St Andrew’s Anglican Church
Sunday 25 November
Christ the King
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Revelation 1: 4b-8
Truth in a post-truth world. ©Sue Wilton
The Oxford English Dictionaries named “post-truth” its word of the year in November 2016. Citing a 2,000 percent spike in usage -particularly around Brexit and the American presidential campaign – they defined post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”1 This is about a culture that has developed that overrides reality to serve an ideology. It also, I think, tells us a lot about the nature of truth and its relationship to power.
As we celebrate this festival of Christ the King, we are faced with one of the most iconic scenes in the Gospel- the trial before Pilate. It is a scene where Pilate seems to run consistently to script and the simple expectations of Roman power and control, and where Jesus in his responses refuses to be drawn in to the usual reactionary narrative. “Are you the King of the Jews?” asks Pilate, seeking to clarify just what kind of political threat Jesus represented. When he is confronted by Jesus turning the question back on to him, he avoids becoming personally entangled and counters with a disclaimer of any knowledge of the Jewish nation and tries to bring the conversation back to a model of crime and punishment with the curt, “What have you done?” Finally, Jesus declares he was born to testify to the truth, to which Pilate famously responds, “What is truth?”
This question haunts humanity because we know that truth is weighty and has the power to change everything about the way we relate to one another both as individuals and in human society. It is difficult to maintain a position where truth can be defined as objective facts. A glance at human history will show that all too often the truth is shaped by those who have the ability to be heard, who can create the laws, who determines economic freedom or, more simply and brutally, who is holding the gun.
In our time where post-truth is recognised as, at best, a carelessness with reality in order to better support an argument, or, at worst, a mode of deliberate propaganda to better serve an ideology, we need to be alert to the relationships between truth and power. The ability to determine and change truth is nothing more than a naked exercise of control and domination. You do not need to convince anyone of the truth of claims you make when your position of power means you construct and dominate their reality.
It is timely, then, that as we reflect on the idea of kingship, we consider how the truth of Jesus relates to the exercise of power.
The ironic identification of Jesus by Pilate as ‘King of the Jews’, both in his words and in the sign displayed on the cross, is the ultimate demonstration of absolute power. It is as if Rome is saying, “You want to be a king? Let us make you a king. You will be robed and crowned and lifted up above all your fellows…” But the crown will be of thorns and this elevation will be on an instrument of torture, where you will hang in humiliating warning to others who might aspire to challenge Rome or threaten its controlled peace. Pax Romana was seen as a necessary path to human flourishing. Rome, it appears, could write its own version of truth, and did so with brutal clarity.
But something is different about this trial and, after thousands of other crucifixions, there is something far from routine about this one. There is a hint of what Pilate should have seen coming in the account found in Matthew’s Gospel of the dream of Pilate’s wife, warning that he should have nothing to do with Jesus. Indeed, it was time for Rome to start having nightmares. Just when they thought they had followed through with their usual mix of fear, mockery, humiliation and display of total control even over life and death, they discover they have nothing of the kind. In trying to abase and dismiss King Jesus, the
Christian story reveals that instead, they have assisted in his enthronement. It is through the forgiving victim who gives himself over to the violence of empire that justice is poured out to the nations through the healing, self-emptying love of God and a new power, stronger than any human empire, breaks upon the world.
When Jesus died, all the powers lost their power. In Christ’s non-violent surrender of forgiving love, all the forces of evil seemed to be drawn in and expended as they did the worst that such systems of violence and mimetic rage can do. The cross remains a pivotal event that refuses to be contained by simple explanations and this story of self-emptying love never disappears from the human imagination. It might appear in the story of a small hobbit who refuses to take up a weapon that would make them strong and ultimately gives his life that it be destroyed and the world remade, or a mother who dies in the place of her small, magical son named Harry, thereby granting him the protection of love that defeats even the greatest and most evil wizards. We tell the story again and again of this truth that the power of love is greater than all. Scripture tells us that it was this power that made the world in the first place and continues now in the process of recreating it.
Forgiveness is the engine of this creative power, but we get things wrong if we make this message into a private Christian salvation whereby our sins are forgiven so that we can get into heaven. We misread the text when we hear Jesus say that his kingdom is not of this world and assume he means that the kingdom is about some heavenly reality and has nothing to do with the present world at all. What he is saying is that his kingdom does not come from this world, does not originate here- if it operated in the same way as earthly kingdoms, his followers would have taken up arms like so many zealots and revolutionaries before them. Jesus was drawing on a kingdom sustained by an altogether different power.
Our personal experience of divine forgiveness is central to our faith, but we misread the situation if we think it is private, or that the personal has nothing to do with the political. Anyone who has lived through a war knows just how deeply personal the political can be. As we are invited into the new creation where power itself has been totally redefined by love, we cannot avoid the call on our lives to ‘speak truth to power’: to expose the terrible lies that manipulate the truth to sustain earthly kingdoms by violence and control.
But while the personal is political and the political is personal, the deepest, most creative response is spiritual. Jesus lived out the way of detachment. In self emptying love, he turned his back on identifying with status or wealth or power, but took the form of a servant, placing all his trust in God. Attaching to the kingdoms of this world can give us a feeling of security, power and identity, but the deepest power of all is found when we release our attachments and fall into grace. Only from this space of grace can we be released from the need to manipulate truth to suit our own controlling desire for power and certainty. Only from this place of freedom can we recognise and call out the systems that oppress, consume and dehumanise. In trust, we give ourselves to the Divine life and so to one another, living not from a narrative of greed, competition and self-interest but for the common good. And only from this relationship of radical trust we call faith can we begin to see that truth is found in the compassion and forgiveness that is the power of life itself. When we see this, we worship, knowing that the One we serve is the king of love.
1 As quoted in McIntyre, Lee, “Lies, damn lies and post-truth http://theconversation.com/lies-damn-lies-and post-truth-106049, 19 November 2018.