how it is with the depressed brain. Our vision tends to be dark, so we need to find light wherever we can. One thing I like about my religious tradition is it says our purpose is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever. God is for our joy and our recovery. So keep turning toward the light.”

I didn’t think I was forcing my religion on him. First I acknowledged a depressed brain does gravitate toward darkness. I know the same way he does, from experience. So I was just offering a bit of light I’ve found. I didn’t say this, but when I share with you something that’s helped me, I’m not trying to convert you. All I’m saying is this helped me. If it helps you, great. If it doesn’t, find something that does.

This was his response, and I’ll warn you there is some rough language in it.

“I’m glad you find strength in your religion. However, we are all a product of our circumstances. There is no god. And I think a part of us knows that this is true. There are about two billion Christians who believe to be blessed to the have true faith. Now replace ‘Christians’ with ‘Muslims.’ The truth is, none of us know what the fuck we are doing. All of us are just desperate for meaning.”

Apparently, it was not received the way I intended. Of course I wanted to smooth things over, so I said,

“Whatever you believe or don’t believe is fine. I don’t subscribe to any idea of one and only one way or one and only one truth. Even with my faith, I have felt lost at times. As you say, we are all desperate for meaning, so I just want to encourage you to find your source (or sources) of light and meaning.”

I think he simply expressed something a lot of people are thinking. Even if they don’t believe with assurance that there is no god, like a genuine atheist, they do sometimes wonder, “Is there a God? I mean really? How do I know?” So to address this, I want to break down what he said.

  1. There is no god.
  2. A part of us knows this is true.
  3. All Christians believe they have the true faith. So do Muslims. [Implied: which one is right?]
  4. None of us knows what we are doing.
  5. We are all just desperate for meaning.

I’m not sure if numbers 4 and 5 are supposed to prove there is no god. To me, they just sound like a description of the human condition and point out the need for a good recovery program. So what about 1-3?

There is no God, and everyone really knows it. They’re just afraid to admit it. He might really believe this. If someone honestly believes there is no god, I have no quarrel with that. However, I know these are the kind of thoughts a depressed brain will tell you. The depressed brain will speak with the authority of ultimate truth, and it will be easy to believe. It’s like Poe’s Raven. Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”

The narrator in the poem is depressed. A raven flies into his house. The raven can speak, but only one word: Nevermore. The narrator asks questions that need positive answers, and he’s asking a bird that can only say, “Nevermore.” You see the problem there? No matter what he asks, the bird’s answer will always be, “Nevermore.”

The love of my life has died. Will I ever be happy again? Nevermore.

Will the Cubs win the World Series? Nevermore.

On that second question, what if an overzealous Cubs fan who lived to see his team win the World Series asked the Raven that question two weeks ago, and because of the bird’s answer, killed himself? That’s crazy, you say. No one would kill themselves over their sports team. Have you seen sports fans? But you see the irony. Three weeks ago, it could have appeared to be true. But the bird isn’t speaking “the truth.” It does not even know how to give positive answers. It’s the same with the depressed brain. It says things like, “You’re worthless. No one loves you. There is no god and everyone knows it. You screw up everything. God hates you. God has abandoned you,” because like the Raven, that’s all it knows how to say. So never take your depressed brain to be the ultimate truth. You are just as likely to get “the truth” from a Magic 8-Ball.

Image of Magic 8-Ball, Don't ask me. I'm a ball.
My sources say, “Nevermore.”

One of the most important things I heard someone say when I was at a low point in my life was, Don’t believe your feelings [or thoughts] when you’re depressed. Your feelings will tell you God does not love you. God has abandoned you. You are all alone in this world. But God’s word says I will never leave you nor forsake you. God so loved you that He gave His only Begotten Son. While we were yet sinners [i.e., worthless], Christ died for us. That is true no matter what you feel. Feelings will change according to circumstances, but God’s word is always true in any circumstance.

But when the depressed thoughts come, it’s so easy to believe them. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because it comes from our own mind, so we automatically assume it’s the truth. Our own mind wouldn’t lie to us, right? WRONG! It lies to us all the time. And when it assaults you with dark thoughts like these, you are in a battle like what Paul described in 2 Corinthians 10:4-5.

