There is no wisdom in ganging up!
… “It is better that one man should die for the people”. John 18:14.
Fr. Anthony Ekpunobi, C.M.
There is no wisdom in ganging up against the innocent! The human mind continues to find justification for rejecting the truth of innocence based on the shared values of friendship. The faithfulness of friendship is often put to the test when ganging against the innocent, perceived as obstacle to the shared value presents itself. The ‘convincing’ statement of Caiaphas, the High Priest (John 18:14) at the time of Jesus’ trial and execution implies that ‘truth’ is no longer the basis of friendship rather ‘support’ is what transpires in human relationships. The death of an innocent man who is not a threat to peace but an obstacle to the evil of corruption will save the life of the community. The wisdom in the suggestion of Caiaphas, the High Priest, is the argument of this write-up. This is an assessment of the basis of human relationships. My focus is on the Sanhedrin that plotted the death of Jesus Christ.
The emergence of Jesus Christ did not come to the Jewish authorities as a surprise. The prophecy of Isaiah (Is 7:13-17) foretold the coming of the messiah that will deliver the people of Israel. They were the ones who reminded Herod of the prophecy and the birth-place of the messiah – Bethlehem- when the Magi arrived Jerusalem in search of the new born king. (cf: Matt 2:3-6). Their inability to bend Jesus to accept their corrupt values instilled hatred and contempt in their heart. The last stroke that broke the camel’s back was when Jesus drove out those selling in the temple. For the items on sale in the temple, though exorbitant, belong to the high priests, and preference is given to those who buy from them during temple sacrifice. William Barclay points out in his commentary on the gospel according to Mark that ‘… it was sheer imposition, and what made matters worse was that this business of buying and selling belonged to the family of Annas who had been High Priest’. (Barclay William, The Daily Study Bible: The Gospel Of Mark. New Delhi: Theological Publication in India, 2004: 274). They concluded on his death thereafter (Mk 11:18), and sought the argument to support this intention.
It was at the arrest of Jesus that Caiaphas, the High Priest, gave the suggestion that the death of one man can save the people (cf: Jn 18:14). Caiaphas took over the position of the High Priest from his in-law Annas. Thus it becomes clear whose interest is being protected. The rest of the Sanhedrin supported this opinion based on shared value rather than the guilt or innocence of the victim, Jesus Christ. Since all have soiled their hands in corruption, it was very easy to brand Jesus an outlaw and get him out of the way. The suggestion of Caiaphas came after the arrest implying that there was no prima face case against Jesus. After this, the Sanhedrin, headed by the high priest, Caiaphas, embarked on a long course of convincing king Herod and Pilate of Jesus’ guilt and the consequent crucifixion. This single victim mechanism is what I call the wisdom of Caiaphas.
The ‘Wisdom of Caiaphas’ expressed in John 18:14 is quite captivating! The ambiguity of this statement exposes the evil intent. Sacrificing one man to save the community from perishing does not guarantee life. It is rather as Rene Girard puts it: a collective violence against the innocent. (Girard Rene, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. (Transl.) James G. Williams. New York: Orbis Books, 1999:82). Is it possible for one man alone, unaided by others, to threaten the very existence of a whole community? The reasonable answer is NO, but our actions are always on the affirmative especially under the influence of shared values. The political tension of the time puts Jesus in the middle of a huge crisis. The whole Jewish community is uncomfortable with Roman Imperialism; the unwanted tetrarch of Galilee, Antipas, is interested in restoring the Jewish kingdom under his rule, but needs the cooperation of Rome; the governor Pontius Pilate is after Roman interests in order to please Caesar. The entire Jewish community is against the Roman occupation of their land and the taxes to the Roman Emperor. The Sanhedrin usurps this crisis to make personal gains and keep the people away from noticing their corrupt temple practices (i.e. their shared values). The wisdom of Caiaphas made Jesus the best choice for a scapegoat.
