Thursday, September 25, 2008

Into to World--Chapter Six: The Voice of Conscience

We do not yet appreciate the full irony of Jesus’ silence following Pilate’s question. The comment that directly inspired it was, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37) The set-up was perfect. All that Jesus needed to do was to answer Pilate’s question, and he would have given Pilate—and through Scripture countless others—a chance to listen to the purported truth. Instead he chose silence. Does that mean that he provided no answer? Not necessarily.

That would depend on what Jesus meant by “my voice.” If we were to take his words literally, only those who could literally have heard his voice while he lived in Palestine for about the first thirty years C.E. had a chance to listen to, and hence belong to, the truth. Clearly that is false by any reasonable interpretation of the text.

Did Jesus then mean “listen” in the sense of “are willing to take the words of Scripture to heart,” then? That is an improvement over the clearly false sense just considered. Yet this interpretation also suffers from a form of the same defect. As one must be in earshot of Jesus to have a chance to belong to the truth in the first case, here one must either read the Bible for oneself or be within earshot of someone else who is reciting it out loud to belong to the truth. But that interpretation is incompatible with belonging to the truth being the condition of listening to Jesus’ voice. For if the condition of belonging to the truth must be in place for a person to listen to Jesus’ voice, reading or hearing Jesus’ words themselves does not prompt the listening that marks the presence of truth in the person’s life. Thus, belonging to “the truth”—by dint of being a pre-condition of listening to Jesus’ voice—does not equate with acquiescing in hearing or reading the words of Scripture. Set that aside, then.

` Let’s return to the observation that Jesus chose silence at the very point when his silence was most ironic. What if Pilate already knew the truth to which Jesus referred? What if he was already struggling with whether or not to “listen” to Jesus’ voice? What if that was precisely what was going through Pilate’s mind at the very moment Jesus said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice”? That, I will argue, is precisely what the text suggests.

The point at which the accusers brought Jesus before Pilate provides several telling observations. First, the accusers would not enter the Praetorium—Pilate’s residence and the Roman headquarters—“…so as to avoid ritual defilement…” (John 18:28) The implication for Pilate could only be insulting. Adding to the insult, the circumstance forced Pilate to accommodate the accusers in order to hear their case. The circumstance would have been annoying to the Roman Governor in the least.

Second, when Pilate asked about the accusation, the accusers said, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” (John 18:30) In effect, “Do our bidding, and don’t bother with questions.” Pilate balked at the suggestion, saying “Take him yourselves, and judge him according to your law.” (John 18: 31) But in response the accusers stated that they had brought Jesus to him because they could not put him to death. The implication, again, is insulting—this time in the extreme—that the accusers wanted Pilate to condemn a man to death without conducting an inquiry into the case! To anyone with any moral sensibility, the request was unconscionable and offensive.

Yet Pilate played along with it. That is the overriding situation in Pilate’s mind, unless he was a very stupid or a very evil man, and the text indicates the opposite, that he was very much aware of the significance of his circumstance. Having repeatedly—three times—announced that he found no case against Jesus, Pilate is told that Jesus must die according to Jewish law, because “he has claimed to be the Son of God.” (John 19:7) The following paragraph reads, “Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever.” The text thus clearly indicates that Pilate understood and was disturbed by the situation facing him. (John 19:8)

We have noted the reason that Pilate felt compelled to go along with the accusers: the charge that Jesus claimed to be the King of the Jews. And we have seen how Jesus responded to the charge, saying that “My kingdom is not of this world,” thereby indicating that his kingship did not constitute a challenge to Rome’s authority. (John 18:36) It was at this juncture that we noted the clear responsibility of a person seeking jurisprudence in the case against Jesus: to determine whether the accusers could rebut Jesus’ statement. Pilate’s famous question followed instead, albeit with the clear justification noted.

How do these considerations affect the possibility that Pilate was struggling with the truth that Jesus referred to at the very moment that he asked his famous question? Reducing the situation that Pilate faced to its barest possible expression, he proclaimed Jesus to be innocent but had to endanger himself to set him free; thus, self-interest and justice were opposed in his mind. And he appears to have understood this very well by the fact that he tried to avoid the bind in several ways. 1. He tried to reject the case: “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” (John 18:31) 2. At least two, and the text seems to indicate several times more, he tried to get the accusers to accept that he found no case against Jesus. (John 18:38, 19:4, and 19:12) 3. He reminded the accusers of the custom of releasing a prisoner for the Passover and tried to get them to agree to have it be Jesus who was released. (John 18:39, 40) And 4. He tried reasoning with Jesus, saying, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” (John 19:10) But Jesus gave Pilate no help out of the bind, and the accusers reiterated its source: “If you release this man you are no friend of the emperor.” (John 19:12)

Thus Pilate was forced to choose between sentencing an innocent man to death and calling his allegiance to Rome into question, thereby endangering his position as its procurator. Pilate could not bring himself to do the right thing morally and legally at the cost of putting his position in danger. When he weighed his self-interest against saving an innocent man’s life, the innocent man’s life was forfeited. To anyone with a conscience, its voice would be speaking loudly indeed in such a circumstance! In fact, all indications from the text are that Pilate’s conscience was shouting. But Pilate did not listen to the voice of conscience, and that at the very time that Jesus told him that he had come into the world to bear witness to the truth and that those who are of the truth listen to his voice. What do we make of that? Can Jesus’ voice be understood to be the voice of conscience, thus reversing our judgment that he did not speak in reply to Pilate’s question?


Jason Coriell said...

Jesus' voice as conscience is the assertion that forms the climax of "Into the World" (in my opinion). I did not realize the full extent to which I had devalued conscience until reading this chapter. I would like to better understand why my religious upbringing minimalized conscience. First thought toward an understanding-- maybe conscience was an innocent causalty in the war against emotion-based religiosity.

Tracy Witham said...

Hi Jason,

In the chapter I'll be adding on Tillich (week after next) there's kind of a first of a one-two punch in combination with your comment here. Here's Tillich's objection that I will be citing for the chapter:

"The inner word was [historically] more and more identified with the...norms which constitute the rational structure of mind and reality. The voice of revelation was replaced by the voice of our moral conscience, reminding us of what we essentially know." (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 126)

So you bring up the emotional subjectivism that can swamp the boat, if it becomes the focus of our understanding of "the word." Tillich objected to the rationalistic objective identification that can also do so. The trick, I think, is to identify the things--and there is more than I focus on in this work!--which faith brings into our understanding, whether subjective or objective--which would otherwise not be part of our lives...

But you bring up something that I had not thought of in connection to this topic. (I filter things through the left brain pretty exclusively--so, I benefit from those who do not.) Fortunately, I think that the coming exposition will cover your observation too (and it is very relevant).