In addition to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem this Passion Week, there’s reason to believe that at least one other significant procession—that of Pontius Pilate—took place at nearly the same time. Some suggest that Jesus planned his own arrival to correspond precisely with that of Pilate.
As prefect of the Roman province of Judea, Pilate, who normally resided in Caesarea, would have seen it necessary to be in Jerusalem over the Passover—a celebration with not just deep religious significance for the Jews, but one accompanied by nationalistic zeal as well. Pilate would be on hand to personally oversee the keeping of civic order.
Jesus, for his part, had rather bigger fish to fry.
Juxtaposing these two processions results in interesting comparisons. One worth making is that of the two very different kinds of authority processing into the dusty capital. Both bore the basic attributes of authority, which includes legitimacy, responsibility, and the power to carry that responsibility out.
Much has been made, rightly, of the fact that whatever the similarities, Jesus was a very different kind of authority than any of his earthly counterparts. Too often, however, acknowledgement of this difference isolates its attention on the issue of divine power and proceeds from there to misconstrue how Jesus wielded that power. We see Christ’s sacrificial death and we proclaim a personal mandate. While it’s true that Christ “humbled himself by becoming obedient even to the point of death, even to death on a cross” it would be wrong to take this to mean that this kind of self-sacrifice in the face of injustice is now incumbent on followers of Christ in all situations.
Of course, some do make this claim. Pastor Brian Zahnd excitedly proclaims: “Jesus not only died on a cross, he called his disciples to take up their cross and follow him!” While the breathless punctuation makes me nervous, I agree with the basic point. I disagree when Zahnd ventures to pronounce what this means. He writes, “We take up our cross because in following Jesus we are prepared to choose suffering over security.” Though this is true as a contingency, Zahnd intends it to be the Christian preference: “How can you be a Christian when there is no risk? How can you take up your cross and follow Jesus if there’s no danger of suffering? Removing all risk makes Christianity incomprehensible.”
This is inane. It both makes it a bit difficult to figure what being a Christian in heaven will mean, and it rather takes the impetus out of, say, helping the poor, the orphan, or the widow. Their suffering, after all, simply makes their Christianity comprehensible.
Stanley Hauerwas, naturally, is happily Zahndian, and he brings our attention back to the two processions. Reflecting on the events of Passion Week, he writes: “We (that is, we Christians) have now been incorporated into Christ’s sacrifice for the world so that the world no longer needs to make sacrifices for tribe or state, or even humanity.”
Constituted by the body and blood of Christ we participate in God’s Kingdom so that the world may know that we, the church of Jesus Christ, are the end of sacrifice. If Christians leave the Eucharistic table ready to kill one another, we not only eat and drink judgment on ourselves, but we rob the world of the witness necessary for the world to know there is an alternative to the sacrifices of war.
Hauerwas concludes from this that “the sacrifices of war are no longer necessary. We are now free to live free of the necessity of violence and killing. War and the sacrifices of war have come to an end. War has been abolished.” Bless his heart, but the world hasn’t gotten the memo.
But that is the point. The only way that Hauerwas can live in his alternative Kingdom is because the Earthly Kingdom of Pontius Pilate remains. Predominately military in nature, Pilate’s primary tasks would have involved using his forces to maintain justice, order, and peace. Roman justice was not perfect, not by a longshot. But Rome did a better job at keeping neighbor from eating neighbor than any of the alternatives then on offer. Rome was better—including better for the poor—than anarchy.
The belief that sheer Christian witness will end human conflict is something that history, a rudimentary understanding of human nature, and lived experience will not affirm. If God Himself believed otherwise, presumably He—being a good God—would have ordained Hauerwas’ peaceful alternative kingdom over the coercive kingdom administered by the likes of Pilate. As it is, were it not for this coercive kingdom, Hauerwas’ kingdom would be overrun by the beasts. But at least Zahnd could then makes sense of his faith (!).
The two processions into Jerusalem signal the entry of two kingdoms: The Earthly Kingdom and the Heavenly Kingdom. In aspiration, these two kingdoms largely match Augustine’s “two cities.” Each was created by different kinds of love—the earthly city by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt for self. Christians, however, presently live in both cities. Our dual-citizenship is a calling.
Each of these kingdoms have discreet concerns and, therefore, discreet mandates to meet those concerns. This doesn’t mean the concerns never overlap. But a great deal of harm comes from confusing the purposes—the ends—of one kingdom with the other.
The incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ had particular concerns: the immortality of the soul, divine judgement, salvation and damnation, moral formation and sanctification, and so forth. This week we confess that one of Christ’s purposes was to reconcile humanity with God. From the stealing of the fruit forward, humanity has displaced God with idol after idol. We grasp at that which is not ours—or not yet ours. The crisis for those yearning for the heavenly kingdom was how to bridge the chasm we have dug between ourselves and the Divine. Christ bridged that gap. He paid our ransom. If the cross was not substitutionary, it was nothing.
This reconciliation with God means nearly everything to us. But not, quite, everything. The cross saved me from my sin, but it didn’t do much to protect my neighbor from it. Saved from Sin is not saved from sinning, and, meanwhile, I—and my neighbor—continue to pay the everyday costs of that.
And so God gave us the sword of the government. One need only read the litany of rape, unleashed cruelty, wanton slaughter, and sexual enslavement that make up the 18th-21st chapters of Judges—a period in which Israel had no king—to realize the grace that is Romans 13.
Jesus did not save us from the Old Testament God. It is important to recall that themes of extraordinary mercy, grace, gentleness, and unabashed love are found throughout the Old Testament in God’s dealing both with those within and those without his Covenant. Additionally, we must observe the aspects of divine wrath found throughout the New Testament–where even a Savior overturns tables. And so, regarding the divine response to evil, the Testaments are a continuum, theologian DA Carson notes:
Both God’s love and God’s wrath are ratcheted up in the move from the old covenant to the new. These themes barrel along through redemptive history, unresolved, until they come to a resounding climax—in the cross. Do you wish to see God’s love? Look at the cross. Do you wish to see God’s wrath? Look at the cross.
The start of Passion Week marks the beginning of the end of Christ’s great plan to make us good for eternity. But between the end of that first Passion Week and the beginning of the end of time, there is much living to be done. The conditions must be made to make that precarious living possible.
God mandated, not suggested, that human magistrates do just that—and to do that justly. That is something else to be passionate about.
Marc LiVecche is managing editor of Providence
Image: Jesus riding on a donkey in his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, depicted by James Tissot. wikimedia commons