Speaking Truth to Power from Within
In 2000, I led a small group to Germany and Austria for a tour that included two days in Oberammergau, Germany, for the decennial Passion Play. The local citizens of this village have performed the passion play commemorating the last week of Jesus’s life since 1634. It began with a pledge made to God after half of the population died of the bubonic plague in 1633. After they made the pledge, no more of the villagers died of the plague, and the villagers have been keeping to their word ever since. Soon after their pledge the play would be performed on every zero year of the arriving decade. With only a few exceptions (including the pandemic year of 2020 … the play is now set for 2022), the people have faithfully performed the play as have their ancestors.
It is performed in German, and the non-German speakers are given a script that has the play in German and in the chosen native language of the audience member
The thing I learned about the passion play is that the script is rewritten and tweaked during the decade before its performance. The story we tell of Jesus’s passion, death, and resurrection is based on various passages of scripture, which are pieced together. Much of it is based on John’s gospel, but to tell a more comprehensive story is to (1) interpret the various passages, and (2) fill in the story with educated assumptions.
During the last half of the 20th century, Germans spent a great deal of time seeking to understand how being complicit to evil had placed their country at the heart of two World Wars. One of the key things that emerged was the innate antisemitism contained in the interpretation of John’s gospel that Jesus was killed “by the Jews.”
A critical reading of John’s gospel does place Jewish religious power and leadership at the heart of the conflict with Jesus, and the passion play does follow John’s gospel by focusing on the betrayal of Judas Iscariot. If we look closely at the name, “Judas” (in Greek, Ἰούδας), we will see that the name means “the Jew” (in Greek, Ἰουδαῖος). Adolph Hitler cited this theme found clearly in the passion play as he created what would come to be known as “the solution to the Jewish problem.”
The people of Oberammergau (and many throughout Germany) began reflecting upon how the play itself contributed to the Holocaust and the genocide of six million Jews under the tyrannical reign of Nazi Germany and its leader, Adolph Hitler. The writers of the play decided it was time to change.
In 2000, the script included some interesting things. First, we saw a heightened role for members of the Sanhedrin who were secret followers of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. They wanted to let it be known that there were forces from within Jewish religious leadership who sought to speak truth to power.
The other piece of this was the revised role of Judas Iscariot, whose role lended credibility that he may have thought Jesus to be the militant messiah who would violently overthrow Roman rule if he were only pushed into a corner. Just before Judas’s suicide, he had a long soliloquy where he grieved his actions, owned up to a complete misunderstanding of who Jesus was, and spoke so as to keep the audience from flattening out Jews into only one dimension.
The play was revised even further for 2010, but one thing had become clear.
The people of Oberammergau saw that they had to speak truth to power from within. They saw that they were part of a culture and nation that was easily corruptible. If they were to be Christ-followers, they had to speak truth into the structures of privilege and power to which they belong.
This lengthy history finally boils down to one simple truth. It is something I have heard clearly in this last year, and it was most profoundly spoken at an event required of all clergy in our conference of the United Methodist Church. The online event was a Be the Bridge event led by the author of that book and founder of the non-profit that goes by the same name. Her name is Latasha Morrison, and she is all about bridge building. You can find out more about the organization HERE.
The truth we learned is that it is time for white people to speak the truth about oppression and injustice to other white people. It is time to speak the truth from within. I heard the call to take off the blinders of privilege and speak the truth about how we continue to marginalize people. Sometimes that place is in the church itself … locally, regionally, and globally.
So where are you called to speak truth?
In my mind, our answer may require us to speak truth in some uncomfortable ways. But we are called to base our decisions on the challenge to fulfill our baptismal vows to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression, in whatever forms they present themselves.” In this season of brokenness and repentance, God is calling us.
Speak the truth from within.
Lord God, you have called us to follow Jesus and learn to speak the truth. Give us the courage to follow this radical messiah. Amen.