(For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ (KJV).

I’m not saying this to promote my own religion. I’m just saying in order to stop the dark imaginations from taking over your mind and your life, you need to have the tools and weapons to fight against them. When De-elevator attacks you (I’ve started calling the depressed voice in my head De-elevator, as in Prince’s song, “Let’s Go Crazy”), you need to fight back. Ephesians 6:10-18 is the famous passage about the Whole Armor of God: Faith, Salvation, Truth, Peace, the Word of God – these are powerful armor and weapons in the fight.

If you’re not a Christian, you don’t read the Bible, that’s fine, but you’ve got to find something, some power and authority and truth that is greater than your own thoughts and feelings. And whatever your greater truth is, it must affirm that God is love, or it will fail. That is the only saying of my religion I hold to be absolute truth. God is love (1Jn 4:8).

But you say, “Which God? The Christian God? The Muslim God? The Jewish God? Some pagan God?” When it comes to recovery, that is the wrong question to ask.

As a Christian, Presbyterian to be specific, I would love it if everyone believed in the same God I do. But that’s not going to happen. History has shown over and over that you cannot force everyone in any society to believe the same way. Any religion can resonate with some people, but there has never been any religion that resonates with everyone. In order to live together, we all have to make room for people who come from a belief system or culture that’s different from our own. This is one reason I’ve found Alcohlics Anonymous’s 12 Steps to be helpful. I can’t name off all the 12 Steps, but I always remember the first three.

  1. Admit that you are an alcoholic (or addict, depressed, or whatever you seek to recover from).
  2. Believe in a higher power.
  3. Submit your life to your higher power.

Notice in those second and third steps, they don’t say believe in the Christian god or Muslim god or any particular god. They don’t even say, Believe in God. They say, Believe in a higher power, i.e., some power greater than yourself that you can trust to help you on your journey of recovery. Your higher power does not have to come from any particular religion. It doesn’t even have to be a god in the traditional sense. Most forms of Buddhism, for example, have no formal belief in God, but any Buddhist I’ve met still believes in a power greater than him or herself.

The reason for the higher power is if you could recover under your own power, you would have done it by now. But your own thinking and your own power got you where you are. It’s like you found yourself in a pit, and someone handed you a shovel and said, “Dig your way out.” You dug and dug and instead of getting out, you got further and further down the hole. Now you realize no amount of digging is going to get you out of this pit. You look up and see you are in too deep to climb out. Your only way out is to find a higher power, i.e., someone at the top of the pit to throw you a rope so you can climb, and maybe to help pull you up if you are too weak to climb all the way. For me, that person at the top is God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and the rope is the way of all-inclusive love that Jesus taught.

So who or what is that higher power for you? Once you’ve identified that, you’ll be able to see the rope He/She/It/They have thrown down to you and start to climb out.

Why would anyone curse a tree to death? – Mark 11:12-14, 20-26

I have two fig trees in my back yard, so I’ve been learning all I can about them. Last year, the trees produced enough fruit to share with bugs, butterflies, and birds and still have way more than I could eat,

image of blue butterfly on fig leaf
Caption: Butterfly on fig tree

 

so I did what my grandmother did – made preserves.

Here is part of one peck I picked. No picture of preserves available yet.

image of figs on table

Early in the summer, I could see the figs forming, but they were green. I started looking around the middle of June for ripe figs, maybe even earlier. I couldn’t remember when the season started. Day after day, the figs were still green.

image of green figs
Caption: Should I kill the tree?

And each time, I couldn’t help remembering the story of Jesus cursing a fig tree.

It would never occur to me – or anyone I could imagine – to curse a tree for not bearing fruit out of season. Yet the Gospels preserve a story of Jesus doing just that (Cf. Matthew 21:18-22).

The season is about over now. The leaves are starting to fall. That’s what fig trees do. They go through the same seasons each year. Jesus knows this.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near” (Mark 13:28, ESV).

The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear (Mark 4:28).

