Rev. 1:4-8; John 18:33-38
Almost 70 years ago Hannah Arendt wrote that the ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist. That sounds frighteningly close to a description of current events. Truth has fallen on hard times. I don’t need to rehearse all the ways truth is under attack, especially in the highest levels of government. We are all far too aware of those attacks. Arendt shows that it didn’t start with the current administration, through it has certainly reached new heights there.
The Gospel shows the same. When Jesus stood before the political ruler who had the authority to save him or condemn him, he said, For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. The lectionary reading stops one verse short of Pilate’s familiar question, “What is truth?” Pilate wanted to know why the Jews wanted to condemn him to death. He’d heard of Jesus and the miracles that made him famous. But there were other miracle workers around; it didn’t merit a death sentence. What had Jesus done that merited death?
In the passage leading up to the scene with Pilate the rulers kept avoiding the truth of the matter. When the high priest questioned Jesus about his teaching, Jesus responded, I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said. One of the police struck Jesus for speaking to the high priest like that. But Jesus kept bringing it back to the matter of truth: If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?
When they finally bring Jesus before Pilate, even Pilate tries to get them to speak truthfully about the accusation against Jesus. But rather than answer the question, they said, If this man were not a criminal we would not have handed him over to you. Pilate tried to get them to judge Jesus according to their law but they said they were not permitted to put anyone to death. They wanted results without responsibility.
All of this should sound very familiar. It is the kind of conversation going on at the highest levels of our government. It has even acquired a name: whataboutism. “Ivanka used her emails to carry out government business.” “Yes, but what about Hillary?” “Putin is a murderer!” “Yes, but what about all the murderers in this country?” We are shocked when we hear these statements; and we should be, because they are shocking. But they may not be as new as we think. It turns out even the ancients used these truth-avoiding methods to get away with murder – literally. Even calling Jesus a king was a distraction. Jesus doesn’t give a hoot about being a ruler; what matters is the truth – precisely the thing that rulers want to avoid!
But the lectionary doesn’t allow us to simply applaud Jesus for testifying to the truth. The Book of Revelation says that the people of God are a reign of priests. One key part of the mission of Christians as priests in the world is to join with Jesus – the one Revelation calls the faithful witness – in testifying to the truth. This mission echoes some other words of Hannah Arendt (Lying in Politics, 1971): facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy witnesses to be established in order to find a secure dwelling place in the domain of human affairs. The Rand Corporation has famously coined the term truth decay to describe the current malaise.
What is the truth that Jesus cares about? He showed it through his life: when John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing and sent word by his disciples to ask Jesus, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’ That’s the truth that Jesus cared about. Truth is not just a proposition to avoid or defend; it’s a vision to testify to and struggle for.
So for us – the priests in this world – the Reign of God is a space. It exists in every home where parents and children love each other, in every region and country that cares for its weak and vulnerable, in every parish that reaches out to the needy. And it is a time. It happens whenever someone feeds a hungry person, or shelters a homeless person, or shows care to a neglected person, whenever we overturn an unjust law, or correct an injustice, or avert a war, whenever people join in the struggle to overcome poverty, to erase ignorance, to pass on the faith. The Reign of God is in the past (in the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth); in the present (in the work of the Church and in the efforts of many others to create a world of goodness and justice); and in the future (reaching its completion in the age to come). The Reign of God is a condition. Its symptoms are love, justice, and peace. The Hebrew prophets called it the Promised Land. John called it the New Jerusalem.
On this Sunday after Thanksgiving we might gain some perspective by remembering what the Native Americans called it. And to do that, we must be reminded of one of the painful moments in our nation’s history with the native people of this land. Many of us know that the massacre at Wounded Knee put an end to large-scale Indian resistance. After Wounded Knee American Indians effectively lost their land and were herded into reservations.
Fewer of us may know the story from the side of native people. Right before the massacre, the Ogala Sioux people had participated in a dance that had been envisioned by a young member of the tribe named Black Elk. Black Elk had the vision when he was nine, but for years he told no one, even though keeping the vision bottled up inside him was making him ill. Finally, at age seventeen a wise medicine man induced him to share it, convincing him that if he did not, the vision would kill him.
The tribe carefully enacted each detail: they gathered 16 horses of different colors, all with riders painted accordingly, and began a dance, wheeling from one quadrant of the sacred circle to the next, drawing in everyone, until all converged on the center. There a stick was planted in the earth that would flower as a sign of life and hope for this desperate community.
Black Elk never doubted that his vision depicted the harmony and life that the Great Spirit wanted for all the children of the earth. But toward the end of his life he blamed himself for the failure of the vision, wishing it could have been given to someone worthier. Despite healing many men, women and children, he believed he had not helped the nation of the Sioux. But the truth is that Black Elk had not failed. The vision had been blocked by the Powers- that-Be – in this case by white Christians.
Walter Wink pointed out a connection between Black Elk’s vision and John’s vision of a new heaven and new earth. Revelation tells of early Christians being hunted down, persecuted, economically blacklisted, and killed, the same as Black Elk’s people. In those circumstances John sees the New Jerusalem where God will dwell with the people, wipe away every tear, and remove death forever –an unlikely vision from where he stood.
I wonder how many of us have had such visions. Maybe their scope isn’t as grand, but their meaning is still momentous: visions of our own personal destiny and calling from God. How many have never shared these visions for fear of being thought strange or peculiar because they appear so unrealistic? Even though there is no guarantee they will come true, we need to share our visions and begin to act on them, because each vision is a seed of the coming kingdom, the new heaven and new earth. All those seeds that seem to die will one day fill the new earth with life.
The other side of that truth is that if we don’t plant those seeds, or if we plant different seeds, the future really will be different. Humankind can destroy itself – and bring down the entire ecosystem with it – in any number of ways: global warming, pesticides and herbicides, nuclear accidents, nuclear terrorism, the population explosion, the AIDS epidemic, polluted water, soil erosion, deforestation, overfishing – the list goes on and on. Such a vision of doom is no longer just the fantasy of street corner preachers; it is the content of everyday headlines. We can go that way…
Or we can go the way of Black Elk and the Seer John. Against stupendous odds these visionaries hold up to us a dream of what can be. They embolden us to let our visions be known. The world needs each of our visions to become whole. We dare not shrink from testifying to the truth because we don’t think our witness matters. As Hannah Arendt said, facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy witnesses to be established to find a secure dwelling place in human affairs. May we be good witnesses.