Truth, Not Power

Cambridge, MA. It is not often that the New York Times meshes nicely with the Catholic liturgical calendar, but I could not help to notice a connection on November 25.

Christ and PilateThere was an essay in the NYT Magazine on Sunday about Nancy Pelosi, once and future Speaker of the House (and a serious Catholic). On the cover, alongside a photo of her, we find the words, “No one gives you power. You have to take it from them.” These words (which appear also in the article itself) pertain to her long years of struggle, as she made her way into politics and into Congress, shattering one glass ceiling after another, (usually) gently pushing back against men who even benignly would have preferred to keep power in their hands, even while agreeing “to do things” to fulfill women’s agenda “for them.” Not enough, power must be shared.

People in power, even good people, want to keep power. (And, of course, Pelosi herself is not immune to this temptation.) Many in our culture are far fiercer about the need to grab power from others, but then also hold onto it, keeping others out. Many are fearful precisely that they are losing the great or little power they have. Even in the study of religion – as I can see  around me at Harvard – there is a preoccupation with the language of power and the analysis of power, as if underlying every reality, religious or otherwise, what is really at stake is a power struggle. Even religion is all about power, who's in, who's out, who's up, who's down.

I mention this because this time the Times synched improbably with the Catholic calendar: Sunday was the feast of Christ the King, a feast with roots in imperial notions of the Church, to be sure, but also a thousand hesitations and modifications over the centuries. What kind of a king is Jesus? What does it mean to be a king who refuses to play the power game?

Following the readings of the day, I had the opportunity — and challenge — to preach Sunday morning on the encounter of Jesus, the prisoner, and Pilate, his judge and possible executioner, in John 18. (Their encounter — John 18.28-19.16 – is a long one, taking up as many verses as the entirety of the ensuing narration of Jesus’ crucifixion and death.) The whole “trial” is, after all, ostensibly about power: the leaders of the Jewish people had power but then lost it to the Romans, and needed to bend to the emperor’s will and defer to Pilate, the governor; Pilate himself sat on an unwieldy throne, caught between Rome and his foes in Jerusalem; the Jewish leaders had to figure out how to unsettle Pilate, upset his power, and make him do their will — while all the while seeming loyal to Rome.

In the midst of all this stands Jesus, as if a pawn in their hands, a prisoner, doomed already, pulled this way and that by the leaders and Pilate in their own struggle to come out on top. His life is a merely bargaining chip. A sad and familiar scene. Except, of course, that John has a very different point to make: Jesus, though doomed to die, acts and speaks (and is silent) as he chooses:

Jesus answered,  “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him,  “So you are a king?”  Jesus answered,  “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (18.36-37)

Jesus, of course, was not spared the cross; the overthrow of imperial and religious powers would not happen so quickly. But John is giving us a small sign of a great hope: without berating Pilate or attempting to wrest power, Jesus simply shows himself to be free and not a victim, as if by choice standing before Pilate, a messenger of a truth that Pilate cannot silence and has no right to judge.

Jesus is the would-be victim who will not do anything but tell the truth, uncovering all that was crass and greedy, the lies of state and temple. Not that this mission was obvious. After Jesus said that he came to testify to the truth, Pilate asked, “What is truth?” But “Who is the truth?” would have been a better question, since it was right there, in the work of Jesus, in his own self. At that point, Pilate didn’t get it; power he knew, truth was a stranger. Later, he realized what was going on:

Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered,  “What I have written I have written.” (19.19-22)

He finally figured out who was king in that tawdry situation. This time he would not back down. He would not erase what he had written, had found to be true. This victim was not to be forgotten.

I received a boost in pondering all this, by looking back two days from Sunday, to the feast of the day for November 23, Blessed Miguel Pro (1891-1927). Pro was a Jesuit arrested and killed by the Mexican government during the violent years of oppression in the 1920s, when President Plutarco Elías Calles became determined to stamp out the Church and grab its power for himself and the state. Here are the details here summarized at Loyola Press’s Ignatian Spirituality site:

In November 1927, a bomb was tossed at Calles’s car from an auto previously owned by one of Miguel’s two brothers. All three brothers were rounded up and condemned to death. The youngest was pardoned, but Padre Pro and his brother Humberto were executed by a firing squad. Calles had news photographers present, expecting the Pros to die cowardly. But Padre Pro refused the blindfold and welcomed the bullets with his arms extended in the form of a cross, crying out, “Viva Cristo Rey!” Although Calles outlawed any public demonstration, thousands of Mexicans defiantly lined the streets, honoring the martyr as he was carried in procession to his grave.

Other sources report that 40,000 people accompanied Pro’s coffin to the cemetery, where another 20,000 awaited their arrival. It would be wonderful to be able to say that this was the beginning of the end of Calles and his terror, but it was not to be. Nevertheless, for an unforgettable moment, truth broke through a barriers of falsehood and power, and Calles was as helpless as Pilate.

Miguel Pro

Viva Cristo Rey: the cry of a dying man, a simple and brave man who faced his executioners with eyes open, arms spread wide: speaking a truth not cowed by power, embodying truth in his soon to be shattered body. Now we must be realistic. Even those of us who are Christian are not Jesus; nor would most of us have the courage to be a Miguel Pro. But in our small ways, we need to push back, tell the truth, be the truth, without fear or emnity, in the face of those who would silence anyone daring to resist their power.

Religion is not only or primarily about power. It is about truth (and love, a story for another day). We find our way spiritually simply by speaking real truth to would-be power. That is what scares the bullies among us.

(Based on a homily given on the feast of Christ the King, November 25, 2018, at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church, Sharon, MA)