Monday, 28 March 2011 00:00

"Tempted by Political Authority", March 27, 2011

Tempted by Political Authority
By David Coleman
March 27, 2011

Hello, I am your Roman Governor.  It seems you once had quite a following.  Now your own people have turned against you.  What did you do?  I’ve even heard stories about you being a miracle-worker.  I must say you’re certainly not what I expected.

Anyway, enough of the pretense.  You’ve been telling my tax collectors to resign.  And now, I hear you’ve been rabble-rousing, turning over tables in public places, shouting like a madman in some religious dispute, and spreading subversive ideas that there’s a God higher than Caesar—a Kingdom higher than Rome.  I have to keep order in this province.  Do you have anything to say for yourself?  Are you a little affected in the head?  

I might be able to help you out here, but you have to work with me.   “Are you the king of the Jews?” [Voice from Congregation, “It is as you say.”]   You’ve got to be kidding me.  You’re not helping your case any. 

Some of your people loyal to Caesar say you claim to be the King of the Jews, which would be insanity if you did say, because sedition carries a very harsh penalty.  I could execute you, you know.  But you don’t strike me as a threat, and I do love playing cat-and-mouse games.  I mean, you’re the most pathetic looking excuse for a wannabe king I’ve seen yet—and there are a lot of disloyal, ungrateful radicals who do a lot worse than go crazy in the temple.  Frankly that amuses me, and wins you points.  So you’re a king?

Centurians!  Take this pathetic lunatic to the real King of the Jews-- King Herod.  Dress him up in robes; give him a crown.  And mock him in front of the crowds.  They’re always protesting about something.  Herod will find this toad hilarious—be sure he tells them about this imaginary kingdom, too.  This’ll win me points with him for years—and it’s always good to be on the good side of the king.


In the modern world, we don’t have the Roman Empire, but we do have a lot of people running afowl of other keepers of social hierarchies: the “Pontius Pilates” of present day.  These “Pontius Pilates” are people who protect the privilege of the elite, prop up governments, and police the world, keeping a lid on populist, people’s uprisings.  A lot of innocent people get hurt in the midst of it all.  

I imagine men and women all over the Middle-East today—even in the lands where Jesus walked— praying for their freedom, now finding themselves ruthlessly treated and murdered by dictators… …Dictators who were once propped up by the Western powers, in our names, in order to promote the interests of our companies, our trade deals, and our sense of order.  Could Pontius Pilate speak to us?

I am in charge of the security of Jerusalem-- an important trade route of the Roman Empire.  Trade keeps Rome prosperous, and my iron fist keeps trade secure around here despite the anti-Roman sentiments.  What you just saw is just another day here, with yet another crazy radical coming out of the woodwork, getting himself into trouble.  I don’t think this guy is a terrorist, or at least he isn’t much of one.  But he speaks ideas dangerous to the Empire.  This requires careful maneuvering.

We need a lot of that around here, because this is truly the armpit of the empire.  Frankly, I feel like I’m being punished, but some day I’ll get out of this backward, flea-ridden town.  It’s a particularly vile, difficult place full of extremists, but I’m up to the task of policing their little rebellions.  I have to set people against each-other.  That’s why I’m here.  I have 3000 soldiers under my command, and it doesn’t matter how many thousands of people I execute; extremists still keep coming.

But it’s no matter.  I will always be able to buy some people’s loyalty by tempting them with political authority over others—a temptation with privilege and with fear.  They in turn have vested interest and will control the uncivilized population.  They serve me: their natural Roman ruler.  I swear, nothing will change here for thousands of years.  They will always need order and governance from their superiors.  

The brilliance of my strategy is that the locals themselves turn the subversives right over to me—before their little uprisings and crazy outbursts become a problem.  Then I put on a little song and dance as if Rome doesn’t want any part in their brutality, and they take the brunt of the blame while I take care of their “problems.”  Do you know how many “messiahs” I’ve seen?  Dozens.  I’ve executed thousands.  They’re all dead.  Like I said, a little privilege among the elite-- people who choose to look and act like us, like artisans, leaders, and religious figures--- that goes a long way.

I call them my political pawns. They’re like dogs, bent on retaining scraps, and they practically rule for me!  I just get to collect taxes, and execute rebels.  I really hope King Herod likes my gift of that hilariously awkward man who the peasants say walks on water. . . and does miracles with his piercing stare… and his haunting way about him.  

He does bother me.  He’s not like the others; he has this sense of otherworldly self about him—this gentle, effortless power.  He might look like a filthy outcast from Galilee, but there’s something different about him.  