Humanity is held sway by the illusion of the wisdom of Caiaphas and the human mind is always finding reason to justify collective violence against the innocent. This illusion brings ‘relative’ peace to a community threatened by crisis up to the point of disintegration. According to S. Mark Heim, ‘the sad good in this bad thing is that it actually works’ (Heim Mark S, Saved From Sacrifice: A Theology Of The Cross. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2006:43). From a crisis of ‘all against all’ the choice of an innocent victim to die, heralds the unity of ‘all against one’. The community is united but only for a while before the next crisis. Jesus is accused of sedition and blasphemy i.e. a crime that is religio-political in nature, in order to attract the support of all the parties of the crisis. For this wisdom to work, Caiaphas must get the support of the people. It is clear that, ‘…ethnic and religious leaders are key players in defining “the people”, a slippery concept difficult to control but easy to manipulate’ (Appleby Scott, R. The Ambivalence Of The Sacred: Religion, Violence, And Reconciliation. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Pub, Inc., 2000:60). As it is expected, all the parties consented to it. Their shared value is preferred to the life of an innocent man. Why does this illusion attract the people’s support against the innocence of the victim? What could be more at stake than the human life?
The wisdom of Caiaphas ‘…only functions by means of the ignorance of those who keep it working. They believe they are supporting the truth when they are living a lie’. (Girard, 1999: 41). The wisdom is understood and supported only from the point of view of the persecutors. They convince themselves of the ‘guilt’ of the victim even when there is no reason to back it up. The justification is based on the interest they nurture within the group. The interest is the life of the group. The victim is a threat to very life of the group. People are more inclined to groups based on shard value. According to S. Mark Heim, ‘…the only problem that [the wisdom of Caiaphas] truly has the power to solve is social division’ (Heim Mark S, 2006:50).
The wisdom of Caiaphas indirectly targets the life of Jesus Christ. He does not present a case against Jesus’ threat to the life of the group (Sanhedrin), rather he presented a case attacking the identity of the Jewish nation, thereby exploiting the support of the people for the death of Jesus Christ. The differentiation created by groups keep people going. ‘In all vocabulary of tribal or national prejudices hatred is expressed, not for difference, but for its absence’. (Girard Rene, The Scapegoat (transl.) Yvonne Freccero. Maryland: John Hopkins University Press 1989; 22). Jesus’ teaching on ‘love of ones enemies’ (Luke 6:35) attacks differentiation, thus making him susceptible to the peoples’ hatred. How can a Jew love a Roman who is perceived as an oppressor? The people believe they are protecting themselves in times of crisis by uniting against an innocent one. What truly unites people? Love or values?
It is only when we look at this wisdom from the point of view of the one persecuted that we understand the human folly therein. First, the death of one man cannot guarantee safety of life, but rather will ignite mutual suspicion as is the case in the era of witchcraft hysteria in early modern Europe. (cf Heim Mark S, 2006:50). With this wisdom in place, no one is spared should crisis erupt, as is always the case. Secondly, the evil of corruption destroys a community. What is the wisdom in the preference of the death of a man whose teaching abhors corruption? Politics and religion are two different realities. Jesus made this clear when he said: give to Caesar what belongs to him, and to God what belongs to God. (Luke 20:25). Thus it is obvious that, ‘… ethnicity and religion became the favored markers of the new cultural identities and provided the social matrix within which political interests were defined’. (Appleby Scott R. 2000: 59). Friendship is gradually being politicized. Friends support each other rather than love each other. Jesus prophesied that Jerusalem shall be destroyed should this corruption continue. (Luke 19:41-44). Finally, the Sanhedrin, consisting of men knowledgeable in the Law of Moses, consenting to the death of truth, the son of God, Jesus Christ, is the greatest show of human folly. We lack wisdom each time we reject the truth. Any value that does not respect human life is already on the path of error. We are prone to mistakes at every instance we lend support to our friend’s perceived enemies based on shared value.
We should always be on our guard to avoid being swept off our feet by our friends. Only love can guarantee true and lasting peace. Values change with time, but love lasts forever. (1 Corinthians 13:8). Ganging up against the innocent, breed mutual suspicion. The victim is innocent because he or she ‘wronged’ your friend and not you. It places us in a vicious cycle of blame, violence and shame. What makes you think that you may not be the next victim? James Alison suggests that the only way out of this problem of values and friendship is forgiveness. According to him, ‘there is only one way not to be locked into the scandals of this world, and that is by learning to forgive…’ (Alison James, The Joy Of Being Wrong. New York: Crossroad Publishing Co. 1998:144). Our friendship shall be better if we teach ourselves how to forgive rather than lending support for revenge or exclusion.