* 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 21, 2015

John 18: The People Fear Makes

We arrive now at the story that all four biblical gospels hold in common, the arrest and execution of Jesus. The version of the story in the gospel of John has some distinctions from the other texts, which is perhaps striking, since it was apparently written after the other three texts were in circulation. (It could also be said that we have no idea what the original versions of any of these texts contained or omitted because the earliest complete copy we have of any of the gospels is from the third or fourth century.) For whatever reason, the author of John told a slightly different "passion story," so we can take a look and see if there is anything of value in those distinctions as we seek value in the story as it is.

The scene shifts to an unnamed garden across the Kidron Valley. The author of Mark indicates that this garden was named Gethsemane, and the author of Matthew copies him. The author of Luke places the scene at the Mount of Olives. The author of John leaves the place unnamed. He also leaves out the embarrassing story about the disciples falling asleep while Jesus was in distress. In the gospel of John, there is no scene of pleading with God. It just seems to be the meeting place where Judas will bring guards. We also don't see any betrayal with a kiss, as the other gospel stories include, Judas is simply a guide for the guards and police. The author of John does include the bit where Peter slices off the ear of one of the guards -- a detail that is in every biblical version of the story, although Peter and the guard are only identified by name in the gospel of John. In this version, however, Jesus does not heal the injured man.

Once Jesus is arrested, two events are described as occurring simultaneously by all four gospel authors, although the events are not described consistently among them. Jesus is put on trial by the Jewish high priest -- a sort of religious court martial that seems to operate under different rules than one would expect from a legal proceeding. Obvious and contradictory false charges are leveled, and Jesus' words are interpreted to be evidence that he is guilty of blasphemy, an offense punishable by death according to Jewish law. (We have previously observed that a great many offenses carried a death penalty in the Hebrew Scriptures.) Interestingly, blasphemy seems not to have been a crime according to the Roman government, but the Jewish authorities didn't have the power to carry out a legal execution under Roman rule, so the religious leaders twist the story further in order to prompt Pontius Pilate, the local governing Roman authority, to pay attention to the case.

As all of this is going on, Peter, one of the disciples closest to Jesus, is questioned three times about his connection to Jesus, and he lies about their relationship all three times. Dramatically, the rooster announces dawn as Peter utters his third denial. In all four of the gospel narratives, Jesus predicts that Peter will deny their relationship three times and then the rooster will crow. Although the wording is slightly different in all four gospels, of course Jesus' prediction comes to pass in an appropriately dramatic fashion. As we will see later on, only the gospel of John takes steps to "redeem" Peter with a similarly dramatic epilogue.

Although we've acknowledged it many times, it bears repeating that any dialogue in the gospel narratives is creative license on the part of the authors. Even if the events described actually took place at some point, there were no recording devices and no transcriptions of conversations. Especially with the number of years that would have passed between historical events and the authoring of the gospel stories, there is no point in getting hung up on the actual words spoken by anyone in the story except to consider what the author was trying to get across. The author is creating a drama and chooses words that heighten that drama and convey certain qualities of the characters in that drama.

Where are we in this drama? This is a particularly low point for many characters in the story, and we might identify with various groups when we are at our most anxious and reactive.

There is Judas, who plays little role dramatically except for impotently following through with a course of action because he's started down that road. He could have thought things through at any point and decided that the eventual outcome of his actions would lead to another person's unjust execution. There would likely still have been consequences to his actions, but he could have altered his course at any point. That he didn't change direction suggests that he was in the thrall of his own fear and anxiety. He could have been driven by anger at Jesus or his cult. He could have been driven by fear that powerful people would eventually catch up to them, and he wanted to end up on the surviving side of that conflict. It doesn't really matter what the fear was that propelled him forward. The bottom line is that he never stopped to connect his actions with his deepest, life-affirming values as a human being. He allowed his fear to run him, and he went into autopilot mode.

Then we have the police and guards loyal to the religious authorities. They are, of course, just following orders. This can be a convenient excuse, or it can reflect a level of trust for the existing power structure. These people probably had little opportunity to evaluate the situation and think things through for themselves. They knew only what they were told.

The disciples, on the other hand, supposedly had plenty of reason to trust the example they had seen lived out in the life of their teacher. The author frames the flight of the disciples as all part of the plan, but wouldn't emotionally mature, principled individuals remain calm and accept the consequences of their choices rather than running off into the night? Or drawing steel and attacking? They are the very epitome of fight or flight reaction in this scene. As things progress, Peter even resists multiple opportunities to authentically express his convictions, presumably due to fear of hostile reactions from the people around him. The disciples literally figuratively hide themselves away.

