History’s most famous politician earned his notoriety on that first Good Friday so long ago. But this Good Friday, after a Lent marked by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Pontius Pilate may get a fresh look when Christians hear the accounts of the Passion read.
It has been striking that so many commentators on The Passion have remarked on how sympathetically Gibson portrays Pilate. Some have gone even further to say that the Christian gospels themselves were written to cast Pilate in a favorable light, with an eye to not offending the Roman imperial power. But to see Gibson’s Pilate as a sympathetic figure speaks volumes not about Gibson or the gospels, but about the state of our political culture.
The Pilate of the gospels–and Gibson’s Pilate–is not a bloodthirsty tyrant. Perhaps he was in point of fact, but the gospels present us with a lethal pragmatist rather than raging killer. Pilate is depicted as a man prepared to shed innocent blood to solve a political problem. In a healthy political culture, to accuse a man of sacrificing principle for political advantage would be a searing indictment. But in a culture in which has turned triangulation into a political rather than cartographical term, Pilate’s conduct is not so much admonished as admired.
All the Gospel accounts agree that Pilate did not believe Jesus to be guilty of anything meriting death. And Pilate clearly has the power to release Jesus or to crucify Him, as he himself tells Jesus. Look again at Pilate in operation–he is a whirlwind of activity, trying first this and then that maneuver, all attempts to avoid doing what he knows is the right thing to do.
1) He tries to turn the matter back on the Sanhedrin, even though he already suspects that Jesus is innocent.
2) When they refuse, he accepts the case and puts various questions to Jesus, no doubt hoping for some information which will give him a way out of the affair. In accepting the case, Pilate accepts the responsibility for making a correct judgment, but even though he finds no evidence against Jesus, he refuses to release Him outright.
3) Discovering the Jesus is a Galilean, he sends the whole matter over to Herod, who is in Jerusalem. Not a federal problem, Pilate says. This one’s a matter for the provinces. Herod does not cooperate and sends Jesus back to Pilate.
4) Pilate attempts to have his prisoner and release him too. In a masterstroke, he decides that he can implicitly condemn Jesus and then release him for the Passover amnesty. To guarantee the desired outcome, in which Pilate would take credit for both condemning and releasing Jesus, Pilate offers the crowd the murderous Barabbas as an unsavory alternative. Alas, the crowd is not distracted from the matter at hand and chooses Barabbas; Pilate’s plan is foiled.
5) Pilate has Jesus scourged–a serious punishment in its own right, and administered to an innocent man solely in the hopes of placating the crowd. The crowd is not placated.
6) Pilate repeatedly asks the crowd what they want done with Jesus. He appears stung by the accusation that he will be accused of disloyalty to Caesar if he lets Jesus go. So he gives the order for crucifixion.
7) Washing his hands, Pilate denies all responsibility for the order he himself has given. He is not responsible; it is the will of the people.
All this in the space of four or five hours, for the Sanhedrin brought Jesus to Pilate in the early morning (perhaps as early as 6 A.M.) and Jesus was already crucified by noon. Pilate was quick. Pilate was clever. St. Luke gives another testament to Pilate’s wiliness: That day, Herod and Pilate, who had hitherto been at enmity with one another, became friends (Luke 23:12).
So it would appear that at the end of Good Friday, Pilate could look back on a crisis averted, an important political friendship established, a debt no doubt owed him by the Sanhedrin for his accession to their plot, and as for the messy business of crucifying an innocent man–well, he had plenty of answers should his wife bring that up over dinner. It was, after all, not what he wanted to do, he tried to avoid it, and anyway it wasn’t his fault as the crowd was determined.
Yes, he had given the order, but he had washed his hands of it. He was clearly personally opposed to the crucifixion. Politics just demanded that he not impose that view on a crowd which had other ideas.
The Pilate of the gospels is a man skilled in the arts of politics. He is no doubt prudent, insofar as he is skilled at calculating the various options open to him. He has experience. All this he puts at the service of his political success; so much so that he does not blanch from ordering the death of an innocent man.
That such conduct would be considered admirable reveals serious moral confusion. The evangelists likely did not doubt that they were painting a damning portrayal of Pilate. His conduct is not that of a man consumed by rage or overpowered by events. He is cool and in control of himself. His compromises are not capitulations. They are careful calculations; calculations in which the fate of an innocent man is no more than dust on the scales.
So why the widespread estimation of Pilate as a sympathetic figure? Likely because so many of our political, moral, and cultural leaders are in his mold, widely praised for their moderation, their willingness to compromise, their ability in holding together a winning coalition. And if a few principles have to be sacrificed along the way, that too can be washed away.
In October 2000, Pope John Paul II named St. Thomas More as the patron saint of politicians. He was also a man who knew about prudence and the arts of politics. He did not falsely oppose pragmatism and principle. But he knew that in the end he would sacrifice his head to the king rather than betray the truth. Pilate was willing to sacrifice the truth to save his own head.
The Passion of the Christ has been a major cultural event. It has, inter alia, clarified that Pontius Pilate is not only the most famous politician in history. He is our political culture’s patron saint.
–Father Raymond J. de Souza is a chaplain at Queen’s University in Ontario.