Consider these questions as you read/hear this story of Jesus’ death.
What fears contributed to the crowd’s willingness to see Jesus condemned?
What or who did Pilate fear?
If we dwell in this story, how does Jesus appear to us? What does that say about God?
Fear permeates this story. Jesus was brought to Pilate because the Jewish authorities feared his influence. The disciples abandoned him because they feared the Jewish and Roman authorities who appeared to have more power than Jesus did. The crowds turned on Jesus because they feared the authorities. Pilate’s wife feared for her husband because of a dream. Pilate was caught by fears: the fear of looking weak as a riot threatened, the fear of the unruly crowd, and, perhaps, fear of his own superiors.
As the story unfolds, power is in the hands of earthly rulers who impose order through violence. Maybe the ultimate fear for those who had seen something in Jesus was that Jesus demonstrated God’s own weakness in a world ruled by the sword.
Christianity has, through the centuries of its existence, proclaimed God as the all powerful – the Almighty Ruler, the Omnipotent Judge. We have done theological gymnastics to reconcile this image of God with the cross. So, we see the cross as God’s will, God’s demand for a righteous sacrifice to satisfy God’s hunger for justice in the face of our failings. If God is the Almighty, the Ruler of the Universe, then the cross must be God’s will. We then take that assumption and let it shape the way we look at the world. Everything must be a sign of God’s will. So, hurricanes are punishment for our sins. Or, as that congressman in Oklahoma stated, women experience rape and incest because it’s God’s will – God is in charge – nothing happens that God has not ordained. It’s no wonder people ask, in the face of deep, distressing challenges, “What have I done to deserve this?”
It’s easy to be afraid of the God who seemingly inflicts suffering on the world and/or to be afraid that God is powerless in the face of such suffering – and therefore irrelevant.
The Reverend Adam Erickson spoke about the events of Palm Sunday and the Passion, contrasting Jesus with the world’s understanding of power. Even in Jesus’ “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem, we are presented with a very different picture of “kingship.” A Roman emperor would have ridden into a city on a powerful steed, a war horse. Jesus rode in on a donkey, a humble beast of burden. So, immediately we know that this king does not come as a threat. He shows us a new way of being human. Erickson goes on to contrast the understanding of peace. Pax Romana was a cherished accomplishment of the Roman Empire –even if it was, at times, more of a dream than an actuality. This Pax was accomplished by way of the sword. Jesus, the king who would not threaten, presented a new way of being political (that is, of living in human communities). He lived and offered the idea of peace through non-violent love. He demonstrated a love that sought out the lost, the marginalized, the forgotten, the disdained, the powerless – and, yes, the powerful, the insiders, and even enemies. And, in doing so, he refused, every step of the way, to engage in violence. The cross shows us his unwillingness to choose the world’s way of “right through might.” He loved – all people –even his enemies. He loved until he died. He loved in the face of rejection. He loved in the face of fear. He loved in the face of abandonment.
The problem is that love, in the face of the sword, looks weak. It led to Jesus’ death. Through the centuries of Christianity, it has led to theologies that justify violence. We speak of “just” wars – wars that can’t be avoided, wars that need to take place in order to bring about justice. In Florida, we speak of the necessity for “stand your ground” laws that justify a violent response to violence or even to the perception of threat. Until recently, violence was an accepted parenting tool: spare the rod, spoil the child. When I was in college, I read the book Situation Ethics which declared that the use of the Atomic bomb in World War Two was an active of love – bringing about the end of a terrible war. Years later, we are re-evaluating that perception and justification. We may be able to see the horror of Rome’s approach to a non-violent man. But we still embody it – because Jesus’ way looks weak in the face of earthly powers.
This week I came across a letter a man named Jay McDaniel wrote to his son. The letter accompanied a college graduation gift of a book by John D. Caputo titled, The Weakness of God: a Theology of the Event. In his letter, McDaniel talked about Caputo’s reflections on weakness and power. Caputo wrote that acts of violence contain raw power, but not grace. Strong power silences the voices of others. We can see that in the story of the crucifixion. What was it but an attempt by the strong powers of that day to silence Jesus? We might look at the events of this week and ask about the intent of the strong power our nation has shown in the face of Syrian tragedy. We are attempting to silence the powers that we condemn. I will say that many who are reflecting on the US’s air strikes say that we need to seek, ultimately, a diplomatic solution. Yet, at the same time, we condemn the diplomatic attempts that seem week in the face of power. And if we look at the world’s history of strong power being used to force peace, we know that the silenced eventually find their voice and their power. We are caught in an unending cycle of violence. As God’s people, it is a struggle. I read an introduction to a book written by my Quaker grandfather. He was a member of the Army Corps of Engineers and was detailing a way of building temporary bridges for the armed forces. He could see war coming (I think World War One), and wrote of his desire that war be avoided, if at all possible. Yet….yet…we live in and participate in this world’s brokenness.
McDaniel acknowledged our discomfort with “weak power.” But said of Caputo: “He suspects that ultimately there is something stronger about weak power than strong power, about love than brute force.”
The Weakness of God is a challenging title – it confronts all of our expectations of who God is and what God is all about. And it challenges our acceptance of the ways of this world and our justifications that allow us to participate in its brokenness. But these stories – of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem not on a war horse, but a humble work animal, and of Jesus’ unwillingness to engage in violent resistance to the evil of the world, but remain faithful to the way of love—invite us to consider the God who always chooses the way of love instead of violence, of invitation instead of coercion. These stories challenge us to see how we are willingly complicit with the worldly power that continues to assert itself in ways that diminish and silence others. They challenge us to see the ways in which we are unwillingly complicit – caught up in the way things are. The cross is not a symbol of God’s destructive power. It is a reminder of our destructive ways. The hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus” has a verse that I often remember: “Who was the guilty? Who brought this up on thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee. ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.”
“I crucified thee.” The cross still looms as a sign of weakness and failure. Yet, Jesus chose to go to that cross, trusting that God’s love would somehow, eventually triumph even over death. In the cross, in the weakness of the ultimate victim, we see that God will not remain silent, or absent. God’s love, Caputo wrote,like a gentle breeze, hovers in the midst of the evil ways and powers of this world, inviting us, encouraging us to love. We can do so because we know, through Jesus, that God loves us.