To everything there is a season

He knows the cycles grain and trees go through. He knows about seed time and harvest. You can’t pick fresh figs any time of year. It happens in its own time and in its own season. So how can he get mad at a fig tree when it’s not the season for figs (Mark 11:13)? It’s idiotic to get mad at a tree for any reason, and especially for following the same seasons it does every year. If I got mad at my trees because it’s September and the leaves are starting to fall, you’d think I was insane. And you’d be right.

Maybe a little disappointment is understandable. Maybe he just had a hankering for figs at the moment, saw the leaves on the tree, and thought he’d check just in case a few ripened a little early. No figs. Oh well. He should keep moving before anyone sees he doesn’t know the season of figs in this territory like every other Jew who has ever been to Jerusalem for the three major festivals, right?

No, he curses the fig tree so that it withers and dies, dried up at the root (Mark 11:14, 20). It looks not only stupid but mean-spirited in narcissistic fashion. I don’t care what season it is. You’re a fig tree, and I want figs now.

This is another example of why you can’t read everything in the Bible literally. It is a story that is obviously meant to be read symbolically.

It’s a very common theme in the Old Testament. A gardener plants a tree (or vine) in a garden, cares for it, removes weeds, protects it from wild animals, basically does everything you can to keep the tree healthy so that it will bear fruit. When it’s time for the harvest, there is either no fruit or the fruit is rotten. This is a metaphor the Bible uses repeatedly to say the religious and national institutions have become corrupt, and God is about to pass judgment on them .

The Markan Sandwich

Mark connects this story with another in one of his “sandwiches.” This is when he starts one story, interrupts it with another narrative, and then finishes the first story. The story that interrupts this one is The Cleansing of the Temple (11:15-19), when Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers and calls out the corruption of the priests. Matthew presents these stories as separate events (21:12-13, 18-22), but Mark deliberately links them together to show the meaning of both these actions is one and the same.

Jesus sees a tree with no fruit and causes it to wither and die from the inside out, indicating God’s judgment on the Temple as an institution. Even though this is not the explanation Jesus gives (11:21-26), no Jew in Jerusalem could have missed the symbolism. Here are a few more examples.

The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 3:10).

Beware of the false prophets…Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 7:15a, 18-19).

In these two passages, both Jesus and John the Baptist draw upon on Old Testament symbol of good figs representing the good people and bad figs representing the bad people (Jeremiah 24:1-8; Hosea 9:10).

Each of them will sit under his vine and under his fig tree

Figs were often named with other crops, especially grapes, as a symbol of security and abundance, of the entire promised land being blessed and no one lacking anything. When the fig tree and the grapevine bore good fruit, all the people lived in shalom.

And He will judge between many peoples and render decisions for mighty, distant nations. Then they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they train for war. Each of them will sit under his vine and under his fig tree, with no one to make them afraid, for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken (Micah 4:3-4).

So Judah and Israel lived in safety, every man under his vine and his fig tree, from Dan even to Beersheba, all the days of Solomon (1 Kings 4:25).

For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey (Deuteronomy 8:7-8)

Shaken and Rotten figs

So when fig tree and the vine bore no fruit, or the figs fell because the tree was shaken, troubled times were ahead.

…thus says the LORD of hosts, “Behold, I am sending upon them the sword, famine and pestilence, and I will make them like split-open figs that cannot be eaten due to rottenness” (Jeremiah 29:17).

The vine dries up and the fig tree fails; The pomegranate, the palm also, and the apple tree, all the trees of the field dry up indeed, rejoicing dries up from the sons of men (Joel 1:12).

“I will surely snatch them away,” declares the LORD; “There will be no grapes on the vine and no figs on the fig tree, and the leaf will wither; And what I have given them will pass away” (Jeremiah 8:13)

They will devour your harvest and your food; They will devour your sons and your daughters; They will devour your flocks and your herds; They will devour your vines and your fig trees; They will demolish with the sword your fortified cities in which you trust (Jeremiah 5:17).

All your fortifications are fig trees ripe with ripe fruit – When [the trees are] shaken, the [figs] fall into the eater’s mouth (Nahum 3:12).

The author of Revelation draws upon this as well.

And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind (Revelation 6:13, KJV).

