One of the things that liberal democracy has excelled at since 1945 and the end of the “Great War” is the discouragement or destruction of strong truths and shared love of one’s race, faith, and nation. Deconstruction, post-modernism, moral relativism, doubt and subjectivity have become the ruling thought process of our time.
In my lifetime (I am 61) I wish I had a dollar for each time someone spoke the words of Pontius Pilate to me in a discussion or debate.
Quid est veritas? “What is truth?”
Jesus Before Pilate
28 Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate came out to them and asked, “What charges are you bringing against this man?”
30 “If he were not a criminal,” they replied, “we would not have handed him over to you.”
31 Pilate said, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.”
“But we have no right to execute anyone,” they objected. 32 This took place to fulfill what Jesus had said about the kind of death he was going to die.
33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
34 “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
38 “What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him. 39 But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?”
40 They shouted back, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!” Now Barabbas had taken part in an uprising. John 18: 28-40
In 2020 America, we are all now stoic Roman governors seeking to appease the mindless mob by retreating into the open sewer of moral cowardice. doubt and deconstruction. What is truth?
Recently I stumbled into a 2011 Catholic blog and post (no, I am not Catholic) and the writer pointed out some lessons about Governor Pilate that we should all muse upon.
Here is the link to the article: Whosoever Desires
Why does Pilate get our empathy?
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ last year generated a lot of discussion and ended with an intriguing question: “Why does Pilate always get so much empathy from us?”
It would be easy, at this point, to start tossing around charges of anti-Semitism, charges which would allow us to feel a certain measure of moral superiority over those less enlightened than ourselves. Then we could pray like the righteous Pharisee, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, anti-Semites like Mel Gibson over there” (Lk 18:10).
Throwing around such charges is a way of doing precisely the same thing that blaming the Jews for the crucifixion once did: deflecting guilt from ourselves. I would suggest a far more troubling answer to the question, “Why do we empathize with Pilate?”
The Blog’s author has an answer that I am forced to agree with: Because we see so much of ourselves in Pilate.
For a man who lived over 2,000 years ago, in a time and culture very different than our own, he is remarkably like us in so many ways.
Pontius Pilate: A Western Man.
Pilate is educated, Western, professional; he is not a sociopath, not some oriental despot, neither particularly poor nor fantastically rich; above all, he is no religious fanatic. The purity laws of the Jews, their concerns about idolatry, seem as foreign and irrational to him as they do to us. His concern is not for God’s honor but for, to borrow a phrase from the Constitution, domestic tranquility. He wishes the Jews would disagree without being so violently disagreeable.
Pilate is not bloodthirsty. Nor is he indifferent to justice. If given the choice, he would prefer that the innocent not die, but neither truth nor justice are his highest priorities. He is more concerned with keeping the peace and keeping his job. Pilate fears the passions of the crowd and the opinions of his superiors. He is a canny enough politician to know that it is best to stay the middle course. Even if the middle course is immoral—having Jesus beaten before he is released (Lk 23:13)—it is still moderate and centrist.
Pilate’s actions in the Gospels even have a way of bridging differences. He becomes friends with his onetime rival, Herod. In Luke’s Gospel, Herod is spiritual but not religious. He is curious about Jesus, not wishing him any harm at first, even eager to see him. But when he realizes that there is no religious novelty in Jesus, no quick fix, no sign; when the spiritual exoticism has worn off and Herod sees in Jesus only the prospect of unpopular moral commitment, he has no use for him.
Governor Pilate is a moderate. In American political terms, he is a “centrist Republican” or “moderate Democrat.”
Never taking a “extreme” position or course of action; always checking the temperature of the mob to see which direction they are likely to go in. Governor Pilate is a follower of trends; not a leader of Men.
Pilate: Skeptic, Doubter, Moderate.
Pilate recognizes no absolute standard of truth. “What is truth?” he asks (Jn 18:38), a question repeated in our own day often in such a tone as to imply that to answer would be offensive. Pilate, like so many of us, faced with perplexing truth claims and passionate religious differences, weighed down with a history of violence and error, takes refuge in a relativism that seeks simply to tolerate. Pilate has a COEXIST bumper sticker on his car.
The problem with coexistence, however, is that it occasionally means sacrificing those who step too far out of the social order, those whose existence threatens our coexistence, whether they be innocent or not. Coexistence cannot tolerate one who says that coexistence is not enough, that there is a right and a wrong way of existing. Tolerance cannot bear one who says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (Jn 14:6). Jesus came preaching love, not tolerance. The Gospels would have had a very different ending if his command had been, “Tolerate one another as I have tolerated you” (Jn 13:34).
We are like Pilate. We all desire to be thought of as moderates; we do not like our religion too extreme; we get nervous at words like “truth.” We know that such words have a way of stirring conflict, and we want peace.
Yes, I have been guilty of being like Governor Pilate. I too, and doubted and retreated into moral relativism when I lacked the courage to preach the truth to those who did not want to hear.
We should listen to the words of Christ again, and again.
“In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” John 18:37