In my opinion one of the most powerful depictions of Pilate’s encounter with Jesus is the scene from the 1973 movie of Jesus Christ Superstar.
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Yes, there are liberties taken with the Gospel narrative, and there are some theological perspectives that I find unhelpful (“Everything is fixed and you can’t change it…” for example), but the interplay between the two men, and Pilate’s emotional turmoil is shown with rare energy and insight. As Jesus arrives in Pilate’s court, the Governor meets him with the expected dismissiveness. “So, this is Jesus Christ. I am really quite surprised. You look so small. Not a king at all…” But, as the trial continues, after Jesus returns from Herod, Pilate becomes increasingly afraid and unsettled. What begins as another day at the office – find some pretext for the death sentence, sign the decree and move on to the next task – turns into a searching interaction in which the judge becomes the questioned and the victim becomes the (compassionate, even here) judge.
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Finally, unable to find a reason to execute Jesus, certain that Christ is innocent but too scared to follow his conviction and risk loosing his power and his favour with Rome, Pilate simply hands him over to be crucified. He checks out and allows the people to do what they want with Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel (and in Jesus Christ Superstar) he even washes his hands to absolve himself of the responsibility.
I wonder if it worked. I wondered if he slept well that night, or if the knowledge of his collusion with the crowd plagued him. I wonder whether he was able to believe that he had no responsibility in the death of Jesus. I wonder if, in some way, his insistence that the sign above Jesus retain the words “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19) was some small attempt to find redemption for himself. History, albeit sketchy, does seem to indicate that the death of Jesus haunted Pilate for a long time afterwards. One tradition has him committing suicide in remorse, while other, more reliable accounts, indicate that Pilate was eventually recalled to Rome for the harsh and insensitive manner in which he treated the people under his rulership. Certainly, the history of faith has not let Pilate off the hook so easily, and his hand washing has not freed him from being held responsible for Christ’s death.
It would seem, strange, then, that people who claim the name of Christ would so easily follow Pilate’s example. It’s like Good Friday has become for some of us a giant bowl in which our hands can be washed clean of any and every destructive and selfish act we do. Back when I was an avid Survivor fan, I was shocked when one of the contestants (who went on to win her season) laughed about the deception and broken promises she had employed to further herself in the game. After admitting to the camera (but no one else) what she had done, she shrugged and said, “I’ll just ask Jesus to forgive me and it will be ok”.
This attitude is all too prevalent in the Christian world. Rather than do the tough work of reflecting on our attitudes and actions, we simply do what we want and, if people are hurt in the process, we wash our hands, while claiming Christ’s forgiveness. Rather than face the genuine and serious damage that our faith has done to minorities, women and people of other religions, we simply wash our hands and claim Christ’s forgiveness. Rather than take responsibility for our brokenness and destructiveness – which would open us to the possibility of real transformation – we simply wash our hands and claim the forgiveness of Christ. It frightens me when Good Friday becomes the excuse which turns Christianity into an escape from responsibility and self-reflection.
This Holy Week I refuse to wash my hands. Rather, I will pray that God forces me to see whatever blood and dirt may be embedded in the cracks and lines of my skin. I will ask God to show me how I have contributed to the evil that continues to crucify innocent people on the altars of expediency, greed, power and self-righteousness. I will pray to be shown the places where I have colluded with corruption and where I have taken the easy way out. I will not try to save myself by working harder, but neither will I mindlessly dip my hands into the blood of Christ’s sacrifice and believe that I need do no more to be “saved”. Rather, I will ask God to burn the sight of the blood on my hands into my heart so that I am broken with the knowledge that I am part of the addictive system that kills the poor, the weak and the disconnected. And I will pray that the sight will lead me to tears, because only when I have taken responsibility for what is broken in me will I be able to receive the transformation – and embrace the pain of it – that God’s grace and God’s Spirit seek to work in me.
Lord, have mercy
Christ, have mercy
Lord, have mercy