One of the best movie lines of all-time is Jack Nicholson’s response to Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth.” Premiere Magazine has it rated 92nd on their Top 100 Movie Lines list. They didn’t ask for my views so I won’t quibble, but come on, 92nd? These are the same people who listed Bond. James Bond as 51st. I rest my case. Obviously they couldn’t handle the truth either. Speaking of truth, what is it exactly? Who is the arbiter of truth? Is truth relative to humanity? Is it possible to answer these questions without first completing two advanced degrees in philosophy? This is an arena that few people tread with success. Even Jesus chose to not answer Pilate’s direct question: What is the truth? (John 18:38).
I am a huge fan of Jesus so I will admit bias at this point. I believe Jesus knew the answer to the question. I also believe Jesus could have avoided a horrible death by providing an answer that would have made it easier for Pilate to reject the capital intentions of the Hebrew leaders. The silence of Jesus had a purpose, although it’s anyone’s guess as to what that purpose was. The most quoted guess focuses on the necessity of Jesus’ death for the salvation of humankind. That could be filed under the category of “lowest possible hanging fruit.” Surely Jesus was silent for reasons other than his impending death. A hypothesis put forth by N.T. Wright is intriguing. It is his belief that the silence of Jesus was meant to highlight the collision of postmodernity (truth) and empire. Since Bishop Wright and I exist on different intellectual planets it was necessary to read his text multiple times and to finagle (most certainly a word Wright would never use) with his meaning of Postmodern. Once you get past that it’s downhill all the way (right)!
Wright defines postmodernity as the question: “What is truth?” He sees the quest for truth as both colliding and colluding with the established world order that depicted itself as the true hope of humanity. He pits Rome as the personification of the “perfect world order” against Jesus as truth that transcends even the greatest plans of humankind. Rome saw itself as the ultimate prescription for the world. Many Hebrews bought into this possibility and as a result further distanced themselves from truth. This suggests Jesus was silent before Pilate in order to signify the absolute transcendent power of truth. Thus, truth is inherently spiritual and cannot be controlled or dispensed by humans, even if their intentions are pure. On that same note, hope cannot be placed in the instruments of empire if it is to survive. The lesson is actually simple: Great empirical intentions ultimately fail. Does this make them wrong? No, in many ways the world is a better place as a result of empires. On its best day, however, the Roman Empire was never the truth. Truth stood before them, they just couldn’t handle it.
MM (handling the truth since 1964)