This was Pilate’s famous ironic question of Christ. A short time later—after Jesus had been scourged and was now standing before Pilate wearing a crown of thorns—Pilate answered his own question when he said to Jesus, “Do you not know that I have power to crucify you?” In this moment the “truth” came out. For in the end it is the power of violence that is the ultimate truth for the principalities and powers. The “truth” of violence is the axis around which the world ruled by the principalities and powers revolves. It is their centering principle. It is the bottom line for those under the spell of “the ruler of this world.”
Pragmatism is the ultimate truth of empire, and the ultimate pragmatism is violence. (Though ordinarily great effort is expended to conceal this “awful truth”.) So despite the fact that noble virtues are often present within the empire (family, justice, service, etc.), the axis of empire, the centering principle, the final truth is violence. This was certainly true of Rome.
What is truth?
For Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor acting on behalf of the world’s emperor, the ultimate truth is that the empire has the power to kill. And Pilate does not hesitate to make this “truth” explicitly known to Jesus, hoping that this dreamy Galilean will come to his senses and face reality. Rome is reality. The power to crucify is reality. Violence is reality. Violence is truth. The cross is truth!
Nietzsche, not surprisingly, thought that Pilate got the better of Jesus in their exchange and regarded it as the only genuine moment of nobility in the New Testament. Nietzsche essentially agreed with Pilate and thought of violence as the closest thing this world has to an ultimate truth. And for those under the sway of the Nietzschean “truth” of violence, nothing more can be said than, “that’s just the way it is.” Power, by which is meant violence is the bottom line, by which is meant truth. Truth is violence.
But for the Christian there is another narrative.
Christ showed that the world was a text that could be read differently: according to the grammar, not of power, but agape. -David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite
It was into a brutally pragmatic world where the ultimate truth was the power to crucify that Jesus Christ was born. And his very birth incited the principalities and powers to employ their ultimate truth of violence. So that “Rachel weeps for her children and will not be comforted because they are no more.” This Prince of Peace born in Bethlehem, whom the principalities and powers attempted to murder before he uttered his first word, grew up to make the most astounding and subversive claim of all: I am truth. Jesus announced that he was about to re-center the world. The world would no longer be centered around the “truth” of violence, it would now be centered around the truth of himself, around the truth of love!
The world desperately needed to be re-centered; it was off its axis. It was tearing itself apart. Humanity had lost its way—humanity had lost sight of God. Confusion reigned. Even the vision of God had been obscured in the fog of war and violence. The image of God is distorted when viewed through the lens of bloody pragmatism. The world of the Roman Empire was held captive by the “pragmatic truth” of the principalities and powers. But in the fullness of time the logos became flesh, the truth became incarnate, and the invisible God was revealed in human form.
No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten God who is at the Father’s side, he has explained him. -John 1:18
And from the very beginning, from his birth in Bethlehem, from his first sermons in Galilee, the trajectory of Jesus’ life placed him on a collision course with the “ultimate truth” of the Roman Empire: The Cross. As Jesus contemplated his impending encounter with the “truth” of empire that would result in his crucifixion he said this:
Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (He said this to show by what kind of death he would die.) -John 12:31-33
In the crucifixion of Christ the principalities and powers are named and shamed and their “truth” of violence is at last exposed for the ugly lie that it is. At the cross Jesus casts out the ruler of the world and gives the world, not only a new ruler, but a new center, a new axis. In Christ the world will no longer revolve around the “truth” of pragmatic violence, but around the divine truth of unconditional love.
So the cross was truth. But not Pilate’s truth of pragmatic violence; rather it was the truth of redeeming love. This is the mystery of the cross: The cross (i.e. violence), by which the rulers of this age retain their power, became the means by which the world is liberated from their tyranny and re-centered around love! This was entirely unanticipated by the principalities and powers. The Apostle Paul writes,
None of the rules of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. -1 Corinthians 2:8
Jesus endured the cross and forgave the sins of the world (when he could have unleashed legions of avenging angels) so that the violent ways of the principalities and powers might exposed and extinguished by the truth of unquenchable love, and so that once and for all we might know what God is like.
Being disguised under the disfigurement of an ugly crucifixion and death, the Christ upon the cross is paradoxically the clearest revelation of who God is. -Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone Is Credible
Thus in Christ the world is given a new ultimate truth, a new centering point, a new ordering axis, and it is love—the love of God revealed in Christ at the cross. And having been lifted up in crucifixion and vindicated in resurrection, Christ is now drawing all people to himself.
Come into the orbit of Christ.
Come into the orbit of love.
Be liberated from the tyranny of pragmatism.
Be liberated from the lie of violence.
What is truth?
Truth is Jesus Christ.
The only way to the Father is through the truth of Jesus’ life—
A life that culminated in crucifixion, but which was vindicated in resurrection.
The liberating truth, the centering truth, the new axis of the new world order in Christ is—
Love. The redeeming love of Christ.
(The painting is The Crucified Christ by Fra Angelico)