Lessons from Holy Week: The Results of Theocracy
Cassandra Waites printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Fri Apr 06, 2007 at 12:54:08 AM EST
Religious leaders playing court with political leaders. Political leaders playing court with religious leaders. Common people paying taxes both to religious leaders and to political leaders. Fathers passing religious power on to sons and nephews. Religious leaders using funds meant for upkeep, charity, and such to enrich their own pockets.

This is not (intended to be, at least) a description of America in 2007 AD. This is a description of a small Roman province in the Middle East, right as Passover approached in a year when a man named Caiaphas was high priest and his father-in-law Annas was providing secondary leadership.

This was the scene just before Christianity was born as a distinct faith. It was also when Christianity failed to learn two lessons.
We likely will never know exactly what happened. What is certain is that the two acting high priests were in danger of losing power.

The priesthood was traditionally descended from Moses' brother Aaron. During the return from exile in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, great care was taken that the people in charge of the rebuilt Temple were indeed biologically descended from Aaron and that their helpers were clearly descended from the original Levite families that had fulfilled those roles before the exile. Unfortunately for the region, the priests that endured through the Roman occupation were closer in spirit to Eli's sons who did not respect The Law and abused their authority than to Eli and Aaron.

The Roman Republic and Empire both tended to fold in new religious groups rather than force conversion until the later era when Christians were in charge. Becoming part of the Emperor cult was required in the Empire, but the local religions were allowed to remain so long as they did not pose a threat to Rome. Even then, some groups were allowed to get around the Emperor cult requirement; it appears that the Jews avoided joining this cult by including a sacrifice and prayers for the Roman Emperor in the Day of Atonement rituals.

There were multiple rebellions in the region during the decades preceding this time period. The power of the Temple-based priesthood was under Rome's thumb. Unrest during a religious festival would have put the entire system at risk. The power Annas and Caiaphas held relied on the continued support of Rome. Within 50 years, Rome would finally have had enough-the Temple and the priesthood were destroyed in 70 AD. The structure known today as The Wailing Wall is all that is left of the Temple from Jesus' time.

Pilate, one of Rome's many enforcing functionaries, was in town for Passover. If anything happened, nothing would be able to hide it from the eyes of Rome.

In addition, the oddball rabbi from Galilee was in town for the festival. The same rabbi that had been a thorn in the priesthood's collective side for years. The same rabbi that had been speaking like he was an expert on Torah from age 12; not even an adult, and he had been talking like he knew more than the elders.

Disaster was inevitable. It became even more inevitable when the oddball rabbi single-handedly destroyed a sizable part of the industry feeding the payment of the Temple Tax by pilgrims and the purchase of the necessary sacrifices for the week.

It is not clear from scripture whether the offer of money or the offer of the oddball rabbi's location came first. It is not clear what the starting offer was, or whether it changed before the final agreement. It is also up in the air now as to whose idea the entire deal was: the priests, the informant, or the oddball rabbi himself.

What is clear is that in the space of a week, Passover week, a week full of preparation and housecleaning and religious ritual, the father- and son-in-law pair managed to arrange a mob for seizing a beloved oddball rabbi, the arguments necessary to send said oddball rabbi to the Romans, and a change in public opinion enough that the population went from shouting the oddball rabbi's praises at the beginning of the week to not revolting when he was executed at the end of the week. These religious leaders had enough power over the entire population and in relation to the local Romans that they could pull that off successfully.

Chances are that their paid informant had no clue what the real plan actually was. The religious authorities did not have the power to order executions. He may have anticipated the rabbi would be in custody through Passover and then told to get lost in the desert. He may have anticipated a longer imprisonment. He had seemingly no grounds to anticipate any form of execution.

But thanks to the confluence of influences, the opportunity of having the rabbi in custody, and knowing just what words would be unignorable by a Roman leader, those priests had found a way to grant themselves that power in this one case so that they could keep the rest of their personal religious empire in their grasp. Every Christian knows what happened next.

