That Preacher of Peace


That Preacher of Peace
by Brian Zahnd

In his bizarre and surrealistic novel, The Master and Margarita, the critically acclaimed 20th century Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov creates a fascinating conversation between the Roman governor Pontius Pilate and the Galilean preacher Yeshua. When asked about his views on government, Bulgakov’s Yeshua says, “All power is a form of violence over people.” Yeshua goes on to contrast the governments of power and violence with the peaceable kingdom of truth and justice. In response Pontius Pilate rages, “There never has been, nor yet shall be a greater or more perfect government in this world than the rule of the emperor Tiberius!” When Pilate asks Yeshua if he believes this kingdom of truth will come, Yeshua answers with conviction, “It will.” Of course, Pilate cannot and will not stand for this.

“It will never come!” Pilate suddenly shouted in a voice so terrible that Yeshua staggered back. Many years ago in the Valley of the Virgins Pilate had shouted in that same voice to his horsemen: “Cut them down! Cut them down!”…And again he raised his parade-ground voice, barking out the words so that they would be heard in the garden: “Criminal! Criminal! Criminal!”…“Do you imagine, you miserable creature, that a Roman Procurator could release a man who has said what you have said to me?…I don’t believe in your ideas!

It wasn’t so much the man who upset the Roman governor, but his ideas. Ideas. Ideas are powerful. Ideas are dangerous. Ideas shape our world. Ideas can change our world. Change—what shall we say about that? Slight change is one thing. When slight change is perceived as positive we call it progress. But paradigmatic change, radical change is another thing altogether. We call that revolution. Revolutionary change is precisely what those in positions of privilege and power—people like Pilate—are most threatened by. And this is what makes Jesus and his ideas dangerous. In The Master and Margarita Pontius Pilate seems to have no personal animosity toward the wandering Galilean preacher, but he hates his ideas. In the end what forces the Procurator to condemn Yeshua to crucifixion is the preacher’s revolutionary ideas about power, truth, and violence. If Yeshua had been content to confine himself to the dreamy world of afterlife expectations and not harbored revolutionary ideas about human social structure, Pilate would have seen little reason to bother with Yeshua, much less crucify him. But Yeshua did have revolutionary ideas. And it was Yeshua’s ideas about an alternative arrangement of the world—an arrangement that might best be called “peace”—that resulted in his death by state sponsored execution.

Anyway that’s how the deal went down in Mikhail Bulgakov’s imaginative novel (which is very much in keeping with the narrative we find in John’s canonical gospel). A preacher of peace was executed for his revolutionary ideas. But have the ideas of Jesus become somehow less radical since a Roman governor sentenced the Galilean preacher to crucifixion in the spring of AD 30? No. Two thousand years have not made the ideas taught by Jesus of Nazareth any less radical than those that so threatened Pontius Pilate and the imperial ideology he was aligned with. What has happened over the ensuing two millennia is we have deftly (and perhaps unconsciously) crafted a religion that neatly separates the Jesus who died on the cross from the radical ideas he preached—ideas that Jesus foresaw would lead to his crucifixion. Jesus always understood that Rome (and the religious powers that colluded with the empire) would either be converted by his ideas or they would crucify him for his ideas—revolutionary ideas that he simply called “the kingdom of God.”

But we—and I mean Christians!—have historically had a terrible tendency to separate Jesus from his ideas. The separation of Jesus as Savior from his ideas of peace really began to happen when Christianity attained favored status in the Roman Empire. Beginning with the reign of the emperor Constantine and the enshrinement of Christianity as a state religion, Christianity has for seventeen centuries performed a slight of hand trick where we can “accept Jesus as our personal savior” while largely ignoring his ideas about peace, violence, and human society. We have embraced a shrunken, privatized, postmortem gospel that stresses Jesus dying for our sins, while at the same time ignoring his political ideas. This leaves us free to run the world the way its always been run: by the power of the sword, where freedom means domination of enemies and ultimate truth is the power to kill.

If Jesus of Nazareth had preached what passes for the “gospel” today—a shrunken, privatized, postmortem gospel reduced to a promise of “going to heaven when you die”—Pilate would have released the Nazarene, warning him not to get mixed up in the affairs of the real world. But that’s not what happened. Why? Because Pilate was smart enough to understand that what Jesus was preaching was a challenge to the philosophy of empire, or as we prefer to call it today, “superpower.” But in making Jesus the chaplain-in-chief of Constantinian Christianity what we have unwittingly done is invent a Manichean Jesus who saves our souls while leaving us free to run the affairs of the world as we see fit. Which is what we want. Because while we believe in Jesus as savior of the private soul, we remain largely unconvinced about his ideas for saving the world. Certainly seventeen centuries of church history strongly suggest this is the case. Commenting on how we separate Jesus from his ideas, Miroslav Volf says,

