November 24, 2012
The end of Native American Heritage Month and a conversation with a friend has me considering one way of thinking about this week’s lectionary reading from the Gospel of John.
Something came up years ago when I was engaged in undergraduate work that I have never forgotten. I no longer remember which business class it was, but the teaching I do (an idea, I imagine, most of all of who majored in business remember). The class instructor presented a case study: Protestors are at the gate leading up to XXX Logging Company, as well as at a number of log deck. They are protesting XXX’s logging practices of cutting old growth timber. The protestors actions have reached a point where they are damaging the company’s public image and its financial bottom line. The instructor then lays out the question, “What should the company do? After a fair amount of small group processing, the instructor continued. XXX asked for a meeting with the group representing the protestors. After a number of meetings, it became apparent one individual was the group’s leader. (After a fair amount of time) This individual was asked to meet with the CEO of XXX Logging Company. Once at the table, the CEO said something along the lines of, “While I am not in agreement with all of your demands, I do believe changes are before us that we cannot avoid. Because of this reality, I want XXX Logging Company to become known as THE environmental logging company who deeply cares about the environmental conditions of our forests! After all, the wellbeing of our forests and trees is our wellbeing. To make this happen, I am instructing the board of the need to develop a division that will focus environmental issues, such as those you have raised. And I believe there is no one more capable of making this happen! You, more than anyone else, understands the needs, pitfalls, and benefits of such a venture. Would you consider coming on board with us, leading this division, and help us become a logging company like no other in the world?” After a fair amount of discussion, the protestor came on board with XXX Logging Company. In the coming years the protestor helped improve XXX Logging Company’s public image, however, true structural change of company logging practices never changed. Bottom line, the company gained public goodwill, without ever changing company giving up structural change within the company itself.
We can go into the problematic structural and systemic morals the college instructor taught to a roomful of future CEO’s; but that is probably best left for another time. Instead, in the context for this week’s lectionary passage from John, we do well to recognize one core aspect to the case study is the logging company’s CEO created a space that gave the illusion the protestor had voice (a sense of power), when in reality only the CEO had voice.
The writer of John gives us,
33Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36Jesus 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.” 37Pilate 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.” 38Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
Similar to the CEO and protestor, Pilate creates illusionary space where Jesus has voice—and where the audience to John’s gospel believes Jesus as an equal. Pilate does this by asking, “Are you the King of the Jews?.. What have you done?.. So you are a king?,” as if Jesus’ voice matters. However, that last question is critical to revealing the true state of the Pilate-Jesus relationship. For Jesus’ response, “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.”
Sounds as if he has voice and power, but…Pilate has the last statement, as power often does, “What is truth?”
As with the CEO-protestor study, the truth bares down at that moment. Like a cat and mouse, Pilate only gave the illusion of voice to Jesus. While the audience has been playing along, the writer of John throws them a jolt and they quickly find Jesus has no voice in this room, rather the room is the center of the structure which gives Pilate power. As Jesus says, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” a pall shrouds the room, Pilate’s tone deepens, and sarcastic smile slides across his face as he says, “What is truth?” In that moment, Jesus’ voice is obliterated and John’s audience is shattered. For in that moment everyone learns the Truth is the truth of Pilate’s power; evil reigns, John’s audience find they have been duped, and their hero’s voice is distinguished and his power is blown away like so much smoke. It is in this boiling turmoil, this thrashing of the people’s hero, that the story becomes powerful. For it is at this point John’s audience must take a step back, lose their passivity, become critical thinkers, review the Pilate-Jesus conversation, and re-consider an earlier response they so easily passed over, “My kingdom is not from this world.”
The first time around the comment comes across as some otherworldly response—of things as it will be. The second time around though the audience finds the comment calls them into the here and now. Now they must enter into relationship with a Jesus who has no voice and no power within the structure of this world. Yet in this space, they find they have all the power needed to change this world. In that moment of reality, when Jesus loses voice to the truth of Pilate, Jesus’ life is clarified for John’s audience. For now, John’s audience learns Jesus has lived a life, in action and voice, as if the structure of Pilate has no meaning. He doesn’t ignore Pilate’s structure, rather he lives as if his community of care, compassion, empathy for those who struggle and are held aside by societal structure is the realm—the kingdom of this world. This realization is the second time John’s audience is shaken, for now they learn the power of the realm of God lies within themselves: their thoughts, their actions, their voice.
The people’s voice is what arose from the conversation my friend and I had concerning Native American Heritage Month. It seems as if having a month designated Native American Heritage Month matters to the structures of our world and out of it American Tribes gain voice. And yet the reality is something very different. Like the voice of the protestor, like the voice of Jesus, Native American Heritage Month has U.S. folk believing American Tribes have voice. Yet their voice is as lost in the landscapes current structure as that of the protestor and Jesus.
Since we are playing with the story of Pilate and Jesus, we might as well consider the structure of the Christian Church in considering the above argument. And it is probably best to begin by observing my own denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (DOC). From a structural perspective, there is caring for the people of American Tribes. The denomination gives a bit of money to native ministry, and time to time a sermon uses Tribal history, story, or myth as an example to make a point. Kinda seems like voice. But where voice matters, in the midst of decision-making, the DOC has created a structure—congregational—where any people who do not have a critical mass of congregations do not have voice. Since the creation of American Indian congregations was never a great concern for the DOC, there are no more than one or two American Indian congregations (Honestly, I know of none, but let’s give the benefit of the doubt.) This means, while the DOC chose to believe American Indians have voice within their structure, the voice is non-existent.
What if we look outside the DOC and consider a bit more of the Christian Church. Let’s consider two denominations who had a fair impact on American Indians: Methodist and Episcopal. Both denominations created a good number of boarding schools and churches for Indians over the last two centuries. This resulted in many congregations who have a critical number of American Indians in the community. It has also resulted in each having a community of American Indians who have voice within the denomination. But these voices, like Jesus’, are only given enough leeway to have the people of the greater denomination believe they have voice. However, the denomination is not accountable to the American Indian voice. In other words, the denomination is not giving the American Indian voice the power to change structure, nor follow this voice with the understanding that American Indians will take the denomination’s best interest at heart in their decision-making.
Which leaves us, the people, in the same situation as John’s audience (Appropriately so, for are we not the audience of the gospel as well?). Like John’s audience, we are called to be fully aware of the structure of power around us—governmental, business, and religious, throw off our passivity, and live, in action and voice, as if structural power doesn’t matter. In doing so we work toward creating a realm where people who have been pushed aside, placed outside, and given their own month, are given the power of determination. This is a call where the people of Christianity become a people who believe abundant care for the displaced is care for themselves and by becoming accountable to the voice of the displaced they become accountable to God, which invites the realm not of this world into our midst.
© David B. Bell 2012