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CHRIST THE KING SUNDAY / PROPER 29 (November 20-26) — YEAR B
RCL: 2 Samuel 23:1-7; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37
RoCa: Daniel 7:13-14; Revelation 1:5-8; John 18:33-37
A Girardian Perspective on Kingship
According to Mimetic Theory, the sacrificial victim gets both a negative and positive valence. He or she is blamed for the turmoil and unrest but then also gets credit for the peace that ensues, often even before the sacrifice is made since the sacrificial institution anticipates the outcome. It seems strange to us, but it truly helps to interpret the anthropological data.
One can see this same bi-valence, for instance, in the polytheistic pantheons of gods. Some are trouble-makers who sow chaos; some are bringers and keepers of societal order; and some are both.
Girard theorizes that the role of priest/king arose in ancient cultures out of the positive valence attached to the sacrificial victims. A prospective sacrificial victim could use the prestige to garnish an office of continuing to supply the sacrificial institution with victims. The priest/king role slowly evolves, then, as the presiders over the institutions of sacrifice themselves. One has to remember that these things developed over millennia, beginning in very primitive ritual settings. But, again, the thesis truly helps to synthesize the wide ranging data, from the practice of indigenous African tribes to the fall of the monarchy to democracy; see the Gil Bailie examples below.
1. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, pp. 104ff., and Things Hidden, pp. 51ff. On page 107 of Violence and the Sacred, for example, Girard writes, “The king reigns only by virtue of his future death; he is no more and no less than a victim awaiting sacrifice, a condemned man about to be executed.”
2. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, pp. 123ff. Link here to his section “The Victim with an Extended Sentence,” including some wonderful examples from Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power. An incredible piece from the latter on African Sacral Kingship is:
Sometimes the length of [the new king’s] reign is fixed from the start: the kings of Jukun . . . originally ruled for seven years. Among the Bambara the newly elected king traditionally determined the length of his own reign. “A strip of cotton was put round his neck and two men pulled the ends in opposite directions whilst he himself took out of a calabash as many pebbles as he could grasp in his hand. These indicated the number of years he would reign, on the expiration of which he would be strangled.”
One of Gil Bailie’s other favorite references when it comes to kingship is this description of the guillotine gone wild following the beheading of King Louis XIV of France. It is from H. G. Wells, The Outline of History (Garden City, N.Y: Garden City Books, 1961), 2:725:
The Revolutionary Tribunal went to work, and a steady slaughtering began …. The invention of the guillotine was opportune to this mood. The queen was guillotined, and most of Robespierre’s antagonists were guillotined; atheists who argued that there was no Supreme Being were guillotined; Danton was guillotined because he thought there was too much guillotine; day by day, week by week, this infernal new machine chopped off heads and more heads and more. The reign of Robespierre lived, it seemed, on blood, and needed more and more, as an opium-taker needs more and more opium.
3. S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, pages 48ff. I continue to highly recommend Heim’s book as one of the best applications of Mimetic Theory to Christian theology. His explication of MT is excellent — witnessed by the following explanation of the bi-valence of sacred violence and how kingship issues from it:
The sacrificed subject is the object of both condemnation and honor.
This contradictory situation makes sense in Girard’s view. The sacrificial mechanism produces this polarity, since the victim is viewed as powerful and holy, because capable of producing such benevolent results, but also eminently deserving of death for having transgressed the most profound commandments. One will search in vain for a consistent list of features inherent to the entities classified in the category of “the sacred,” even though the category itself exists in all cultures. Girard claims to see the explanation for both the differences and the commonality. Persons are not chosen to be killed because they are sacred, because they belong to some special if elusive class. They are “sacred” because they are chosen to be killed. It is designation for sacrifice, by whatever formula, that constitutes something as sacred. Designated victims are holy because their death has a supernatural, reconciling power.
The great anthropologists catalogued innumerable variations on this process. In some cases it is a king or a priest who ritually transgresses the most awful taboos as a preliminary to being sacrificed (literally or figuratively) to renew the people. In other cases it is a prisoner of war, an outcast, or a common criminal who is elevated to a place of honor and rendered all manner of service prior to sacrifice. This model is well known from the Aztec example. What prisoners of war from outside a society and kings who rule in it have in common is that they can easily be isolated, the one by their strangeness and the other by their eminence (kings belong to a class that by definition has only one member). Ideal sacrificial victims must be without ties or supporters that would stand in the way of their execution, but their identification with the community must be sufficient so as to embody the evil, the polluting crime to be purged with their destruction. The cause of the sacrificial crisis is to be found somewhere within the community itself, but in someone whose supposed offense removes any possible ties or sympathy. The contrary treatments of the criminal and the king thus point in the same ultimate direction, meeting the requirements of the sacred. The king, who is a consummate insider, must be dramatically separated and condemned, while the prisoner of war, who already bears the onus of a criminal or enemy, must be adopted in such a manner as to have a veneer of identity with his captors.
The disorienting inconsistency in the condemnation and honor extended to the victim is understandable in light of those two essential if paradoxical qualities of the sacred: the transgressions that rightly merit sacrifice and the honor due one whose death saves society. Girard suggests that only such an insight can make sense of data like an African investiture hymn for a king that contains the following formula.
