What is the Truth? – Chuck Rush (1/21/18)

What is the Truth?
January 21, 2018
John 18:38
There has not been nearly enough done with this passage of scripture. It is an exchange between loveless power (Pilate) and powerless love (Jesus). This whole account in John is a highly stylized literary interpretation of a conversation that is highly imaginative. But it strikes me as just an exchange that the Messiah might have with a cynical career politician in Rome.
“As yes… The Truth…. What exactly is the Truth?” There are so many players, each with their own interest and vantage point… How do we distinguish their little truths from the Truth with a capital T. We’ve all had these moments at mid-life, usually in the midst of a failed negotiations when all it seems you have around you are competing ego needs. Someone makes a snide remark, possibly one of the lawyers in the room that makes you wonder for a moment if maybe this is all there is, just a bunch of petty egos that need to be assuaged.
I’ve been thinking about this, along with the rest of the country, ever since Kelly Ann Conway (Trump strategist) and Sean Spicer (Trump Press Secretary) introduce the term ‘alternative facts’ into the political discussion. And Mr. Trump himself should probably be credited with introducing the concept of ‘fake news’ into our political syntax.
These are articles that are critical of Mr. Trump, articles that he would simply rather dismiss than refute them. He is simply intellectually lazy, quite unlike the propaganda of communism or fascism. But he is so intellectually lazy that I’m not sure he even realizes that he threatens the values we fought World War 2 to protect the “Free Society”. It was one of the main moral lessons that we took away from the War.
In 1960, Israeli intelligence officers located Adolf Eichmann living in Argentina in relative anonymity and they arrested him and charged him with crimes against humanity. Eichmann joined the Nazi party in 1932. Early in his career, he was responsible for herding Jews into ghettos. He worked his way up the hierarchy and eventually worked directly for Richard Heydrich, coordinating the trains that took Jews to the extermination camps in the east. Eichmann attended the infamous Wannsee Conference in 1942 and recorded the official notes. At that conference, in the suburbs of Berlin, the Nazi’s coordinated various different branches of government to develop what would be called the “final solution” to the Jewish problem.
Over the next couple of years, it is estimated that between 5.5 and 6 million Jews were exterminated in Nazi concentration camps. The enormity and scope of that crime kept unfolding for many years after the end of the war. Eichmann’s arrest generated international press coverage as he was tried in Jerusalem.
Hannah Arendt covered his trial for the New Yorker, chapter after maddening chapter. When the trial began, most of the world presumed that they would get something of a spectacle. Here is the guy that managed the trains of the greatest genocide in human history. What sort of monster must he be? What sort of sadistic embodiment of evil incarnate? What sort of ideological hate would drive a man like Eichmann to continue his running the trains even after it was obvious that the Germans would lose the war shortly?
Eichmann turned out to be very different from what we presumed he would be. He was maddening because he was in turn ingratiating and then diffident and aloof, so his interrogators learned to ask him specific questions to get him talking.
And Eichmann liked to talk about how well he ran his department. They were remarkably efficient and well organized. The interrogators often had lots of incriminating evidence, all the details of the train system and a trove of orders that were given. Eichmann remembered incredible details and was quite happy to provide a clearer picture of the incredible number of daunting challenges that his group faced, trying to keep this vast system running at near full capacity in the midst of a war.
In fact, one of the genuinely odd parts of his testimony was that he regularly groused about the way that he was treated. He had quite a list in his head of his notable accomplishments and he would tick through it every so often, of things he did for the SS, for the Nazi party, that he wished they had recognized more than he felt they acknowledged. Sometimes he would stop and lament out loud that he hadn’t been promoted higher, faster than he was. The interrogators would find themselves staring at each other in incredulity.
He might as well have been the manager of a pro sports team to listen to him describe his role. He could be quite affable and bore no particular animus towards the interrogators. He claimed he bore no particular animus towards the Jewish people and even made vague claims that he got along well with the Jews that he knew, even as it was clear that he had lived with precious little interaction with Jews.
The interrogators would press him with questions like, “Your train to Auschwitz from Berlin. It always left Berlin full but returned from Aushwtiz empty?”
“Yes” he would say, “it returned empty.”
“Did you ever wonder why it was always empty?”
“No, it was not my place to ask. We were coordinating logistics and we did that as efficiently as possible.”
“Didn’t it strike you as inefficient not to carry cargo back on the return run?”
“I don’t understand your question” he would say. And, suddenly, he would become taciturn, diffident, and refuse to answer further questions. They were asking him to critically assess his wider role in the system. And his answer, in effect, was “I was following orders”.
It reminded me of an ominous story that was told about the early development of the Nazi party. Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, was at a big meeting of his officers and Hitler was there. Himmler stepped up to the microphone, in front of all of his subordinates, saluted Hitler and said, “Meine ehre heisst Treue”… It means “my honor consists of my uncritical obedience”.
That set the tone or the ethos of the inside of the Nazi party, a kind of intentional subordination of the self to your superiors. It is a strange moral argument but you could see the effect that it had as Eichmann continually got right up to the point of moral reflection and froze as though he was no longer capable of moral reflection. Indeed, “uncritical obedience”, “Blind obedience” is really a sort of pathetic way of avoiding responsibility for your own actions. Long after the war… this turned out to be the critical point. How do you create a “Mass Movement” of inhumanity so that no one feels personally responsible and collectively we give ourselves a wide permission to engage in a collective inhumanity we would never allow ourselves personally to achieve?
