As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. 2 Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” 3 Then the chief priests accused him of many things. 4 Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.”5 But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed. Mark 15:1-5 NRSV
Jesus’ silence before Pilate has always puzzled me. It’s one of the most obscure parts of Jesus’ passion. Kind of like Jesus, himself, that passage has begged an explanation.
I think Jesus’ silence is obscure for most Americans because it’s hard to relate to. Americans are passionate about defending their rights. We feel entitled before both state and law because deep in our psyche is a disgust for government. In the passion, Pilate symbolizes such government. Jesus is our hero because he stands silent before the powers of tyranny and ultimately overcomes them. His victory is cosmic and his silence at trial is stoic. We don’t question that someone had to die to free us because this is part of our belief in revolutionary freedom. Jesus stands to die defiant before the powers. The power of God overcomes the power of Rome, and we win. This is Mel Gibson’s Hollywood hero, the American Jesus.
We have a hard time imagining that Jerusalem’s leaders or the jeering crowd could be us. We drown those ideas in anti-Jewishness. The political failures of Jesus trial have nothing to do with us. It’s just one of those nasty moments of wrong belief and bad government. Jesus’ win, however, has everything to do with America. The hero’s silence is not his weakness, but a sign of his strength. We can’t imagine Jesus either hopeless or helpless. That would be heretically unchristian or un-American.
There are enormous problems with this interpretation of Jesus’ silence at trial. My main problem with is that it conveniently ignores way too much, and fills Jesus’ silence with cultural assumptions that say more about American Christianity than Jesus or what the Gospel writers likely intended.
Jesus’ silence doesn’t explain why Pilate gets caught in the middle. It doesn’t explain his confusion over Jesus’ crime. It doesn’t explain why Jerusalem’s leaders kowtow to Rome and why they insist that Pilate eliminate Jesus for them. It doesn’t explain why the crowd wants Barabbas over Jesus. It doesn’t explain why Jesus doesn’t cry out to defend himself. The teacher could’ve shared a parable or proverb to point out the absurdity of the crowd’s judgment and his situation, as he had done many times before. He could have at least apologized to Pilate for putting him in this awkward position of spilling what seemed to be innocent blood (Matthew 27:19). But, he doesn’t. Jesus acts helpless, and says nothing.
There’s a better way to interpret Jesus’ silence, one that is more relevant. Considering the politics surrounding Jesus’ trial is fruitful because they mirror our own. Jesus’ entire trip to Jerusalem is dripping in politics. Everything leading up to Jesus’ trial: Jerusalem’s leaders trapping Jesus and taking him to Pilate, Pilate’s questions about being a King, the crowd’s calling for is execution, especially Jesus’ sentence and punishment, all find their significance in the political realm. Capital punishment, particularly death by crucifixion, is an explicitly political form of control and punishment for Rome. Jesus isn’t silent because he’s defiant, stoic or a hero. Jesus may be silent because he has to be. There are at least two reasons.
First, Jesus’ silence lets Pilate incriminate himself. Empires justify themselves on violence. They remain empires because they keep a monopoly on violence. Jesus’ silence meant Pilate had to make a decision to fulfill his duty as Rome’s governor or release him as a matter of conscience. Pilate doesn’t see what Jesus has done wrong. (Mark 15:14)
The American version of Jesus’ trial is partly right. In the passion, Pilate does represent the power of government. But, not just government, he represents empire and all earthly power and justice. The gospels depict Pilate as conflicted. He tries to compromise and have Jesus flogged. But, the crowd insists on crucifying Jesus. They’d rather free Barabbas, a thief and rabble rouser, than face the possibility that Jesus is the messiah. Popular opinion and group think wins out over conscience, and Pilate relents. Empire executes its function. Rome crucifies Jesus. Pax Romana destroys the shalom of God.
Perhaps, the same is true of Pax Americana.
Second, Jesus is silent in the face of Pilate’s questions because God is defenseless against human foibles. It’s hard to imagine God defenseless against humans. But, Jesus is. The problem is that most Christians understanding of God’s power is wrapped in worldly fantasies of power – supernatural power, instrumental power, military power, personal power. All revolve around the idea of the will, control, and self-determination. Jesus offers a different picture of God’s power, one not at all like these.
Jesus is defenselessness against our sin and human foibles. And, this isn’t the first contradiction Jesus’ silence before Pilate exposes. The contradictions intensifying through Jesus’ trial eventually rupture. They rupture upon Jesus’ public and humiliating death. But, the madness of contradictions revealed in Jesus trial and death begin in the empty void of Jesus’ silence before his accuser. In his silence, the insanity of the whole situation begins to set in.
