Christ on Trial

How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement

by Rowan Williams

Archbishop of Canterbury

Archbishop Rowan Williams

Christ Church (Parish) Church

Westmorland Street at Charlotte, Fredericton

Facilitator: Canon Jim Irvine


Mark: Voices at Midnight

Mark's account of the Trial

Master and Margarita - Bulgakov

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There is a Time for Truth


Matthew: Wisdom in Exile

Matthew's account of the Trial

Life of Pi - Yann Martel

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Luke: Knocking on the Window

3 - A

In Chapter 3, John the Baptist speaks contemptuously to the devout children of Abraham and kindly to the tax collectors and the soldiers. The heroes of these stories are outsiders on several counts. They are either outside the ‘normal’ structures of solid, patriarchal or tribal life because they are childless, widowed or unmarried, or they are the sort of people who are not expected to be able to manage behaviour that is pleasing to God.  Page 51

3 - B

These are the people who are involved in God’s activity – the ‘poor’, not in the sense simply of those who are economically deprived, but those who have no expectations or at least low expectations, those from whom others look for little or nothing, those without a clear visible ‘stake’ in the larger world they occupy. They are lifted up by a God who snubs and turns away the powerful. In what is happening to them a light is dawning that will change the perception of all people. The three great hymns of these chapters, the songs of Mary, Zechariah and Simeon, all turn on these themes: (1) God has honoured the promise once made to the chosen nation; (2) God has turned upside down the assumptions of the world; (3) God’s light has dawned for Jew and Gentile alike in this great intervention.  Page 51

3 - C

What does it mean to be without the right to a hearing, without access to the currency of the prevailing market? It is to be without words, to be without the ways in which those around you tame and organize the world. Your own language does not count – whether literally, in the case of subject people whose language has no legal status, or more broadly, when the whole shape of the speech of those in power reminds you constantly that your perspective is not included. You cannot speak in a way that will actually make a difference; your coinage is rejected; nothing you say will ‘come out right’ will persuade or succeed. This is why, in Luke’s account of the trial before the High Priest, the themes already explored in relation to Mark and Matthew are given a new colouring. In Luke 22:67, Jesus is asked by the council to tell them if he is the Messiah. “If I tell you” he replied, “you will not believe me, and if I question you, you will not answer.” In other words: I have nothing to say to you that you will be able to hear or to which you will be able to respond. Luke’s Jesus places himself with those whose language cannot be heard.   Page 53f.

3 - D

God’s transcendence is in some sense present in and with those who do not have a voice, in and with those without power to affect their world, in and with those believed to have lost any right they might have had in the world. God is not with them because they are naturally virtuous, or because they are martyrs; he is simply there in the fact that they are ‘left over’ when the social and moral score is added up by the managers of social and moral behaviour. Or, to put it a bit differently, God appears in and through the fact that our ways of arranging the world always leave someone's interest, welfare or reality out of account. We cannot organize our world so as to leave everyone a possible place. We are unavoidably bound to exclusion as we try to give form to our social and moral life.  Page 54

3 - E

So what is Luke telling us through the way he positions God with the outsider? In an important sense, he is not saying anything about right and wrong. If we thought that God was to be found in and with the outsider because God approved of them more than he approved of insiders, we should be falling back into just the mentality we are being urged to forget. Page 55

3 - F

One modern writer has said that God is in the connections we cannot make, and that tells us something of what is on view here. The person who is ‘left over’, whose place I cannot guarantee, whose welfare I cannot secure, who does not fit, is the person who reminds me of my own limits; and as I acknowledge the incomplete character of my world of reference and my understanding, I may at least see the seriousness of the question about the fate of those not catered for. If in any sense I recognize a claim of care for such people, even if I have no idea how to effect it, I am at least some way towards perceiving how God lies in the connections I cannot make.  Page 56

3 - G

The stranger here is neither the failed or stupid native speaker, nor someone so terrifyingly alien that I cannot even entertain the thought of learning from them. They represent the fact that I have growing to do, not necessarily into any­thing like an identity with them, but at least into a world where there may be more of a sense of its being a world we share. Recognizing the other as other without the immediate impulse to make them the same involves recognizing the incompleteness of the world I think I can manage and mov­ing into the world which I may not be able to manage so well, but which has more depth of reality. And that must be to move closer to God.   Page 62

3 - H

Confusingly, this principle cuts across the conventional left‑right divides in our ethical squabbles. Abortion is often seen as a ‘right wing’ concern, and – for example – homosexual rights as a ‘left wing’ one. But there are parallels, in that those who define themselves as homosexual represent yet again an ‘otherness’ that will not go away and cannot be readily accommodated into the world of the majority. If that is so, then God must be listened to here as well. Elizabeth Templeton has put it starkly, contrasting what she calls the ethics of earth and the ‘ethics or non‑ethics’ of heaven: inevitably, we seek order, because order limits pain and fear for most of us, but we must beware of identifying this with the law of God without remainder. ‘We dare not identify God with these norms. For if there is one person on earth who is, by such ethics, devalued, dehumanized, demonized or disqualified from the conversation towards truth, whether that be on the grounds of sexual behaviour or any other, then I believe we lie, and possibly blaspheme.’  Page 64f.

3 - I

[I]n all the Gospel narratives of the trial, Jesus’ declaration of the gulf between his world and that of his judges provokes insult and abuse. He is beaten, flogged and crowned with thorns precisely because he is power­less: because he is powerless, because he does not compete for the same space that his judges and captors are defending, he is a deeper threat than any direct rival. He threatens because he does not compete (again raising the question of what tran­scendence really is), and because it is that whole world of rivalry and defence which is in question. Luke adds one very specific irony to the story with his reference to the new alliance between Herod and Pilate which comes about as a result of the trial. The judges of Jesus have more in common with each other than with him; the competitors for space in this world are bound together in what has been called the ‘mimetic’ trap – we imitate our enemies, we want what they want (and we want them not to have it when we do), and so human conflict is fought out in a hall of mirrors. Page 69

3 - J

Luke takes us a step further and challenges us not only to stand with those left out and left over, but to find in ourselves the poverty and exclusion we fear and run away from in others – to find in ourselves the tax collector in the Temple, the woman in Simon’s house, and both the sons in the parable of the prodigal, with their different kinds of exclusion, guilt or fear.  Page 70


Luke's account of the Trial

The Outsider - Albert Camus

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John: Home and Away

John's account of the Trial

The Trial - Franz Kafka

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Our Witness: Believers on Trial

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Koelz - Thou Shalt Not Kill

Ashes to Easter

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