Pilate deserves our sympathies, not because he was a good though tragically mistaken man, but because we are not much better. We may believe in Jesus, but we do not believe in his ideas, at least not his ideas about violence, truth, and justice. (Exclusion and Embrace)

Once it was decided a Christian emperor wielding a “Christian sword” was a suitable way to run the world, the kingdom of God announced by Christ got relocated to a distant heaven or a far-off future, leaving Jesus out of a job as savior of the world. Of course Christianity couldn’t quite get away with simply dismissing Christ himself, so he was given the reduced role of saving souls and presiding over a religion of private piety. Which is not to suggest that Christ isn’t the source for the salvation of the human soul (understood as the whole human being); but I am suggesting that the mission of Christ extends far beyond the narrow spectrum of private spirituality and afterlife expectations. Jesus actually intends to save this world! And by world I mean God’s good creation and God’s original intent for human society. But the problem is this: far too few who believe in Jesus actually believe in his revolutionary ideas. There is a sense in which we create religion as a category to keep Jesus from meddling with our cherished ideas about nationalism, freedom, power, and war.

Near the end of the chapter entitled “Pontius Pilate” in The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov creates a brilliant and insightful conversation between the political governor Pilate and the religious high priest Caiaphas—both of whom hold thinly veiled contempt for one another. Pilate has two notable prisoners who are both condemned to die. Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus of Nazareth) and Bar-Abba (Barabbas). Pilate asks Caiaphas which prisoner should be granted a Passover pardon and which prisoner should be executed. Caiaphas is presented with a stark choice. The prisoner Bar-Abba is a heroic freedom-fighter willing to lead the people in a war of national independence. He has already killed a Roman sentry and represents the national hope of political freedom through violent revolution. Yeshua, on the other hand, is a messiah preaching the revolutionary ideas of the peaceable kingdom of God founded upon co-suffering love and radical forgiveness. The governor warns the high priest to choose wisely. Caiaphas then gives Pilate his answer: “The Sanhedrin requests the release of Bar-Abba.” The Sanhedrin has made its choice: they want a violent Bar-Abba messiah, not a peaceful Yeshua messiah. With prophetic insight Pilate sees and foretells what will be the inevitable result of Jerusalem choosing the violent revolution of Bar-Abba over the peaceful revolution of Yeshua.

Remember my words, High Priest: you are going to see more than one cohort here in Jerusalem! Under the city walls you are going to see the Fulminata legion at full strength and Arab cavalry too. Then the weeping and lamentation will be bitter! Then you will remember that you saved Bar-Abba and you will regret that you sent that preacher of peace to his death!

Eventually Jerusalem got its war of independence…and ended up in Gehenna. Forty years after the crucifixion of Christ, Jerusalem was cast into the hell of Roman siege warfare, brutal bombardment from hundred pound “hailstones” launched from Roman catapults, and the final, fiery destruction of the city resulting in the violent death of most of its citizens and the enslavement of the rest. Jesus had foreseen this disaster and lamented over it on the day he entered Jerusalem during the week of Passover:

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God. (Luke 19:41–44)

And what about us? Do we fare any better? Do we recognize the things that make for peace? Do we recognize the visitation from God in the life and message of the Word made flesh, that Prince of Peace who longs to lead us into his peaceable kingdom? I fear we do not. It seems we too have these things hidden from our eyes. Here we are twenty centuries after Caiaphas, who for the sake of his nation, and Pilate, who for the sake of his empire, condemned “that preacher of peace” to death in favor of retaining the status quo of violent revolution and militaristic empire. Wars have continued to define us. Freedom has continued to be largely understood as the power to kill. Violence has continued to be viewed as a legitimate way of shaping our world. All in an outright betrayal of Jesus Christ and his revolutionary ideas. Ideas that were rejected by superpower ideology and colluding religion on Good Friday, but vindicated by the living God on Easter Sunday! Yes, Easter Sunday and the resurrection of Jesus changes everything! It’s the hope of the world, the dawn of a new age, the rising of the New Jerusalem on the horizon of humanity’s burned-out landscape. Easter is nothing less than God saying once again, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am will pleased, listen to him!”

So isn’t it time we abandoned our de facto allegiance with Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas and their worn out, death-dealing ideas, and starting listening to and embracing the revolutionary, life-giving ideas of “that preacher of peace” whom God has raised from the dead and declared to be Lord by the power of an indestructible life? Isn’t it time we were converted and become as children who have the capacity to imagine the radical otherness of the kingdom of God? Isn’t it time for the stranglehold of the status quo to give way to the possibilities of prophetic imagination? Isn’t it time for the peaceable kingdom of Christ to be considered a viable option in the here and now and not forever relocated to the “sweet bye and bye”? Isn’t it time? I pray it is! I believe it is!


(The artwork is Jesus is condemned to death by Pilate by Michael D O’Brien)