You are a turd,
You are a heap of refuse,
You have come to kill us,
You have come to save us. (pp. 48-49)
4. For more on the sacrifice of kings as the founding event for democracy, see Robert Hamerton-Kelly‘s “The King and the Crowd: Divine Right and Popular Sovereignty in the French Revolution” (Contagion, Spring 1996, pp. 67-84). If the American Revolution seems a more civilized affair than the French one, consider that in America the king’s army was sacrificed as a substitute for the king to give birth to democracy. Was the madness of the guillotine worse than the slaughter of many innocent British soldiers in substitution for the king?
5. James G. Williams, “King as Servant, Sacrifice as Service: Gospel Transformations,” in Violence Renounced, pp. 178-199; see also his chapter on kingship and prophecy in The Bible, Violence & the Sacred.
6. Sermon on Jesus’ transformation of kingship entitled “A King Who Makes His Home with the Homeless.”
1. N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, p. 322. In general, Wright’s work on the Book of Daniel is the key to this first volume in his monumental project of “Christian Origins and the Question of God.” “First-Century Jewish Monotheism,” pp. 248-259 in this first volume, and all of chapter ten, “The Hope of Israel,” are the most essential reading from this book for setting up what is to come in the subsequent volumes.
In “First-Century Jewish Monotheism,” for example, Wright addresses the charge that Jewish apocalyptic falls into dualisms that betray monotheism. His sorting through the various senses of “duality” (excerpt) goes a long way to set the record straight. Does it help, for example, when confronted in this text with the “duality” between those who are raised to everlasting life, as opposed to those raised to shame and everlasting contempt?
Chapter Ten, “The Hope of Israel,” focuses on a wholistic reading of Daniel, in order to set the record straight on Jewish apocalyptic. As mentioned in the introduction above, one of his central points addresses what has traditionally been interpreted (by Schweitzer, for example) as “end of the world” thinking. In my opinion, Wright couldn’t be more clear and convincing in leading to the conclusion:
There is, I suggest, no good evidence to suggest anything so extraordinary as the view which Schweitzer and his followers espoused. As good creational monotheists, mainline Jews were not hoping to escape from the present universe into some Platonic realm of eternal bliss enjoyed by disembodied souls after the end of the space-time universe. If they died in the fight for the restoration of Israel, they hoped not to ‘go to heaven’, or at least not permanently, but to be raised to new bodies when the kingdom came, since they would of course need new bodies to enjoy the very much this-worldly shalom, peace and prosperity that was in store. (p. 286)
Consider the popular Christian views of heaven, or the “end of the world.” According to Wright’s analysis, are they Platonist or Jewish? Wright ended up taking the planned conclusion to Vol. 2 (Jesus and the Victory of God) regarding resurrection and turning it into an 800-page Vol. 3, The Resurrection of the Son of God, because the issue of popular Christian views on the after-life is so important.
3. Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, p.98. In a section about how the Gospels present Jesus in counter-imperial narratives, McLaren outlines twelve critical features. After explaining the significance of the title Messiah, or Christ, he gives an excellent summary of the title Son of Man, leaning heavily on Daniel 7:
“Son of Man.” Similarly, the fascinating and complex term Son of Man (used by Jesus eighty-one times in the Gospels — see Mark 8:31, for example, where the term is used in parallel to the term Christ) evokes a dream of liberation from the book of Daniel. Daniel was written in the context of empire (ostensibly in the Babylonian and Medo-Persian empires, but more likely, some scholars would say, in the later Greek and Syrian empires). The book of Daniel churns with the life-and-death challenge of living unbowed within a hostile imperial narrative, and it elicits dreams of liberation from all empires. Daniel recounts a vision in which one “like a son of man” approaches “the Ancient of Days” (God) and is given “authority, glory, and sovereign power; all peoples, nations, and people of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (7:13-14). Later, significantly, this kingdom is identified as being “handed over to the saints,” and is described as the kingdom of God in contrast to the Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, and Roman kingdoms or empires (v. 27). Each use of “Son of Man” nearly glows when this rich context is brought to it. (Note: I might add that the phrase son of man could be poetically interpreted as follows: son means next generation or new generation, and man means humanity. So son of man would mean new generation of humanity, or perhaps even new kind of humanity or new stage in the development of humanity. The term would resonate with Paul’s terms Second Adam and new humanity [Romans 5:12-6:7; Ephesians 4:22-24; Colossians 3:9]).
I’m especially drawn to McLaren’s translation as new generation of humanity, which resonates with Mimetic Theory’s take that Christ, the Son of Man, begins a new chapter in anthropology for homo sapiens, one that generates reconciliation and unity instead of brokenness and division.
4. Walter Wink, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of Man, and his posthumously published autobiography (with Steven Berry), Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human. Wink, an early participant in COV&R, captures well the import of the anthropological revelation in Jesus the Messiah. For example:
And this is the revelation: God is HUMAN … It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness — which is to say, we are capable of becoming human. (Just Jesus, p. 102; par. in The Human Being, p. 26)
Isn’t this a fine way to highlight the importance of Mimetic Theory, as it bridges the Christ revelation with modern anthropology?
Reflections and Questions
1. How does this passage square with the king who came not lord it over others like the Gentile kings, and to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:35-45, a lectionary passage from Proper 24B)? It provides a crucial follow-up to the element in Mark’s presentation of Jesus of a king who serves — a good way to wrap-up the year of Mark’s Gospel.
1. There is a word group for truth in Greek that consists of the noun itself, aletheia; two different adjectives (“true”), alethes and alethinos; and an adverb (“truly”), alethes. There are 55 occurrences of this word group in the Gospel of John!
