Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, ‘Where are you from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, ‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above;
[W]hat [the author of the Fourth Gospel] means is that what actually took place in this use of the statesman's power was the only possible thing that could take place in the fulfilment [sic] of the gracious will of the Father of Jesus Christ! Even at the moment when Pilate (still in the garb of justice! and in the exercise of the power given him by God) allowed injustice to run its course, he was the human created instrument of that justification of sinful man that was completed once for all time through that very cricifixion [sic].The traditional name for this day is often understood as confounding, even paradoxical. How can it be good that this man, blameless in act as he was sinless before God, was wrongly accused and convicted and executed? How is it good that the power of the state to decide who lives and who dies - what is quaintly called "a monopoly of violence" - became greater than the power of the God we claim created the Universe? Many mysteries and cross-threads and questions come to this particular point - and hang there, demanding an answer.
Karl Barth, "Church And State", in Community, State, and Church, p.110
Politics is more than a hobby of mine. It has been, longer than I can remember, something I have passionately followed, sought to understand, decode, translate, and work through toward a particular goal. The stated end of politics is social benefit. Yet it is in and through unique instances and events involving individuals that the state demonstrates both the means it chooses to move toward that goal, and by so choosing, the actual, historical end it seeks. My own passionate belief in greater justice, not in the abstract but in the very tangible senses we consider for that word - legal, social, economic, political - has always made me less than tolerant of those who pursue politics as an end in and for itself.
I know people who are fascinated by the Great Game, seeing in the intricacies and tactical and strategic maneuvering of various players little more than a real-life variant of chess. I have watched young men and women, their eyes shining with a light very close to hunger, even lust, as they talk about and watch various political actors go through the various motions dictated by power. It is frightening to see that; the game is, indeed, seductive. Yet, much like chess, new players in the game forget they are just that, and most players exist to be sacrificed to protect the King. Perhaps that is why I have never been a very good chess player; I am far less concerned with the game than that for which the game exists. I'll happily sacrifice even a king if it brings greater justice for the pawns, the knights, the bishops, and the rooks.
We Christians have a difficult time being clear about the relationships among our beliefs, our practice of the faith, and our attitude toward the worldly powers that govern and dictate the boundaries of our lives, individually and collectively. Whether one self-identifies as conservative, orthodox (small "o"), a liberationist, liberal, Roman Catholic, or some particular sub-species (Reformed, Lutheran, Evangelical, Wesleyan, neo-Orthodox, yadda-yadda), our much vaunted ability to be clear breaks down when we confront what should be, in practice, the most pressing question we face: How do we as the Church, the Body of Christ, relate to the authorities over us? Considering these same powers broke, then killed, the physical Body of Christ, one would think this a not-unimportant matter.
Too often, we start with St. Paul's statement in his Epistle to the Romans that we are to pray for the authorities because they have been appointed over us. Many over the centuries have protested this seemingly facile, even insulting command. Even at the time St. Paul was writing, local, regional, even Imperial authorities were killing Christians; how unfeeling to insist we are to pray for those who would seek to kill us! The growth of liberation theologies in the last century put this question even more starkly; with the systems of the state subject to much more exacting scrutiny (although, I believe this is a modern conceit that shouldn't bear up; I'm figuring oppressed peoples pretty much at any time and place understood all too well the interlocking structures that had their feet on the backs of their necks), the demonic heart of these systems couldn't be more clear. How is it possible to pray for them? Isn't it blasphemy to insist that God has placed these authorities over us?
Wasn't it Jesus who insisted we are to pray for those who persecute us? Wasn't it Jesus who asked us to love our enemies? Wasn't it Jesus who said we are blessed when we are pursued and oppressed and even killed for our belief in him?
In the confrontation between Jesus and Pilate, the many questions that highlight these matters rise up, giving them clarity. When Pilate insists he controls the levers of state power, the decision of life and death for Jesus as this moment, Jesus makes clear that this power is not Pilate's at all. The decision whether Jesus is to live or die rests not with Pilate, but in the Will and work of the one Jesus called Father, the God who in this moment chooses Divine Glory over contingent justice; the Father chooses the salvation of this broken world God creates and loves over the life of the Son, the eternal Love with which the Father shares in and through the Holy Spirit, that third person that forms the Triunity of God. Never denying the injustice of the whole affair, we affirm with a great nevertheless that the structures of state power are acting as they have been intended. As the machine grinds on, with Jesus strapped down in its path, we hear in Jesus' words the affirmation that his own powerlessness, and Pilate's assumption of power and authority, are such only because the Father has willed it to be so for the greater glory of God and the salvation of all creation.
The never-answered question of this day - What is truth? - shows the disregard the state must have to reality if it is to perform in the way it is designed to perform. Pilate understands Jesus is innocent. Pilate has no desire to see him die. If Pilate is to do what needs to be done, what has been Divinely ordained no less than contingently manipulated, he must disregard the question of truth even as it stares back at him in the bloody, exhausted face in front of him.
As we Christians celebrate and remember this day, injustice looms large in our land, as it does in all lands, and we face it with all the fear, bewilderment, and anger Christians have always done. As we meditate upon the bleeding and dying form on the cross, we see reflected back all those whom the state has deemed worthy of death, whose lives are ill-suited to the ends of the state that considers the illusion of its power to be real. We should always remember, however, that this death, as unjust as it was, was a death God freely chose. Without resolving the conflict between the state and its victims, we clearly see on this day more than any other, why it is we are to pray for our persecutors; why it is we are to celebrate our oppression for our faith; why it is we are to love our enemies, even when our enemies are systems and institutions created to sustain a power that, in fact, does not spring from itself. Our prayers, always preceding and accompanying our lives in the world in pursuit of justice, are rooted in our faith that this unjust act, this execution of one in whom there was neither sin nor crime, is God's Act for us. This resolution of injustice in justice demonstrates the path we are to tread in pursuit of the Church's work for God's Kingdom moves through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, a place where we have been promised, in the Psalms, Divine Presence, receiving both guidance and comfort.
The pursuit of a more just, more humane world, a place where all human beings are recognized as human beings, worthy of concern and compassion, is not going to resolve itself. It is not going to be resolved through the Church choosing one side or another in the Great Game. It is not going to be resolved through some innovation in one or another technique - financial or economic, industrial or scientific. Real justice, which springs from the singular recognition of Divine governance embodied in the Person of Jesus Christ whose unjust death we remember and celebrate - yes, celebrate! - this day, will come only when we are willing, in our rage and disgust and fear at the many ways human beings find themselves hanging on various crosses around the world, to continue to pray for those in authority over us, precisely because they have been so placed by God to perform the work they do.
Good Friday is not the end of the story, to be sure. It is, however, a necessary step on the way. For this reason, Easter poses its own set of problems and possible answers. Which is why this will be continued on that Sunday we celebrate the eighth day.