In his recent “political life of Jesus,” I Judge No One, David Lloyd Dusenbury makes the arresting claim that Jesus was what we’d call a political realist. Though he didn’t mount a Zealot rebellion, though he urged his followers to pay Caesar’s taxes, Jesus wasn’t apolitical. His keen observations on the ways of the world were full of withering scorn. He undercut zealotry with the warning that violence breeds violence: “All who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” He warned his disciples of Gentile “great ones” who dominate their lessers; unmasked the Roman system of benefaction as a “corrupt power-game” of gift, graft, and domination; and ridiculed Herod as a “fox.” The only judge to appear in a parable refuses to hear a woman’s case until she wears him down with her incessant complaint. As Dusenbury observes, the unjust judge exemplifies “judicial, and proto-bureaucratic, reason at its lowest.” Augustine’s systematic deconstruction of Roman civilization elaborated the political wisdom he had learned from the Gospels.
Jesus was as hard-headed about economics as about politics. Because Mammon is a powerful and ever-present idol, Jesus posed the stark choice: You cannot serve God and Mammon. As he sat in the temple treasury watching pious worshippers leaving their offerings, Jesus condemned scribes who “devour widows’ houses” while luxuriating in long robes, accepting prominent seats at banquets, and saying long prayers to bolster their reputation. He was driven to his one act of zealous fury because the temple authorities had turned his Father’s house into a house of commerce. The priests paid Judas thirty pieces of silver to betray Jesus, and the blood-stained coins wend their way through Matthew’s passion narrative. “In contriving the death of Jesus,” Dusenbury remarks, “Commerce is served.”
There’s “no hint of what we could call political romanticism” in Jesus, nor any idealism about money or about the alliance of power and wealth. On the evidence Dusenbury assembles, I wonder if “realist” is too weak. More like “political cynic.”
Nowhere is all this more evident than in Jesus’s trial before Pilate. Jesus said little because he discerned his words would be useless. He could testify to truth, he is Truth, but before a judge whose most famous remark was “What is truth?” he was robbed of his prophetic opportunity. He withdrew from Pilate’s judicial game and took his place among the outlaws, making silence his most eloquent protest against injustice. Pilate, for his part, knew Jesus was innocent. Three times he declared there was “no cause” to crucify, yet he convicted Jesus anyway. He wasn’t content to send him to a cross without first publicly humiliating him. As Dusenbury brilliantly argues, we should be less impressed with Pilate’s hand-washing than we are. It was just another hypocritical, blame-shifting purification that cleaned the outside of the cup while leaving Pilate’s heart full of murders. Pilate posed as a man of law, but in the end, he bowed to pressure from a mob. Jesus wasn’t convicted by evidence; his trial is the world’s primal example of the political manipulation of law. It was, as he knew it would be, the hour of the triumph of darkness.
The Jews calling for Jesus’s death were no better. They loved darkness more than light, and so they snuffed out the Light of the world. They feared Jesus would disrupt Judea and provoke a Roman reaction that would end with the destruction of the temple and the Jewish nation. To preserve the people, one man needed to die—innocent or not. With the incarnate divine king standing robed and crowned before them, they declared their loyalty: “We have no king but Caesar.”
At the climax of the trial, Pilate brought Jesus out and sat on the judgment seat to render a verdict. But John the Evangelist uses a verb form that can also mean “made him sit,” as if Pilate, in a last vicious dig at the Jews, seated the bloody, bruised “king of the Jews” on his own dais. Regardless of who actually sat down, John forces us to ask: Who’s judge? Who’s in the dock? John’s answer is clear enough. Throughout his trial, Jesus “interrogate[d] his interrogators,” and, when he spoke, calmly informed Pilate of the heavenly source of his authority. Jesus knew it would turn out as it did. Speaking of his trial and death after his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus predicted an imminent hour of judgment—not judgment of himself, but of “this world” and the ruler of this world (John 12:31). As Dusenbury notes, Pilate and the Jewish leaders were, like all judges, judged by the judgments they rendered.
The moment of the world’s judgment is a moment in the world’s salvation; the hour of darkness is dawn’s condition of possibility. The world can be saved from itself only by a Savior who ruthlessly exposes the greed and libido dominandi that lurk behind captivating screens of civility and piety. The world needs a Savior who, speaking or silent, stands witness against the world in the teeth of thorns, scourges, and mockery; and it needs a Savior with disciples willing to do the same.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
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Image by Museum De Lakenhal on Wikimedia Commons licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.