Political retainer is a term for people in the ancient world who professed loyalty to the Roman Empire, because they “got something” out of Roman rule. They worked to uphold the status quo, much like we see in today’s oil countries, where privileged elite classes such as the Saudis, rule atop a class system that benefits the West.  One class benefits and in turn gives us support; others are exploited.  This same model was especially evident in the region of ancient Israel and Judea where the Jews were considered some of the lowliest, undesirable subjects in the Empire, given their unwillingness to serve Caesar as their god and their resistance to Roman occupation.  Privileged loyalists kept them in line.

Might we have the same problem in our society?  In some ways, I think we do.  I live in a society with an economic hierarchy stretching throughout the world, reaping the benefits of others’ work through consuming.  Products.  Services. I live, I consume, I benefit.  Somebody else suffers.  Our government declares wars; we retain our American privileges, and consume some more.  It just seems like the natural order of things that can’t be helped -- but it can.

The crowd Jesus walked with scorned those loyal to Rome. Those who proclaimed faith, while continuing to benefit at the expense of others within Rome’s hierarchy of class and race, Jesus called hypocrites.  Today in America, we see people benefitting from their class and race, too, by voting and acting to maintain their own privilege with no regard for equal opportunities.  We see it when education funding is cut.  We see it when healthcare becomes an issue of privilege rather than a sacred human right.  We see it when people like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker tries to tear apart labor unions to benefit an elite class whose taxes won’t go up. By preserving collective bargaining for a “select group” – police and firefighters – while dismantling it for others, a privileged class is created.

This is the temptation of political authority: to unilaterally serve our own interests and forget the lives of others.  The temptation of political authority corrupts our very humanity with the fruits of greed and exploitation so readily available to us. The temptation of political authority makes us addicted to our own privilege.  Can we fight this temptation?

Jesus teaches us to remember the lives of others—to be compassionate and willing to stand in solidarity rather than succumbing to the temptation of hierarchy.  Roman hierarchy and it’s disrespect for Jewish culture is what the Jews were fighting against in Jesus’ time.  That’s the context of Jesus’ culture and his message.  That’s why Jesus’ message of a greater authority than our political world—God and God’s Kingdom—wasn’t about a literally dominant “king-God” like Caesar.  Instead it meant God is higher than the world’s Kingdoms; God is higher than the political authorities.  Higher than Rome.  Higher than America.  And unlike the rest of this world, this God can’t be co-opted by the temptation of political authority.  God is an equalizing force, teaching us that we all have value, those in sorrow shall be comforted, and the meek shall inherit the Earth.

I have a suspicion that even the privileged Roman, Pontius Pilate, couldn’t ignore the power of this teacher’s beautiful, non-violent, subversive message. I’m sure even he couldn’t be blind to his own privilege in this man’s presence.

My wife had a dream about this man, this Jesus from Galilee, last night.  She warned me to have nothing to do with him.  This is so strange.  Is he “magical” like they say?  Will he put some kind of curse on me if I execute him?  Will my family have misfortune for ten generations?  Or will my name be spoken of badly for ten-thousand years?

To see this rabble-rouser, this subversive scourge of the Earth adored by his followers—I see in him what he claims: greater authority than Rome… than me… than the whole world.  I’m afraid of people like him…  to speak with him.  It’s like waking up, and opening my eyes for the first time.  Around him I realize that I’m not as superior as I think I am, and neither are my people.  Around him, I start to question the whole purpose of Roman rule and the whole nature of truth.  

What is truth?  Is it some objective reality Rome creates for the world to follow?  Is it what somebody at the top of our hierarchy—Caesar—says is right?  Or is it more subjective than that?  Could one man claim to be the King of the Jews and be right?  Could he cut through my whole understanding of the world around me and leave me wondering where his Kingdom really is?

What is truth?  That I’m even asking this is exactly why this man must be killed. [“Crucify him!  Crucify him!  Give us Barabbas!” Yelled from the congregation.]  My political pawns are yelling “crucify him,” because they see the same thing and they’re afraid of what I’ll do if they don’t speak up.  In my heart I don’t want to, but I have to crucify him.  He embodies something too dangerous and too subversive for this world.  It’s my job to get rid of those threats for Rome.

Fortunately, in my position, I don’t have to take responsibility.  Let it be written that the Jews demanded this execution, and I washed my hands of it.  Because I can wash my hands of it, place the responsibility onto others, and continue the way I was going…  It is my privilege of being a Roman prefect.  I must continue the way I was going, because I can’t live with the guilt of what reality is like… of how unjust my people are… of how many people I’ve executed… of how broken this is …

If this one man causes me to ask so many questions, he could cause others to question our authority.  Could he really be the King of the Jews?

What is truth?  This man is the King of the Jews – and he must be crucified.