As the trial dragged on people kept waiting for Eichmann to own up to his role in the holocaust. But again and again, he would depict himself as having been dutiful in his doing his job, wishing he had risen higher in the ranks. But when he was pressed on the policy of ‘the final solution’ that he was tasked with carrying out, all he could do was claim that he was simply following orders. And he was a damn good follower at that, as his testimony made clear.
The evidence against him was overwhelming, the verdict of the court never in doubt. The judged pronounced him guilty and sentenced him to be hanged. They asked him if he had any final words to say.
Eichmann started off on this rambling speech in German that illustrated his two points in different ways. And then he started stringing together these quotes in German which no one understood except other Germans who had lived through the Nazi era in Germany. The Nazi’s were very big on propaganda. They bought ads in magazines. They posted billboards all around the country with slogans like ‘Our homeland has a cancer’ referring to the Jews or “Work makes you free” the slogan that was written over the entrance to Auschwitz.
It was an astonishing display of thoughtlessness, as Hannah Arendt noted. She wrote that in finally being asked to come to grips with his life and his role in the Nazi death machine, he was incapable of zooming out and seeing the bigger picture. Instead, he started to babble the propaganda slogans of the Nazi era, as though to re-create in his mind the world where his actions actually made sense.
He was trying to re-invoke the world in which his actions made sense by conjuring up phrases of billboard propaganda as though it could magically re-create that world through an incantation. Watching this sad display, Hannah Arendt, who herself escaped the death camps, wrote the arresting conclusion to her book. She said Eichmann embodied the ‘word and thought defying banality of evil.’
The European countries, led by the United States, came to see propaganda as the glue that allowed faceless bureaucrats to evade reflection and responsibility for a collective system that produced inhumane social consequences of a scale never seen in human history.
We had the chilling example of the far right Nazi’s that exterminated 5.5 million Jews or more. And two examples on the far left, the forced collectivization in Stalinist Russia that killed 20 million and created the gulag. And Mao’s ‘cultural revolution’ that left 25 million people to starve to death.
We in the West, committed ourselves to the values of the ‘free society’ with an independent press that provided a pluralistic pursuit of small truths in the accuracy of reporting a story rather than reflect the ideological interpretation of the ‘vanguard of the proletariat’ vested in party leaders.
We in the west, question and doubt. Totalitarian societies conform and kowtow. We are empirical and test. Totalitarian societies are ideological and impose their vision upon reality.
We in the west committed ourselves to the ‘free society’ or the ‘open society’, a marketplace of competing ideas, informed by a data driven scientific quest for understanding.
And in this way, we believed that we were on the path towards genuine Truth. As a student of World War 2- I wrote my dissertation on this subject- it is distressing to hear President Trump’s cant on ‘fake news’.
He is not dangerous in the least, like a fascist or a communist. They had a world view they believed in so much, they were willing to sacrifice millions of their own people to make it come true. President Trump has very few core beliefs.
He is just intellectually lazy. Rather than ‘review the literature’ as my Professors used to ask us to do, he just wants to assert his opinions as true- whether it is the size of his inaugural crowds, supposed illegal voters in the last election, or a conspiracy in the FBI. He asserts without evidence as though he has some special insight that eludes the experts in the field. When he makes these scurrilous assertions without any actual proof, I don’t think he realizes just how much he sounds more like a mid-level commissar in the Soviet era than he sounds like an American General in World War 2.
They are not a threat to the Republic but the media smear that suggests that news outlets are simply driven by partisan political views that so distort their approach to the news that they are effectively propaganda in their content is not only dangerous, it calls into question the very basis of our civil society.
And they are dangerous because the President continually speaks in exaggeration, in hyperbole, so that even his allies can’t tell when he means to be accurate and when he is speaking figuratively.
One of his spokesman just recently said “It doesn’t matter if what he says is literally true; you know what he means.” It is a line you might well have heard in Germany or Italy in the 30’s from two young people responding to a speaker at a fascist rally.
Is our rhetoric really all just code language? Do we want to live in a world where people believe that nothing really matters and that it is all just code?
What is Truth? Asks the cynical Pilates of every age.
When I finished my dissertation, I was full of emotion about the greatest generation. Quite in spite of themselves and with real humility, they really were the children of light standing against the children of darkness. They gave us a great gift of the ‘free society’ that I was prepared to honor with dramatic resolve should our freedoms be threatened again by the dark specter of tyranny.
We have nothing like that at the moment. We are simply being led by a lazy, ignorant President. The threat to our social life is still real, but you would be forgiven for thinking that it is so benign you don’t need to worry about it. This too shall pass and perhaps it will.
But, I think about Churchill, Roosevelt, General Eisenhower. I have a photo that I pull out at moments of the graves at Normandy that helps me take in the great psychic cost of their sacrifice, and it beckons the same rhetorical question that Private Ryan asked at the end of the movie, “Tell me that I’ve been good enough.” Tell me that we’ve been good enough as a society to honor these men and women, these examples of moral grit and moral courage. Tell me we are good enough.

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Sermons & Presentations

Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.