The Temple is a house built on sand

So this is not about vindictiveness toward a tree. Just as he did when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers, Jesus is taking on the role of a prophet pronouncing God’s judgment on the religious institutions. And troubled times were coming. They are within a generation of a rebellion against Rome that would end with the complete destruction of the Temple. The rebels were not yet born, but the social and political forces were already at work, the same forces exposed in the trial of Jesus. And this fact was uncovered recently: The Emperor Vespasian used the gold, silver, and bronze from the Temple to pay for the construction of the Colosseum.

What was happening in the Temple, in the priesthood, and in the religious life of Judea that made Jesus so angry? Usually when the prophets pronounce God’s judgment in the most dire terms, they are condemning some kind of systemic injustice. Corruption has become so entrenched in the system that the only remedy left is to destroy the institution completely and hope that in the ashes the institutions can be recreated. Hopefully this time, if we start again from scratch, these institutions that are supposed to uphold justice and righteousness for everyone will get it right.

As I write this, I feel afraid. When some people read in the Bible about God’s harshest judgments, they feel justified in dehumanizing certain people. They think God hates all the same people they hate. I know because I used to be one of them. Still a recovering Fundamentalist. I don’t want to stir up those kind of misguided feelings, but in order to get at the meaning of this passage, we need to understand this kind of prophetic tradition Jesus was part of. I have a few ideas that I will discuss in a later post.

Believing in the God of eternal conscious love

The debate over hell has been renewed over the past decade in the Evangelical world due at least partially to celebrity pastor Rob Bell’s recent book Love Wins, in which he makes a compelling case …

Source: Believing in the God of eternal conscious love

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 6 – The Violence Inherent in the System

This is the sixth and final part of an in-depth series I’ve been doing on the trial of Jesus, focusing on what the gospels say about Pontius Pilate’s role in Jesus’ crucifixion. If you want to review the posts leading up to this, here are the links. However, I don’t think you necessarily have to read them before this post. I’ll give you my conclusions here. The links are here if you want more information on how I reached my conclusions. To put it simply, you can look at them if you want to, or you can skip them and go to the article below. It’s up to you.

 

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 1 – Witnesses of Matthew and Mark

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 2 – Witness of Luke

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 3 – Witness of John

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 4 – The Detective Makes His Case

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 5 – John Breaks the Silence

 

Now if you’re ready, we can begin to draw to a conclusion.

***

In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there’s a scene where King Arthur is “riding” among a group of peasants going about their daily activities. He wants to know who lives in the castle. They are not very helpful. Finally, someone tells him no one lives there. They have no lord. They are an “anarchosyndicalist commune.” As one man explains how executive power is shared among them, Arthur grows impatient, tells him to be quiet, and grabs him.

Man: Aha! Now we see the violence inherent in the system!
Arthur: SHUT UP!
Man: (yelling to all the other workers) Come and see the violence inherent in the system! Help, help, I’m being repressed!
Arthur: (letting go and walking away) Bloody peasant!
Man: Oh, what a giveaway! Did’j’hear that, did’j’hear that, eh? That’s what I’m all about! Did you see ‘im repressing me? You saw it, didn’t you?!

I love how the peasant drops radical twentieth-century egalitarianism on a medieval king who is claiming rule by Divine Right. That phrase “the violence inherent in the system,” though, perfectly describes the crucifixion of Jesus.

If you are Christian, or even if you know only the most basic ideas of Christianity, you’ve heard that Jesus died for our sins. What does that mean? When we hear about “sins,” we tend to think of personal sins, and so we think Jesus died for our personal sins. But if you read about Jesus’ trial without the centuries of tradition and doctrine that have been layered on top of it, this is obviously a story of an innocent man killed by systemic, not personal, sins. To put it simply, Jesus was killed by “the violence inherent in the system.”

What system? There were actually two systems involved: The political system, represented by Pontius Pilate, and the religious system, represented by the Sanhedrin. They existed in a specific historical context,  and yet for 2,000 years, oppressed people all over the world in all kinds of historical contexts have recognized Pilate and the Sanhedrin in their own authorities. They’ve recognized Judas in those who betray them to the authorities. What were the systemic sins that killed Jesus?

