The Unknown Known: Meditation on Good Friday

ImageIs there a balm in Gilead? If we were to ask the imperial powers of this world, then the answer would be no. I just saw a documentary film about former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld titled The Unknown Known. The film consists primarily of Donald Rumsfeld speaking to an off-camera interviewer about his many years serving various presidents’ administrations, which they trace through Rumsfeld’s many memos.

In the movie, he describes a memo he wrote to President Reagan when he was serving as Special Envoy to the Middle East, where Gilead was located. He wrote to President Reagan that Rumsfeld himself would never urge Reagan to work for lasting peace in the Middle East because his experience had taught him that life was about three things: conflict, betrayal, and war. Apparently, he did not believe in a balm for Gilead.

Rumsfeld wrote another famous memo to President George W. Bush when he was Secretary of Defense. The subject line was “What We Know.” He said there are known knowns: things that we know we know. There are known unknowns: things we know that we don’t know. And then there are unknown unknowns: things we don’t know that we don’t know. And finally there are unknown knowns: things we think we know but don’t really know.

The things that worry Secretaries of Defense are the unknowns. According to Rumsfeld, we are in danger where there are too many unknowns. How might the enemy come at us? We don’t know. And the way to figure out the unknown unknowns and the unknown knowns is to use our imagination. He called Pearl Harbor a “failure of imagination.” Had we done a better job of imagining all possible attacks upon us, we could have neutralized or eliminated those possibilities so that the imagined unknowns didn’t happen.

So, for example, we should imagine that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and then overthrow that country and its leader just in case. Or we should imagine that Japanese-American citizens during World War II were threats to national security and imprison them in Manzanar.

This is the kind of world orientation that has come to arrest Jesus. It is a world orientation based on fear and paranoia, protection and self-defense. It seeks self-preservation above all else.

A large detachment of soldiers and temple police arrive with weapons and torches, and their fear is obvious: when Jesus affirms for the first time that he is Jesus of Nazareth, they step back and fall to the ground in fear. Why is a well armed military unit afraid of an unarmed man? They are crippled by their fear of the unknown.

And what they fail to realize, what is the unknown known to them, is that in their struggles to maintain power and serve their own fears, they invariably harm themselves.

That is what happens in Gethsemane: the only person injured in the garden that night is Malchus, the slave of the high priest. Malchus was compelled to accompany the temple police. He probably bore no ill will toward Jesus or the disciples. And yet, he loses his ear when Peter reacts in fear and a misguided desire to protect Jesus and probably himself. Notice that Peter cuts off Malchus’ ear right after Jesus says, “Let these men go.”  Both Peter and Jesus imagine that the disciples are in danger. And so Peter strikes out at the most vulnerable, and probably the least armed man in the arresting party that night.

This injury to the slave Malchus appears in all four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest. Only in this Gospel of John is Malchus accorded the dignity of a name. In all four Gospels, Jesus objects to the violence done to Malchus. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus reaches out and heals the ear of Malchus. Rather than attempting to preserve his own life, Jesus protects the lives of everyone around him. He doesn’t take sides. He protects his disciples by telling the soldiers to let them go. He also protects Malchus, and perhaps even the soldiers, from further injury by telling Peter to put down his sword.

Jesus would say that this violence done to Malchus and to him is happening due to a failure of imagination. His enemies have imagined the wrong thing about him. They have imagined that he is a weapon of mass destruction, when in reality he is the antidote to weapons of mass destruction.

What makes Jesus frightening to the people intent on destroying him are the unknowns. They cannot figure him out. They do not know what they do not know. Who is this man? They are so confused in his presence that he has to prod them twice to say whom they are looking for. He has to urge them to take him in. Or perhaps the imperial and religious leaders think they know what he is—a political revolutionary—but they don’t really understand what he truly is. They lack the imagination to understand a world order in which violence is discarded. They lack the imagination to understand that love is more powerful than hatred and self-preservation. They lack the imagination to see God incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ.

And ironically, there is something they don’t know that we and Jesus do know. There is dramatic irony here, an irony that occurs when the audience knows something that the players do not know: Jesus needs Judas to betray him. He needs the local leaders to fail in their imagination so that his death and resurrection can occur. This is the cup he must drink for our benefit and for theirs.