2. The heaviest concentration in John of the word group for truth occurs in chapter 8, where we encounter this very important Girardian passage (John 8:44-45):
You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.
Jesus, whose entire reason for being is “to testify to the truth” (18:37), contrasts himself with the devil, the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning. His witness before Pilate comes moments before they will murder him. Isn’t this how Jesus is testifying to the truth? By exposing the devil as the father of lies and as a murderer from the beginning? The Girardian anthropology helps us to see how it is that we have fallen under a paternity of murder, how it is that our very cultures and societies which shape us are founded in murder. Jesus came to offer us another paternity with his heavenly Father, the source of all truth and life.
3. The closest parallels in the synoptics to John 8:44 is a Q passage in which Jesus basically accuses the Jewish leaders of continuing in along line of murders from the beginning, going all the way to Abel. Those passages are Matthew 23:34-35 and Luke 11:49-51. The Lukan version is:
Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation.
Link here for a 1997 sermon, entitled “Born to Live the Truth,” that makes use of this Q passage along with John 8 to unravel what Jesus might have meant by the truth as he stood before Pilate.
4. The Greek word lethe means forgetful. With the “a” as a prefix, the etymology of aletheia, or truth, would seem to be literally to not be forgetful, or to stop forgetting. Gil Bailie often points this out in his studies of John. This has a loaded meaning for John 8. To come out from under the influence of the father of lies would be to stop forgetting the truth. It also has a powerful meaning to many psychologies of trauma in which a person’s psyche buries the memories for a time; for an abused person, for example, whose memories often stay buried for years until later years when they stop forgetting, when the truth comes out.
5. John 18:37: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” This is reminiscent of John 9:39: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Jesus “came into the world” for judgment and for testifying to the truth. These two are related through the Girardian interpretation that poses the truth of who we are as human beings as fundamentally rooted in the mimetic power of the accusatory gesture which underlies all our institutions of judgment. Through the judgment of Jesus Christ and his execution on the cross, God judges our judging. God exposes our systems of judgment as fundamentally sinful — as the core of original sin. Helpful to this point is Gil Bailie‘s exegesis of John 19:13 (see lecture notes below). John’s text is ambiguous such that it could be read as Pilate sitting Jesus down on the judge’s bench — which thus switches their roles. It is Pilate being judged as he judges Jesus.
6. Key is the meaning of “my kingdom is not of this world.” The Greek is: hē basileia hē emē ouk estin ek tou kosmou toutou. The key word, ek, has the meaning “out of” or “from.” Very often it has simply been translated as “of.” The NRSV translates it as “from.” N. T. Wright in his John for Everyone: Chapters 11-21 (pp. 112-16) also translates it as “from,” and says,
Please note, he doesn’t say, as some translations have put it, ‘my kingdom is not of this world’; that would imply that his ‘kingdom’ was altogether other-worldly, a spiritual or heavenly reality that had nothing to do with the present world at all. That is not the point. Jesus, after all, taught his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come ‘on earth as in heaven.’
No: the point is that Jesus’ kingdom does not come from ‘this world.’ Of course it doesn’t. ‘The world,’ as we’ve seen again and again, is in John the source of evil and rebellion against God. Jesus is denying that his kingdom has a this-worldly origin or quality. He is not denying that it has a this-worldly destination. That’s why he has come into the world himself (verse 37), and why he has sent, and will send, his followers into the world (17.18; 20.21). His kingdom doesn’t come from this world, but it is for this world. That is the crucial distinction. (pp. 114-15)
2. In my sermon 1997 Proper 28B sermon “The End of the World?“), I spoke of the end of the law. I found it interesting that the place in which James Alison cites John 18:31 (just before this Sunday’s gospel text), in The Joy of Being Wrong, is in connection with his discussion of the end of the law. I thought I’d share about a page with you. To set it up, Alison is continuing his extrapolation of the insights that were coming upon the apostles prompted by the resurrection and has arrived at the ways in which the apostolic experience of sin has been reshaped around the reality of forgiveness. He begins with a discussion of John 9, the story of the man born blind (similar to his discussion in the Contagion article this past spring), and concludes: “The passages I have indicated bear clear witness to John having understood as one of the first fruits of the resurrection the making available of the understanding that we are all wrong (blind), and that this does not matter. Being wrong can be forgiven: it is insisting on being right that confirms our being bound in original murderous sin. “From there, he moves to St. Paul’s demythification of the divine wrath in Romans, making a similar point as the one just quoted: those who insist on their own righteousness are the ones who suffer wrath, but it is not a divine wrath; it is the wrath of their own sacrificial machinery, bolstered by their own insistence on being righteous. It is into that discussion that the following fits:
The next factor in the Pauline testimony is not only the revelation of human idolatry, but its universal quality. This is abundantly illustrated in the first three chapters of Romans where Paul is keen to illustrate precisely that: “all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin.” (Rom. 3:9)
It is not only sin that is universal, but for anyone who believes in the goodness of God that has been made manifest in the handing over of Jesus and then his raising up, then righteousness is universally available. It is of course the same insight that has brought the understanding of wrath to its sharpest definition — the killing of the son of God — that has made it possible to be set free from wrath. This is the import of 5:9: “Since therefore we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath.” The true understanding of wrath came about exactly at the same moment as there emerged the possibility of being freed from it: it is the forgiveness of the resurrection which defines the nature of sin.
