Sunday, March 11, 2007

Do the Right Thing

I went to see a performance of Jesus Christ Superstar last Saturday afternoon. It is one of my favorite musicals—which is saying something, since I’m the Musical Queen.

I love the score, and I love the way it presents Jesus as so very human—a necessary corrective, I think, to our Docetist tendencies to believe, deep in our hearts, that Jesus was God in a man-suit. His anguished scenes with the lepers and in the Garden of Gethsemane always move me to tears.

But last Saturday, something completely different caught my attention.

Pilate wore a purple toga.

Now this may have been purely a coincidence—an accident of costuming. Maybe Hancock’s had a sale on purple silk, and it fit the production budget.

But I think not. Purple is the color of royalty, and Pilate was, for all intents and purposes, the “king” of Judea. Herod was the titular Jewish king in Galilee, but Pilate was the “go-to guy”—the one with the real power.

Pilate’s toga caught my attention because the Color Purple has occupied too much of my emotional and theological energy lately. It is the color that bishops—the princes of the church—wear, and there are a number of bishops in my church who are behaving in less-than-princely ways.

Unless, of course, you admire Machiavelli’s Prince and think he’s a suitable role model for the church.

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Pilate was probably a ruthless man. I doubt you got appointed as Top Dog in a troubled place like Palestine if the Romans thought you were a soft touch.

But there is something about the depiction of him in the Gospels—and in Jesus Christ Superstar—that touches me. The picture I get of Pilate is of a man caught up in events beyond his control—much like Judas, in fact.

In the Gospels, Pilate’s wife sends the following message to her husband:

“Have nothing to do with that innocent man (i.e., Jesus), for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.”

But in the play, it is Pilate himself who has the dream of Jesus:

I dreamed I met a Galilean

A most amazing man.

He had that look you very rarely find:

The haunting, hunted kind.

I asked him to say what had happened,

How it all began.

I asked again, he never said a word.

As if he hadn't heard.

And next, the room was full of wild and angry men.

They seemed to hate this man.

They fell on him, and then

Disappeared again.

Then I saw thousands of millions

Crying for this man.

And then I heard them mentioning my name,

And leaving me the blame.

Pilate encounters Jesus twice—first he sends him to Herod, hoping to pawn off the responsibility for this troublesome prophet. And Herod is presented as royalty---at least as Head Drag Queen, complete with doo-wop girls.

(One wonders whom Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice had in mind when they wrote the libretto…)

But Jesus will not walk across Herod’s swimming pool, so Herod packs him back to Pilate—who is faced with the agonizing decision of whether to free a man he knows to be innocent, or execute him to satisfy the howling mob. He knows that Jesus is suffering unjustly. Knows that the calls to kill Jesus are wrong and evil.

But Pilate also recognizes the risk to his power from the screaming crowd. They threaten to report him to Caesar—a show of loyalty to authority that had, as he remarked, been “noticeably lacking” up until that moment.

To try and pacify them, he orders Jesus flogged. Maybe they will be satisfied with a little blood, he seems to tell himself…

This part of the show is always excruciating for me. I have resolutely refused to watch Mel Gibson’s pornographic gore-fest, The Passion of the Christ, because I find it more spiritually edifying to focus on Jesus’ injunctions to love and care for one another than on the blood and the pain.

Call me spiritually immature if you will, but I know my limits. This scene is the closest I can ever bring myself to dwelling on the physical agony Jesus endured.

Pilate himself counts out the 39 lashes. His voice is breaking by the end.

It is odd what the sight of blood will do to people. It can make you ill and faint---but it can also fascinate you. Worse still, it can make you lust to see more of it.

The crowd in Jerusalem fell into Group #3.

And Pilate, frightened by their fervor, and unable to get a word out of Jesus, folds. He calls for a basin of water and symbolically washes his hands of the whole affair, declaring

Don't let me stop your great self-destruction.

Die if you want to, you misguided martyr.

I wash my hands of your demolition.

Die if you want to you innocent puppet!

Ultimately, Pilate sells God out to maintain his own power and to keep the peace at home.

As I watched him convince himself that he had done all he could to save an innocent man, Pilate’s parallel with the bishops in my church hit me with a powerful force.

And this is where I feel compelled to ask: “+Rowan Williams, +Katharine Jefferts Schori, Windsor Bishops…does this scene make you squirm?”

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If you aren’t an Episcopalian, my question (and the names of those to whom it is addressed) probably won’t mean much to you. I’ll try to sum up the underlying situation as succinctly as I can:

My church is being asked to sacrifice our gay and lesbian members to keep the peace in the worldwide Anglican church, of which The Episcopal Church (TEC) is a member.

If you are interested in the particulars, just check out the list of blogs over there in the sidebar. You will find more information than you ever wanted to know about Christians Behaving Badly. I have been deeply invested in the debates and arguments for three years now, and I’m simply too tired and disheartened to go through the whole damned business in print right now.

The important issue for me is what those in purple will choose to do in the coming days and months. They have an opportunity to be prophetic—to claim the blessing of our baptisms for all members of the church and to proclaim the love of God for all those who earnestly seek to know Him.

Pilate had that opportunity to Do the Right Thing. We could argue until the cows come home about whether that would have upset the Divine Plan for the Incarnation (I don’t believe it would have, for the record)—but Pilate could have saved Jesus.

He chose not to.

I am not sanguine that the bishops will do the right thing with regard to my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters either. People in power like to hold on to it—and the bishops have been threatened with losing their coveted invitations to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s table if they don’t bow to the demands of those who believe that all homosexual activity is an abomination to God.

I am not sanguine because the power in this drama does not lie with the group over whom we argue. Gays and lesbians make up a fraction of the clergy and parishioners of TEC. They have no power to compel the bishops to do the right thing. They have no power at all, except the power of their faith and their witness to the rest of us.

Like Jesus.

Christians believe that Jesus was the Incarnated Word of God—which means he surely had the power to compel, but chose not to use it. His love for, and connection to, his Father in heaven were the things that drew people to him.

Jesus said “By their fruit, you shall know them.” His “fruit,” if you will, was his willingness to be obedient to God—not to the Law, which condemned him for healing on the Sabbath and eating with sinners. His fruit was to model love and forgiveness, and to show us that God’s first care is for the poor and the outcast.

Even as he was dying, his last acts were to welcome the thief into paradise and to ask God to forgive the unforgivable—to forgive those who had murdered him in cold-blooded hatred.

Jesus was always clear that, in a conflict between the law and love, the latter would win out.

Bishops…are you listening?

Will you sacrifice those who, despite the shameful treatment they have received from their fellow Christians, have remained in the fold? Will you give them over to those wearers of purple who would use them as stepping stones to power?

Will you allow the Law—that small handful of Bible verses that are ambiguous in their meanings—to be used as weapons against the faithful? Will you ignore the weight of the Gospel—the message that God loves and welcomes those who seek Him—to keep the peace with those who will not be satisfied by this alone?

Will you call for the basin of water and wash your hands of my brothers and sisters so that you can take tea with the Archbishop of Canterbury?

And if you do, will your dreams, like Pilate’s, be haunted?