God and Politics — Outrage Don’t Make No Friends

Mark 15:1-15
October 18, 2020
Matt Goodale

The passage I just read from Jesus’ trial by Pontius Pilate is a familiar one to most of us. We usually read this story around Eastertime each year. It’s a chilling reminder of the power of mob violence and jealousy. As we just read, the chief priests of the Jewish people deliver Jesus to Pilate out of jealousy and skepticism, and then the people call for Jesus to be crucified. Pilate, a Roman government official, sees through to their envy and senseless bloodlust, as he asks them, “Why? What has he done to deserve crucifixion?” His questions are in vain, as we know that Jesus will end up on a cross.

Because this is such a familiar passage that we hear, usually once a year, it’s easy to accept the dynamics at play and move on to rest of the story. We’ve heard this one before, we already know what’s going to happen, so let’s get to the good part, the resurrection part. However, we will miss a very important move that this passage makes if we pass over it too quickly.

You see, to a first century Jewish audience hearing this same story, they would be flabbergasted and a little confused. They would be flabbergasted, not because the chief priests handed Jesus over to Pilate, not because the people called for his crucifixion, not because of Jesus’ silence in the face of questioning. They would be stunned to hear this passage because of Pontius Pilate’s portrayal in it. What do I mean by this? Mark as well as the other gospel writers portray Pilate in a relatively neutral light. Pilate is by no means painted as the villain or the sole person to blame for Jesus’ death. As 21st century readers we might come away from this account thinking, “You know, Pilate was part of the problem, but at least he was more reasonable than the rest of the people. He just gave into peer pressure.”

To 1st century Jews though, Pontius Pilate was a brutal figure who represented the oppression and evil intentions of the Roman Empire. In 1st century extra-biblical accounts Pilate is portrayed as a leader who was often unfair, incompetent and bloody to the extreme. Pilate represented everything that the Jews hated about Rome. And yet, in the gospel accounts, Pilate is shown in a relatively neutral light: he’s no hero, but he’s also not presented as the bloodthirsty villain that he is in other non-biblical stories.

It’s no secret that very few Jews had any sort of affection towards Rome; most hated their forced subjection to Rome. If ever there was a time to paint Rome as the bad guy, if ever there was a time to throw gasoline on the political fire to ignite a rebellion against Rome, this would have been it. But the gospel writers hold back. They don’t instill in their gospel accounts the outrage that we or 1st century Jews would expect them to take advantage of. And we know a thing or two about outrage.

In America right now, outrage is a hot commodity. You can buy it or you can sell it. You can produce it or consume it. There’s always a market for outrage, especially during an election year.

Outrage is defined as anything that strongly offends or insults our feelings. Outrage is a powerful feeling of resentment or anger aroused by a perceived injury, insult or injustice. Outrage is a powerful emotion…Which is why it has become such an important political commodity.

Social media is filled to the brim with posts, tweets and shares that are meant to elicit rage towards a particular politician, party or group of people. I don’t use social media much because I generally don’t like it, but I have been paying attention to my friends on both sides of the political spectrum who seem to live in two completely different realities. From friends on one side of the political aisle I see posts about how COVID is a conspiracy meant to derail Trump’s reelection, I see half-baked truths and embellishments about how liberal tyrannists want to empty the jails, do away with law and order, support violent looting and get rid of the police altogether. On the other side of the political aisle I see misleading and harmful posts that paint all conservatives as one-size-fits-all racists and bigots, who have no care for anyone but themselves.

Every event or word spoken by politicians nowadays is stripped of its context to easily fit into a nice soundbite or tweet that is sure to feed those consumers who are looking for every opportunity to be outraged at the other side. Research has shown that outrage is one of the hottest sellers on social media. If you want to get “likes” or attention, the way to do it is by posting extreme rhetoric that is sure to elicit rage from your followers.

Some news outlets are little better than social media as they feed us what we want to hear. This doesn’t necessarily mean that what’s being reported is false, but it’s often packaged and presented to us through a medium of outrage that is sure to feed our sense of rightness in what we believe, even as it brings us back to that same news source that will continue to feed this fire. Because let’s be honest for a minute: it feels good to be outraged. If someone steals my parking spot at Trader Joe’s even though they saw my turn signal on, it feels really good to experience the emotional release that comes from being outraged at the injustice they committed.