This of course leads Paul into a highly complex series of arguments about the Law which it is not the place to follow here. However, it seems important to indicate that it is precisely from his understanding of the universal nature of the sinfulness of humanity that he understands that Law, which is in itself holy (7:12), has become a function of that sinfulness. In the first place, the law brings about knowledge of sin (3:20) just as it also bears witness to the righteousness of God, along with the prophets (3:21). However, it does not only serve as an epistemological instrument, in the good sense of letting people know what sin is. It is an instrument of wrath (4:15). That is to say, that the knowledge of sin that it brings about, rather than being salvific, becomes part of the sinful human world of mutual judgment and recrimination. At least where there is no law, there is no transgression.
Paul indicates however that the law actually increases sin (5:20). It is hard not to read 5:21 as indicating that the increase of sin produced by the law was made manifest in the death of Jesus (“sin reigned in death”), while the resurrection brought about that “grace might reign through righteousness”. Paul goes even further with this line of thought in 7:5, where the law again has an active role in arousing sin. I would suggest that this verse is wrongly interpreted if “flesh” is taken in the modern debased sense (i.e. basically sexual). It seems far more probable (and in line with Pauline usage; cf., Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 120-9, 146-50) that “flesh” means “within the Jewish religious framework”, and that the sinful passions in question, rather than lust etc. mean the persecutory zeal which led Paul to persecute Christians — that is, the zeal which was at work in his members to bear fruit for death.
We can therefore see something very similar to the (much clearer) Johannine analysis above: sin is universal, and easily forgiven through faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. So the blind man (and thus blindness from the beginning) was easily cured. However, there is the complicating factor of the law, which appears to enable people to be just by knowing good and evil (the pharisees in Jn 9 who ‘could see’). In fact, not only does the law not permit people to become just, but it locks them further into wrath, which is the judgmental attitude of those who think they have a superior knowledge, leading them to involvement in persecution and death, just as it had lead Paul himself. That is to say, rather than sin being overcome by the law, it is compounded by it, making sin even more lethal. So the Johannine pharisees are driven deeper into blindness by their pretensions of sight. And of course, as in John (cf., the ironic juxtaposition of Jn18:31 and 19:7), the paradigm for the law being wrong is the death of Christ. Where for John the death of Christ revealed the structuring mechanism of sin at work in the authorities, in Paul it reveals the complicity of the law with sin, and thus, finally the caducity of the law. Paul explicitly says that: “Christ is the end of the law that every one who has faith maybe justified.” (Rm 10:4) He is the “end” of course in multiple senses,one of which for Paul is that the law achieved its purpose in leading to Christ’s death, thus revealing definitively the true nature of sin whose accomplice it had been — that is exactly what is said by 7:13. Having fulfilled its ambiguous purpose, the law is now at an end, now that righteousness is made available by faith in Christ. (The Joy of Being Wrong, pp.128-130)
For the reader’s convenience, let me juxtapose the two verses as Alison suggests. John 18:31:
Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” The Jews replied, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.”
And John 19:7:
The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.”
3. N. T. Wright, his latest two books on the Historical Jesus, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why It Matters, pp. 152, 183-84, 198-99; and How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, pp. 134-35, 144-47, 218-20, 229-232, 268. Both these later summaries (2011 and 2012, respectively) of Wright’s view of Jesus highlight John 18-19 in key places — crucial to his argument. Another ideal place to glean Wright’s explication of this particular passage, the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate, is in John for Everyone: Chapters 11-21 (quoted above in the exegetical notes), pp. 112-16. I will offer here some excerpts from Simply Jesus and How God Became King.
In Simply Jesus, Wright’s main metaphor is that of the Perfect Storm. Using the image from the book and movie of that name, he points to the coming together of three winds in history: the Jewish hopes for liberation from their many oppressors, the current Roman imperial oppressor, and Jesus the Messiah inaugurating God’s promise of liberation but not in the expected manner. John 18-19 is an encapsulation of this perfect, Rome’s violent military power vs. God’s liberating power, but not in the manner of long-time Jewish hopes because it is nonviolent. Wright’s first elaboration of this passage states,
These advance hints [in the Farewell Discourse of John 14-17] enable us to understand John’s explanation, the fullest in any of our accounts, of what is at stake when Jesus stands before the Roman governor. The scene in John 18-19 has the hallmarks of the kind of hearing we might expect in a Roman provincial court, and it is this confrontation that lies at the heart of both the political and the theological meaning of the kingdom of God. Jesus has announced God’s kingdom and has also embodied it in what he has been doing. But it is a different sort of kingdom from anything that Pilate has heard of or imagined: a kingdom without violence (18:36), a kingdom not from this world, but emphatically, through the work of Jesus, for this world. (The routine misunderstanding of the kingdom as “otherworldly” has been generated by the translation “My kingdom is not of this world”; but that is certainly not what John means, and it isn’t what Jesus meant either.) (p. 183)
Even more interesting for supporters of Mimetic Theory is the meaning of the cross that Wright begins to glean from this passage, and from his exposition of the Historical Jesus, in general. What Jesus comes to reveal to us is that our oppressors, like Rome, aren’t the real enemy. Jesus’ teaching around the Satan, the Accuser, is crucial for Wright. He would greatly benefit from the full anthropology of MT when he says,
Rome provided the great gale, and the distorted ambitions of Israel the high-pressure system, but the real enemy, to be met head-on by the power and love of God, was the anti-creation power, the power of death and destruction, the force of accusation, the Accuser who lays a charge against the whole human race and the world itself that all are corrupt and decaying, that all humans have contributed to this by their own idolatry and sin. The terrible thing is that this charge is true. All humans have indeed worshipped what is not divine and so have failed to reflect God’s image into the world. They, and creation, are therefore subject to corruption and death. At this level the Accuser is absolutely right.