Political system

The political system, of course, begins with Rome. They ruled the area around the Mediterranean, including Judea and Galilee – the primary Jewish territories. Rome at times was extremely brutal in forcing their domination over the world. Crucifixion was, after all, a Roman punishment. But they were not just brutal. They knew how to use the stick but also the carrot. They had a system of rewards for individuals and entire communities who served them well. Of course they also had a system of punishments for those who did not toe the line.

The Jews chafed under Roman rule. In some ways, this probably perplexed the Romans. The historian Josephus tells us Herod the Great had been one of the best friends of the previous emperor, Augustus. Through this friendship, Herod was able to secure a number of benefits for the Jews, not just in his kingdom but throughout the Empire. They were free to practice their religion for the most part, including keeping holidays and the Sabbath. So while the Romans were brutal to anyone who refused to pay taxes or challenged the authority of the Emperor, the Jews were spared the worst of it – except when they openly rebelled(1).

As Governor, Pilate represented the Emperor. It was his job to keep the Pax Romana in his territory. The Gospels, I think, present a convincing case that Pilate thought Jesus was innocent. If so, why would he execute him? In previous posts in this series I have examined Pilate’s motives. I believe there was more than one reason, but I think the overriding motivation was definitely to keep the peace and keep Caesar happy.
His options were:

A. Protect Jesus from the mob, even if he has to use force(2).
B. Sacrifice him as a scapegoat to pacify the mob(3).

He chose B, and any Roman governor would have understood.
The violence inherent in the system, Point 1: Kill anyone if it will keep the peace.

The Religious System

The religious system is represented in the Sanhedrin, a sort of council of elders responsible for decisions regarding Jewish religious life, particularly with regard to the Temple in Jerusalem. The council consisted mainly of Sadducees (Temple priests) and Pharisees (local rabbis). The Sadducees, for the most part, benefited from Roman rule. The appointment of the high priest had to be approved by Rome. The order and stability Rome provided, the ease of travel through Roman roads and shipping lanes, and the active trade throughout the Empire created economic opportunity and wealth for the area’s residents, of which the Jews were commanded to pay a tenth to the Temple.

Rumors of Jesus being the Messiah were stirring up hopes among revolutionaries that he would be the one to shatter the yoke of Roman rule and restore the kingdom of David, which would bring the Roman legions to crush them. You can’t have much of an economy when your cities are reduced to rubble.
The violence inherent in the system, Point 2: Kill anyone who messes with the money.

The charge that finally sealed Jesus’ fate to the Sanhedrin was when someone heard him say he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. Talk of destroying the Temple was not going to sit well in this council that was led by the high priest. It was in response to this charge that the high priest ordered him to answer whether he was “the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mat 26:63). When Jesus says yes, that brings about the charge of blasphemy, which under their law can only be punished with death. There is just one problem. They don’t have the authority to order the death penalty.

They have to convince Pilate that Jesus is guilty of something that would compel a Roman governor to crucify him. So they try to trump up charges against him: He is challenging Caesar’s authority. He claims to be the king of the Jews. He tells people not to pay taxes. He claims to be the Messiah (and Pilate knows that claims of messiahship have always led to rebellion). He is gathering followers around him, i.e., an army. All because they thought he was threatening the Temple.
The violence inherent in the system, point 3: Kill anyone who challenges the religious institution.

However, I think the heart of the religious resistance was this. The religious establishment of the time – especially the Pharisees – represented a system based on purity, nationalism, and exclusion. Jesus preached a message of compassion and inclusion. The Pharisees thought God wanted them to keep out everything foreign – especially Gentiles, Samaritans, immigrants, and Jews who were not “pure enough,” religiously or racially. Jesus focused his ministry on reaching out to those who were excluded: Gentiles, pagans, Samaritans, foreigners, lepers, tax collectors (yes, tax collectors!), women, the sick, the blind, the lame, the poor, children. And in true prophetic fashion, he spoke out against the unjust religious leaders who “devoured widows’ homes and for pretense made long prayers” (Mar 12:40; Mat 23:14; Luk 20:47).

They were offended by the way he called out their injustice masked with piety. They were offended by who he associated with. They were offended by his willingness to welcome anyone of any background who sought God in spirit and in truth. And they were offended enough to want him dead.

