Some Pastoral Thoughts on a Peculiar Maundy Thursday
I’m killing time between work and the Maundy Thursday service I will be participating in at church. I’m thinking about the betrayal of Christ and reading about the impartiality of divine justice. The Mueller Report was released today. It is open on my laptop.
Collusion not necessary. What constitutes obstruction, again? Have fun figuring out if there’s any exoneration. Social media is abuzz. Experts and commentators are weighing in on 400+ pages released mere hours ago—“of course, I’m still going through it…” The discussion circles the same drain clogged with the same cloying characters. Lodged in the middle is the same clump of limp, blonde hair.
Jesus of Nazareth spent the last days of his earthly life staging dramatic public witnesses against the Roman Empire’s brutality and the Temple Authorities’ collusion with it (keep an eye out, next time you’re in church for the terms “Sanhedrin” and “Sadducees”—the former being the high council of the Second Jerusalem Temple and the latter the elite Judeans who ran it). His movement marched parallel to Rome’s garrison support (which came to Jerusalem each passover to keep its residents from celebrating their liberation from slavery too authentically) on his ride into town, parodying the army’s steeds and swords with colts and coats. He tore up the money changers in the temple, igniting a riot and decrying the use of tithes as monetary pledges to imperial domination. He humiliated loyalists trying to trap him by rhetorically undercutting their authority with the crowds. He was arrested in secret because the powerful were afraid of angering the masses (Mt. 26:4-5). Tonight we commemorate his fake trial, his torture, and our ongoing culpability in killing God’s Messiah.
Partisan actors will undoubtedly read Holy Week imagery into the Mueller fiasco. Conservatives will see Trump resurrected as democrats shout “crucify him!” Liberals will see Mueller restored as the release of the (kind of) complete account will announce their Ultimate Truth, silencing the doubting Thomas’s and sanctifying those who believed in Trump’s treason all along without seeing (Jn 20:29). Such elaborate storytelling misses the point and dirties the gospel.
In all things, the mission of God as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ is wholly concerned with unraveling systems of oppression and restoring the place of the marginalized. Jesus did not discriminate in calling out injustice or in offering hope to the downtrodden. Hebrew and Greek, Judean and Roman were simultaneously under the light of God’s reformation in reference to their sociopolitical context and lifted up by God’s love in accordance with their need. Jesus identified the whole picture and took action appropriately. Concerning Jesus’ last week, the Romans were the central problem, but the authorities in the Jerusalem, the vanguard of Second Temple Judaism, were responsible for the oppression of the poor, the exclusion of the sick, and the annihilation of the status-less just as fundamentally. Jesus’ denouncements of society were not limited to the lampoonable, other side of the spectrum but to all who perpetuated a culture of hate.
Paul, Jesus’ apostle to the gentiles, got this. Chicago Theological Seminary Professor Emeritus Theodore W. Jennings Jr. adeptly outlines Paul’s critique not only of Roman but also of Judean law in his book Outlaw Justice, and traces his argument to the superseding of both by impartial divine justice. Lending his considerable critical and scholarly eye to the epistle to the Romans, Jennings offers profound retranslations of the text, and restores some of the radical punch that his been lost in ages of piously neutral translators to a particular line in the epistle’s second chapter:
To those who through enduring work good, seeking glory and honor and incorruption, everlasting life; but to those who are self-seeking and disobeying truth and obeying injustice, wrath and fury. Anguish and affliction to every human soul that works evil, the Judean first and the Greek; but glory and honor and peace to all working good, to the Judean first and the Greek. For God is not a respecter of persons. (45)
God doesn’t care about political affiliation. God doesn’t care about our petty categories. God cares about the restoration of the lowly and the scattering of the domineering (Lk. 1:46-55). Any collection of people who lose sight of this and engage in, in Paul’s terms, self-seeking and disobeying truth and obeying injustice, are not acting in the the spirit of that universal justice and are not, for the Christian, fit agents of governance.
Jennings goes on to define justice as a shocking and ultimately generous response of selflessness and loyalty in place of fury, something that emerges apart from law itself and cannot arise out of it (60-70), but we aren’t at that point yet. We’re still diagnosing our problems. In fact, Noam Chomsky did that effectively enough more than a year ago. In Chomsky’s account of the events that led us here, powerful forces bent on implementing deeply anti-human policies have leveraged our appetite for attention-grabbing media to distract us from their movements. Our eyes are on the drama, the characters, the arcs of downfall and redemption. If we’re watching Mueller and Trump, Pelosi and Schumer, we aren’t watching the USA’s own activities in influencing elections and installing dictators. We aren’t looking at the mass incarceration of African Americans or the rounding up of Central/South American immigrants. With this view in mind, Republicans (whom Chomsky describes as “dedicated to the destruction of organized human life on Earth”) and Democrats (their willing collaborators) are just exchanging power in a dooming and damning cycle, one that simply trades off the responsibility of obeying injustice. No matter who wins, we lose.
And we love the entertainment. If we are to begin establishing justice, though, we must begin by recognizing our role in this problem. We must confess our sin of partiality and take careful stock of the ways that, even now, we are ritualizing our killing of God’s manifestation of peace. Christian observance of Maundy Thursday is effective for this purpose. We will pray together and sing together and read together. Together, we will admit to killing the Messiah in our hate and self-serving. Perhaps this model needs expansion, and with it total reevaluation with a careful eye to the movement of power and its inhibition of peace.