I love a subversive story. Not because I am particularly subversive in my actions or words, in fact, I love a subversive story precisely because I am not subversive in any way shape or form. I am of the ‘quiet in the land’ demeanor, mostly looking in the rear-view mirror imaging things I could have said, or things I could have done. Not so with Jesus, at least how he comes to us through the Gospel stories, no regrets, no holding back, clear, rooted, cagey, prophetic, refusing to play by the rules of engagement as defined by Empire and the ‘authorities’ he met – both religious and political.
Take this morning’s reading – face to face with Pilate, the representative of empire in that region – Jesus is asked if he is the “King of the Judeans”? Jesus subverts the question, outing the complicity of Pilate, his alliances in this court of justice and the informant community Pilate has bought and paid for – “Do you ask this on your own, or have others told you about me?” Acknowledging nothing, Pilate’s non-response betrays the possible truth – “I am not a Judean, am I?”, then turning it back on Jesus asks “What have you done?” Considering the parade of delusional Messiah wanna-bes that Pilate in his role would have been familiar with, perhaps Pilate was hoping that Jesus inflated sense of self and his purpose – simply needed an invitation to declare his intentions, his divine purpose. A quick confession and self-incrimination, and this audience is over – Jesus would hang himself. Not going there – Jesus names the kingdom being acted out in Pilate’s world, a kingdom where fighting, aggression, hostility, and violence are the norm.
Suggesting that this kingdom, this reality, these possibilities between us Pilate – you and I – the norms as you understand them – that is not the kingdom I chose to participate in, those rules and norms don’t describe me or my followers. Can’t you see it – that if we participated in your ‘kingdom’ – you would have a fight on your hands? This seems to fly over Pilate’s head, he appears blind to Jesus point – so he asks – are you a king? ‘If you say so’ Jesus quips, again side-stepping the attempts of the Inquisitor to control the engagement. “What I can tell you is that I was born to express truth, and the people who grasp the truth and practice truth – listen to my voice.”
In certain ways, the non-sequitur progression in this passage is difficult to hear – but it does represent the engagement we are familiar with, what the engagement looks like when the Religion of Empire (marked by intimidation, control, and aggression) is met by the Religion of Creation (marked by non-violence, hope and love in this life), a religion whose hope is not “launched into an extraterrestrial orbit and deferred until we are all conveniently dead.” (Goff, p. 36). Paraphrasing Wes from his commentary on this Gospel – we recognize that this section from John is one of the most commonly misinterpreted passages of scripture, as Christians have avoided the effort to transform the ‘world’ into the kingdom – believing that God’s kingdom is ‘in heaven’. There is simply nothing about Jesus example which would justify that interpretation, but the truth that Jesus reveals certainly is ‘foreign’ to the ‘world’, foreign to Pilate and the ‘world’ of empire, where police violence, drone strikes, indigenous land theft, military prisons, refugee rejection, mercury poisoned communities, murderous conspiracies and repression of dissent – is expressed. We can’t expect Empire to get it, without a significant shift in the conversation.
One of the shifts I am thinking about lately, is addressed in the book “Borderline: Reflections on War, Sex and Church” by Stan Goff – an incredible piece of writing by a 30-year US military ‘special forces’ veteran who is transformed by Jesus into a passionate advocate for nonviolence. Truly the perspective of a man who knows the view from inside Empire, and dares to speak about the transhistorical enmeshment of war-making and contempt for women as both being grounded in a fear that breeds hostility and a hostility that justifies conquest – in war and the bedroom. He speaks of war-making as the single transhistorical phenomenon of human civilization, it is the water of Empire that people of all times and places have been swimming in. This past summer MC USA voted for a resolution calling for an end to perpetual war – and Goff would simply underline the perpetual…as truly the case, and therefore Jesus’ words then are just as relevant to our setting today as they were 2000 years ago. The water we swim in hasn’t changed.
Because men are historically overwhelmingly on the top of the hierarchy of the ‘world’, and war and violence are perpetual tools of hierarchy to take or keep control – Empire requires an archetype, of kingship, of masculinity to inform human/enemy engagement – such an archetype includes aggression, obeying authority and ignoring your conscience, dominance, compartmentalization, dehumanization, and boundary enforcement. These values are the needed fuel to keep a war-making Emipire resourced with bodies and money.
