There is a growing movement in America that simply cannot countenance people who disagree with them. Students at Stanford Law School in March shouted down Fifth Circuit Judge Kyle Duncan during an event at which he had been invited to speak, and even the school’s “associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion” reprimanded Duncan for his judicial opinions. “Is the juice worth the squeeze? Is this worth it?” the sanctimonious dean demanded of Duncan when he tried to respond to her (bizarrely) prepared remarks.
It was a question that did not really seek an answer because the questioner did not care about the person’s response. She had already made up her mind. Like Washington Post columnist Monica Hesse recently asking, “Is J.K. Rowling transphobic?” Or CNN commentator Bakari Sellers asking, “Is DeSantis Using Racism to Win the Presidency?” In such cases, the question is the argument, or the attempt at one, anyway.
This week, Christians across the world celebrate Holy Week, also called Passion Week, honoring Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem before His crucifixion on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter Sunday. Jesus, too, suffered the indignity of being ridiculed by those who didn’t really care what He thought, or how He might answer their mocking questions. But through a consideration of how the various Jewish and Roman authorities treated Jesus, we can see what happens when politics is prioritized over faith. In Jesus’ response to that treatment, we can learn how we, too, can become whole in our increasingly vitriolic secular age.
Concerns About Political Ambitions
The Jews of Jesus’ day yearned for their Messiah, the one who would deliver them from the cruel oppression of the Romans and restore the people of Israel under a new, greater Davidic kingdom. One tradition conjectures this is what the disciple Judas desired, and why he eventually betrayed Jesus: He realized Jesus was not interested in establishing a political regime.
Certainly, this fear motivated the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, who feared that “every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” Thus responded the high priest Caiaphas: “It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish” (John 11:48-50).
Indeed, when the Jewish leadership apprehended Jesus and brought Him before the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate, they accused Jesus of being an existential threat to Roman authority because He had claimed to be the “king of the Jews.” Jesus’ response to Pilate’s interrogation indicates, however, He did not have secular, political ambitions, but something far deeper. We read: “My kingship is not of this world. … For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.” Pilate responds: “What is truth?” (John 18:28-38).
We don’t learn from the Gospel of John how Jesus responded to Pilate, if indeed He did respond. That’s quite telling. Many commentators have assessed that Pilate wasn’t particularly interested in Jesus’ response, anyway. Pilate’s question, according to this interpretation, is not a sincere one but rhetorical, perhaps even hand-waving.
The only “truth” that mattered to Pilate, the Roman governor of a backwater, rebellious province, was the political kind. As far as Pilate was concerned, Jesus was a threat to that hard-won secular order (or at least good relations with the Jewish religious leadership), and thus someone who was expendable.
Subjugating Faith to Politics
Of course, as both the Jewish religious leadership and Pilate would soon learn, they could not be rid of Jesus that easily. A few days after His crucifixion, His followers were claiming He had risen from the dead. A few years after that, His followers were spreading out like wildfire across the Mediterranean world. Those Christians would outlast both the Jerusalem-based Jewish religious leaders and the Roman Empire. Two thousand years later, and despite many concerted political attempts to destroy it, Christianity claims billions of adherents.
Throughout the history of Christianity, political movements and authoritarian governments have viewed it as a threat that must be suppressed, if not exterminated, to bring about some great secular utopia. The French revolutionaries of the 18th century believed that. So did Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot, responsible for the murder of millions of innocent men, women, and children. All of them cynically asked, in one way or another, “What is truth?” All of them believed the “truths” of their political ideologies trumped those of faith. That they were proven so disastrously wrong is a small consolation for the terrible damage they wrought.
Yet here we are again, almost a quarter of the way through the 21st century, and an increasing number of religiously unaffiliated Americans seem to be motivated by that same ancient desire to subjugate faith to the whims of politics. According to their worldview, churches, religious groups, and people of faith must be shouted down, silenced, reprimanded, canceled, deprived of income, even jailed if necessary, to ensure the success of their ideological vision. That their political project vitiates the very freedoms they claim to represent matters little. Their paeans to liberty and human dignity are expedient and ad hoc, not principled.
Cultivating Our Little Gardens of Faith
In his excellent new little book “The Gardens of God,” Cardinal Arthur Roche tells the story of Etty Hillesum, a very intelligent atheist and Jew, who died at Auschwitz at age 29. Not long before her death, Hillesum fell in love with God, and it changed her life. She described the initial months in the concentration camp as “the two richest and most intense months of my life, in which my highest values were so deeply confirmed.” She later wrote in her journal: “Somewhere there is something inside me that will never desert me again.”
Hillesum, entrapped by those who hated her, had begun to cultivate a garden of faith within herself, one that gave her life meaning, and could make sense, however imperfectly, of some of the most traumatic human suffering imaginable. She had discovered transcendent love, something (and someone) that explains everything else, including her deepest yearnings. Roche writes:
To have the hope that is beyond the finality of death, something else, entirely gratuitous, needs to enter a moment such as this. Our spirit has to be rooted in and search out something that transcends the historicity of this final point.
The answer to the distemper of our times, so similar to those of first-century Judea, is not the vilification of our enemies so common among political zealots. The answer is to choose, like Hillesum, to cultivate the garden of faith within, which enables us to love our enemies, even when they silence and persecute us. It is to place our faith, our relationship with God, above all political allegiances and ideologies. Otherwise the secular will snuff out that faith — and eventually us.
“Forgive them Lord, they know not what they do,” the God-Man Christ petitioned from the cross. As men and women of faith who encounter ever more vile forms of malice from those who despise us, we must seek to offer that same prayer, especially in this penitential season, the last week of Lent. Praying those words of mercy often won’t be easy. But they once converted an entire empire. Perhaps today they might convert a generation, and a nation.