But the Accuser is wrong to imagine that this is the creator’s last word. What we see throughout Jesus’s public career is that he himself is being accused — accused of being a blasphemer by the self-appointed thought police, accused of being out of his mind by his own family, even accused by his followers of taking his vocation in the wrong direction. All the strands of evil throughout human history, throughout the ancient biblical story, come rushing together as the gospels tell the story of Jesus, from the demons shrieking at him in the synagogue to the sneering misunderstanding of the power brokers to the frailty and folly of his own friends and followers. Finally, of course — and this is the point in the story to which the evangelists are drawing our attention — he is accused in front of the chief priests and the council and in the end by the high priest himself He is accused of plotting against the Temple; he is accused of forbidding the giving of tribute to Caesar (a standard ploy of revolutionaries); he is accused of claiming to be king of the Jews, a rebel leader; he is accused of blasphemy, of claiming to be God’s son. Accusations come rushing together from all sides, as the leaders accuse Jesus before Pilate; and Pilate finally does what all the accusations throughout the gospel have been demanding and has him crucified. Jesus, in other words, has taken the accusations that were outstanding against the world and against the whole human race and has borne them in himself. That is the point of the story the way the evangelists tell it. (pp. 186-87)
Wright’s final reference to John 18:33-37 in Simply Jesus comes in commenting on an expectation and hope of the earliest Christians, “The Return of Jesus.” Quoting several paragraphs would again be helpful:
“Look out of the window,” say the skeptics. “If you think Jesus is already installed as king of the world, why is the world still such a mess?” Fair question. But actually the story so far — even the story of the ascension itself — is not designed to make the sort of claim to which that sort of objection would pose an ultimate problem. Even the story of Jesus’s resurrection and his going into “heaven” are only the beginning of something new, something that will be completed one day, but that none of the early Christians supposed had been fully accomplished yet.
The early Christians were, after all, a small minority, staking their daring and apparently crazy claim about Jesus from a position of great weakness and vulnerability. They were perceived, with some justification, as a threat to the established order, and so they attracted criticism, threats, punishment, and even death. But their threat to the present world was not of the usual kind. They were not ordinary revolutionaries, ready to take up arms to overthrow an existing regime and establish their own instead. Celebrating Jesus as the world’s rightful king — as we see them doing in our earliest documents, the letters of Paul — was indeed a way of posing a challenge to Caesar and all other earthly “lords.” But it was a different sort of challenge. It was not only the announcement of Jesus as the true king, albeit still the king-in-waiting, but the announcement of him as the true sort of king. Addressing the ambitious pair James and John, he put it like this: “Pagan rulers . . . lord it over their subjects. . . . But that’s not how it’s to be with you” (Matt. 20:25-26). And, as he said to Pilate, the kingdoms that are characteristic of “this world” make their way by violence, but his sort of kingdom doesn’t do that (John 18:36). We all know the irony of empires that offer people peace, prosperity, freedom, and justice — and kill tens of thousands of people to make the point. Jesus’s kingdom isn’t like that. With him, the irony works the other way around. Jesus’s death and his followers’ suffering are the means by which his peace, freedom, and justice come to birth on earth as in heaven.
Jesus’s kingdom must come, then, by the means that correspond to the message. It’s no good announcing love and peace if you make angry, violent war to achieve it! That, as we shall see, is the watchword for the “today” bit of the story of Jesus. But what about the “tomorrow” or “forever” bit? What is the ultimate future?
Jesus’s first followers were unequivocal: Jesus will return. He will come again. He will reappear in power and glory, triumphing over all the forces of death, decay, and destruction, including the structures that have used those horrible forces to enslave and devastate human lives. The present mode of the story is not the end. (pp. 198-99)
In a book titled How God Became King, you might imagine how this passage is even more crucial. Jesus speaking about God’s kingdom to Pilate is a primary illustration of Wright arguing that the main story of the Gospels is about how God becomes king through Jesus, and the cross is the climactic moment of that kingship, the one that we must understand in order to understand how God’s kingship is completely different. Wright begins with the Synoptic Gospels, where he summarizes, “There is, in other words, a clear line all the way from Genesis 11, via Isaiah 40–55 and Daniel 7, to Mark 10, and thereby in turn to Mark 14-15, where Jesus meets his captors, his judges, and his death. He not only theorizes about the difference between pagan power and the kind of power he is claiming; he enacts it” (p. 139). He then moves to John’s Gospel, where he begins in chapter 12 and especially moves through the Farewell Discourse of John 14-17. We pick up Wright’s argument there:
When, after the final prayer (chap. 17) and the arrest and the Jewish trial (18:1-27), we find Jesus standing before Pilate (18:28-19:16), we ought to know, because John has set it up, what is actually going on. This is the point at which the ruler of the world is being judged. Caesar’s kingdom will do what Caesar’s kingdom always does, but this time God’s kingdom will win the decisive victory.