I don’t say this as a blanket indictment of the Jewish people. Remember, Jesus was a Jew. His parents were Jews. All twelve original disciples were Jews. But any religious organization can become corrupted when it sees itself as privileged. The Jewish leaders of that time saw themselves as the people of God – exclusively. They taught other Jews to see themselves that way as well. In this way, they were blind leaders of the blind (Mat 15:14). Jesus came along and told them their days of privilege were over. God is the God of all people, Jew and Gentile, equally.
The violence inherent in the system, point 4: Kill anyone who challenges your privilege and superior status.

The Mob

You can’t talk about the system without mentioning the mob. It seems obvious the Sanhedrin was at work through the night, gathering others who also wanted to kill Jesus to put more pressure on Pilate. Were they motivated by religion, politics, or a mixture of both? I believe it was not just one political or religious faction. Probably several factions who normally hated each other were mixed in together, united by one common enemy(4).

Some wanted Jesus dead because they were afraid he would be another messianic pretender who would bring down the wrath of Rome. Some were nationalists, disappointed that he was refusing to lead the people against Rome. Some wanted him dead because they heard he had blasphemed by calling himself the Son of God. Some wanted him dead because he spoke against the Temple. Some wanted him dead because he loved the very people “God hated.” All of these varied reasons were enough to have them all shout together, “Crucify! Crucify! Crucify!”

And what about Barabbas, the man they asked to be spared? In some texts of Matthew, he is called Jesus Barabbas, which allows Pilate to say, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” (27:17 NRS).

By the way, Barabbas means “son of the father.” And who is really the “Son of the Father”? Uh-huh! So the choice Pilate unknowingly presents is Jesus who is called the “son of the Father,” or Jesus who is really the “Son of the Father.” Perfect irony. Maybe a little too perfect, which is probably why “Jesus Barabbas” is not recorded in all the manuscripts.

Would a mob really choose a thief, murderer, and/or insurrectionist over Jesus who is called the Messiah? I can see that. One person’s insurrectionist/murderer is another person’s patriot. Look at some of the political rallies of this campaign season. We have all seen what happens when a crowd gets stirred up against one person who does not toe the line. A mob is like a Zombie horde, mindless and seeking only destruction and death. They will accept and even cheer any violence against the outsider. I have no problem believing that part of the story.
The violence inherent in the system, point 5: Kill anyone who loves the people we hate.

Walter Rauschenbusch identified six systemic sins (he calls them “social sins,” which is an equally proper term) Jesus bore on the Cross:

  1. Religious bigotry
  2. The combination of graft and political power
  3. The corruption of justice
  4. The mob spirit
  5. Militarism
  6. Class contempt(5).

And I am going to add one more to the list: 7. Nationalism.

In examining all the players of this gross miscarriage of justice, you can probably see how each of these sins played out in nailing Jesus to the cross. Where do you find yourself among them? Don’t kid yourself. We are all guilty. I could easily see myself making the same decision Pilate did under those circumstances. In the past, I have used religious dogma to justify my “superiority” to non-whites, foreigners, gays, lesbians, and women, ergo I could have been one of the Pharisees or the mob.

A Final Word

In saying Jesus died for our sins, let’s not forget the social sins that killed Jesus. We have all participated in the violence inherent in the system, even if only by our inaction. As one of my former pastors said, “We would rather crucify Jesus than be transformed by his love.” We would rather cling to our purity and bigotry than welcome the stranger with compassion.
Rauschenbusch goes on to say,

“…every student of history will recognize that these sum up constitutional forces in the Kingdom of Evil. Jesus bore these sins in no legal or artificial sense, but in their impact on his own body and soul. He had not contributed to them, as we have, and yet they were laid on him. They were not only the sins of Caiaphas, Pilate, or Judas, but the social sin of all [hu]mankind, to which all who ever lived have contributed, and under which all who ever lived have suffered”(6).

 

References

(1) A few examples are given in Acts 5:35-39.

(2) In a similar situation, a mob in Jerusalem tried to kill Paul. The Roman tribune brought in his soldiers to protect him (Acts 23:10). Pilate could have done the same thing. However, unlike Jesus, Paul was a Roman citizen, which meant the tribune had a legal obligation to protect him from the mob.

