It’s hard to get a handle on ‘ole Pilate.
Ancient historians tell us he came to Jerusalem as prefect, a senior administrator, in the year 26. He ruled from Caesarea on the coast but always came to supervise Passover in Jerusalem, staying at Herod’s citadel overlooking the city. Perhaps two and a half million Jews came, packing every corner. The best way to imagine it, one historian writes, is to see Mecca during the haj. Everything moved towards the temple, but most folks also had their eyes back, behind them, glancing up at the Roman soldiers in the fortress. The intensity was even higher this week that we call Holy Week because of the recent insurrection, an uprising noted in Mark and Luke,1 in which 18 Galileans were murdered by Pilate. On that Maundy Thursday Jesus is arrested, interrogated by the high priests. Though they pronounce him guilty, he would wait to see Pilate, the final authority, in the morning.
Pontius Pilate was, one historian writes, "an aggressive, tactless martinet out of his depth in Judaea." He was loathed in Jerusalem, notorious for his "venality, violence, theft, assaults, abuse, endless executions and savage ferocity." No one liked him, no historian I can find sees anything but a ruthless and anxious incompetent.2 But the gospel accounts differ somewhat, portraying someone who was unsure of what to do with Jesus, manipulated by the Jews. In John’s gospel Pilate wonders why Jesus has been brought to him, even tells the Jewish leaders to deal with him themselves – yet they stay, pressuring Pilate into looking closer.
All four gospels, each in their own way, blame the Jews and absolve the Empire, but it seems clear it was a Roman operation all the way.3 The Romans were in charge, their security presence was high, the method of execution their own. Some scholars understand this presentation of Pilate as to have been prompted in part by Luke, out of a desire for self-preservation, to demonstrate to Roman officials that Christianity and the Empire could get along just fine.4 The gospels have been read in tragic ways in our history as anti-Jewish, using these stories to justify horrific acts of violence. This is a misreading of the gospel.
The Creed wants us to understand WHO did this to Jesus. "Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried," we say. The Roman occupiers not only killed, but crucified – a particularly brutal way of killing someone – this person who was also God. The gospels are clear from the beginning as to the tension the church experiences from the secular authorities, a tension that continues to be played out in all sorts of different ways throughout the history of the church. The early church experienced varying levels of persecution in its first few centuries, and then was dramatically welcomed into the halls of power by Emperor Constantine in 313. This small band of disciples, not so long ago huddled in homes before and after work, all of the sudden was welcomed into magnificent cathedrals built for them. There have been seasons in which the church has experienced oppression, from the early days to places like China and parts of the Middle East now. There have been seasons when the church has been too much at the center of things – medieval Europe comes initially to mind – and, drunk on its own power, has done more for itself than for those whom Jesus served. There have been times when the church found its moral voice and led society with courage, like parts of the Civil Rights Movement. There have been times that the church has cowered in the corner, using the excuse that they will tend only to one’s spiritual life and not political realities – which is simply a way to avoid doing things that we don’t want to do, or that seem hard. Some of the white church in the south pre-civil war, and during the Civil Rights movement, again comes to mind.
I was thinking about all of these things this past weekend. My wife’s youngest brother was married in a wonderful service in a Catholic Church across the street from the King Center in Atlanta. After worship we had time before the reception, so much of the family wandered over, a handful of white people in suits in a sea of African Americans, to pay our respects. King’s sermon in Memphis the night before his death played over the loudspeaker around the reflecting pool. We walked into the museum across the street and talked with the children about how black people and white people couldn’t go to the same school or the same bathrooms. They could not understand. It’s hard to explain to them why the good guys, the firemen and policemen, blasted schoolchildren in Birmingham with firehoses. It’s hard to explain the pictures of King in jail, of many other faithful people carted away. Trying to explain it to children now makes it seem like it was so clear. And the moral core of it was. But the working out of those convictions, and you who lived through it know better than I, was really difficult and complicated.