Jesus explains (18:36) that his kingdom is not the sort that grows in this world. His kingdom is certainly for this world, but it isn’t from it. It comes from somewhere else — in other words, from above, from heaven, from God. It is God’s gift to his world, but, as John already pointed out in the prologue, the world isn’t ready for this gift. The key is this: if Jesus’s kingdom were the regular sort, the kind that grows all too easily in the present world — the sort of kingdom, in fact, that James and John had wanted! — then Jesus’s followers would be taking up arms:
“If my kingdom were from this world, my supporters would have fought to stop me being handed over to the Judaeans. So then, my kingdom is not the sort that comes from here.” (18:36)
The difference between the kingdoms is striking. Caesar’s kingdom (and all other kingdoms that originate in this world) make their way by fighting. But Jesus’s kingdom — God’s kingdom enacted through Jesus — makes its way with quite a different weapon, one that Pilate refuses to acknowledge: telling the truth:
“So!” said Pilate. “You are a king, are you?”
“You’re the one who’s calling me a king,” replied Jesus. “I was born for this; I’ve come into the world for this: to give evidence about the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
“Truth!” said Pilate. “What’s that?” (18:37-38)
The point about truth, and about Jesus and his followers bearing witness to it, is that truth is what happens when humans use words to reflect God’s wise ordering of the world and so shine light into its dark corners, bringing judgment and mercy where it is badly needed. Empires can’t cope with this. They make their own “truth,” creating “facts on the ground” in the depressingly normal way of violence and injustice. (pp. 144-45)
Wright moves through the rest of John 18-19 on these pages, climaxing with the title “King of the Jews” that Pilate places above his head. But let’s move to the next time Wright brings in John 18:33-37, where he reverses the order by beginning with the irony of that title:
The title is, of course, heavily ironic. Pilate knows that Jesus doesn’t conform to any meaning of the word “king” with which he is familiar. Jesus himself, as we saw, had redefined “kingship” in his conversation with the governor, insisting that his kind of kingship meant bearing witness to the truth (18:37). But now readers are invited to join together the two points, which Pilate was never going to do — the two points that, ironically, much Christian interpretation has also found very hard to combine. Readers are invited to join together not simply a Johannine “incarnational” theology with a Johannine “redemption” theology. Both of those are there, but the middle term between them is once again the evangelist’s kingdom theology. As Paul saw, the rulers of this age didn’t understand what they were doing when they crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8). As the Irish-American New Testament scholar Dominic Crossan commented on Matthew’s story of Pilate’s wife having bad dreams about Jesus (Matt. 27:19), it was time for the Roman Empire to start having nightmares. Sending Jesus to his death was assisting in the enthronement of the one whose bringing of justice to the nations flowed out of his sovereign, healing love (John 13:1).
The point for our present purpose is that, in all four gospels, readers are strongly urged to see Jesus’s death as explicitly “royal,” explicitly “messianic” — in other words, explicitly to do with the coming of the “kingdom.” Jesus has, all along, been announcing that God’s kingdom was coming. His followers might well have expected that this announcement would lead to a march on Jerusalem, where Jesus would do whatever it took to complete what he had begun. And they were right — but not at all in the sense they expected or wanted. That is what the evangelists are saying through this particular moment in the story. This is how the kingdom is to come, the kingdom of God, which Jesus has been announcing and, as Messiah, inaugurating.
This point needs little elaboration in relation to the synoptic gospels, but we may continue to stress it in relation to John, who is not so often seen as a theologian of the “kingdom.” In fact, however, as we have already seen, John 18-19 offers an explosion of dense and detailed kingdom theology, so that when we meet the titulus in John 19:19, we read it with a special and heightened irony, coming as it does at the conclusion of Pilate’s debate with Jesus, on the one hand, and with the Jewish leaders, on the other, about kingdom, truth, power, and Caesar. Jesus, John is saying, is the true king whose kingdom comes in a totally unexpected fashion, folly to the Roman governor and a scandal to the Jewish leaders.
In all four gospels, then, there is no drawing back. This is the coming of the kingdom, the sovereign rule of Israel’s God arriving on earth as in heaven, exercised through David’s true son and heir. It comes through his death. The fact that the kingdom is redefined by the cross doesn’t mean that it isn’t still the kingdom. The fact that the cross is the kingdom-bringing event doesn’t mean that it isn’t still an act of horrible and brutal injustice, on the one hand, and powerful, rescuing divine love, on the other. The two meanings are brought into dramatic and shocking but permanent relation. (pp. 219-20)
Wright draws everything together in the final citations of John 18, that the cross is the work of God’s loves to rescue this world by inaugurating the New Creation in the resurrection. Here is one final, majestic excerpt from this amazing, essential-to-read book (click on the links to get a copy of How God Became King if you don’t already own one; for example, the summary of this chapter on pp. 240-45 is not be missed):
Indeed, once we realize what the evangelists are doing throughout, we should expect that the stories of the hearings and trials, in all the gospels, may be assumed to serve this purpose, rather than just giving some backstory to Calvary. The trials, in other words, address the theological and soteriological “why” of the cross, not only the “how.” Learning to read them in this way may be a novel art, but it is one we Western Christians should acquire as soon as possible. John is a good place to start.
I have already written in some detail about John 18-19 and tried to show that, in the great scene of Jesus (and the chief priests) before Pilate, John has said an enormous amount about the significance of Jesus’s forthcoming death. John’s great scene between Jesus and Pilate is all about the “kingdom,” even though it takes place under the shadow of the cross; or, to put it the other way, it is all about the reasons for the cross, and those reasons turn out to be kingdom reasons. The link between kingdom and cross forms the inner logic of the whole narrative, stressing both the inevitability and the necessity (in human terms, it was bound to happen; in the divine plan, it had to happen) of the kingdom of which Jesus speaks being put into effect by his forthcoming death.
