‘When Mr. Vesey was proposed as a member of the LITERARY CLUB, Mr. Burke began by saying that he was a man of gentle manners.
“Sir, said Johnson, you need say no more. When you have said a man of gentle manners; you have said enough.”‘
‘The late Mr. Fitzherbert told Mr. Langton that Johnson said to him, “Sir, a man has no more right to say an uncivil thing, than to act one; no more right to say a rude thing to another than to knock him down.”‘
Well, what was Judas thinking when he went to the authorities for his pieces of silver? He will not have told himself that betraying Jesus was the worst thing he could do, so that’s just what he would do; no, he must have convinced himself that it was the best possible course of action in the circumstances.
Was he trying to force his Master’s hand, engineering a scene such as had happened in Nazareth at the start of his ministry, when Jesus passed through the crowd that was trying to stone him? (Luke 4:16-30) That seems unlikely as Luke says he was looking for a time when the crowd was not present in order to hand Jesus over. (22.6) Was he hoping that Jesus would then and there abandon his peaceful mission, instead establishing the Kingdom of Israel in a brilliant coup d’etat? Or did he see himself as clear-sighted, holding out no hope for Project Jesus, so he would cut his losses and take the money and run.
His suicide suggests that he was not that clear-sighted and cynical. I do not think he expected events to work out as they did; his self image may have been of a Mr Fix-it, forcing change on Jesus. Perhaps he expected the 11 and other disciples to rally round, overpowering or recruiting the posse sent to arrest Jesus and rampaging triumphant into the city. If he thought Jesus would enter into his Kingdom by military or mob force he was profoundly mistaken about him; but so were the other disciples, every one in their own way. But they clung together and did not hang themselves.
And then what? Clearly Jesus meant more to him than the money, the blood money that could not go into the treasury. (Matthew 27:3-8) His suicide speaks of hope abandoned – as we read yesterday, those who have something to hope for survive. Judas surely felt unable to return to the community of the disciples after what he’d done. Peter wept bitterly, but still stuck around. The reality of his prophetic words – you have the message of eternal life – did not sink in until Sunday morning. Too late to save Judas.
But never too late for his Lord and Friend to save Judas. That’s clearly what the artist of Strasbourg Cathedral felt, when he carved the Lamb of God rescuing Judas from his noose at the very gate of Hell.
More from Lichfield’s Doctor Johnson who was against slavery all his life, when it was a matter for debate, as we shall see tomorrow. Johnson had great regard for his servant, Francis Barber, born into slavery in Jamaica. ‘Frank’ was his heir, and the descendants of his marriage to a white Lichfield woman are proud of their ancestor. Here Johnson is setting forth an argument, based upon natural law, to support another slave who was claiming freedom in the Scottish courts.
It must be agreed that in most ages many countries have had part of their inhabitants in a state of slavery; yet it may be doubted whether slavery can ever be supposed the natural condition of man. It is impossible not to conceive that men in their original state were equal; and very difficult to imagine how one would be subjected to another but by violent compulsion. An individual may, indeed, forfeit his liberty by a crime; but he cannot by that crime forfeit the liberty of his children.
What is true of a criminal seems true likewise of a captive. A man may accept life from a conquering enemy on condition of perpetual servitude; but it is very doubtful whether he can entail that servitude on his descendants; for no man can stipulate without commission for another. The condition which he himself accepts, his son or grandson perhaps would have rejected.
If we should admit, what perhaps may with more reason be denied, that there are certain relations between man and man which may make slavery necessary and just, yet it can never be proved that he who is now suing for his freedom ever stood in any of those relations. He is certainly subject by no law, but that of violence, to his present master; who pretends no claim to his obedience, but that he bought him from a merchant of slaves, whose right to sell him never was examined. It is said that, according to the constitutions of Jamaica, he was legally enslaved; these constitutions are merely positive; and apparently injurious to the rights of mankind, because whoever is exposed to sale is condemned to slavery without appeal; by whatever fraud or violence he might have been originally brought into the merchant’s power.
In our own time Princes have been sold, by wretches to whose care they were entrusted, that they might have an European education; but when once they were brought to a market in the plantations, little would avail either their dignity or their wrongs. The laws of Jamaica afford a Negro no redress. His colour is considered as a sufficient testimony against him.
It is to be lamented that moral right should ever give way to political convenience. But if temptations of interest are sometimes too strong for human virtue, let us at least retain a virtue where there is no temptation to quit it. In the present case there is apparent right on one side, and no convenience on the other. Inhabitants of this island can neither gain riches nor power by taking away the liberty of any part of the human species.
The sum of the argument is this:—No man is by nature the property of another: The defendant is, therefore, by nature free: The rights of nature must be some way forfeited before they can be justly taken away: That the defendant has by any act forfeited the rights of nature we require to be proved; and if no proof of such forfeiture can be given, we doubt not but the justice of the court will declare him free.