Jesus is innocent, but he’ll die.
The crowd condemns Jesus, but they won’t be guilty of killing him.
Pilate doesn’t know Jesus or his crime, but he authorizes his death.
Jesus came to save, but he cannot or will not save himself.
The death of God happens in Jerusalem, the city named of God’s reign and peace.
In the face of death, the Son of God says nothing.
Facing the Son’s death, God stands by and does nothing.
Nothing makes sense. None of this intended. The whole is absurd.
Jesus’ silence strips the sin of his world and ours completely naked, unabashed and unadorned. The rage of madness and its contradictions must work themselves out. After all, they are our – not God’s – creation.
This interpretation of Jesus’ silence fits better with Paul’s idea that Jesus really does lay both sin and his evil age bare. He transforms it, and changes everything. But, it’s still hard to imagine anyone staying quiet at a trial like that. It’s still hard to imagine Jesus not defending himself or saying anything. Any American would have. At least, Jesus could have injected some reason for the insanity of it all. He could have decried himself a victim to the crowd, or defended himself against others’ accusations as he did several times before when he spoke against the scribes and Pharisees in Galilee. Any of these would have made more sense. But, in Jerusalem before Pilate, he says nothing. “You say so,” is all he says to Pilate. Why?
Jesus, at least, shared something in common with those he was teaching and preaching. As fellow Jews, they were his kinfolk. They were all children of Abraham, who share a history and covenant with YHWH. Jesus also shared a love and reverence for God’s revelation, the Law, with the lawyers and Pharisees. But, when it came to defending himself against a world that didn’t know him and wouldn’t hear him, there was nothing to say. Perhaps, it was futile, even pointless. There was nothing to say because there was nothing he could say.
If Jesus would have answered that he was the messiah, he would have admitted himself as “King of the Jews” in the eyes of the crowd and Jewish leaders. There was no other king than the ruler installed by Rome approved. This would have condemned Jesus under Roman Law. Pilate would not have been guilty of betraying his conscience.
If Jesus would’ve denied he was “King of the Jews,” he would have denied he was the messiah Israel longed for. He would have admitted to being just another itinerant teacher or insurrectionist against the empire. This would have only intensified the situation with confusion if he would have defended himself or told the truth. His silence, instead, drew out the truth of the situation. Jesus didn’t need to give an account for himself because it really came down to what the crowd and Pilate thought, or accepted. “Who do you say that I am?”
In Jesus, God was on trial. He was defenseless because God has no defense.
I think many of us can relate to Jesus’ situation. True, we can’t relate to being accused of being a King and we can’t relate to facing crucifixion. But, I think almost all of us can relate to the politics of his situation. We can relate to the futility and despair of a situation in which it’s impossible to say anything. We can relate to what it’s like to be helpless in the face of what others think. That’s the situation Jesus faced answering Pilate’s questions. It’s also the political climate of the U.S.
In a democracy, being able to speak freely and reason together is essential. Our democracy is not simply a majority rule. What makes modern democracy different from ancient democracy is its foundation on reason and belief in rational society. It’s built on the idea that the reason that makes freedom and universal rights possible, also distributes opportunity and authority rationally. The most important thing we can do in a democracy is talk about how we should govern and be governed. For democracy to work, we have to talk about politics – rights, laws, and civil responsibility. We also have to talk about religion, if religion is going to shape our moral fabric, civic virtues, and sense of responsibility. If reason and political discussion break down, democracy grinds to a halt. Political processes are channeled off to the privileged. The freedom we take for granted is taken from us and usurped by those who govern. This is the America I live in, and it’s difficult to see how the political discourse our democracy needs will get better.
Over the last five years, the best conversations I’ve had about politics and religion have been on Facebook. Perhaps, this seems idiotic. I don’t think it’s the norm. But, if you find Facebook friends who read generously, think critically, and respond thoughtfully, Facebook can be an excellent medium for exchanging ideas and political discussion. Facebook allows you to think about what you want to say before you say it. It allows you to edit yourself before you “speak.” You can’t interrupt others, and you can use links to cite your information. Like most online forums, all this mitigates some of the difficulties of discussing difficult topics. Social media can be an excellent medium for sharing perspectives and thoughtful debate if it’s conducted with care, discipline, and respect for your interlocutor and subject.
But, that’s exactly what’s become impossible.