Jesus once again takes the initiative in the conversation, introducing the discussion of different types of “kingdoms.” “My kingdom isn’t the sort that grows in this world,” he says (18:36). (We note here that the regular translation, “My kingdom is not of this world,” has contributed to, and in its turn also generated, multiple misreadings of all four gospels, appearing to suggest that Jesus’s “kingdom” is straightforwardly “otherworldly.” The Greek for “of this world” is ek tou kosmou toutou; the ek, meaning “out of” or “from,” is the crucial word.) There is no question but that Jesus is speaking of a “kingdom” in and for this world. The steady buildup, over the previous chapters, of sayings, already noted, about “the ruler of this world” being judged and cast out and about the world being overcome make it clear that in the events now unfolding we are to see the ultimate showdown between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world brought to sharp focus in Jesus and Pilate.
Part of John’s meaning of the cross, then, is that it is not only what happens, purely pragmatically, when God’s kingdom challenges Caesar’s kingdom. It is also what has to happen if God’s kingdom, which makes its way (as Jesus insists) by nonviolence rather than by violence, is to win the day. This is the “truth” to which Jesus has come to bear witness, the “truth” for which Pilate’s worldview has no possible space (18:38). It is at once exemplified, dramatically, by Jesus taking the place of Barabbas the brigand (18:38-40). This is the “truth” to which Jesus bears witness — the truth of a kingdom accomplished by the innocent dying in place of the guilty.
And, in the broader Johannine perspective, we discover that the only word to do justice to this kingdom-and-cross combination is agape, “love.” The death of Jesus is the expression of God’s love, as the famous verse in John 3:16 makes clear….
How fatally easy it would be for us Westerners to sigh with relief at this point. Ah, we think, God’s kingdom is simply the sum total of all the souls who respond in faith to God’s love. It isn’t a real kingdom in space, time, and matter. It’s a spiritual reality, “not of this world.” John, though, will not collude with this Platonic shrinkage. We remind ourselves of the earlier passages about the ruler of this world being cast out, condemned, and overthrown. These appear to refer to a being that stands behind the present earthly rulers, but also incarnates itself in them; we are not simply talking about a “spiritual” victory that leaves the present human rulers unaffected.
For another thing, the resurrection scenes in John 20-21 are not about a heavenly existence, detached from this world, but precisely about new creation, the new Genesis arrived at last. The famous tetelestai in 19:30 (“It’s all done!”) matches the synetelesen in Genesis 2:2 (“God finished the work that he had done”); on the sixth day, in both accounts, God finished all the work that he had begun and rested on the seventh. The resurrection, as John stresses, happens on the first day of the week (20:1, 19). Mary is sent to tell the others that Jesus is to be enthroned beside the Father (20:17); Peter, to feed and tend the flock (21:15-17). This is how the kingdom, which is from above, is coming into this world. The work of redemption is complete; now, with Jesus having been “glorified,” having completed his work of rescuing his people, the Spirit can be given, and his followers can begin their own work. This is how — remembering how thoroughly it has been redefined! — God’s kingdom will come on earth as in heaven. The cross serves the goal of the kingdom, just as the kingdom is accomplished by Jesus’s victory on the cross. (pp. 229-30, 231-32)
4. Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, pp. 113-115, 184. In this landmark book, McLaren is arguing that our cultural “framing stories” (a term which many modern folks use “myths” to designate) are leading us into suicide. God in Jesus Christ is offering us the way to life through offering us an alternative framing story that leads to life. But first Christians have to reframe the Jesus framing story, because the original story, which was counter-imperial, was reframed in Christendom to fit into our imperialistic framing stories. Part 3 of the book consists of five chapters on “Reframing Jesus,” on returning the Jesus story to its original status as a counter-imperial alternative to the reigning framing stories. Within the fifth chapter of Part 3, “Or So It Appeared” (ch. 14), McLaren climaxes his argument with two Gospel stories: Peter’s Declaration at Caesarea Philippi (Matt 16) and Jesus Before Pilate in John 18-19. After noting that John’s Gospel uses language about “life in the age to come” (usually translated as “eternal life”), here John’s Jesus very much uses the “kingdom” language of the Synoptic Gospels. McLaren writes:
Yes, Jesus is a king. But his kingdom is “not of this world.” What does this mean? Does it mean Jesus is promoting a “spiritual” kingdom, something people feel warming their hearts, or something they will experience after they die? Hardly. Jesus has just used a similar “not of the world” construction in the previous chapter, as part of a rich and lengthy prayer. There Jesus makes it clear that he doesn’t want his disciples to be removed “out of the world.” Instead, he sends them “into the world,” but as they are “in” the world, they are not to be “of” the world, just as he is not “of” the world (John 17:13-19).
“My kingdom is not of this world,” then, means the very opposite of “My kingdom is not in this world.” Instead, it means my kingdom is very much in this world, but it doesn’t work the way earthly kingdoms or empires do. The word this becomes especially significant in relation to Pilate’s location in the Roman chain of command: this world of Pilate, of Roman swords and spears and threats of crucifixion, of imperial domination and hierarchy and violence — this world is not the origin or character of Jesus’ kingdom.
