* 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

Monday, September 28, 2015

John 18-19: External Challenges to Internal Integrity

Once again, we might find ourselves relating to various characters in the next portion of the passion narrative in the gospel of John, in which the characters of Jesus and Pontius Pilate interact. This passage is very dramatic and weaves a compelling tale, and although we have noted this time and again, it bears repeating once more that there are no transcripts of a conversation between Jesus and Pilate. The dialogue here is creative license on the part of the author.

We do have a bit of evidence that Pontius Pilate was an actual historical figure (more evidence than we have that Jesus was an actual historical figure, to be frank), but at this time there is no authentic artifact reflecting what the historical Pontius Pilate thought of a historical Jesus, or even that the two interacted at all. What we know of Pilate, however, is that he became increasingly unwilling to bend to the will of Jewish mobs, preferring to have soldiers kill unruly crowds of locals who disagreed with his decisions. The pleading, reluctant procurator depicted in the gospel of John might therefore be a bit of wishful thinking on the part of the author, or this depiction may have been an effort to avoid persecution from Rome, or it may have been to heap the full weight of blame on the Jewish religious leaders in the story. No one can say with certainty what the author was thinking, but we can at least be sure that the image of Pontius Pilate here is not a full picture of the man's behavior in historical reality.

Since we cannot know the full intention of the author, we might as well see what we can draw from the story for ourselves. Can the figure of Jesus still serve as the depiction of an idealized us? Is there something else for us in this passage? As we have observed, the passion story is a central element to most Christianities, but the themes and metaphors of the narrative are present in the tales of many religions and mythologies. Here, strength takes on a distinct quality when anxiety and fear are not the driving forces behind a person's decisions and behavior. The Jesus character might represent to us a self-awareness that goes beyond self-preservation -- a commitment to one's identity and principles that matters more than personal safety.

We plan much of what we do based on the risks involved. Do I say this difficult thing, if it might provoke a reaction I don't like? Is my authenticity worth facing rejection? Are my principles worth dealing with hostility? Are my needs important enough for me to be vulnerable and say them out loud to another human being? Often, our answers are No. We decide that our deepest values are not worth the risks we might face -- that we are not worth the risks we might face -- if we live with authenticity. Our integrity winds up being less important than our sense of personal safety and acceptance.

The passion story may not serve as much encouragement for us to do otherwise. After all, the character who represents us in the story winds up suffering more than we ever want to. The lesson is not that our authenticity will get us crucified, however. The complete perspective of the lesson, as we will acknowledge in the weeks ahead, is that our authenticity leads to being fully alive -- more alive than we can be when we play it safe and act based on a fear for our own safety. Fear and anxiety limit us from being fully alive in our relationships and in our actions.

Impulsive, "honest" words and behavior are not really much better. Just saying or doing the next impulsive thing that crosses our mind doesn't lead to a fully alive life. In fact, most of our impulses are still going to be driven by fear. That's just the way our minds work. The goal is to be intentional and to have integrity between our actions and what we care about most deeply. In the story, then, we see an example of a person who knows themselves so fully that there is no place for fear to drive their behavior.

You might also notice that the Jesus character doesn't insult or provoke Pilate in the dialogue. He states clearly that his purpose as a leader has nothing to do with political power (contrary to what those who claim to follow him have done with his legacy). He clarifies that he is interested in truth, unadulterated and untainted by fear. He suffers torture and abuses at the hands of those who are less emotionally mature, and even in the midst of that profound pain, he doesn't give himself over to anxiety and fear. His integrity is not just about his internal state of being, it has ramifications for how he relates to the people around him.
The author does have Jesus say something interesting, to pursue a theological rabbit trail for just a moment. The last words the Jesus character speaks to Pilate here are, "You would have no power over me unless it had been given to you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin." The gist of the argument here seems to be: (1) God authorizes people in their positions of power, therefore (2) people are not culpable for exercising that authorized power, and yet (3) those who interpret their power based on biblical principles from the Hebrew scriptures are more guilty than political leaders who use their positions of power to do harm. There is no way around the conclusion that God authorizes people to do harm to others (which is really nothing new from the Old Testament), nor is there any way around the idea that those who do not use their power ethically are guilty of "sin." If the same rules apply to God, then, the only logical conclusion from this theological statement is that God is guilty of the greatest sin, authorizing harm and failing to use power ethically. Of course, none of that really matters if God is a fictional supernatural, but these theological diversions are sometimes intriguing.
What can we say about the Jewish leaders and Pilate in this story? Do we find ourselves in these characters as well? Certainly, the Jewish leaders continue to be caught up in their fear. When a more rational voice tries again and again to offer a more reasonable course of action, they dig in their heels. There are all sorts of fears that could have been fueling their drivenness. At the same time, they are anxious to be technically clean even though there is nothing life-affirming about their behavior. They want to maintain an appearance of being beyond reproach by abdicating the harmful action to someone else. They do not want ownership of their decision, but they are committed to getting what they think they want.