It starts so young…we were camping in the blast furnace of Nevada a couple of summers ago, and asked the local park ranger where the locals went to find a relief from the heat. We were directed to a spring-fed pond that was a lifeline for folks. There was an old water pipe platform a few feet above the water line that kids were clamoring up to jump off into the pond. A little 3-year old boy was perched on top, and the older kids were growing impatient with his hesitation – and all of a sudden we heard his mother call out – don’t be a sissy-la-la – jump or get out of the way. You bet that boy jumped, the choice between courage and shame, stuff down fear in order to not be seen as weak. Societies are involved in this formative work all the time – Goff uses the example of support of American Football. Not every American male can be a NFL player, but we can participate in the ideal as a fan, thereby valorizing the archetype and the characteristics that make a player great. It is an analogy to thinking about patriotism, not everyone is required to serve in the military, but society is invited to participate in the war as a citizen, patriot supporter, thereby valorizing the masculinity of Empire’s practices. Political Will and public support, being a fan – reinforces whatever dominant values and practices are present. Churches have been co=opted in all times and places to cheer on Empire, rather than encouraging Jesus un-kingly ways.
Returning to Jesus’ words – if my kingdom were of this ‘world’, my followers would be fighting… – “Jesus refused every male prerogative of power. He was not a husband. He was not a father. He was not a political leader. He was not a soldier. He was not a religious official. These were the typical male power roles of his day.” (Goff, 65) Frankly, it would have been more gratifying for me if Jesus’ response to Pilate had been more definitive. Are you are king? No – kingship, kingdom, kings – that framework cannot be redeemed, re-interpreted or reclaimed. It is compromised beyond recognition and cannot be saved. I have no such good fortune though, but we do have in the gospels concrete examples of how Jesus lived the alternative to Empire, the alternative to dominator masculinity, a gentle ethic of kingship understood as the ‘way of the cross’, expressed self-giving, neighbor-love, enemy-love, and sacrificial service. A kingdom whose expressions truly undermines the ‘truth’ of dominator authority and structures of oppression. What is this space? A space where we give and receive love, a space where we join the movement of God’s healing in the world, a space out of which we strive together toward mutuality and deep intimacy. A place where we are encouraged to be supporters, fans, and cheerleaders of God’s kingdom – encouraging that which we want to see more of, and offering ourselves as vessels of that healing and hope.
I love a subversive story…in the 3rd century there was a Roman Centurion, Marcellus of Tangier – a convert to Christianity in the years before the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity as the religion of the empire. Marcellus refused to participate in activities that declared his allegiance to the Emperor. Throwing down his weapons and armor, he chose the way of Jesus. Considered the very first Christian conscientious objector, he pled guilty at his trial to repudiating his allegiance to any earthly leader – and was later killed. The Roman Catholic Church has the practice of keeping relics, the material remains of canonized saints, as a reminder of the sacrifice of Jesus and the sacrifice of Christian people. It is traditional to place bone relics of a saint under the main altar of a Catholic Church.
It took a Mennonite at Notre Dame to rediscover the forgotten story – but the relics of Marcellus are said to be under the altar of the Basilica of Notre Dame University in South Bend – a Conscientious Objector under the altar of the Fighting Irish – the University which houses the largest private military training school in the USA, whose marching band begins their ‘fight song’ at the doors of the Basilica – to lead the throngs of fans into the football stadium under the benevolent gaze of Touchdown Jesus. Crazy things happen when we forget our roots, but Empire is practiced at helping people forget.
I do know that the uncovering of the Marcellus story rejuvenated the Catholic Peace Fellowship – which is based out of the Divinity School at Notre Dame – which exists to offer practical and pastoral support to military and veterans who are struggling with the contradiction between their personal participation in war and their consciences. Here at Joint Base Lewis Accord, Coffee Strong does the very same work. I am personally grateful to the CPF for introducing me to the ministry to the morally-injured, heart-wounded and anguished souls of veterans – a ministry I had never heard spoken of in the Mennonite Church before my time with them 12 years ago. When I walk up to Valor Apartments, which this congregation enabled as a place of healing and recovery for veterans, I know I am with a people who remember their roots. Who know what their lives and priorities are based on. The kind of kingdom we are invested in calling out and cheering on. What is this space? A space where we are given a foundation. Where we are rooted and grounded. Where Jesus Christ is known as our ‘cornerstone’ – Jesus whose ‘way of the cross’, encouraged in others and expressed in himself self-giving, neighbor-love, enemy-love, and sacrificial service. Testifying to the truth of Jesus. Thanks be to God.
Last week – we took stones from the center and scattered them throughout the space – even into the bathrooms – to express that Jesus is with us in all times and places, that in the stacking and scattering of our stones, as we create physical spaces together – God is with us. This morning as a meditation on our call to encourage and live into the alternative Kingdom of God, marked by love and grace, you are invited to pick up a ‘living stone’ from somewhere in the space, either one scattered or from the pile up front – and place your-self, your identity as a living stone, on or around the Christ cornerstone the children placed for us. Creating a representation, a design, of ourselves as vessels of healing and hope, rooted and grounded in Jesus – the Prince of Peace. Following this ritual we will be singing “My Soul Cries Out” SS 124, so please turn to that song and have it open and ready to sing together following our ritual response.