Then Jesus specifies: earthly kingdoms fight, but his kingdom, being “from another place,” has another nature and another strategy. Instead of winning by violence and domination, his kingdom simply tells the truth and sees who listens: “for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (John 18:37). (p. 114)
He includes this endnote with corroboration from Paul:
These important words spoken to Pilate continue echoing strongly among the early followers of Jesus, decades later: “Although we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does” (2 Corinthians 10:3). We do not fight with fleshly weapons against flesh and blood — as if human beings were our enemies. No, we struggle against dark spiritual forces that are described as thoughts, arguments, pretensions, faulty reasoning. And we do not use the kinds of physical weapons used by typical kingdoms — swords, spears, or shields (Ephesians 6:10-18). Instead, we engage the falsehood and deception so prevalent in the world with “unarmed” truth, prayer, justice, alertness, peace, faith. (Endnote 6 on p. 114, which appears on p. 312)
Finally, in a chapter on how Christians might see ourselves as “Joining Warriors Anonymous,” seeking to slowly change imperialism’s approach to security, McLaren cites John 18:36 and then ends the chapter with an excellent quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.:
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. . . . Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. . . . The chain reaction of evil — hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars — must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation. (p. 185 in McLaren, citing King’s Strength to Love, [New York: HarperCollins, 1963])
5. John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. Crossan sets up his book in the Prologue with the following analysis of this passage:
In a magnificently parabolic scene in John’s gospel, Pilate confronts Jesus (or does Jesus confront Pilate?) about the kingdom he proclaims. “My kingdom,” says Jesus in the King James Version of the incident, “is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence” (18:36). I take five foundational points from that brief interchange.
First, Jesus opposes the Kingdom of God to the kingdoms of “this world.” What “this world” means is discussed throughout this book, but especially in chapter 1, whose title, “Empire and the Barbarism of Civilization,” is my own translation of the “this world” of Jesus.
Second, Jesus is condemned to death by Roman Pilate, in Roman Judea, in the eastern reaches of the Roman Empire. But he never mentions Rome as such, and he never addresses Pilate by name.
Third, had Jesus stopped after saying that “my kingdom is not of this world,” as we so often do in quoting him, that “of” would be utterly ambiguous. “Not of this world” could mean: never on earth, but always in heaven; or not now in present time, but off in the imminent or distant future; or not a matter of the exterior world, but of the interior life alone. Jesus spoils all of these possible misinterpretations by continuing with this: “if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered” up to execution. Your soldiers hold me, Pilate, but my companions will not attack you even to save me from death.Your Roman Empire, Pilate, is based on the injustice of violence, but my divine kingdom is based on the justice of nonviolence.
Fourth, the crucial difference — and the only one mentioned — between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Rome is Jesus’s nonviolence and Pilate’s violence. The violence of Roman imperialism, however, was but one incarnation at that first-century time and in that Mediterranean place of “this world” — that is, of the violent normalcy of civilization itself (see my first point).
Fifth, the most important interpreter of Jesus in the entire New Testament is Pilate. He clearly recognizes the difference between Barabbas and Jesus. Barabbas is a violent revolutionary who “was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection” (Mark 15:7). Pilate arrested Barabbas along with those of his followers he could capture. But Jesus is a nonviolent revolutionary, so Pilate has made no attempt to round up his companions. Both Barabbas and Jesus oppose Roman injustice in the Jewish homeland, but Pilate knows exactly and correctly how to calibrate their divergent oppositions.
I emphasize that contrast between Pilate’s Kingdom of Rome as violent repression and Jesus’s Kingdom of God as nonviolent resistance because that juxtaposition is the heart of this book, which is an attempt to rethink God, the Bible, and empire, Jesus, Christianity, and Rome. Jesus could have told Pilate that Rome’s rule was unjust and God’s rule was just. That would have been true, but it would have avoided the issue of whether God’s just rule was to be established by human or divine violence. So, beneath the problem of empire is the problem of justice, but beneath the problem of justice is the problem of violence. (pp. 3-5)
6. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from November 22, 2009 (Society of St. John, Palo Alto, CA).
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2012 the main point of my sermon, “Transformation Through Faithful Listening,” centered on Jesus’ voice of truth. It’s not just that the politics of God’s kingdom have a different content than our politics, the process is different. Human politics use force to get get quick results. God’s politics proceed by conversation in covenant relationship, a much slower process.
2. Another passage that has been prominent for me in reflecting on these texts this week is 1 Cor. 1:18-31. We preach this scandalous gospel of a king who was summarily executed on the cross. And then God has chosen the weak and foolish to be followers of this king. None of us, including Christ, appears very noble or royal by the standards of this world. But by God’s standards we manifest the wisdom of God and the power of God.
3. We finished this past week [in 1997] our fall session of confirmation classes on the Old Testament. As I sought to conclude with the big picture of what the OT might be trying to show us, I focused on the theme of chosenness. What does it mean to be chosen by God? Who are the chosen people of God in the OT? The big picture seems to reveal precisely what St. Paul concludes in 1 Cor. 1:18-31. God’s chosen people are a people whose high point was first a liberation from slavery, the Exodus, and then a brief reign of two strong kings (around 1000-820 B.C.) Both of these high points are somewhat ambiguous, as the liberation was followed by a period of grumbling and wandering in the wilderness, and the reigns of both David and Solomon saw their share of turmoil. Overall, the history of Israel’s children is one of being in bondage to the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Syrians, and Romans. It was into this history that God chose a new Christ who was a poor carpenter’s son, born in a barn and executed on a cross. And who are we who follow as his disciples?