I suspect I’m like many readers of the Running Heads blog in that I have read, here and there, a rather remarkable amount of commentary about religion, law, and Indiana over the past week. The social-media vituperation has been outmatched only by the sheer quantity of words produced all over the place—fortunately, at least a few of the words have been measured and helpful beacons amidst a raging sea of left- and right-wing hysteria. “Conservatives want Jim Crow for gay people!” “Liberals hate the Church and will not stop until orthodox Christians are routed from American life!”
Instead of trying to add a meaningful drop to this ocean of commentary, I thought I’d simply quote the closing three paragraphs of an essay first published by Stanley Hauerwas in the late 1980s. I find them resonant, and stubbornly relevant, for many reasons, not least of which is Hauerwas’s decision to relate the question of American “freedom of religion” to the crucifixion of Jesus. After all, it’s Good Friday and debates about religious freedom are obviously still with us in America in the year 2015.
This essay, first published in Soundings, became chapter 3, “The Politics of Freedom: Why Freedom of Religion is a Subtle Temptation,” in After Christendom: How the Church is to Behave if Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation Are Bad Ideas (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991). From pages 91–92:
“Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me? Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So are you a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?'” [John 18:33–38]
Of course this text has been used to justify apolitical accounts of Jesus’ ministry as well as the church—Jesus and the church deal with spiritual matters that do not have a direct effect on politics. Few well informed interpreters of the New Testament, however, would make that claim today. Jesus’ ministry from first to last was political. His death was political. For Jesus died the death meant for Israel so that it might be possible for us to live faithful to God’s way of dealing with the world—that is, through truth and not coercion.
Jesus’ disavowal of the kingship of this world does not mean that he is not king. Rather his dialogue with Pilate reveals that he is not the kind of king that Pilates are capable of recognizing. For Pilates are people who have disavowed truth, and in particular, a truth that comes in the form of a suffering servant. Even less likely is such a truth relevant to politics as Pilate understands the political. The fact that we are allegedly a democracy that respects freedom of religion has not changed that assumption. Rather the illusion has been created that we live in a non coercive society because it is one where “the people” rule. If the church challenged that assumption, then I think we would find that our society might well think us mad. In particular, I suspect Christians would find our society less than willing to acknowledge the church’s freedom once the church makes clear that her freedom comes from faithfulness to God and as a result can never be given or taken away by a state.