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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Unconditional and Without Sovereignty

ecce agnus dei---the Baptist

ecce homo---Pilate

ecce, ecce, read all about it, God without Sovereignty, ecce, ecce---anonymous

"Absolute omnipotence is a religious and metaphysical fantasy, but one that contains and displaces a powerful core truth, which is that by "God" we mean the possibility of the impossible." John Caputo, in The Weakness of God, (87-88)


The biblical warrant for a God without sovereignty is conveniently located in the 4th Gospel. Jesus is a lamb of a king, but a king nonetheless, for Pilate had written what he had written. He responds to the Baptist's ecce agnus dei with his own myopic ecce homo. The Synoptics have John baptize Jesus and Pilate baptize his own hands, which is as far as Pilate could see; the 4th evangelist essentially agrees, as his Pilate distances his vision from the whole affair.

The 'weak force of God' (Weakness, 94 ff.) is at work in the Johannine narrative.



“Are you the king of the Jews?”
“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” retorted Pilate. [John 18:33-38, NIV]



Pilate is able to conclude from his questioning Jesus's unconditional kingship without sovereignty in this here and now. Jesus is a sovereign without visible, effective power. No retinue; no rescue; nothing from 'another place.'


“Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”

Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.

Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”

From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free [John 19:10-12, NIV]



Exousia is rendered in these verses as 'power,' but the gist of the term in context is its unconditionality, which drives Pilate's attempt 'to set Jesus free.' Apologetic in nature or not, this shift in Pilate's mood is an extraordinary narrative event. Exousia in the mouths of both Jesus and Pilate provides a micro-discourse on power-as-authority, as something unconditional in itself, something that insists, but only exists when brought into the realm of the here and now, the plane or stage of immanence where two forces-in-the-making face-off, the one the strong force of politics, the other, the weak force of God. In short, Jesus has been reduced to a plaything of the Pax Romana, and the only power at work on Gabbatha is Pilate's, and all this without prejudice to the exousia of unconditionality. The weakness of God, the possibility of the impossible, displaces what one might expect from divine omnipotence.


Pilate will allow Jesus this much: he is a sovereign, but a sovereign of nothing with nothing but the mock-up of a mock-epic. Politically, this is the only sovereign the Jewish people under Caesar will ever get, and Pilate writes as much. This is 'truth:' a king with a crown of thorns in a purple robe of Roman majesty mocking any pretension to Jewish sovereignty in 1st century Palestine.


When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”

As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!”

But Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.” [ John 19:5-6, NIV]


Behold the man: king of thorns, lamb of God, King of the Jews. This was a most crucifiable moment. Before his crowning, Jesus appeared to Pilate as the saturated phenomenon of the idol, whose gaze reflected the elusiveness of truth back upon the viewer. Pilate must look away, for any intentionality is completely drowned in the currency of impossibility. So, too, the chief priests can only say, "Crucify!" in response to the idolic gaze reflected upon them: that image of themselves is the idol they wanted dead as soon as [im]possible, which spills over their intentionality and betrays their intuition. The powerbrokers must be done with this Jesus, once and for all: he is too disturbing to the idols that maintain the status quo.

The thorns in Jesus's head pierce the sides of both Pilate and the chief priests. Jesus is the thorn that must be removed so that Pilate can move on to more pressing matters and the people to the Passover. And therein lies Caputo's displacement. The only omnipotence at play on Gabbatha is Roman, and Jesus has upstaged Caesar, who in turn, now must upstage Jesus, to set things right. It's a crucifixion of expediency. On Golgotha, the chief priests get their own fist in the face. They must gaze upon the "King of the Jews." Everybody from that morning gets a black eye.

There is too much complicity at the Johannine Crucifixion to allow abandonment to come forth, but the evangelist, too, enlists the 22nd Psalm (18), for its aleatory wit (John 19:24). The casting of lots shifts to another impossibility: what garments, and who would want them? the 4 soldiers gamble on the truth, or at least on what the truth came wrapped in. Truth is a game of chance.

What is truth? Truth is that which is orchestrated in the strains of Golgotha intoned on Gabbatha. The Johannine Jesus has all the company he needs.







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