We Are All Pontius Pilate

Luke Phillips


The author, portraying Pontius Pilate at USC’s Live Stations of the Cross, April 14th, 2017.


Memoirs of Pilate, Memoirs of Mine

“On the Jewish holiday, anxious to preserve the peace of Rome, I tried a just and innocent man before a crowd of his own people. I found no fault with him; but had I let him live, the high-priests would surely have fomented rebellion, and many lives would be lost without reason.  

I washed my hands of the blood I knew was on them, and uttered two words- “Crucify him“- as I sent him to die at Golgotha. I am not proud of my decision- but then, no one in public life can be proud of much. The peace of Rome was kept, for a time, and I had done my duty. I will not rest easy, but I will have the respite of knowing a greater crisis had been averted.”

So might Pontius Pilate, Procurator and Governor of Roman Judea, Servant of Tiberius Caesar, have written in his diary in 33 A.D.

Such thoughts flashed through my mind, too, on April 14th, 2017- Good Friday. I had dressed in a cheap toga, stood before the Tommy Trojan statue at the University of Southern California, and condemned a friend portraying Jesus to “death” as the extras jeered and chanted “crucify him!” I was portraying Pontius Pilate. It was the USC Catholic community’s annual Live Stations of the Cross performance, complete with cheap Halloween costumes, a full cast of principles and extras, and a makeshift wooden cross stained with syrup-blood. We walked the path of the cross from Tommy Trojan to the courtyard of the USC Catholic Center’s chapel, pausing after every act to read the Station and recite a prayer. The guards whipped and taunted Jesus the whole way, as did the crowd, while confused onlookers watched and snapped photos with their iPhones. And beneath the church bells we crucified our lord and savior. I crucified our lord and savior- it happened, in the play, at my orders. It was a powerful experience.

Being Pontius Pilate was a symbolic task for me. I study and write on politics, history, political theory, and a dozen other subfields- the art of the state and the study of human nature are my provinces. Further, I seek not only to understand this most fraught and relevant of subjects, but to practice it as a political operative, policy advisor, or public servant in some capacity someday. I already do practice politics, in a way- I’ve worked for various Republican campaigns in California. A friend laughed when I told him I’d been chosen to be Pontius Pilate- “They made you the politician? Of course they did!” It was fitting.

But it wasn’t fitting only because I study and work in politics and Pilate did too. There are other, deeper reasons. But first, a look at why Governor Pilate did what he did.


Killing Jesus to Save Rome

As I read up on Pontius Pilate and reflected on his choice, in the weeks before the 1,984th anniversary of the Crucifixion of our Lord, my childhood sympathies with the Procurator of Judea received a rational boost, and took firmer shape. Back on Ash Wednesday, 2016, the fantastic military/international affairs web magazine War on the Rocks published an interesting little piece entitled “Jesus as a Security Risk: Intelligence and Repression in the Roman Empireby Rose Mary Sheldon. Looking at the events from Palm Sunday to Good Friday, 33 A.D., through the eyes of “a fictional [intelligence] chief of station in Jerusalem” who presumably advised the military governor Pontius Pilate on how to maintain security in the province, the piece paints a different picture of the Passion than most of us Christians consider. It looks sympathetically through the eyes of those Romans who made, and carried out, the decision to crucify Christ.

First off, as any ancient historian can affirm, Roman Judea under the reign of Tiberius- roughly corresponding to the time of Jesus’s ministry- was every bit as tumultuous and bloody a place as any conflict zone in the Middle East in the 21st Century, complete with foreign powers striving for influence and dominion, local insurgencies fighting for various messianic or less-than-messianic objectives, and a tenuous peace maintained only by the balancing of forces and the strict disciplining of dissent.

Second, Governor Pilate and other Roman authorities routinely dealt with such dissent with overpowering and often absolutely brutal force. Ms. Sheldon cites the Jewish historian Josephus, who mentions that dozens of men claiming to be the “Messiah” had been assassinated or executed by Pontius Pilate and other Romans, for spearheading popular uprisings. Timothy B. Shutt, in one of his phenomenal lectures on the origins of Western political thought, notes the historian Philo’s contention that after one such Jewish revolt, several hundred dissenters were crucified at once, so much that all the trees for miles around were harvested for cross-beams, leaving behind a decimated landscape. There are even hints of this regional chaos in the Gospels- note that John refers to Barabbas as a “revolutionary,” and while history remembers the two men crucified at Jesus’s right and left as “thieves,” Matthew refers to them as “revolutionaries.” Looking at the historical context, it’s not hard to guess what crimes these three had been guilty of- quite possibly crimes against the Roman state governing their lands.

