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A lesson for social justice movements today

By Fr Curtis G Poyer, CCSJ/AMMR

During the 1980s, human rights movements emerged in many parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. This was because from the 1950s onwards, several governments in the Americas, with weak or non-existent democracies, using their military, paramilitary, and secret police summarily and arbitrarily rounded up and executed literally thousands of their own citizens–no due process and no recognisable respect for human rights.

Today, we would expect that any magistrate or judge must consider carefully the accusations made against an accused by those under his jurisdiction. So, on this day of the Feast of Christ the King, Year B, when we read the version of John’s Gospel of Jesus before Pontius Pilate (Jn 18:33–37), it is Jesus who leads the conversation before the Roman head of judicial power and Roman imperial authority in Jerusalem, the capital city.

When Pilate asks Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?” he was doing what Roman Law required him to do: he was stating the accusation made against Him.

By the time Pilate became the Roman-appointed Procurator/Prefect of Judea—something like a combination of governor, chief magistrate, administrative officer, and minister of finance—imperial Rome was already becoming one of the most corrupt, brutal, and perverse empires of all times. According to historical sources, Pilate was known for his cruelty and oppression, and for not always following due process. And yet, in this case, Pilate knew that if he was going to apply the death penalty of crucifixion, he had to follow due process.

Here is the deeper meaning of Jesus’ knowledge of the Roman criminal justice system, and about due process: “do you ask this of your own accord, or have others spoken to you about me?”.

In a court of law of sorts, how can the accusers accuse someone without actually being present to accuse that person? Pilate, of course, immediately understands the logic of Jesus’ question, and states that the accusation was sent to him; he then implies that he is an impartial judge, because he is “not a Jew”.

Jesus, of course, takes the lead again: “Mine is not a kingdom of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, my men would have fought to prevent my being surrendered to the Jews…[who are his accusers].”

Here then is the heart of what we are celebrating today. Let us note then, the following: (1) Jesus’ kingship or reign is like nothing anyone had/has seen or experienced in history, it is not a sudden and overwhelming conquering or defeating by force of the Roman Empire, represented by Pilate, or of perceived historical and contemporary enemies against a Davidic-like confederation.

Jesus, unlike the Roman Empire, and earlier empires, has no army, He has followers. The Jesus Movement is not and never was or is about an overthrow of any government or parliament, by force, nor by violence, which only leads to the counterviolence of the State or the armies that support one or the other side.

Scholars have long noticed that one of the keys to interpreting John’s Gospel is to pay attention to the inner literary structure and connectedness of the different parts of the Johannine narrative, technically called chiasmus.

So, when Jesus says that “my kingdom/reign is not of this world”, we need to take into account his earlier statements: “God so loved the world” (3:16); “he is the savior of the world” (4:42); He is the “light of the world” (8:12); His commandment is to “love one another,” understood as ‘in this world’, “All those who are on the side of truth, listen to my voice.”

Testimony is only valid when it is true to the objective facts, not to partial value judgements. In the end, while suffering violence Himself, Jesus, at that moment, saved His followers, His movement, from the crushing violence of the powerful.

For social justice movements today to really have an impact, they must never resort to violence, be it physical, psychological, political, party, or privileged violence, never to a partial understanding of rights just for one particular racial or ethnic group or class, while denying the rights of other groups – as political parties and art forms have done in Latin America and the Caribbean during the last 100 years – but to broader concepts of universal and international systems of human rights, which call for universal respect and structural equality.

Fr Curtis G Poyer is a priest living and working in the Diocese of Tampico, Mexico, and Diocesan Coordinator for Social/Social Justice Ministry.

(References: Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, and Jesus and Empire, both by Richard Horsley; Comentario Bíblico Latinoamericano)


“Solidarity helps us to see the ‘other’ – whether a person, people, or nation – not just as some kind of instrument, with a work capacity and physical strength to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as our neighbour, a helper (cf Gen 2:18–20), to be a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God. (39)”

–St Pope John II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, CCSJ Social Justice Education Committee

Photo by Tara Winstead from Pexels