But that’s a trite example, and we all probably recognize the ridiculousness of getting so worked up over a parking spot. But what about when it comes to political issues that are very important to us? What about when we see police brutality or when we see immigrants mistreated or when we see violent looting overlooked or when we see the abortion rates, or when we see all police officers painted as scum, or when our way of life is threatened? Then we become outraged. “How dare anyone allow this to happen; how dare anyone vote for someone who won’t prioritize this issue or champion that issue.” Politics become personal very quickly. And when someone opposes what we care about, what we deem essential and necessary, then our hurt and anger can grow bitter if unchecked.

It feels good to be outraged. It feels good to be outraged at every little slipup and misstep by “that politician” who perpetuates what I clearly know to be evil and wrong. It feels good to write off anyone who is associated with that political party, because I already know what they’re about and I want nothing to do with them. It’s so nice to have a clear enemy. Life and politics are so much simpler when there’s a clear black and white way to vote, when there’s a clear politician or party that is good, and a clear politician/party that’s bad. So we give in to outrage and we seek it out, because it paints a reality for us that is much easier to manage. And before we know it, we’re no longer content with just disagreeing. What seems to be increasing in our polarized culture is not merely a desire to win an argument or an election, but to shame, crush or destroy the opposition. Outrage only feeds this desire.

Outrage: news sources benefit from it, we feed on it, it gets “likes” on social media and the divide in our nation grows ever wider…Which brings us back to Pontius Pilate.

The nation-state of Israel in the 1st century had every reason to be bitter towards Rome. The Roman Empire was an occupying military force in the area that imposed their own government officials on Israel and extracted steep and unfair taxes. Anti-Roman sentiments were growing and there were a number of extremist groups in Israel that were plotting to cast off the yoke of Roman oppression.

And in the midst of all of this, a Roman government official, Pilate, makes an appearance in the four gospel accounts being circulated. If ever there was a time to paint Rome as the bad guy, if ever there was a time to effectively elicit outrage, this was it. The gospel writers wouldn’t have even needed to embellish or produce half-truths; all they needed to do was portray Pilate as he really was—unfair, bloodthirsty and incompetent.

But these early followers of Jesus refrain. Where one might expect the crucifixion to be entirely pinned on Pilate and on the unjust treatment of Jewish leaders at the hands of Rome, Pilate is instead given a fair and relatively uneventful treatment in the gospels. Rather than creating an even greater political divide between Rome and the Jews by blaming one group or another for Jesus’ death, the gospels lessen that divide by intentionally painting a far more well-rounded picture of not just Pilate, but of human beings across all forms of major difference.

It’s in the gospels that we get another story not unlike this one that features a man named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus, as many of you know, works for Rome as a tax-collector, taking money from the Jewish people.  As long as he gave Rome its cut, he had significant leeway in how much he extorted from people, able to pocket any extra cash himself.  He was a traitor to his people, getting rich off of his arrangement with Rome.

In the gospels, Jesus is most often seen spending time with those who are “the least of these”—those who are differently abled, the women, the children, those who are labeled as sinners, lepers, and social outcasts. However, in Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus, we see Jesus crossing a political line rather than a socioeconomic or religious line. Zacchaeus is not poor, he’s not in need of physical healing, he’s not a religious leader, but he would have been on the opposite end of the political spectrum from any self-respecting, justice-seeking Jewish person. Zacchaeus is actively supporting the Roman Empire, to the detriment of his own people.  Even more, he’s short—which in the ancient world was thought to mean he was morally lacking in some way—and yet, Jesus treats him with dignity and respect and he even invites himself over to Zacchaeus’ house for a party!

To any self-respecting, justice-seeking Jewish person, this is absurd. But by the end of his encounter, Jesus has not only transformed Zacchaeus, but the whole community. See, if Jesus had played by the community’s rules and ignored Zacchaeus or fed the social outrage towards such a man who would support Rome, then healing would have never taken place. Outrage blinds us and manipulates us. Outrage does not seek healing and restoration, it crushes, it shames, it destroys. Like Jonah, it wants the fall of Nineveh.