(3) One ancient source says during Pilate’s tenure, the emperor Tiberius came to see the Jews as his friends. It would require at least another blog post to explain how that came about. The point here is Pilate had more reason than usual to fear the mob, because Tiberius had warned him not to offend the Jews.

(4) Unlikely alliances between factions started forming early in Jesus’ ministry, such as when Pharisees plotted with Herodians to kill him (Mar 3:6).

(5) & (6) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Rauschenbusch

 

P.S. What’s that? You found my analysis so brilliant you want to go back and read the other posts in this series? Aw, shucks! You’re making me blush!

Okay, maybe I’m delusional. But I want to be as helpful as I can. Just in case you are interested, I’ll save you from having to scroll up to find the links.

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 1 – Witnesses of Matthew and Mark

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 2 – Witness of Luke

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 3 – Witness of John

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 4 – The Detective Makes His Case

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 5 – John Breaks the Silence

Grace and peace to you.

-David Anderson

5-part series: Conquering the ‘violent God’ of the Bible

Part 1 | Genocide is okay if it’s commanded by a holy God? There is a gruesome story about a Catholic priest who witnessed the atrocities of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. He recounts “a wo…

Source: 5-part series: Conquering the ‘violent God’ of the Bible

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 5 – John breaks the silence

Jesus was almost completely silent before his accusers in the Synoptic Gospels. In my previous post, I said this had to do with his understanding of himself in light of scripture. He was to be the sacrificial lamb who offers himself up in silence, as described in Isaiah. So the silence itself is a powerful statement to those who know. However, in John he answers and talks back to Pilate, the Sanhedrin, and the guards who beat him. If this silence was so important to many early Christians, why did John change it?

copy of Ecce Homo by Quintin Massys
Behold the man!

Three reasons occur to me, given in headlines.

A writer’s sensibilities

All four Gospels make a point of saying Pilate did not want to crucify Jesus. Why? The most often cited reason is he distrusted the motives of Jesus’ accusers. Matthew and Mark say Pilate saw they were jealous of Jesus. Luke says the same and adds that Pilate sent him to Herod, who also did not think he deserved death. This gives Pilate more reason to believe Jesus should be set free.

But John presents the most compelling case for that because he follows one of the cardinal rules of storytelling: Show don’t tell. The others say the Jewish authorities were jealous of Jesus. John shows it in how they present Jesus to Pilate. In John’s account, their exchange with Pilate shows ulterior motives right from the beginning. If he were not a criminal we would not have brought him to you (Joh 18:30). In this case, the differences do not contradict each other. John agrees with the other three, but he fills in some details they don’t have.

Still, it’s hard to see why Pilate thought he was innocent when Jesus does not answer him. In John, Jesus’ answers to Pilate make it much easier to believe. As a writer, John might have seen a gap that he thought needed to be filled. If Pilate was reluctant to crucify Jesus, there had to be more of a reason than what the other Gospels provide. Jesus’ answer fills that gap to a large extent. In John, Jesus speaks the words behind the silence of the Synoptics.

A persecuted community

I believe all four Gospels were written to communities who were either experiencing persecution or felt the threat of it. They were subject to suspicion, ostracism, even jailing, torture and death for what they believed. When they read about Jesus’ trial and his Passion, they were not just reading about Jesus’ suffering but theirs as well.

Jesus’ eloquent defense to Pilate in John says Jesus and his followers are innocent. Yes they claim him as a king, but his Kingdom is not of this world. Because of that they will not fight or participate in rebellion against Rome. There is still room for Caesar to be king in this world. No doubt this served as an important line of defense for any Christians tried in the Roman courts.

A greater satisfaction

This is better illustrated in the trial before the Sanhedrin. The police beat Jesus before he is found guilty of anything. Imagine you are one of the early Christians who have had similar experiences. You think, “That’s not right.” Then you read this in John. The high priest interrogates Jesus about what he taught. Instead of being silent, Jesus answers,

“I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said” (Joh 18:20-21 NRS).

Now if you have already read this scene in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, you know “those who heard” can’t agree on what he said. It’s a brilliant tactical move. In fact, in going over the trial with the Sanhedrin, I was amazed at how close Jesus came to being released because the witnesses could not agree on anything he said.

