Sunday, November 21, 2010

On the Side of Truth

“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.” (John 18.37)

Campaign for Truth

I’ve just seen Fair Game, an unabashedly left-leaning account of the Valerie Plame affair. Given the torrents of poisoned water that’s flowed under the bridge since the scandal, a brief recap may refresh our memory of its genesis. The Bush Administration’s neoconservative zealots, hoping to exploit post-9/11 jitters, fabricated its infamous weapons-of-mass-destruction scenario to justify an unprovoked invasion of Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney and his minions purported Saddam Hussein bought 500 tons of “yellowcake” (weapon-worthy) uranium from Niger. When the CIA couldn’t confirm the transaction, it sent Joe Wilson to Niger to assess its veracity. Few envoys were more qualified for the task. Wilson had held diplomatic positions in Niger and Iraq, as well as served as the National Security Council’s Senior Director of African Affairs under Bill Clinton. Since he wasn’t an intelligence officer, however, the CIA asked his wife, Valerie Plame, a highly respected Agency operative to write a pro forma recommendation. Wilson returned to report the rumor had no basis in truth—not what the White House wanted to hear, nor what it told the American people and world.

On January 28, 2003, President Bush used the annual State of the Union Address to launch the build-up to the Iraqi invasion with a 16-word falsehood: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” In the wake of the invasion, Wilson published a New York Times op-ed piece, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” that debunked the yellowcake story. Exactly one month later, syndicated political columnist Robert Novak attempted to discredit Wilson by publishing his wife’s name to suggest the trip to Niger was an unauthorized boondoggle conducted at her behest. Citing “two senior administration officials” as his sources, Novak exposed them to felony charges for disclosing Plame’s identity, undermining national defense, obstructing justice, and perjury. While the Justice Department investigated, the White House orchestrated a vicious smear campaign against Wilson and Plame that nearly destroyed them. And it very well may have, had Wilson not courageously countered with his own personal campaign for truth.

After the film, over coffee with a friend, I said, “I’m going home to write the blog with no idea what its topic should be. I’ll probably go with a Thanksgiving reflection.” She suggested writing about the movie. The idea sounded far-fetched until I remembered today is Christ the King Sunday, which ends the liturgical year on a high note, setting the stage for Advent. Knowing little about the observance, I dug around to discover it’s a relatively new to the Christian calendar. Pope Pius XI instituted The Feast of Christ the King in his 1925 encyclical, Quas Primas (“In the First”), laying out its objectives: shining light on the Church’s right to freedom and immunity from the state; urging leaders and nations to give respect to Christ; and inspiring the Faithful to gain strength and courage in the feast’s reminder that Christ must reign in our hearts, minds, wills, and bodies. The political angle—the encyclical’s stressing freedom from tyranny—struck a chord after seeing Fair Game. How all of this relates to our daily walk, however, felt vague and elusive until I opened Scripture to find what it says about Christ the King.

Christ the King

With Advent, “king” becomes a frequently heard title affixed to Jesus, as we revisit beloved Messianic prophecies. Yet when we read Jesus’s story, we’re shocked to find the royal title a lethal liability. King Herod’s plot to kill Jesus hatches when the Magi ask, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2.2) After feeding the multitude with five loaves and two fish, John 6.15 says, “Jesus, knowing that they intended to make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” Finally, having been hailed as Israel’s king during the triumphal entry to Jerusalem, Jesus is tried as an insurgent. Pilate asks straight-out, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (John 18.33) Jesus inquires, “Is that your own idea, or did others tell you that?” To ease worries He might spearhead a nationalist revolt, Jesus explains, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (v36) Pilate says, “You are a king, then!” Jesus replies, “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.” (v37) The quietly measured response thunders with authority. Without donning the mantle of kingship, Jesus is, in fact, Christ the King testifying to the truth. And, as Christ, Jesus identifies Christ’s obedient subjects as everyone on the side of truth.

Setting Us Free

The interchange with Pilate isn’t the first time we hear Jesus use truth to deflect political pressure to own the Messianic title. John 8 recalls a confrontation with Pharisees who dispute Christ’s identity. “You have no corroborating witnesses,” they charge. Jesus answers, “I speak for Myself and God is my other witness.” (v18) This causes cynics and doubters to ask indignantly, “Who are you?” Jesus answers, “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning.” (v25) Note the shift from “who” to “what.” We learn what the “what” is in verses 31-32: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Christ the King is Truth. To follow Christ is to hold to Christ’s teaching, standing on the side of truth. And knowing the truth makes us free.

Fair Game presents a grim picture of tyranny. The conspiracy to hide the truth about the Iraqi invasion’s injustice is no different than what fueled the plot to silence Christ. It’s the same evil that conspires against any believer brave enough to question threats of destruction for those who don’t buckle to religious tyranny—who dares to validate what he/she is told to believe against truth found in Christ and God’s Word. Yet once we make the journey and see for ourselves that everyone God creates is equally accepted and called by God, no fear campaign can shake our resolve to stand on the side of truth. We’re immune to propaganda and prejudice. We obey Christ’s teaching. We’re Christ the King’s disciples. No matter who disputes it, that’s the truth setting us free.

Following Christ the King leads us to Truth and frees us from religious tyranny.

Postscript: The Kingdom of Our Lord

On October 30, the Opera Company of Philadelphia staged a flash-mob performance of Handel’s “Hallelujah” in the city’s Macy’s. They sang the Truth. Enjoy this marvelous moment while we reflect today on Christ the King—and prepare to enter Advent!

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