Speaking Truth to Power

The confrontation between truth and other claimants to the throne of power is expressed perhaps most acutely in the Gospel of John's account of Jesus' appearance before Pilate, the representative of earthly power (John 18: 33-19: 22). Thomas' own commentary on this narrative is instructive. While Thomas casts Pilate in as favorable a light as possible - he is a "just judge" who wishes to know the truth (Super evangelium S. Ioannis §2344) - he still sees Pilate as one who cannot understand what Christ says because he is thoroughly bound to "worldly" ways of thinking, unable to imagine a kingdom that is not "physical"

- that is, one of external coercion. Even though Pilate is willing to accept Jesus as a "teacher of the truth" (§2365), he never understands the real relationship between truth and kingship; he never understands that "truth is stronger."

Pilate further misunderstands Jesus' statement that his kingdom is not of this world, in an error that Thomas characterizes as "Manichean," in that the material world is seen as a realm of irredeemable darkness ruled by the forces of brute coercion. Against this, Thomas maintains that while Christ does not reign "in the physical way that those of the earth do" (§2350) - namely, by external coercion

- this does not mean that he does not rule this world. Indeed, Christ's kingdom "is here, because it is everywhere" (§2354). While law is often coercive, operating through the threat of punishment (see ST 1-2.90.3 ad 2), it is not inevitably so. The eternal law by which God guides creation operates from the interior of things, not by external coercion; and even in the case of earthly laws, these are coercive to the wicked, because they run contrary to the inclination of their wills, but not to the good, because their wills are in harmony with truth (see ST 1-2.96.5). Pilate presumes, in common with the Manichean worldview, that power is always and merely the power of coercion, operating (like wine) on the level of physical force, and that any power that is "not of this world" must not be real power.

Thomas notes Jesus' care in replying to Pilate's questions. When Pilate says, "So you are a king?" Jesus replies, "You say that I am a king." Thomas says, "Our Lord tempered his response about his kingship so that he neither clearly asserted that he was a king - since he was not a king in the sense in which Pilate understood it - nor denied it - since spiritually he was the King of Kings" (§2358). Though Thomas does not use the term here, he is clearly presenting Christ's kingship and worldly kingship as "analogical." The Manichean worldview would have it that if Christ's kingship is "worldly" then it must partake of the darkness of coercion; if it is "unworldly" then it is utterly different from and irrelevant to this realm of darkness. Thomas rejects such an alternative. He denies that Christ is a king according to the mode of physical kingship, but asserts that he is king in another way, the way of righteousness (§2358).

Thomas says that Christ then reveals the "mode and order" (modum et rationem) of his kingdom in the statement, "For this I was born and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth" (§2359). The kingdom of Christ is "unworldly," yet exercised from the very heart of the world. Those he rules, because they have seen the truth manifested by Christ, set their affections not on earthly things but on heavenly ones; yet (as Augustine would put it) they live as pilgrims in this world in order to witness to the truth. Similarly, the authority he receives from the Father is not the shadow power of kings and armies, but is the true power and pattern of the world's creation (see §2351).

Pilate proves a somewhat tragic figure in Thomas' estimation. He asks Jesus in all sincerity, "What is truth?", but he does not wait for the answer (§2364). He is interested in truth, but it is a dilettante's interest; he does not realize that true strength resides in finding the truth. He still trusts in his ability to manipulate the Jews in order to free Christ, whom he has decided is harmless (because powerless). Rather than waiting to hear the truth from Christ, he tries to exploit the Jewish custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover time (§2367). As Thomas continues to describe Pilate's bargaining with those who seek Christ's death, Thomas becomes uncharacteristically passionate in chiding Pilate: "Why then, unrighteous Pilate, was there this shameful bargaining if there was no crime in him?" (§2380). From the human perspective, Pilate has the power to release Jesus, but he continues to pretend that he does not really have the authority to do so, even while boasting of his own power. In engaging in this knot of self-deceit, "he has condemned himself" (§2393).

The final act of this confrontation comes when the Jews threaten Pilate with Caesar's displeasure because "they thought that Pilate would prefer the friendship of Caesar to the friendship of justice" (§2399). They are right; Pilate cannot ignore such a threat because he believes that his power in this matter comes from Caesar. Pilate's capitulation before the threat of Caesar's power shows both his moral failings and his inability to grasp the power of truth. And so truth goes to the cross: "Christ bore his cross as a king does his scepter; his cross is the sign of his glory, which is his universal dominion over all things" (§2414).

Thomas' commentary on the encounter between Pilate and Jesus reveals the precise way in which "truth is stronger." Speaking truth to earthly power is no guarantee that you will not be killed, for the power of "physical" rulers is essentially the power of coercion, which reaches its extreme measure in the death of those who will not comply. But the noncoercive power of truth accomplishes the purposes of truth more inexorably than the purposes of any earthly rule. A martyr for truth can resist an earthly ruler to the point of death, and thus beyond the limits of the ruler's power, but the power of truth has no limits. So, as Aquinas says, Christ's cross becomes the sign of his "universal dominion over all things."

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