One of the guards punches him in the face. Remember, in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, it was important that Jesus said nothing as those in the court beat him. But if you are his follower, and you have been or could be beaten by those same authorities, you don’t want to be silent. You want to say something. And when Jesus is beaten unjustly, you want him to say something. So in John, he says,

“If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” (Joh 18:23 NRS).

Effectively, he tells the guard and everyone there, “You can tell me I’m wrong. You can tell me why I’m wrong. But there is no justification for you to beat me.”

I’m sure this very same thought occurred to those in the Christian community there, so it must have been thrilling to hear Jesus say exactly what they were thinking in the same situation.

Verdict on Pilate

I started this study skeptical that Pontius Pilate would have cared much about whether Jesus was innocent or not. There had already been rebellions of the Jews in recent history. In Judea, there was always an undercurrent of hope of a Messiah who would shake off the yoke of Caesar. The people here had to be kept on a tight rein. So if there is a man who many people, including local leaders, accuse of speaking against Rome, against paying taxes, and against Caesar, who some are calling “messiah” and “son of David,” what would a Roman governor do? Even if he is innocent, crucify him, up high on a hill where everyone can see. Put up a sign that reads “King of the Jews” to show them what Rome will do to anyone they try to make king apart from Caesar. On the surface, Pilate’s actions appear to be straight out of the Roman playbook.

However, after examining these four witnesses carefully, I am 100% ready to believe Pilate thought Jesus was innocent and wanted to release him. To sum up the reasons cited,

  1. He thought the Jewish leaders accused him out of jealousy (Mark and Matthew).
  2. The way they presented him for judgment was suspicious (Luke and John).
  3. Herod did not condemn him when he had the chance (Luke).
  4. Given the choice between Barabbas and Jesus, he would rather crucify Barabbas (all).
  5. He heard Jesus was the son of a god (John).

This last one is the most interesting psychologically. What would a Roman think if he was told he was about to execute the son of a god? It would be terrifying. You don’t mess with the gods. Every Roman knew that. Even if it’s not a Roman god, you never want to challenge them directly. Don’t make a god get personal with you. Killing his son? That’s personal.

Of course anyone can claim to be the son of a god, but what if it is true? Pilate must have known the story of Homer’s Odyssey. Ulysses did not know Polyphemus the Cyclops was the son of Poseidon. Not knowing did not make Poseidon any less angry. Jesus had a powerful charisma about him. Something about him may have struck Pilate as odd, unusual, and different from others he had tried. What made him this way? Maybe something – or someone – not of this world, as he said.

According to John, this fear made Pilate redouble his efforts to release Jesus, but someone among his accusers said,

“If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor” (Joh 19:12 NRS).

To be a friend of Caesar and lose that, at the very least it would be a grave dishonor. As a Roman officer, if you lose favor with Caesar, you might as well kill yourself. Pilate could very well have believed Jesus was innocent, but would the emperor believe it? Could he take that chance?

In the end, Pilate feared the wrath of Caesar and/or the crowd more than a foreign god. He killed an innocent man to appease the anger of a mob, to please his superiors, and to save his own skin. It may sound like he has done something despicable and inhuman. It may be despicable, but it’s hardly inhuman. What would you do if you faced the same pressure from those in authority over you and from public opinion when it pressed in and threatened to break into a riot? If I were in Pilate’s shoes, I don’t know what I would have done. But honestly, I know myself well enough that I could easily have done just as he did.

So Pilate bears his guilt, as Jesus said. The religious authorities who delivered Jesus to him bear the greater guilt. And I bear the guilt with them. Because the same sins that led to his crucifixion then are alive and well today – in me, in all of us, and in the systems of authority we participate in. His blood was poured out for the forgiveness of sins, the same blood that stains our hands. The very same act that earns our condemnation, God turned around into an act of loving redemption. Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.

painting of Pilate washing his hands of Jesus
Pilate washes his hands

Grace offers forgiveness when we deserve condemnation. But healing can begin only if we name the sins that led to this moment at the cross, and that is what I want to try to do in my next post. Until then,

Grace and peace to you.