What Is Truth: A Reflection On Leadership And Justice
"The essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man… Man claims prerogatives that belong to God alone; God accepts penalties which belong to man alone."
- John Stott
I’ve had some horrible bosses in my time, especially when I worked retail. My first job after college was a dumpster fire. One manager was fired for embezzlement not long after he hired me. His successor, whose mood swung from Ghandi on Tuesday to Ghengis on Thursday, began sleeping with our thieving stockroom guy just weeks after her employ (among other things). The quality of these hires corresponded to the sort of district manager we had.
The world is such that great leaders are necessary, but in short supply. And it seems to me many would-be leaders often have a relationship to truth that is driven by self-preservation or self-advancement. Many land in their positions because they’ve reinforced the same compulsion in their own bosses. Corruption spreads by osmosis. Unfit leadership is like a cast iron pipe that corrodes from the inside, polluting the water before it bursts.
But if you’ve ever had a great leader, chances are she was probably noticeably selfless. Did you sense that she could “lead past” herself? If so, you saw her relating to Truth, even if it wasn’t labeled “Christian.”
When you read the account of Jesus’ early morning trial before Pilate in John 18, it becomes clear the Roman prefect is no different than what we so often experience from would-be leaders today. The fact that he had no legal basis either to flog and humiliate Jesus or to hand him over for crucifixion tells us he was simply trying to appease Jewish authorities — even against his better judgment. He was not contending for justice, but for his own political preservation.
Pontius Pilate was the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judaea from AD 26–36, ruling a relatively small annex of Syria. He was a military leader given command to rule in matters of Roman law in a backwater of the Empire. In short, it was his job to keep the peace and stamp out any insurrection, allowing the bulk of civil law to be handled by other local authorities. This is what a prefect did. Justice and truth had little to do with it.
But if the Sanhedrin wanted to kill Jesus, they had to defer to Pilate because they had been mostly stripped of their rights to capital punishment. And the only way Pilate had any jurisdiction here was if Jesus posed a military threat, a threat of insurrection, which he clearly did not.
So when Pilate asks Jesus if he is the “King of the Jews,” Jesus responds with a question, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Jesus is exposing the lie with a question about its origin. He would go on to say his purpose is “to bear witness to the truth,” to which Pilate responds, “What is truth?”
It’s just this sort of self-interested relativism and its consequences that lead to a world on fire. Truth is negotiable. “Who can even say what’s right or wrong? We just do what seems right to us.” In the proposed utopia of self-defined truth, every person is his or her own ultimate leader. And, alas, everyone else is her subject in relationship to her truth despite the fantasy that people can be autonomous in their ethics and societies can still thrive. The obvious problem is that leaders (and everyday people) want the benefit of certain shared ethics, so long as they can determine which ones are a fit. This is the sinful heart of humanity writ large — man claiming “prerogatives that belong to God,” originators of truth.
The answer to Pilate’s question is made obvious in the proceedings that follow. Pilate’s truth tortures an innocent man to death. The Sanhedrin’s truth convicts him against all evidence. Pilate washes his hands. The Council goes back to leadership as usual — back to the Passover for which they were intent on remaining qualified (ceremonially clean) to eat. Their distorted “truth”-made-leverage apparently had no implications where honoring the Passover was concerned. It was their truth after all.
This warped picture is exactly what is true about humanity apart from God. Our ways are warped. Our truth is leverage.
So, what is truth? Man’s constant capacity for evil, not just in his hard-hearted willfulness to wreak havoc, but also in his soft and slinky self-service, is undeniable. The fragile nature of human leadership is clear and if you’ve ever worked or lived under self-interested leadership, you’ve felt what it does to whole offices, homes and jurisdictions.
This is why the man who died in an echo chamber of humanity’s “truth” was and is necessary. He stands not only bound and subject to Pilate’s leadership, but also in stark contrast to it. Jesus’ humility qualified him to lead. It qualified him to expose other would-be truths. It qualified his name to be on our lips today, even though virtually all his followers abandoned him in fear and cowardice, leaving him buried in a stranger’s tomb. The fact that a Galilean peasant is humanly revered by most and divinely worshipped by many speaks to the quality of his Truth. It also speaks to the quality of human leadership that humbly and sincerely follows him.
Every day I must ask myself where my own interests are ahead of the interests of God, which are the interests of those he loves — those I lead, if only my family. Every day my leadership has to do with a truth beyond me because it’s a truth that humbles me. And when leadership begins in the humility that characterizes a man or woman in proximal relationship to God — our cosmic anthropology — then truth has a place to manifest and make the world look more like it was created to look.
Apart from transcendent truth that humbles a man or woman, the world looks like Pilate’s Judaea. It looks like the scene depicted in the painting above — a room full of judges, but no justice. It looks like so much of what we call normal today.
So during Holy Week, we pause to hope for the Kingdom to come fully even as it has already begun to come in our hearts. We pause to consider that a resurrected Jesus is enthroned not on marble or velvet, but on the seat of cosmic Truth at the strong right hand of the Father. His kingdom must come through our lips and our leadership as a Truth making men free, not binding them to the prerogative of authoring their own truth, the penalties of which God has already taken upon himself in Jesus Christ.
Holy and immortal God,
From earliest times you have named us and called us into discipleship.
Teach us to follow the One whose light scatters the darkness of our world,
That we may walk as children of the light. Amen.