by David Baer, March 11, 2018
Text: John 18:28-40
Archie Bunker, the bigoted husband and father played by actor Carroll O’Connor in the sitcom All in the Family, was supposed to be a joke. His prejudice was over-the-top. He peppered his commentary on life in 1970s America with racial slurs, but his character was crafted, or so the show’s creator thought, to depict him as a rube, a buffoon, a ripe target for ridicule. For example, he once pronounced himself “mortifried,” and he opined that capital punishment was a “detergent to crime.” New York Times television critic Jack Gould praised the show, writing that the struggle to uproot bigotry “has defied man’s best efforts for generations, and the weapon of laughter just might succeed.”1 But not everyone was in on the joke. Two psychologists conducted a survey where they first screened people for so-called “prejudiced” beliefs—for example, the idea that black and white children should be educated separately. Then they asked them about All in the Family and Archie Bunker. Those who held prejudiced beliefs seemed to be watching a completely different show from those who did not: “Those whom [the psychologists] classified as ‘low prejudice’ thought Archie was ‘a bigot, domineering, rigid, loud, and that he mistreats his wife.’ People of ‘high prejudice’ had the opposite take: Archie was ‘down-to-earth, honest, hardworking, predictable, and kind enough to allow his son-in-law and daughter to live with him.’”2 People who watched the show arrived a truth about its message and its characters that depended more on what they brought to the show than what they saw there.
Farhad Manjoo, a friend-of-a-friend from my college class, records this and other examples of fragmented truth in his book True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society. Increasingly the arguments we have are not about opinions, but about facts themselves. From questions about vaccines to climate change to genetically modified foods, people seem to cling tenaciously not just to their own beliefs, but to their own reality. There are a lot of reasons for this, and Manjoo’s book is a really excellent look at the psychological and cultural forces at work in our world behind the extraordinary fragmentation of truth.
But it’s not just big questions about public policy and science where people do this. I’ve heard arguments between brothers and sisters over the truth of what sort of parents they had. It’s as though they grew up in different homes, even though they shared the same street address. There may be such a thing as pure, objective truth. But there is no such thing as a pure, objective observer of that truth. Our limited senses will only ever give us a partial glimpse of reality, and the information we hold onto is always going to be shaped by our desires, our fears, and our lived experiences.
I don’t want to get lost in the sociology of truth. But as we hear Jesus and Pilate talk about truth in today’s reading, I think it’s worth acknowledging that we live in a world where truth is contested, where different people look at the same reality and see different things.
What is truth? The Hebrew word for truth is emunah or emet, meaning firmness, solidity. Truth is something you can rely on, something you can lean on, confident that it will hold you up, that it won’t fall over and take you with it. Imagine walking or driving over a bridge—you are counting on the truth of architectural and engineering science in a very real way! This is how the ancient Hebrew people talked about truth. For example, if a witness lied in court, it was dangerous not just for the person they testified against, but for the community as a whole, since unjustly punishing someone would bring guilt on all of them. If someone failed to tell the truth, they could all tumble down. Or in the wisdom literature of the Bible, you hear teaching about the truth of the world, and warnings that if you ignore this truth you will stumble and fall. Truth is the solid, reliable ground that will bear you up when you put your foot on it.
“What is truth?” Pilate asked. And it was true then as it is now that the truth was different for different people. But the test of truth, then as now, is what you can lean on, what holds you up in a time of testing.
Neither the local authorities nor Pilate is interested in the truth as an abstract, objective principle. For them truth is what gets them their way. Truth is a means to power, and you make it up as you go along. The Jerusalem Council has already decided that Jesus needs to be eliminated as a threat to their own power. But only the Roman governor can order an execution. So they need Pilate. They need to convince him that Jesus is a troublemaker. But Pilate doesn’t care about their disagreements with Jesus about the Sabbath, or that he’s undermining people’s confidence in the religious establishment. And the chief priests don’t really have any evidence of Jesus undermining Roman rule. Just listen to what they tell Pilate, when he asks them to charge Jesus with a crime punishable under Roman law. They say, “Well, we brought him to you, didn’t we? Doesn’t the fact that we want him killed give you some idea how serious his crimes must be?” We want this troublemaker killed, and therefore he must be guilty of a capital crime. That’s the truth of the chief priests.