Except that part of the story gets fuzzy after that, because the gospels don't agree on one piece of the fallout. In fact, in the case of the informer, they don't agree beginning with the events preceding the deal with the priests.

The account in John is the only one to associate the informer both with being the rabbi's treasurer and with being a thief. It also claims that he alone objected to the rabbi's feet being anointed; the other three accounts we have use a plural here, meaning that others who did not inform on the rabbi also objected. This version has the informer leave with the others assuming he is going to do ordered duties as the treasurer.

John is also one of two sources to claim the informer was indwelt by Satan. The other such source is Luke-Acts; I will include the two books together since it is widely held that they are intended as one narrative from one author. Luke-Acts is the only source to have the informer buy something with the blood money and then die horrifically.

Modern Biblical inerrantists like to blend that death account with the other available death account, which is in the book of Matthew. This account is highly divergent, though. The first difference is that when the death sentence is handed down the informer immediately goes back to the priests and throws the money down inside the Temple after they would not take it back. The second is that the informer then goes and hangs himself.

Mark offers few details that do no agree with at least one other source in regards to this subject.

Current scholarship according to Ehrman's A Brief Introduction to the New Testament is that Paul wrote his letters 50-60 AD, then Mark was written somewhere in 65-70 AD, Luke-Acts and Matthew followed in 80-85 AD, and John was likely written in 95 AD. The two death accounts are therefore roughly contemporaneous, with a later source claiming the informer was a thief.

One of the lessons I referred to earlier is the lesson of what to do which someone who has done horrible things because a religious leader told them it was God's will. We know what to do when earthly laws have been broken, but what of the cases where no law has been touched? I can think of no book or sermon I have ever encountered that claimed Judas Iscariot did anything wrong - other than hang himself as according to Matthew - under Roman or Jewish law. Theoretically he could have gone on living for years near one of the growing centers of early Christianity. He didn't, but he could have lived.

What does one do with a twenty-eight-year-old woman who found out at her ten-year high school reunion that the classmate she called a baby-killer committed suicide because of abortion-related depression that a psychologist linked to externally generated guilt? What does one do when a father finally cuts through what his pastor told him about homosexuals and wants to try to mend bridges with the son he kicked out?

And what does one do when those secondary victims of the people now pushing for American theocracy are the ones who need compassion and a place beside you on the pew?

Nothing says the father couldn't kick out his son, so long as he was a legal adult. Same thing for cutting off all contact.

School bullying rules might have had something to say about the woman's situation, but if it was said off-campus or while marching with her church outside a clinic it was probably even protected speech. Add to that the fact she may have been marching, demonstrating, and yelling at other women for the intervening ten years, again currently most likely considered protected speech.

What happens when the secondary victims of theocracy have an epiphany and change their minds? What does one do with converts who, effectively, came from within the system they are converting to? Paul had to prove himself like crazy after trying to annihilate the early Christian community, but even he started out completely on the outside of the group - he never damaged Christians in Jesus' name. He had never broken communion bread with Christ-followers until after the Damascus road.

Even with Paul as an example of a convert who when on to become integral to the community, Christianity has been known to have problems dealing with converts. Most recently this manifested in some Christian groups as the reaction to the news that Senator Obama had as a child attended a Muslim school. Despite church involvement records clearly stating that he is a Christian now and has been a Christian for a while, many still responded as if he were a sleeper terrorist agent hiding in an American church for cover.

Even education seems to be a problem then, not just actions. What does a church do with a member who admits having been trained in cell church creation when he was twenty and impressionable? Someone who was trained in how to get jobs in government at her Christian school? Someone who has a degree in Biblical Studies from a fundamentalist Christian college but now wants to volunteer in the youth Sunday School... and no one else is willing or available to fill the opening?

I don't have an answer to what that response should be, but the church as a whole needs to understand that not all walkaways and throwaways will leave Christianity completely and that as people wake up as to what is going on the chances that legitimate walkaways will have done things before they left will rise. Various people are already framing the theocratic movement and other aspects of fundamentalism as antithetical to Jesus' teachings. How should we deal with someone who may quite honestly have come to self-associate with Judas because they did things against Christ while they had the little fishy on the back of their car?