Pope Francis invites us to join him this month in praying for women who are victims of violence, that they may be protected by society and have their sufferings considered and heeded.
Sadly, many women suffer in silence and their neighbours are unaware of the situation. Saint Josephine Bakhita, who died in 1947, had 144 scars of physical abuse over her body when she was released from slavery.
Things have hardly improved since her time, but the diocese of Westminster has established a refuge in her name. Read more about it here. Sometimes it is important to offer open ended help to someone who is suffering, it needs energy as well as confidence to be able to move on. That energy grows out of the love the women are enwrapped in at Bakhita House.
Saint Bakhita’s feast is 8th February, and you can read previous reflections by entering Bakhita into the search box on this post. We have a few more postings on slavery over the next few days.
‘When I stand before thee at the day’s end thou shalt see my scars and know that I had my wounds and also my healing.’ Tagore
Pere Hamel had worked hard, networked hard, to help his local Muslims integrate and feel welcome in the neighbourhood of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray. But on this morning in 2016 he was cut down while celebrating early morning Mass. Two men of the Islamic State terror group wanted to keep hold of the differences between people rather than celebrate our unity before the God who made us.
May those who bring violence to our streets, homes, churches and schools, have their scars anointed and healed.
ABOUT the beginning of the Order of Saint Francis and while he was still alive, there came into the Order a young man of Assisi, the which was called Brother Simon: him God adorned and endowed with so much grace, such depth of contemplation and elevation of mind, that all his life was a mirror of virtue.
Brother Simon, when he set him down at table, before he took food for the body, would take for himself and for others spiritual food, speaking of God. Through his devout discourse on a time was converted a young man of San Severino, the which in the world was a youth exceeding vain and worldly, and was of noble blood and much delicate of body; and Brother Simon receiving the said youth into the Order, put his secular clothes aside in his own charge; and the youth abode with Brother Simon to be taught by him the rules of the Order. But the devil, that striveth to thwart all good, assailed him with so fierce a temptation and so grievous a thorn in the flesh, that in no wise could he resist the same; for the which cause he went to Brother Simon, and said unto him: “Give me back my clothes that I brought with me from the world, for I can no more endure this temptation of the flesh.” And Brother Simon having great compassion on him, said: “Sit here with me a little while, my son”; and he began to speak with him of God in such sort that all temptation left him: and when after a time the temptation came back and he asked for his clothes again, Brother Simon drove it away with speech of God. And when this had been so full many a time, at last one night the said temptation assailed him so grievously, even more than it was wont, that for naught in the world could he resist it, and going to Brother Simon, demanded of him again all his secular clothes, for that in no wise could he longer stay. Then Brother Simon, even as he was wont to do, made him sit down beside him; and as he spake to him of God, the youth leaned his head upon the breast of Brother Simon, for sorrow and distress of soul. Then Brother Simon for the great pity’s sake that he had, lifted up his eyes to heaven and prayed, and as he devoutly besought the Lord for him, he was rapt in God and his prayer was heard: whenas he returned to himself again, the young man found himself altogether freed from that temptation, as though he had felt it never a whit.
The fire of temptation being thuswise changed into the fire of the Holy Spirit, for that he had
drawn near unto the burning coal, to wit, unto Brother Simon, he became altogether inflamed with the love of God and of his neighbour; in so much that on a time a malefactor having been taken who was to have both his eyes put out, he, to wit, the youth aforesaid, for pity’ a sake went boldly unto the governor, and in open council, and with many tears and humble prayers besought that one of his eyes might be put out and one only of the malefactor’s, for that he might not be deprived of both. But the governor and the council beholding the great fervour of the charity of this brother, forgave both the one and the other.
Pilate is trying to finish with this troubling case. But he cannot shake it; it goes on and on. At the suggestion of releasing Jesus, the crowd erupts into violent, near-riot behaviour. They begin to scream for Jesus’ death. It becomes clear to Pilate that there is no ‘sane majority’, and no one wants this Jesus to be released. They want Barabbas, the thief and murderer, to be set free, not Jesus. Yet it is also Pilate’s opinion that Jesus is nothing more than a preacher, with no political aspirations at all. What is going on? Pilate is a superstitious man and he is beginning to feel odd (see John 19:8). What gods are frowning here, skewing this situation? His scalp is tingling with a weird anxiety that makes his blood run cold. He feels caught up in something uncanny, even preternatural.
