Pilate’s approach to Jesus in today’s Gospel is just like this. He is trying to find some principle on which he can authorise the execution of Jesus. He is not interested in the truth of the matter, but only how it can be justified. He is not interested in the humanity of Jesus, but only in what label can be applied to him. So Pilate first tries to pin the title of king on Jesus. If Jesus can be labelled a king, then he can be executed as a political challenge to the power of Roman government. Jesus however won’t bite. He won’t let himself be set up like that. ‘You say that I am called king’, he replies. In other words, he was not denying that the term ‘king’ could be applied to him. Yet he refused to let himself be labelled in an objective way. He wasn’t letting Pilate off the hook. He was forcing Pilate to choose what to do with him as a human being, and not as a object. He was forcing Pilate to make a choice based on human relationship, not mere principles.
‘What is truth?” How do we decide what to believe, what to do, what choices to make in our lives? Do we do so on the basis of abstract principles, or self-concerned fear and prejudice, or on the basis of relationships of love and humanity? That question is at the heart of our Gospel story today. How, for example, for religious people, do we use our sacred texts and traditions to help us in our decisions?
Today, we have some options. We can indeed choose to find principles to define our world, ourselves and others. Truth is then a matter of sticking to fundamentals, from which we get the word fundamentalism. We might soon be somewhat unpopular with others but maybe that might just strengthen us and make us feel extra special. We might get quite angry though, and this might issue in violent words and actions. At its extreme, this might even seem to justify terrorism of various kinds. People may have to die if we base our religion on inflexible principles which exclude others. In contrast, an popular alternative approach is essentially to follow the crowd, to join in with what many other people, the media, or our favourite leaders, are saying. We can then unthinkingly add to the problems of violence.
Jesus calls us to another way forward. In today’s Gospel story he shows us that, unlike Pilate, we have to move beyond labelllng or scapegoating others in order to solve our problems with violence and insecurity. He asks us to address the question of ‘what is truth?’ by considering humanity rather than either reaching for simplistic principles or just following the crowd. He invites us to look around at others with the eyes of divine humanity, not of cold objectivity or panic.
I have been reflecting this week on the responses to the terrorist attacks in Paris. With some notable exceptions, there has been too much panic and not enough prayerful consideration. Much media coverage has also been sensationalist and anxiety provoking. So there is an urgent need for deeper reflection on ‘what is truth’.
Our hearts continue to go out to the people of Paris and Beirut, and to so many others across the globe who have suffered from terrorist outrages which have no place anywhere and which should be given no religious justification. It is understandable perhaps why the French President should speak about being ‘merciless’ in reaction. Undoubtedly security concerns must be revisited and a new will created to address the sources of violence and seek international resolutions. Yet how can we ever transform violence without also seeking to understand why young people are drawn into such violence? Furthermore, if we cast mercy aside in responding to refugees, we will also only do what terrorist perpetrators want, besides ignoring many people who are running from the very kinds of violence which has so rightly outraged us. These are difficult matters for us to handle, especially when people are in shock and grief. They can divide the Western world, but we also need to find light, and not simply add heat, to the situation.
Four years ago, Björn Ihler should have died at the hands of the right-wing Christian terrorist Anders Brevik. In the merciless shooting spree which destroyed 77 young lives on a Norwegian island, Björn even looked into the eyes of the killer as, at short range, he shot at, and, somehow, missed him. Björn was left deeply traumatised but he has used the experience to help fuel his writings and work for the transformation of violence. So, as he said this week:
people all over the world are of course condemning the Paris attack. So am I, but it doesn’t help anyone to dehumanise the perpetrators,.. Our ability to stop violent extremism is dependent on our ability to see one another as human. Let us retain that ability in the face of terror, and we may be on the right path. “Hurt people hurt people” is a commonly held phrase among those of us working against violent extremism. I learned it from a former violent extremist, Arno Michaelis, who has first-hand experience of the subject. ..
So how do we stop this violence? The best thing we can do is to go out there, recognise one another’s humanity, treat one another with respect and decency...
We know attacks such as this can be steps in a strategy to divide and conquer. The only way to fight this is by standing together, as humans.
In other words, choosing the way of Jesus, not the way of Pilate.
Let me then conclude with a prayer written on 7 July 2005, the terrible day when four young men with bombs killed 52 people and injured 700 more in London. It is a deeply Christian prayer for peace, standing, and working, together in our common humanity:
God of life,
every act of violence in our world,
between ourselves and others,
destroys a part of your creation.
Stir in our hearts a renewed sense of reverence for all life.
Give us the vision
to recognise your spirit in every human being,
however they behave towards us.
Make possible the impossible
by cultivating in me the fertile seed of healing love.
Help me play my part in breaking the cycle of violence
by realising that peace begins with us. Amen.