I always thought that Pontius Pilate is treated too harshly by many Christians. People who don’t even dare to contradict their neighbour when he talks astonishing bollocks in some religious matter are instantly ready to demand that Pilatus be ready to risk a revolution to save their hero. They talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.
The reality on the ground is that the vast majority of the people in his position would have behaved like he did; nay, worse than he did. In fact, it can be easily said that Pilatus did for Jesus more than most would have done in his position and only receded when he saw that the Jewish leaders would give him no other alternative than acquiescence to their demand or all out fall out.
Still, the fact remain that Pilatus clearly sees that justice demands one behaviour, and politics suggests another. Put in front of the choice and being, well, a politician, he makes a politician’s choice; a shrewd move from a political point of view, but a catastrophic one from a moral one. He is, therefore, certainly guilty to an extent – and Jesus tells him so in his face – but clearly not evil, or cowardly.
Pilatus is remarkable for another revealing expression: when Jesus confronts him with the Truth, he replies with the famous: “What is truth”? Little he knew that two thousand years later, the same expression would still be used by all those who, like him, see the Truth in front of them but refuse to accept it, because the acceptance means a price they are not ready to pay.
Pilatus is, then, not evil, but rather a mix of good intentions, political calculations, and less than steely moral standards. He perceives himself as doing “what he can” to help Jesus, but what he can is determined by the way he thinks. At the same time, he is acted as well as acting, as it is abundantly clear from historical sources that Rome truly didn’t want to see further troubles in Palestine. If Pilatus had started an all out confrontation, the first victim would have been himself and I wonder how many of us would, in the same situation, choose the heroic option: to throw to the dogs career and privilege – or worse – in order to make a point about a person he had never seen before – though he had heard about him -, who was unpopular among his own, and not even a Roman citizen.
Pilatus could, of course, have called the bluff and invited the Jews to the homicide-suicide: open revolt, Roman representative deposed or even punished, but Jewish hierarchy massacred by that time. Still, this is more easily said than done, as such a radical option can only be chosen by someone who has made a radical choice for truth. This was clearly neither the case in the concrete situation, nor part of the job description in general.
Pilatus chooses, therefore, to do not what is moral, but what is rational. Clearly, if he had chosen to accept the risk of a revolt over an individual case of such small (we would say today) geopolitical relevance for Rome, the accusations of having been utterly emotional and of having started a mess for the sake of his pal’s skin would have been, in the Roman perspective, clearly impossible to refute. Pilatus’ drama is, therefore, a dilemma that continues to be fascinating to this day and only the most stupid must tell themselves “If I had been in his place I’d have saved Jesus, of course!” Well, firstly with such a mentality you wouldn’t have been in his place in the first place and secondly no, you don’t even have the cojones to criticise the scandalous behaviour around you, so the jewish mob would have scared the crap out of you and no mistake.
Pilatus has become the epitome of cowardice, and I do not think it is fair. He behaves with consideration and humanity *; he goes to great lengths to save Jesus; he extensively tests the waters and leans himself out of the window more than most politicians of today would think of doing; but he recoils when he sees that no half solution is possible and that he is put in front of the fundamental choice and asked to decide whether justice or ragion di Stato should carry the day.
There is, I am afraid, a Pilatus in every one of us. His dilemma is our dilemma in our everyday fight to be coherent Christians; his ultimate moral defeat is, very clearly, ours.
I love to think that he has been forgiven and is now safely in Paradise. For obvious reasons, I like the “Good Romans” mentioned in the Gospels (say: the Roman centurion with the ill servant; or the other centurion under the Cross, Longinus, who – if memory serves – went on to convert and, some say, become a bishop). Pilatus doesn’t match them, but I don’t think he is the worst, either.
Tomorrow, I’ll hear the whole story again. Once again, I’ll be confronted with Pilatus’ dilemma. Once again, I’ll as myself what I would have done in his shoes (I mean really done, not as an armchair general safely talking with the benefit of hindsight, and of two thousand years of Christianity). And once again, I’ll bow my head in shame.
A prayer for Pilatus is, I think, fully in order.
* note that even his order to have Jesus flogged is from the background of the hope that after the flogging the Jews might renounce to have him executed.