Pilate is no dummy. He knows they’re trying to play him. But he’s got a truth of his own to promote, so he brings Jesus inside to interrogate him. And he’s a pathetic sight. Jesus is a poor man from the hills up north. And he’s alone. All his followers fled without so much as a fight. “So, what are you,” Pilate asks, “some kind of king?” It’s a joke. In no way does Pilate believe Jesus a credible threat to Roman power. If he were, Pilate would have hunted down every one of the disciples. But as it is, Pilate’s not at all interested in Jesus’ disciples. “Are you king of the Jews?” he asks, not because he thinks Jesus is an actual rebel, but because if the Jewish authorities are going to use Pilate in their power game, Pilate is going to exact his own price. He’s going to humiliate the Jewish people by taking this small and weak and lonely Jewish teacher and slapping a sign on him that says, “King of the Jews.” It’s going to make those Jewish authorities squirm. But it’s going to firm up Pilate’s own power.
Whatever it takes to get this troublemaker put to death, that’s the truth for the Jerusalem Council. Whatever it takes to get one up on the Council, that’s the truth for Pilate. Their interlocking manipulations and deceptions are like two thorn bushes, each trying to choke out the other one. And in the process they crush an innocent man. Jesus isn’t the first of their victims. But he’s different from the rest.
“My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus says. He lays claim to a source of power that doesn’t derive from deception and violence. If my kingdom were from this world, he says, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But they’re not fighting. They’re not playing the power-and-violence game that the Council and Pilate understand so well. Jesus didn’t come to beat up the schoolyard bullies. So why did he come? “To testify to the truth,” he says. And Pilate is unimpressed. “What is truth?” he asks, not waiting for an answer. He heads back outside, and offers the mob assembled by the Council a choice: Jesus or Barabbas, a bandit-slash-freedom-fighter. They choose Barabbas. Guilt or innocence no longer matters to them either.
This is a sad and sorry story to read. We look into it and we see ourselves reflected back to us as though through a mirror. Our politics for sure—you hear it in the cynical, vulgar words that denigrate the home countries of people seeking a better life in our own, in the slander spoken against immigrants, characterizing them as violent criminals when their rate of criminality is less than that of natural born citizens. But when people make us feel uncomfortable, just like the religious establishment in Jerusalem, we often choose to believe they are evil or dangerous, rather than deal honestly with our own feelings. We do the same thing in our families and relationships too: we take conflict within ourselves, and we turn it into a falsehood about somebody else. To a greater or lesser extent we all manipulate, we all shade the truth, even with the people who are closest to us. And innocent people get hurt. The first truth of this story, the easiest to see, is the brokenness and injustice of our world put up in ugly relief.
But it’s not the only truth. Why did Jesus come? To testify to the truth. Because there’s a crack of light shining out through this dark story. Jesus is giving himself over to the deceptions and manipulations of the powerful men who hate him. He’s allowing their lies to catch him, condemn him, and crucify him. Because every false word they speak is writing a story that is truer than they know. One of the members of the Council, speaking in favor of handing Jesus over to be killed, said, “Isn’t it better for one man to die for the nation?” He spoke those words cynically, to hurt Jesus, to help himself and other powerful men, but the words were truer than he knew. “I find no case against him,” Pilate announced to the Jewish authorities. It was a cynical line in his own power play, but again, what he’s doing here is talking about the Lamb of God. He doesn’t know it, but he’s playing the role of a priest examining an animal for sacrifice, pronouncing it free of blemish, a worthy offering to God. It’s as though some kind of spiritual jiu-jitsu is going on, where evil intentions are turned to good ends.
Way back in the book of Genesis, the patriarch Joseph put it this way to the brothers who had sold him into slavery and now needed his help: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20). You intended it for harm, but God intended it for good.
That’s not to say that these hurts and lies are good or even excusable in themselves. Even though God made use of the Council and Pilate’s cynical, violent politicking, it doesn’t excuse what they did after the fact. If you are harming someone with your words or actions, you need to stop, do your best to put it right, and seek forgiveness.
But it is true that sometimes we despair about all the bad things we experience. And that’s where this story becomes good news. Every lie, every evil intention brings Jesus closer to the cross, where the final truth about God is going to shine so brightly: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…. There is no hurt, no wrong, no deception or manipulation, that God cannot finally bend to serve the truth of God’s love for us. This is truth, this is the solid ground we walk on: what is intended to harm us, to manipulate us, to injure us, God uses to heal and liberate us. You intended it for harm, I intended it for harm, they intended it for harm, but God intended it for good. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Quoted in Farhad Manjoo, True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact World. Hoboken: Wiley & Sons, 2008. p. 74.
Manjoo, pp. 73-74.