But Malchus was not meant to be harmed. Peter thinks he knows what he is supposed to do: protect Jesus and perhaps himself. But he has imagined the wrong thing. For that reason, he engages in the one act of violence that was not meant to happen that night: the severing of Malchus’ ear. That’s why Jesus objects to the violence. He values the life of Malchus, a slave, as much as he values the life of anyone else in Gethsemane that night. While surrounded by soldiers that he knows will eventually kill him, Jesus shows concern not for himself, but for Malchus. Rather than be self-absorbed, he protects Malchus. In Luke’s version, he even heals Malchus.

What a beautiful world Jesus inhabits, so different from the world of self-defense and ranking of human beings by wealth, race, gender, and ability. In slave-holding societies, a slave is of no account. He or she can be injured or killed with no penalty. Why isn’t Peter arrested for assault? Because Malchus is a slave. Why did Peter strike out at Malchus? Probably because it was the least risky move.

There is a famous passage often labeled “the suffering servant” in the Book of Isaiah, chapter 53, that says, “He was despised, and we held him of no account.” The passage is often cited in Holy Week as a reference to Jesus, the slaughtered lamb. But it also applies to Malchus. Malchus is the only person held of no account in this passage. The only person that no one is bothering to protect is Malchus. If the soldiers and police were incensed at Malchus’s injury, they would have struck Peter. But they don’t. His body is not valuable to them.

Only the self-preservation of the ruling class is important to them.

There are painful parallels in our society today of bodies that are valued less than others. The killing of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Troy Davis, the mass arrests and incarceration and execution of people of color in our country show us that there is still a need in this country for this African-American spiritual born of slavery, “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” As we contemplate Jesus’ arrest for a crime he was imagined to commit, we should remember to seek justice for those who are unjustly imprisoned and unjustly executed. We should remember that at the moment when his own body was most threatened, Jesus ignored self-preservation and showed great love for everybody, including the most marginalized person in that garden—the slave Malchus.

Jesus was a Secretary of Love, not a Secretary of Defense, and he calls us to throw away our defenses and self-preservation and be secretaries of love. With his divine perception, it’s easier for him to know what’s going to happen. There are no unknowns for Jesus. He knows the cup he has been given to drink, and he knows the truth that his death and resurrection will convey to the world: that peace and security come from self-giving love, not from self-preserving defenses.

The imagination that asks, “What is the worst that someone could do to me?” leads to destruction for everyone involved—even, eventually, the destruction of those in power. The religious authorities lost their temple in Jerusalem in 70 years, and the Roman Empire gradually disintegrated a few hundred years later.

But the reign of Jesus Christ never ends. That is because Jesus’ imagination does not ask, “What is the worst that someone can do to me?” He asks, “How can I show the greatest love possible?” The imagination that asks, “What is the best that I can do for another?” or “How can I show the greatest love?” leads to flourishing life and redemption. That type of imagination creates endless possibilities for love and collaboration, healing and justice.

On the other hand, the imagination that is fixated on, ‘What is the worst that someone could do to me? What don’t I know that I don’t know?” becomes an inward turning spiral of paranoia, competition, and self-preservation. And then it explodes outward and causes collateral damage. It hurts the least of the people, the people of little account in society: the people who live too close to drones’ bombing targets; the undocumented immigrants; a black, teenaged boy armed with a bag of Skittles. It perpetuates the anti-Semitism that led to the shooting of three people in Kansas this week, two in front of a Jewish community center and one in front of a Jewish retirement home called Villa Shalom. It attacks people who threaten the established power structures. It takes sides. It forms teams against other teams.

Jesus takes no sides today, and he bids us to take no sides either, but to love one another as God loves us. He imagines the peacemaker and the healer in all of us. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he demonstrates how true godliness looks outward, not inward, and reaches out to help those that we have held of little account—to heal the ear of Malchus. And then he dies on the cross in part to convert us all from secretaries of defense into secretaries of love.

As the apostle Paul writes, the cross seems like foolishness, and Christianity can seem naïve, like something we have imagined.

Imagine that. They may say we are dreamers, but we’re not the only ones. Before serving as the Secretary of Defense for President Bush, Mr. Rumsfeld was the chairman of a pharmaceutical company. This pharmaceutical company manufactured medications for the treatment of HIV and hepatitis B. And the name of Mr. Rumsfeld’s company? Gilead Sciences.

Mr. President, there is a balm in Gilead. Let’s manufacture some more of it.

2 Thoughts

  1. Your words helped me to see this moment in the Passion in a new way! Thank you so much!
    Christ is Risen! Hallelujah!

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