Whether we choose to see them as the villains of the story or just human beings who felt threatened, the religious leaders demonstrate another anxious reaction. They are unwilling to consider a challenging perspective because they are already convinced that they know all they need to know. They are comfortable enough with things the way they are that they don't have a compelling reason to consider a different way of being. They respond with lies and violence to a perceived threat to their comfort, compromising their principles (and their religious laws) in order to preserve a sense of security and familiarity. They misuse their authority and power because they are insecure in their authority and power.

And why shouldn't they be insecure? The Roman government was already making exceptions and bending its own policies in order to appease the Jewish people, and still there was one uprising after the next. "Messiahs" came along pretty regularly and raised militias to fight futile battles against the Romans. The ease with which Jewish rabbles were roused to violence eventually provoked Roman officials to order the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and scatter the Jewish people throughout the empire so they couldn't wreak more havoc. The religious authorities, comfortable in their relationship with the Roman officials, must have seen this possibility on the horizon. Anyone in their position would feel anxious. Their response to anxiety, however, was to forget themselves and their values in order to make a problem go away.

Finally, there is the Jesus character. While there are some aspects of the Jesus legend that kick in with the passion narrative, up until this point we have taken the gospel of John's portrayal of Jesus as an example for what it is to be a fully alive human being. Continuing in that perspective, Jesus maintains his own sense of personal authority and self-differentiation throughout the scene. The author of John likes to play with the language of having Jesus say "I am," since that is the translation of the name of the god of the Hebrew scriptures. The Jesus character speaks and embodies this sense of self so fully that the people who come to arrest him are taken aback. He speaks openly and directly to his accusers, perhaps with a bit of an edge to his tone as the author of John depicts it. We don't see any sign of a flight or flight or freeze instinct driving Jesus' behavior. He maintains his sense of self in the midst of the rampant anxiety around him, even though that leads toward devastating consequences.

We can probably recall points in our lives in which our anxious responses looked like several members of the cast in this drama. We have continued to follow courses of action despite realizing that they were in conflict with our deepest values. We have remained ignorant of situations in order to limit our responsibility. We have run away from challenging situations, literally or figuratively, and hidden our true selves safely out of sight. We have become so driven about a goal that we stopped caring whether our means of reaching that goal had integrity. Hopefully, we also can find moments when we have calmly and confidently stood in the midst of chaos and maintained our sense of self. If not, it is certainly a target we can move toward.

It may not seem like it when we are driven or fear-filled, but we always have choices. We might be headed down a path that is completely contrary to what we really want to stand for, but we don't have to continue down a road just because we took a step in a particular direction. How often do people change careers or employers, change relationships, change diets and exercise patterns? We are wonderfully capable of change. The moment we realize that we are headed off course from where we really want our lives to lead, we have the opportunity to change direction. There may be consequences, and it may not be the easiest thing to do, but change is possible.

Likewise, we have choices about how we take responsibility for our role in things. It's easy to exonerate the guards in this story perhaps. They really had no way of knowing anything different than what they were told. In our lives, we are told a lot of things. We know enough to recognize that everything we are told is filtered through someone's biases. At least some of what we are told is patently not true. We can find some comfort in remembering that we can only act on what we know, even though what we know is sometimes inaccurate. However, it's also our responsibility to test what we think we know -- to verify the information we receive as much as possible -- so that we can continue to act with integrity to our deepest values as much as possible.

There are times, though, when that feels like more trouble than it's worth. Maintaining integrity to our guiding principles in the face of hostility may be the hardest thing we have ever considered doing. We may feel content just to sit back and stay comfortable, avoiding any external conflict. At some point, though, we will have to deal with the internal conflict of living in ways that are not congruent with our deepest life-affirming values. Our greatest hope of being fully alive human beings is to fully inhabit ourselves -- to be incarnations of our deepest, most noble selves in the world -- to live into a vision of a best possible version of ourselves. This takes consistent and disciplined effort over time, but it is possible for us to stand in the midst of chaos and remain calm and centered, clearly expressing who we are and what matters most to us.

It may be easy to live a complacent life, to keep coasting on autopilot and let things be just as they are. It's even easy to live life under the illusion that you are helpless victim of the way things are. It's unpleasant, but it doesn't require much effort. What you may not expect, though, is that being fully alive is also easy. Once you have habits and practices in place that keep you grounded in your principles and focused on a vision of a best possible version of yourself, engaging fully in life is not constant hard work. The hard work is in shifting from one to the other, moving from one set of complacent, autopilot habits to a new set of intentional, fully alive habits.

The real decision, then, might actually be whether you are content to be the person fear makes you, or whether you are willing to be the person you most want to be.

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