Pilate tries to satisfy the crowd’s blood-lust by having Jesus taken to be scourged. Afterwards, the soldiers torture him psychologically and physically by mockery, and by making thorn branches into a crown and forcing it down on his head; they put a purple robe on him and make exaggerated bows before him, saying ‘Hail King of the Jews,’ He is slapped in the face. But it is still not enough for the crazed crowd. Pilate does not particularly like Jesus, but even less does he like the way things are going. He knows that whatever happens, the situation has become big enough to be talked about and remembered afterwards. He is anxious about how this will affect his reputation. Pilate tries again. He says to the crowd, ‘Look, I am going to bring him out to you to let you see that I find no case against him.’ And Jesus is brought out in his now physically weakened and bloodied condition, dressed in the purple robe and wearing the thorn-crown. Jesus says nothing. Pilate says, ‘Here is the man.’ Instead of being moved by Jesus’ brokenness and his manifest harmlessness, the crowd’s thirst for Jesus’ death intensifies, and their shouts for his execution increase in volume and violence.
Now Pilate’s pulse really begins to race. The situation continues to feel eerie to him. His fears increase, as the text says (19:8). He calls Jesus to him again in private and probably peers at him intensely. Anyone else in Jesus’ position would have one objective only: to save his own skin. But Jesus is astonishingly serene. What is this man about, Pilate wants to know? Jesus waits. Pilate obscurely detects the existence of a conflict on a level he is not accustomed to dealing with. He has rarely, if ever, taken seriously matters pertaining to the spirit world and is completely lost now.
‘Where do you come from?’ Pilate finally asks. His question doesn’t really make sense. He knew that Jesus was from Nazareth. But Pilate has begun to realise that Jesus is entirely different from the man he thought Jesus was. Pilate is thrashing about in the sea of his mind, grasping at anything that seems to float, struggling with waves of deep perplexity and dread.
Readers who are picking up these posts for the first time may wish to scroll back to Sunday 17th to catch up. We are looking at the dialogue between Jesus and Pontius Pilate in John 18:1-19:22. Today we are reflecting on John 18:33-38.
If Pilate pleases the crowd he may gain their support, and that could be useful in the future, possibly. This is always in the back of Pilate’s mind. Jesus has just told Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world, and Pilate has retorted, ‘So then! You are a king’? In answer, Jesus volleys the question right back to him: ‘It is you who say that I am a king,’ Or, the words of Jesus could be fairly rephrased as, “It is you who are so determined to misunderstand my words about kingship.” Jesus’ statement exposes Pilate’s power-obsession.
Pilate can’t quite believe Jesus when he implies that worldly kingship and power are not what define him. Again, the sniffer dog is alert in Pilate. If that is true, there must be some other power that Jesus has that has caused this furore. What would that be? Jesus answers this implied question. He now solemnly gives the reason for his very existence, and explains the nature of his power and kingship: ‘I was born for this,’ Jesus says. ‘I came into the world for this, to bear witness to the truth, and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.’
Truth is indeed powerful, but Pilate has never seen enough of it at work in a human being to realise just how powerful. We, the readers of the text, can see that Truth has frightened the religious authorities enough to turn them into murderers. But this is not something of which Pilate has any real understanding – or not yet. On the contrary, Pilate bursts out, ‘Truth?? What is that?’ Or, he might just as well have said, What use is that? Who really cares about truth? Almost no one! Certainly not this group of Jews, for whom Jesus seems to be challenging a religion that they think has been good enough for a very long time. But at least Pilate realises now that Jesus will never be a rival to any political power on those grounds. Yes, Pilate is smug now, thinking that he has at last sussed it. He is incredulous that such a fuss is being made over a man who is little more, in his estimation, than a harassed philosopher. This man Jesus does not deserve the death sentence.
Pilate is exasperated as he goes out to the dais and makes his pronouncement to the crowd, ‘I find no case against him.’ The accusations against Jesus seem unfounded to Pilate, and the mob-violence bizarre. Few authorities in charge of keeping order in their district would feel indifferent about such a situation. Nor is Pilate indifferent, but neither is he a moralist. He merely wants to regain control. Pilate probably wonders: does all this strange hate come from only a small but vocal minority? A few pushy crackpots? What about the rest of the people? So Pilate offers the saner majority (if such majority exists) a chance to swing this situation. Pilate says to the crowd, ‘According to a custom of yours, I should release one prisoner at the Passover; shall I release this king of the Jews?’
It would be easy to idealise Pilate here for this seeming reluctance to sentence Jesus, but let’s consider: does Pilate care about Jesus for any religious reasons? No. He has already made that clear. He is a political animal. He just wants to end this crazy religious feud and restore order. He sees that Jesus is a nobody: not rich, not influential, not ambitious; Jesus knows none of the right people. His only claim is that he knows truth and who cares about that? In Pilate’s mind, Jesus is rather a freak, but no more than that. The sniffer dog in Pilate has temporarily gone to lie down. But he will soon be alert again.
