* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Mark 14-15: Personal Authenticity and What Happens When We Don't Have It.

I had hoped to get to the remainder of Mark before Easter, but that just didn't happen. Being a little behind the Christian holiday, though, has the advantage of not seeming like it is intended to be some sort of odd Lenten devotional reading. As we have observed, the Passion story in Mark is the earliest of the biblical Passion narratives, save perhaps for a few vague mentions in Pauline letters. Since the narratives are very different (the version in Matthew is based on the book of Isaiah and a couple of psalms), we will stick with just what appears in the gospel of Mark. This part of the story is after Jesus has been arrested, up until he is taken to be executed, so Mark 14:53-15:20.

First of all, we must recognize that this is a story that cannot be narrated by a firsthand witness. One disciple (Peter) tries to follow Jesus as far as he can, but no one follows Jesus into the assembly of Jewish priests, and the priests certainly would not have recounted the story as it appears here. It's a dramatic story, with some great stock characters, but someone is filling in a few gaps here. Likewise with the subplot involving Peter denying his association with Jesus. Very dramatic. 

Second, it is important to acknowledge that there are some cultural implications and some narrative implications. Culturally, the Jewish people could not execute anyone; only the Roman government had that authority. This is what prompts the involvement of the local Roman official, Pontius Pilate (who was an actual historical figure, although that does not mean that he did any of the things attributed to him in the biblical narrative). Also culturally, certain sects of Jewish people, namely Zealots, launched frequent rebellions against Roman rule. Every charismatic Zealot leader who could effectively organize a militia was heralded as the messiah who would free Israel from the tyranny of Rome and establish a new Jewish kingdom. This is the kind of insurrection in which Barabbas would have potentially participated. It was this sort of constant rebellion that eventually provoked the Roman military to tear down the temple in Jerusalem and scatter the Jewish people across the empire.

Narratively, however, it was important that the Roman government think favorably of the new Christian cult that was emerging in the empire. It was bad enough that Christians refused to pay homage to the emperor and allegedly had secret love feasts at which they ate flesh and drank blood (of babies, by some reports). The story of their founder had to paint the Roman official involved in the execution as blamelessly as possible. The Jewish people (who were antagonistic toward the upstart sect) needed to be the real villains of the story. It is worth mentioning that the antisemitism inherent in the Christian passion narrative contributed to oppression, violence, and genocidal acts against Jewish people through the twentieth century, and perhaps still in some places today. Historically, Roman officials didn't customarily release a murderer once a year. They didn't have to; they were very much in control with no real need to appease the populace.

Also, it was important for the early Christian church to create a dramatic and ironic contrast between the violent authoritarian leadership exhibited by Zealot militia leaders and Roman authorities and a more humble relational leadership style that sought to change external circumstances by changing internal realities of human perceptions and expectations. The abuse by the soldiers may have been a historical reality in terms of how criminals slated for crucifixion were treated, but even more importantly for the early church, it reflected something about the character of Jesus -- a character that they were supposed to emulate.

There can be no doubt that the story of Jesus' arrest and torture is emotionally charged, especially for people who think that he was a historical divine figure. Setting aside torture porn like The Passion of the Christ, however, we can draw forth something of potentially greater personal value than the unwarranted feelings of guilt or shame that some religious figures seem to want this story to evoke. Specifically, I think we can learn something from the Jesus character, from the Pilate character, something from the Jewish leaders, and something from the mob and soldiers.

Should any of us decide to engage in non-violent protest, this story demonstrates a rather extreme case. Jesus is willing to state his identity as he sees it, but he doesn't resort to defending himself or arguing with anyone about his guilt. One might say he takes things a little too passively, but we might think of the character as an archetype. The early church had a few decades to develop their origin story, and the way they tell it, Jesus knew all along that he was going to get himself killed if he tried to challenge the status quo. Understanding that danger, he challenged the status quo. He spoke out against injustice, and he promoted what he believed to be a better way of building community, based on love and respect for one another rather than coveting power and hoarding wealth. He believed in his principles strongly enough that he was willing to die for them, and he was centered and grounded enough that he could stand in the face of obviously fabricated accusations and remain calm and unprovoked. How well do you know yourself and your guiding principles? 

When you don't know yourself or your guiding principles, you might wind up behaving like the Jewish mob and the soldiers, who abdicated control of their decisions to other people. If you aren't willing to be personally responsible for your actions, there will usually be someone else who will happily direct you toward their ends. We have authority in our own lives; we have responsibility for our actions and beliefs. When people give that power over to other people, we sometimes wind up with violent mobs. Granted, sometimes revolution might be necessary, and sometimes oppressed people feel so disenfranchised and powerless that violence seems like the only option available. When we know ourselves and our guiding principles well, we might just be able to see other alternatives.

The Jewish leaders were, of course, afraid. Their way of doing things was being called into question, and change terrifies us like little else. They were attached to a certain identity of power and authority, and to give up that identity was a big threat. Eventually, they had to give it up anyway, in 70 CE when the Romans destroyed the temple. They had to learn a new identity, based on something other than the potentially superficial things on which they had based their previous identity. We're talking about characters in a story in which the Jewish leaders were the bad guys, of course, so it would be a mistake to think that every historical Jewish leader behaved in the way depicted by the early Christians. Still, if we are going to derive some value from the example of these characters in the story, it might be that we not only need to know ourselves and our guiding principles, but we also need to know what we are afraid of. 

When we know what makes us anxious, when we know what that anxiety feels like, we can better manage ourselves. We can calm ourselves down and get back to the guiding principles that we care about most. When we let our anxiety determine our behavior, we stop thinking and just react, which means that we probably are not acting with our guiding principles in mind. If we want to be people of integrity, we must manage our anxiety. Had the Jewish leaders in the story managed their anxiety, they may have realized that what they most wanted was not all that different from what Jesus most wanted. They got anxious about some superficial things and missed the opportunity for connection and growth. 

Pilate had a different sort of identity problem. Again, we are looking just at the character as he was portrayed by the author(s) of Mark, and not considering the historical Pilate. Here we see a man in a very lonely leadership role, faced with a decision that he didn't want to make. More than the mob of people who were unwilling to be personally responsible for their behavior, more than the Jewish religious leaders who were so wrapped up in their anxiety that they had forgotten themselves, Pilate was in a position to decisively act on what he knew to be right. He had the political authority to make a decision and the military power to back it up. He knew that Jesus was innocent of any crime worthy of execution, and he recognized that ordering his death would be unjust. Yet, unlike Jesus, he was intimidated by a willful mob and abdicated authority to the loudest voices rather than what he knew to be right. Knowing his principles, and knowing his role in the situation, Pilate betrayed himself because of some unidentified fear. He felt helpless, even though he wasn't.

We only have some unreliable and biased stories to go on, so we aren't really trying to derive any lessons from history. We're looking at the representations of human tendencies and finding connections with our own behavior so that we might do things better in our own lives. Even if there was a historical Jesus, and even if he was actually crucified, we still don't have any guarantees that it happened as the gospel of Mark conveys. What we do know is that only one person in the story reflected the kind of personal authenticity we hold in high regard, and everybody else was being something other than the best possible version of themselves. What we do know is that when we don't know what matters most to us, and when we don't manage our anxiety, we wind up with less than satisfactory results in our lives. Introspection is the key to all of these issues, and introspection is a skill. We must get to know ourselves deeply -- what we care about, what we fear, and what we can do to support one and dismantle the other. When we know what to be intentional about, we stand a better change of creating the lives and the world we most deeply want.  

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