The other lesson the church did not learn, and also appears to have not learned despite the Reformation's best efforts, is that theocracy does not work. Even near-theocracy doesn't work. We have churches now with near-hereditary pastorates, both small churches and megachurches. We have preachers with enough influence to change how their churches' members vote simply because preacher said so. Churches that get little old ladies to will everything to them. Church leaders living high and well out of the offering plate while families in the congregation and community struggle.

It does not matter if the individual first given theocratic power is trustworthy. It does not matter if the individual first given theocratic power is firmly grounded in sound teachings. Aaron was a good sound priest. Eli was a good sound priest, but that did not say a thing about his sons. Sooner or later, people like Annas and Caiaphas will be attracted to the power and do what they can to keep it.

And where there are people like Annas and Caiaphas, sooner or later good people get influenced into doing bad things.

Judas by Nikolai Ge, 1891. In the public domain.
Larger version.

Scriptures Referenced (all references used were NRSV):
Eli's Sons: 1 Samuel 2:12-17
The Foot Annointing Incident: Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, John 12:1-8
Judas Goes to the Priests: Matthew 26:14-16, Mark 14:10-11, Luke 22:3-6, John 13:2
Judas Leaves From or Is Identified At The Last Supper: Matthew 26:20-25, Mark 14:17-21, Luke 22:14-23, John 13:21-31
Judas' Death: Matthew 27:3-10, Acts 1:15-20

Works consulted recently include the book The Death of the Messiah by Raymond E. Brown. Interpretations are mine, not his. It was not directly referenced while writing this, but I do wish to formally recognize that it is the main non-Bible source of my information about Annas and Caiaphas.

I was going to save this for Easter, but it seems to fit with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday much better.

by Cassandra Waites on Fri Apr 06, 2007 at 01:06:34 AM EST

Like an amazing sermon ! - But I think it works for Talk To Action to, for addressing the central question....

If there be a theocracy, well then - who will be the theocrats ?

This is  a central question that even supporters of theocracy must address, the question of human corruption. Jonathan Hutson raised a similar question in a Talk To Action post that asked the question :

Come theocracy, whose Bible will rule ?

by Bruce Wilson on Fri Apr 06, 2007 at 08:37:03 AM EST

trying to insert the question of "what do we do with the people now listening to the wannabe theocrats?" into the discussion.

Not all walkaways from theocratic-wannabe groups leave the Christian conglomeration of belief communities.

The more our voices, here and elsewhere, get heard, the more likely it becomes, IMO, that those lulled into theocratic belief will be among those waking up and leaving the dangerous groups.

We've got some idea now how to deal with intentionally damaged walkaways. Have we started asking what to do with those who just trusted preacher and now see that they themselves damaged other people?

Non-theocratic Christians need to start thinking about this now, so that if a wave of people like that does leave there is some understanding of both what is going on and what possibly should be done.

by Cassandra Waites on Fri Apr 06, 2007 at 03:40:25 PM EST

over at Orcinus (link to right), series "Cracks in the Walls" (left side of main page, scroll down).

My guess is that people who leave highly authoritarian churches to join the more liberal denoms will have two major problems their new church homes need to address: 1. guilt feelings about past actions 2. major anger against the previously attended denom and its members. These are direct pastoral care issues, to be handled individually and also collectively under the guidance of a skilled pastor, counsellor, etc.  A "recovering from authoritarian religion" small group, with some structured curriculum and some freeform discussion,  would be useful. I attend an MCC church, and we have a pastor-led 8 week course (1x week) on "recovering from homophobic religion" , capacity 12, given on a quarterly basis. It is viewed as very useful by new attendees at the church, most of whom are walkaways from conservative Protestant denominations and Catholics.

In addition, they will have been unused to thinking for themselves re doctrine and political/ social issues, so they will need to be encouraged to wrestle with said issues in a group that maintains respect for individual opinion and a level tone - this could be any Bible study group.

by NancyP on Fri Apr 06, 2007 at 04:38:17 PM EST

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