While the internet and social media have created new possibilities and democratic space for thoughtful and invested dialogue, it has also become a platform for infotainment, conspiracy, and reactionism. Well-funded media routinely sell distrust, contrarianism, and self-righteousness to us. The internet has become the jeering crowd, but its pointing its fingers at everybody. All of this has changed the nature of the internet and political discourse. We’ve allowed American freedom to be reduced to self-interest. We’ve allowed political discussions to become mainly divisive, toxic, and cynical. Inject religion into any discussion that matters, and it seems to only get worse.
The politics of madness – universal self-righteousness, conspiracy, and reactionism – have become America’s political norm. How many of us have been on Facebook, Twitter, or email and shared an honest or heartfelt perspective on current events, only to be met with emotional reaction or hostility? No questions, no request for clarification, no attempt to understand – only offense and reaction. Maybe you tried to reconcile or provide an explanation. Maybe you tried to reach understanding by being open to their point of view, only to have your words came back to you empty. We’ve let personal opinion, a sense of victimhood, and emotional reaction to stand unquestioned. Any attempt at common ground or rational discussion is quickly torpedoed. In a democracy, this is madness.
We can watch the news or listen to AM radio to appreciate where this widespread attitude comes from. Self-righteousness, “us and them,” and the feeling of being attacked have become the easiest political situation to understand. So, it is where most politics go. Infotainment and poison politics has grown America’s capacity for feeling offended to debilitating levels. Political self-righteous and commentary have become an industry. It’s all become self-generating. In both social and commercial media, it’s hard to imagine anything different.
I try to imagine God or Jesus speaking up in in this context, and the politics surrounding Jesus’ trial become very vivid.
Too many of us live in the fantasy that the truth, the real truth, will be self-evident. Whomever has it and speaks it will silence the competition. This is the fantasy that Jesus’ trial exposes. In fact, the opposite is true. In reality, the truth of any situation is fragile. It’s easily drowned out or silenced.
I recently posted something political on Facebook. Someone I appreciate and respect responded. What I posted offended them. The topic was not new to us, but my choice of words was an affront to them this time. I tried to clarify myself, but I realized I was making it worse. My words came back empty. I lost control over determining what my own words meant.
I’m not god and I don’t see the world from a vantage point that makes me superior to everyone else. But, academically, I knew my point of view on this issue was valid. Two posts into this Facebook conversation, however, I realized my mix of topic and words were too loaded. No response was going to convey what I wanted. The politics surrounding this issue were too divisive. It didn’t matter how much my political and religious convictions intersected on this issue. The politics rendered my words useless. I should’ve stayed silent.
I tried to think of a reply to either save the conversation or recover my point from this person’s interpretation. But, I eventually realized I was being obsessive. There was nothing I could say. It was my problem. I had to accept the futility of the discussion. I couldn’t concede my perspective and stay true to myself. Yet, I couldn’t accept the other person’s reaction because they were reaction to something I didn’t say. It was all lost in interpretation. I wanted vindication or validation for my situation, and got neither. There was nothing more I could do. Anything I would say was meaningless.
I’m not saying I was like Jesus. The stakes aren’t even close to the same. I was not accepting damnation and facing crucifixion. But, I think my situation, like Jesus’, was futile. Words became meaningless. “You say so,” was all either of us could say. There was nothing either Jesus or I could utter to escape our situation or save it from its politics, madness, and tragedy. Telling the truth or defending ourselves would only make things worse. Words became empty, meaningless.
Jesus wasn’t being a hero. No messiah wants to die. There was no rational argument he could make to explain the situation to Pilate or Jerusalem’s leaders. There were no words Jesus could defend himself with. Only silence could express his helplessness and expose the insanity of what was happening. It wasn’t Jesus’ silence that condemned him. Pilate did. The crowd did. Jesus experienced something almost all of us experience: literally, damned if you do and damned if you don’t. It’s the madness of a hopeless situation.
Most can also relate to my situation on Facebook. Maybe you avoid these situations altogether. It’s where our democracy has headed, and it’s deeply scary to me. I don’t think the political situation Jesus was in is much different than our own.
When self-righteousness rule both personal and public opinion…
When the politics devolve to “us against them”…
When hope is lost in a cycle of defensive reactions…
When words fail us and madness sets in…
We want what we reject, and we reject what we want. Order is kept with violence and its victim(s) are rendered wordless. This was the politics of Jesus’ situation. His only hope was for someone to accept responsibility for the brokenness and severity of the situation. But, neither the crowd nor Pilate was willing to. So, Jesus was left defenseless.
And, it could happen all over again. This is what America’s political environment has come to.