At the end of the Church’s year we celebrate Christ’s Kingship, and the Gospel reading is either of the last Judgement or the Passion: Luke’s account of the crucifixion or John’s report of the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate, which Sister Johanna will be talking about this week. A challenging reading, as she states from the start.
Toward the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus undergoes a question and answer session with Pontius Pilate that ends with Pilate sentencing Jesus to death (see John 18:1 – 19:30). I must confess that I tend to read this dialogue too quickly because it is always painful. But, I recently read John’s account of the Pilate-Jesus dialogue again, this time more slowly and more prayerfully. I found that the text opened up and some new realisations occurred to me.
I would like to share my findings with you in this week’s posts.
In the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate in John’s gospel, an impasse is quickly reached around the central theme of power. Problems around the theme of power were nothing new to Jesus; they had been rumbling along beside nearly every experience of Jesus’ life and they were addressed in many of his teachings. Yet few – if any – of Jesus’ followers were able to grasp Jesus’ teaching on power and powerlessness. Perhaps we cannot blame them; Jesus asks us to absorb a profound paradox here. He would have us lose our life to find it, be great by being truly small, be powerful by being the most powerless servant of all. This seems to go against our instincts, which lead us to seek self-preservation through control and dominance, even if over only a few people. The apostles themselves were forever getting this wrong, arguing often about who was the greatest. To detail the way the theme of power is present in Jesus’ whole life and in his teachings goes far beyond the scope of these posts, but in looking closely at how the two personalities of Jesus and Pontius Pilate are revealed in their dialogue in John’s gospel, I found that one thread in this complex weave-structure can be examined. As we approach the Solemnity of Christ the King next Sunday, I hope these reflections will shed light on the true power of Jesus, our King.
Pontius Pilate is a well-known name to readers of the New Testament, but as a historical figure little is known about him. What is known is very telling, however. He was the Roman Procurator in Judea from about the year 26 to 36. The Procurator’s job combined several offices: governor, judge, tax collector, and commander of a band of soldiers that functioned a bit like a police force. A lot of power was concentrated in the Procurator. Yet, for this reason, the job was an awkward one.
The Procurator was caught in the middle. He needed to garner support from the Jews in order to please his own authorities in the Roman government. At the same time, he needed to be seen to stand for the official line in order to further his own career – a factor that made it more difficult to please the Jewish community in the area he governed. There is historical evidence that he clashed with both sides and pleased no one. Finally, around the year 36, he was deposed as Procurator of Judea and recalled to Rome.
It is tempting to feel a bit sorry for Pilate in the situation that developed with Jesus and the Jews, and to see him as the harassed middle-man caught in a strange and violent drama that he neither caused nor fully understood. There is certainly an element of that in the story. And perhaps Jesus, too, gave him the benefit of that doubt. But we are looking at something much more profound here. We will begin our exploration tomorrow.
Not the sort of King that Pilate expected: Shrine of St Thomas, Canterbury.
While his companions slept in the ruined church, Saint Francis threw himself on his knees to pray; and behold in the first watch of the night there come a great multitude of demons, exceeding fierce, with a great noise and tumult, and began to do him grievous battle whereby the one plucked him this way and the other one dragged him up and another down; one threatened him with one thing, and the other accused him of another; and thus they sought to distract him from his prayer; but they could not, for that God was with him.
Therefore whenas Saint Francis had enough endured the assaults of the demons, he began to cry in a loud voice: “O damned spirits, ye can do naught, save what the hand of God alloweth you: wherefore in the name of God Almighty I bid you do unto my body whatever is permitted you of God; for gladly shall I bear it, sith I have no greater enemy than my body: and therefore if you avenge me of mine enemy, ye will do me good service.” Then the demons with great fury and violence took hold of him, and began to drag him through the church, and to do him greater trouble and annoy than at the first.
Thereat Saint Francis began to cry aloud, and said: “My Lord Jesu Christ, I give Thee thanks for the great honour and charity that Thou showest me ; for it is a token of great love when the Lord punishes His servant for all his faults in this world, so that he be not punished in the next. And I am ready gladly to endure every pain and adversity, that Thou, my God, dost will to send me for my sins.”
Then the demons, put to confusion and vanquished by his patience and endurance, were away,
And Saint Francis in fervour of spirit left the church and entered into a wood that was there hard by, and threw himself upon his knees, in prayer; and with prayers and tears and beating of the breast he sought to find Jesu Christ, the spouse and the delight of his soul. And at the last finding Him in the secret places of his soul, he now bespake Him with reverence as his Lord, now made answer to Him as his judge, now besought Him as his father, now held converse with Him as with a friend.
I won’t attempt to diagnose away the experiences Francis’s companions witnessed in that dark night in the ruined church. But at the end he held converse with Jesus as a friend. May we do so in our turn.