In many cases, we still attempt to use the government in this way. We don't want to be responsible for making the changes we think are necessary, but we want someone to be responsible on our behalf. We don't want to be culpable for the harm that is done to others, but we are strangely comfortable with other people being harmed so that we feel safer. All the while, our own anxiety continues to soar, and our integrity is practically nonexistent. The two operate at inverse proportions. When we are committed to greater integrity and intentionality, our anxiety necessarily shifts to lower priority -- we cannot serve our fear and our deepest values at the same time. The question is whether we will be intentional about which we are serving or whether we will let our fear drive us as the Jewish leaders of this story are unequivocally driven.

Pilate, as he is characterized by the author, seems to be aware of what his values dictate and yet is still unwilling to take responsibility for living with integrity to those values. Where the Jewish leaders have completely lost touch with their deepest, most noble selves, Pilate seems to engage in sincere wrestling between his authentic, life-affirming values and the safety of pleasing other anxious people. (Again, this is a literary fictional character we're talking about and not the actual historical Pontius Pilate.) If his integrity were simply a matter of being internally aligned with deep guiding principles, he would seem to be on track. When his integrity requires managing himself in relationship to other people, however, he faces difficulty. The bizarre picture here is of a person with the greatest amount of authority and legitimate power bows to the most anxious voices in the room, because life-affirming values were given less priority than fear of the consequences of disappointing the least emotionally mature people involved.

This is clearly a picture to which we can relate. We like it when we are the most anxious voices in the room because it feels powerful to get our way. Screaming at someone until we get what we want can feel very vindicating, as long as we get what we think we want. Outrage and indignation seem to be preferred methods for people to force others to bend to their will. These are all fear-driven behaviors, however, and thus they cannot be reflective of our deepest, most noble selves. Whatever life-affirming values you think you have, these go out the window when you choose outrage and hostility as weapons of coercion.

When we fail to exercise our authority in the midst of hostility and coercion, however, we fail everyone in the scenario. Just as the Pilate character in this story, we can become so focused on making angry people go away and stop threatening us that we forget ourselves. We forget that what we care about most is not that every outraged person is mollified. We lose sight of our deepest principles because it seems risky to live with integrity to them when people are screaming at us. We become more interested in defending ourselves and being safe than we are interested in integrity.

We could spend eons peeling back the layers of Pilate's deceptively simply musing, "What is truth?" He is in the midst of an internal conflict, as we all most likely are. The Jesus character seems to know truth, however, and he is apparently calm in the midst of the chaos around him. We might assume that he experienced some internal conflict, especially as he was experiencing the pain inflicted on him. Perhaps he called himself names, as we so often do. Stubborn Fool. Idiot. Masochist. The end result, though, is that the truth he knows is more powerful than the suffering he experiences. The truth he knows is worth his integrity, and while some people assume that this truth has something to do with a supernatural, we will see next week that there is another, more useful possibility for us.

Today's passage shows us three possible points on a spectrum. The Jewish leaders are so driven by fear that they are completely unaware of their deepest life-affirming values. Pontius Pilate is aware of his deepest life-affirming values, and he tries to make them important; he foregoes integrity in the face of anxious aggression, however, and loses himself in order to appease other people. Jesus is not only aware of his deepest life-affirming values, he is unwavering in his integrity, making the moment-by-moment intentional decision to live according to the guidance of his deepest, most noble self rather than living according to other people's anxiety, even though he experiences some pain as a result.

Where are you on that spectrum? Are you aware of your deepest values? Do you place them as a higher priority than your anxiety? Do you find artificial power in using outrage and coercion to alleviate your fear in the moment? Are you prone to give in to other people's anxious demands rather than exercising your personal authority to live with integrity? Or do you live by a standard of authentic power and intention that reflects a vision of a best possible version of yourself?

Wherever you place yourself on that spectrum today, where do you want to be? When you consider what leads to long-term well-being for yourself and the people around you, in what direction would you like to move? If you want a more deeply satisfying experience of life, what will you need to do to move toward that? And what little step are you willing to take today to move in that direction?

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