At a previous church I was the interim youth pastor, filling in while we looked for a new leader. When the church leadership finally hired someone, I was excited. Until I met him. Our first few interactions did not go well; he rubbed me the wrong way and he did and said things that really bothered me. It became apparent that our theology and the ways we thought youth ministry should be done were very different. And what started as a mild dislike was fanned into a passionate outrage I felt towards him as I commiserated with other leaders who were equally displeased. None of us really expressed our feelings to him, but we kept fanning each other’s outrage (“Did you see what he did this time?”). You all know how this goes. I thought my anger towards him was borne out of care for the kids in the youth group—and it may have started out that way—but the longer I held onto that anger, the more bitter it became and the more it sought to destroy rather than mend.

Now, I had good reason to be upset at some of the things he said and did. But in my anger-turned-outrage I lost all sense of a desire to seek healing and reconciliation. I just wanted to crush, to shame, to show how right I was and how terrible he was. We’ve since reconciled and shared forgiveness for each other, but I frequently recall this situation to remind myself of how tempting and how blinding outrage can be.

There’s a difference, I think, between righteous anger and outrage. Righteous anger is a passionate anger that is fueled when we witness injustice or something that is wrong in the world. Righteous anger can be a constructive and motivating force that drives us to seek restoration for what is broken. But outrage is anger turned bitter; it is anger that is no longer constructive, but that only seeks to destroy. For example, righteous anger is when we witness police brutality against people of color and our hearts are broken and we seek to call attention to it and to join in the fight for justice; outrage is when we decide that all police officers are scum of the earth. Righteous anger is when we hold people in positions of power accountable for what they have done; outrage is when we want them to die from COVID.

It is a fine line to walk between righteous anger and outrage, between condemning injustice and still loving the person behind the injustice. This is why it’s so much easier to avoid the middle and retreat to our echo chambers where everyone thinks exactly like us and we never have to be challenged.

Outrage is antithetical to Jesus’ mission here on earth. Outrage erects walls, it hates and it destroys. Outrage blinds us to the depths of God’s love for us or for those who disagree with us. Because God calls all people, even men like Zacchaeus and Pilate, unto himself. If you’re a flaming liberal, Jesus loves the conservative. If you’re a die-hard conservative, he loves the liberal. He loves Republicans and Democrats, and even those noncommittal Independents. He loves people of color and police officers. He loves immigrants and refugees. And yes, he even loves white supremacists.

That may sound insane to some of us. But to declare that Jesus loves people isn’t permission to be soft or passive on sin. We can and must condemn injustice, white supremacy and xenophobia. We can and must pray for hearts and broken systems to be changed. To declare that Jesus loves people is not at odds with pursuing justice. Never let someone try to tell you that. We can condemn injustice and still affirm that God loves the individuals involved. Jesus’ life was a perfect demonstration of how love and justice work hand in hand.

It’s not wrong to feel anger towards injustices and towards people who would benefit from them or look the other way. Righteous anger compels us forward to seek God’s kingdom. But as Christians we must always be on guard against the siren calls of outrage, an emotional hijacking that whispers lies about how undeserving of love some people are. If we ever believe that someone is outside of God’s redemptive love and grace, then we need to reexamine our theology of God’s love and grace.

Speaking of white supremacy, I’ll close with this story: Daryl Davis is a professional blues musician. He’s the only black member of his band and, often the only black man in the bar where they play. It was at one of these gigs that a white man struck up a conversation with him about music, saying he’d never heard a black man play like Jerry Lee Lewis.

They had a casual conversation and eventually the white man told Davis that he had never shared a drink with a black man before. Eventually the white man revealed to Davis that he was a member of the KKK. Davis laughed at first, not believing him. Then the white man pulled out his wallet and showed his Klan identification card. Davis stopped laughing but didn’t resort to violence or run. Instead, it was the beginning of a real friendship. A couple of years later the man left the Klan and gave his robes to Davis.

Davis has since struck up relationships with hundreds of Klansmen and has about two hundred robes hanging in his closet at home. In an interview with NPR, Davis said, “If you spend five minutes with your worst enemy—it doesn’t have to be about race, it could be about anything…you will find that you both have something in common. As you build upon those commonalities, you’re forming a relationship and as you build that relationship, you’re forming a friendship.”

If Daryl Davis, a black man, can befriend Klan members, then why can’t we befriend people on the other side of the political aisle? This is the radical love that Christ calls us to. This is the radical love that our nation is desperately in need of. Amen.