The story of the trial and subsequent crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the predominant story of the West for almost two thousand years. Easter is rightfully at core of the Christian message — as I have heard ministers say a thousand times, if Christ’s tomb had not been empty after his death and burial, there would be no Gospel.
The person in this drama I find the most frightening and fascinating is not Judas, the man who betrayed Jesus so He could be arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. Judas was weak, and in the Gospel of John it is even stated that Satan entered Judas at the Last Supper. Instead, the character in this drama that interests me most of all is that of Pontius Pilate, the Procurator of Judea (26 to 36 A.D.) who represented Rome in Jerusalem.
Pilate’s job was to decide whether Jesus should have been crucified for the charges brought against him by the people of Jerusalem, which Pilate ruled as part of the Roman Empire. There have been numerous books and films about Pilate, many of which appear to be contradictory, as some show him to be sympathetic to Jesus while others show him to be tough and cruel and sympathetic to no one. From my point of view, Pilate is the extraordinary example in Western history of the government official stuck in a mess he does not want, but a mess which he will end up resolving simply in order to save his own neck.
Pilate is in the kind of predicament that is despised by a government bureaucrat, in that he has actually been asked to make a decision. You must understand, bureaucrats do not want to make decisions; they just want to follow the rules that someone else has given them to follow. That way, the bureaucrat is never really at fault for anything. To use a common phrase, if someone is mad at him, that person is angry at the messenger.
“Don’t shoot the messenger!” the saying goes. The messenger is not responsible for the message. In the story of Easter, Pontius Pilate was the messenger.
One of the most famous scenes between Jesus and Pilate in the Bible is the following conversation when Jesus is being interrogated by Pilate, from John 18:37-38 in the Oxford Annotated Bible:
Pilate said to him, “So you are a King?”
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a King. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice.”
Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
This is supposed to show that Pilate is a nihilist, a point of view that denies any objective or real ground of truth. I suppose if one worked long enough for the Roman empire, one could subscribe to a nihilistic point of view. Certainly Rome, like most governments, invented its own truth. A sadistic, insane emperor could become a god after he died. Anyone against the empire was evil. One tribe in Germany worshiped trees, another tribe in Judea worshiped Yahweh. And if Rome can invent its own truth, what is truth?
Pilate’s job was to keep order in an unruly place on behalf of Rome and, most importantly from his point of view, to do so without ending up dead. In the end, Pilate knows he has to keep Rome happy. If he does not, he could end up being tortured and killed just as easily as Christ did. Rome could care less about the crucifixion of another troublemaker. The emperor had orgies to attend, after all, and an extra dead body here and there would not matter.
This, to me, is why Pilate was so frightening. He has the power of life and death over the inhabitants of Jerusalem and he could care less about them as human beings. First and foremost, his job was to preserve his own skin in the face of political messes. (There are those, of course, who object to this characterization, claiming that rulers like the English in the 19th century really cared about the people they ruled. I do not see this from Pilate in the Bible. He washes his hands of Christ’s fate in the Bible because he is playing the perfect bureaucratic game: “I’m not taking any responsibility.”)
Now, fast-forward a few millennia to the year 2014. You are in the hospital and, naturally, you want your doctor to make you well. But your doctor does not necessarily work on your behalf. His or her job is to follow the rules of medical procedure given to him or her by the government or the government-approved insurance company. The doctor has to answer to the American Rome, Washington, D.C. And because the American Rome is broke, you are not a particularly important person in the eyes of the government–like, perhaps, Nancy Pelosi–so you have to take what Rome gives you. You and your procedure are a line item on a vast budget.
The doctor does not want trouble. If you die, Rome may not particularly care, but if everything is done for you and you run up a two million dollar bill, Rome will certainly stand up and pay attention.
See, once someone becomes a bureaucrat, whether it be a doctor or a parking meter reader, their function is not to care about you but instead to follow the wishes of Rome. Everything, then, is completely reliant on the goodness of Rome. That goes completely against the individual fighting for his own good. The orthodox meaning of Christ’s crucifixion had always been that Christ voluntarily sacrificed himself for the salvation of humanity, knowing that his sacrifice was complete, but conditional. Every human being has the responsibility to accept that sacrifice, to face the judgment of God as an individual in full accordance with the free will he has been given.
If Pilate had followed this ethic, he would have let Christ go. He would not have cared what Rome thought, he would not have card what Jerusalem thought, he would have known he had to face God at some point, and that to kill a man without cause would place his soul in jeopardy. All of us must avoid finding ourselves in the predicament of Pilate, where we forego the individual responsibility of moral choices and shove them on some remote place where we claim the sole deciding voice on human conduct presides. Rome did not deserve that monopoly, and Washington D.C. has proven that it does not either.
Jesus, of course, rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures. The question remains: will America?
Have a happy Easter.