It was really special to be in that space and think about these things because I have been wrestling a lot in recent days about the church’s relationship with our civic leaders. While I am not an expert on many issues before the state, I share the concerns of many who have been protesting in Raleigh in recent months. I have been to Raleigh twice on Mondays, once to support a friend who had chosen, after much prayer, to get arrested, and another time two Mondays ago – when Betty, Taylor and I all went – for the gathering of clergy. In our democracy elections have consequences. The majority won, and they get to govern as they feel led. But, it is also the responsibility of those on all sides to continue to be engaged, to listen and to learn, to express one’s views in the public square.
But the church must be wise and faithful. Once the church, any church of part of it, becomes aligned with a particular political party, the church has been co-opted for someone else’s purposes. When the church speaks, it must not be partisan. When the church speaks, it must do so in a way that honors all people, that seeks to listen, and that models faithful disagreement. Both Tom Tillis and Rev. Barber are beloved children of God. We are going to do our best to honor this principle as we continue our conversations on gun violence after worship – we’ll resume sermon talk-back next Sunday. We have lost the ability to talk to each other. There was a picture on the front page of the local section of the News and Observer on Tuesday in which a Republican legislator looks at the newspaper as protestors walk by. It seems as though they are working hard not to acknowledge each other.5 That is a tragic reality.
In addition to not being partisan and speaking carefully, though, the Christian Church, the Church of Jesus Christ, is called to be concerned with the same things that concern Jesus Christ. I have a colleague that is fond of saying that the question a person of faith MUST ask of public policy is: How does this affect the poor?6 Who was Jesus concerned with, and what did he wonder about? How might we follow his model? Which means the church MUST ask of our elected leaders, how does the way we set up our society tend to the needs of the poor, of families, of children, of the mentally ill? Who benefits from decisions about tax policy and health care? How does this affect our financial stewardship for future generations? While I don’t feel a call to get arrested anytime soon, I’ll head out there a couple more Mondays over the summer because I want to keep listening and learning. I’d love to spend time with any of you talking about it, especially if you disagree with me. Let’s work as hard as we can, together, to try and discern what it means to be faithful in these days. I don’t have an answer, but am praying for what wisdom may come…
As you have likely seen in the news, Jim Holshouser died on Monday. Elected in 1972, he was the first Republican governor in decades. He ushered in a new two-party era in North Carolina, after a long season of democratic dominance in the Jim Crow south. And while no one would mistake him as anything but a conservative, he championed public education, raising salaries for teachers, and serving for a long time on the UNC Board of Governors. I was especially struck by a quote in an article about him in Tuesday’s paper. In the context of a conversation about his soft-spoken style, Gene Anderson, a political advisor, wanted to make sure the Governor’s toughness wasn’t forgotten. "When somebody thinks of tough, it’s somebody who you would go down an alley with," Anderson said. "But Holshouser is the kind of tough, day after day. He didn’t always do the right thing, but he always did what he did for the right reason. The whole deal was based on a Presbyterian belief in stewardship. It wasn’t the driving competitive thing as much as he thought he was supposed to serve."7
Jesus understood well his role to serve. He knew that standing firm, threatening the powers of the day will get you killed. Next week we’ll get into what our tradition says about the mechanics of things as the Creed says he descended into hell. But the creed wants us to know Jesus is dead, and wants us to know who killed him, and how. And, perhaps, to continue to work on how we might be faithful citizens in these days, called to serve.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Mark 15:6-8, Luke 13:1-4.
2. This history comes from Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem: A Biography (New York: Alfred E. Knopf, 2011), pages 104- 115; The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 1287.
3. Montefiore, 111.
4. Fred Craddock, Interpretation: Luke, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p 267.
5. First Look: More than 80 arrested at 7th Moral Monday rally. Photo 29 of 103.
6. My friend the Rev. Mel Williams, retired pastor at Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham.
7. "Leader fueled a 2-party state," in The Raleigh News and Observer, Tuesday, June 18, 2013, 1A and 8A.