The recent revelations about NSA surveillance programs again have supporters of President Barack Obama asking: why are the policies of the Obama administration so similar to that of the George W. Bush administration? Especially with respect to issues like the war on terror, torture, Guantanamo Bay and use of drones, Obama appears to be Bush redux.
The irony is thick, then, as the script stays the same while the actors have changed. Democrats who decried Bush’s practices now stand with Obama. Republicans who were staunch defenders of Bush-era policies bluster about the Constitution now that Obama is continuing the logic and legacy of those policies. Christians should not be surprised at this development. If we pay attention to Scripture, we have reason to expect that individual political rulers are going to be molded by the larger powers and principalities in which they are embedded. This should disabuse us of the faulty notion that the primary way to “make a difference” in our society is to get an individual into a position of political power.
The Biblical narrative showcases the problems inherent with that kind of logic, especially in the confrontation between Jesus and Pilate in John’s Gospel. This passage illustrates Paul’s point that real wisdom and power appear to be foolishness to the rulers and powers of this age. It also illustrates how rulers and political factions are driven not by truth but by power.
No one is more powerless than the one who will do anything to maintain or gain power.
Although Jesus appears before Pilate as a shackled prisoner, it is Jesus who is free and unshakeable, whereas Pilate is in bondage to the whims of the various political winds that are blowing. In this confrontation, Pilate appears to have misgivings about Jesus’ guilt. Those misgivings are overruled, however, by the force of the crowds on one side and the threat of Caesar on the other. The point of the text is not to absolve Pilate but to show that he valued holding on to power above all. Again, irony: no one is more powerless than the one who will do anything to maintain or gain power. This is what Augustine called libido dominandi, the “lust to dominate.” As Augustine points out, no one is more a slave than the ruler dominated by the desire to maintain power. No one is more a puppet than a king (or perhaps the king’s middle-management).
But lest we cast stones at our rulers, we have to see that we the people are just as fickle. At the climax of the Jesus-Pilate showdown, we get an ironic role reversal (an equivalent might be Nancy Pelosi sounding like Dick Cheney or al-Qaida suddenly sounding like Obama). Pilate echoes the adoring crowds of Palm Sunday and proclaims, “Here is your king!” Meanwhile, the Jewish crowd sounds like loyal Romans, “We have no king but Caesar!”
These role reversals expose our lust for power and our hatred for truth. The truth, Jesus says earlier in John 8, will set you free. And this is the freeing truth we see embodied in Jesus’ cross and resurrection: grasping after godlike power is a sure path to death, but descending to be a servant, even unto death, is a sure path to abundant life. Because we’re concerned with truth and real power, we should be less concerned about who sits in the Oval Office and more focused on who sits at the right hand of the Father.
With thanks to John Nugent and Ted Troxell, whose conversation helped spur this post.