by Bill Carroll
About once per year, usually on Christ the King, I’m in the habit of quoting Machiavelli (the founder of modern politics and a notorious advocate of evil) from the pulpit.
That’s especially true, when John is the appointed Gospel. The cynical question from Pilate, “What is truth?” reminds me of Machiavelli’s ideal ruler as described in his book, The Prince. For Machiavelli (who is following Augustine to make the opposite point), Cain is the father of cities. That’s because he murders his brother. And so, all cities are founded on a crime.
We’re used to it. We expect our politicians to spin and deceive—perhaps even to engage in criminal behavior. We may be outraged, especially when we notice it in someone from the other party, whose policies we oppose. We may also think that this kind of behavior is far more likely on the other side of the partisan divide—whatever that is for us. But, by and large, we have come to expect it, even if it leaves a bad taste in our mouths.
It’s nothing new. In the first century, Pilate asks Jesus this question, because to him the death of Jesus doesn’t matter when compared with the glory of Rome. Writing at the origins of modern Italy, Machiavelli argues it’s better to have a reputation for virtue than the reality.
It is useful, he tells the Prince, to appear merciful, faithful, humane, honest, and religious, and to be so. But to remain with a spirit built so that, if you need not to be those things, you are able and know how to change to the contrary. This has to be understood: that a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things for which men are held to be good, since he is often under a necessity, to maintain his state, of acting against faith, against charity, against humanity, against religion…
In the Gospels, of course, Pilate is no hero. Indeed, the point is the way that Jesus turns the tables on Pilate, and puts the world on trial. The truth may not matter much to us—but it does matter to Jesus, who is himself the Truth. And so, everyone who “belongs to the truth listens to his voice.”
The suffering and death of Jesus unmask our violence. They unveil our cynical indifference to questions of justice and truth. They show us how we are willing to sacrifice others to serve our needs. It’s no wonder we see so much hatred, division, and self-centered behavior in the world today. Sometimes, we even see horrific acts of violence and despair, as well as cynical resignation.
“Judge not, lest ye be judged.” It’s an important lesson that Jesus teaches us—one that’s often misunderstood. Most of us have to make judgments in order to function, especially if we are in positions of responsibility. Jesus is warning us, perhaps, not to judge too quickly, to hold our judgments lightly, and to reserve the final judgment for God. He is asking us to consider how we may be wrong, and be willing to change our minds, especially if we find out we are harming others.
From beginning to end, the ministry of Jesus is all about love. It’s about loving the neighbors he gives us—ALL of them—regardless of who they are or what they look like or where they come from. Jesus doesn’t just tell us how to do this. He shows us. Whenever we become rigid in our judgment of others, whenever we elevate ourselves above our neighbors for any so-called reason, then we have taken our stand with Pilate and ignored the claims of Jesus—a human being with a face and a story (and God’s own Son) who stands accused and suffering before us. And, whenever we catch ourselves doing that, we need to repent. We need to turn our lives around and get back on track. We need to recommit ourselves to following Jesus in the Way of love.
All this reminds me of a short story published in 1965–Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation. In the story, Ruby Turpin sits in a doctor’s waiting room with her husband Claud, who is a farmer in the rural South. Both silently and aloud, she comments on the handful of people in the small room revealing a soul as small as her mind is narrow. O’Connor tells us that Gospel music is playing in the background, and we know Mrs. Turpin hears it, because she sings along.
But she doesn’t get it. She takes pride in her ability to make fine distinctions among people, especially along lines of race and class. Everyone has a place, and her job is to put them in it. She is the one who knows and decides who is in and who is out. And so, she sits there judging her “inferiors,” until a girl in the waiting room, noticing her malice, throws a book that hits her in the head and screams “You warthog from hell.”
The girl falls into an epileptic seizure, perhaps symbolizing prophetic ecstasy. In any event, Mrs. Turpin is stunned by the girl’s words about her and takes them to be a message from God. In fact, later, after she is back home and has sought comfort from her neighbors by relating the horrifying story of what happened to her in town, Mrs. Turpin lashes out at God asking why GOD has dared to say such a thing to her.
The story concludes with an even more profound revelation as Mrs. Turpin feeds the pigs in an allusion to the Prodigal Son. She has a vision of Jesus and his Kingdom in all its truth and scandalous mercy, beginning with the last and ending with the first. Because it’s likely the word Mrs. Turpin would have used, O’Connor’s description of the vision uses the N-word, an ugly and hate-filled I won’t repeat and which I have no right to use, but otherwise, I’m repeating her story’s conclusion verbatim.
Until the sun slipped finally behind the tree line, Mrs. Turpin remained there with her gaze bent to them as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge. At last she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire.
Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black [folk] in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right.
She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.
At length she got down and turned off the faucet and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.
The Rev. Canon Bill Carroll serves as Canon for Clergy Transitions and Congregational Life in the Diocese of Oklahoma. He has served as a parish priest in Oklahoma, as a parish priest and college chaplain in Southern Ohio, and as a member of a seminary faculty. In 2005, he earned his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School.
image: Jesus Wept by image by Brian-Micheloe-Doss