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Blood Guilt: Contrasting the Politics of Empire with the Politics of Easter


"Whereas the politics of Pilate washes its hands of the blood of an innocent man, the innocent man takes the blood of all the guilty upon himself and stretches his arms out on the cross."

“Political cowardice” is almost a redundant statement, isn’t it? It seems like one of the qualifications of a politician at mid-level government—any government—is to cover their own… I mean, to protect their position at all costs. Think of all the bureaucrats and elected politicians who turned a blind eye to the evils of the Nazi regime as it was rising, simply to maintain their own piece in the power structure.


It’s a central part of what it is to be a national politician. And it’s not just politicians, either. The “politics” of the world is the negotiation of human community, and in general it’s been organized around self-interest. This is true from local rotary type clubs all the way up to national politics. Politics addresses the question, “how do we create an orderly, functional community capable of succeeding, maturing, growing, and flourishing?” Human politics, east of Eden, adds this little idea: “and how do I ensure that I and mine are a bit more successful than others.”


There are all kinds of reasons for this, of course. We believe in a scarcity of resources—there’s not enough to go around, and hence we must make sure that we get all that we can. We may believe we’re better equipped than others for this particular work—“it’ll be better for everyone if I’m able to maintain this position.” As the French politician said during the Revolution, “omelets are made by breaking eggs.”


But we Christians are not meant to be of the world. We have seen a different way of living in the polis, in human community, through the perfected love of Jesus Christ. And what we see displayed in the Gospels between Jesus and Pilate is a deep and abiding contrast. We see the limits of self-interest as it crashes up against the very heart of the nature of God to love others as he loves himself, as Jesus shows the deepest and most abiding love of God by laying down his life rather than saving it.


Consider the background to the collision of the politics of Pilate and the politics of Jesus. Of course, to speak of Pilate’s power is to speak of Rome, of the Empire. Provinces in the Roman world that were particularly rebellious received a Roman governor, and within that province the governor was the law, the final authority, literally with the power of life and death.


As usual, though, there is a “but” to that statement. Though the governor had all the authority of the Empire behind him, if his policies proved to be responsible for more unrest—too draconian, too lax, whatever—then he was quickly and very publicly replaced, and sometimes very publicly punished. So, in a sense, the governor’s power was only really skin-deep. It was not absolute, despite the fact that it was supposed to be—that is, from the outside, someone would expect the governor to be the all-powerful ruler of a province.


We don’t meet Pilate until late in the Gospels. He’s not a major player until the end. When we get to the point of Pilate’s hand-washing in the Gospel of John, we’ve already seen Jesus’ trial before those bodies that were, at least in theory, “impotent” when it came to punishing him. They must have Pilate’s action to put Jesus to death. At this point in the narrative, the only thing remaining for Jesus’ protection is Pilate, Pilate and his omnipotent Roman governorship. Pilate is a man of worldly politics, and he has played it well. But he isn’t ready for Judea. And he isn’t ready for Jesus.


When Pilate first arrived in Judea, he received a complaint from the Jewish leaders: Roman legionaries had an image of Tiberius Caesar on their shields, and the Jews of course saw this as idolatrous. They asked Pilate to remedy this, to change the shields in such a way that would not front idolatry throughout the province. Pilate, at the time, was a new governor, and trying to negotiate his way through Judean politics, which were particularly prickly. And so, he decided a show of strength was necessary. No, the shield is a part of standard Roman soldier kit, and it wasn’t going to be changed for some back-water province’s scruples about what gods they were and weren’t going to worship. And that was that. So I have written.


But the Jewish authorities appealed this decision directly to Tiberius. Now that’s interesting. That could have gone badly for them, it could have worked out differently. But Tiberius was wiser than Pilate, he knew that he had to placate that troublesome province in order for trade to continue to flow freely, so he deliberately—and very, very publicly—reversed Pilate’s decision. And this effectively undermined Pilates rule from that moment on.


Now imagine Pilate’s position. Jesus appears before him. He’s clearly an innocent man. Clearly being railroaded through this process. And Pilate knows it. And Pilate acts upon it. “I find no guilt in this man.” But the Jewish authorities have already publicly beaten him once. And they know it. Thus, they twist the knife, ultimately denouncing their history and their God: “we have no king but Caesar.”


And so, Pilate knows he’s got no other choice. He’s got all the power in the world. He could put this down in a heartbeat, at one command. But he’d lose everything in the process. So, he rolls up his sleeves, and in a deeply cynical display (echoed later by lady MacBeth) he washes his hands of Jesus’ blood. But—as we see with others, like Judas and Mary of Bethany and Peter—it doesn’t work the way he thought it would. For Pilate’s name, like Judas’, will be heard whenever the gospel is proclaimed, and later become forged into the Creed of the church itself, “crucified under Pontius Pilate.”


And in this moment we can see clearly the difference between Pilate’s politics and those of the Kingdom of God. Spend a moment thinking about Jesus here. He is coming to this moment, to this point of the apex of his life and his story, and he is facing crucifixion—the most horrifying, agonizing, humiliating death imaginable. He has a decision to make, the same decision that Pilate faced. For it would have been possible at this moment for Jesus to wash his hands of Pilate’s blood—and unlike Pilate, it would have been effective and final.


Jesus certainly could have decided, justly and rightly, that Pilate, and Peter, and Mary, and Judas, and you and me, were simply not worth the price to be paid, and written us off. But that is the politics of man, not the politics of the Kingdom of God. Jesus doesn’t calculate out of self-interest. He is not subject to any other power, even to the power of Emperor Death.


Pilate is a pitiable figure. We see that so often among politicians and political types. He seems to be powerful, he seems to be in charge, but he has here an “Emperor has no clothes” moment in which it’s all revealed to be a sham. He has no power over Jesus.


And so, whereas the politics of Pilate washes its hands of the blood of an innocent man, the innocent man takes the blood of all the guilty upon himself and stretches his arms out on the cross.


In doing so, he inaugurates not only a new politics, but a new world, a new creation. In John’s Gospel, the darkness of the “end of history” (on the day which the church calls Holy Saturday) and the silence of the grave was pierced by the light of life, and the Gardener was in the Garden again, launching the New Creation.


Consider this from G.K. Chesterton’s Everlasting Man:


They took the body down from the cross and one of the few rich men among the first Christians obtained permission to bury it in a rock tomb in his garden; the Romans setting a military guard lest there should be some riot and attempt to recover the body. There was once more a natural symbolism in these natural proceedings; it was well that the tomb should be sealed with all the secrecy of ancient eastern sepulture and guarded by the authority of the Caesars. For in that second cavern the whole of that great and glorious humanity which we call antiquity was gathered up and covered over; and in that place it was buried. It was the end of a very great thing called human history; the history that was merely human. The mythologies and the philosophies were buried there, the gods and the heroes and the sages. In the great Roman phrase, they had lived. But as they could only live, so they could only die.


On the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realized the new wonder; but even they hardly realized that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the Garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn.


The politics of the New Creation, the politics of Easter, is entirely different from the politics of men. It recognizes a much higher authority and a much higher calling along with a much higher hope. The politics of Easter engages the world around it in deep, abiding, unconquerable love, without fear, and full of hope. It takes the blood of those around it on itself and gives itself for them. And it does so joyously, because the New Creation has been born.


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