It doesn’t take a leap of faith to go from this situation, to the notion that Jesus himself was such a revolutionary with the same sorts of political and military ambitions as the two “thieves” and Barabbas. Certainly, there were political implications in his teachings (as his persecuted followers, starting with St. Stephen, knew very well as they went to their deaths in the subsequent decades.)

But such an interpretation seems far-fetched, and against the basic point of Jesus’s teachings of the non-earthly nature of his kingdom to come. In any case, Pontius Pilate himself does not even seem to have come to this conclusion as the events unfolded in real-time. (Remember that all four Gospels portray Pilate as trying to convince the crowd to let Jesus live.)

Rather, as Ms. Sheldon argues, the mere fact that Jesus was stirring up trouble and quasi-dissent against Rome, and simultaneously enraging local Jewish sectarians and inspiring their violence, in a time when such revolts happened every year at great human cost, was enough for the Romans to seek proactive action, however reluctantly, to preclude what might have become a full-fledged revolt. And innocent people dying was not the only thing at stake. If peace could not be kept in Judea, more legions would have to be deployed there to restore the fragile peace- legions that could otherwise be parrying the Parthians further north, or keeping order in Libya, or pacifying the Gauls and other Celtic barbarians in Northern Europe.

What if the Pharisees launched massacres of Jesus’s budding following, or vice-versa, requiring Pilate to request further reinforcements to quell the violence? What if the nearby Parthian Empire, always a thorn in Rome’s Eastern side, took advantage of the chaos to expand its own influence to the shores of the Mediterranean? What if chaos and war broke out in another part of the Empire, sucking away sparse resources from Pilate’s command?

One of the cardinal political beliefs of the Romans was the primacy of political order, regardless of its fleeting nature and the tremendous sacrifices and unpleasant actions required to achieve and maintain it. Whatever the merits of Jesus’s teachings and life, it seems that his existence and actions were a threat to the stability of Roman Judea, both in the long-term geopolitical sense (depicted in Ms. Sheldon’s article) and in the immediate political sense (depicted excellently in Mel Gibson’s interpretation of Pilate’s dilemma, in the film The Passion of the Christ.) Sheldon summarizes the political and security nature of Pilate’s choice:

 “Pilate was acting in Rome’s self-interest. In the context of the first century occupation of Palestine, this meant nipping any revolutionary action in the bud…. The governor of Judaea made a political and military decision for the protection of his province.” 

In a way, Pilate literally had no other choice- he was doing his duty as a political figure and assuming responsibility for Judea’s stability, regardless of the consequences for justice. He in fact believed that what he was ordering was unjust, and washed his hands to symbolize his innocence of Jesus’s blood. (It goes unsaid that he was not, in actuality, innocent of that blood.)

Pilate’s duty was to Caesar, and to Rome. In carrying out his duty, he crucified Christ. He had to, given the circumstances and his imperatives. But that is not all-  the reasons for Pilate’s crucifixion of Christ were nascent in his very nature as a public leader, even his very nature as a human being living in political society. The crucifixion of Christ was not a mistake, nor a miscalculation, nor an exemplification of pure and pernicious evil, nor even a small utilitarian sacrifice in the name of the greater good. Rather than any of these things, it was a tragedy- a tragedy depictive of the greater tragedy of human social and public life. It was representative of the social and political manifestation of Original Sin which we all inherit and practice, simply by being human and living in and participating in and partaking of organized society.


The Choice of Gods

Jesus himself recognized the tension his fellow (non-divine) human beings experienced, between following divine command and maintaining temporal order. His admonition to “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21) would seemingly resolve this tension- a hierarchy of authority with God at the top and world order, the civilization, the state, the city, the family, etc. further down, or some permutation of those, might conceivably be possible (and indeed is the division of authority Catholic subsidiary theorists seemingly endorse.)

But almost any theologian will tell you that “render unto Caesar” is not as simple as a 1st Century A.D. endorsement of Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state.” It’s too complex to delve into here, but in short, bear in mind the fundamental connectedness and unity of social mores and public order. Jesus, too, complicates the picture with an apparently contradictory order: “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.” (Matthew 6:24.) He was talking in context about “mammon,” or worldly wealth, but his statement presumably applies to the state, the lord, the king- in a word, to Caesar- as well.

What are we to make of this? A literal reading of Matthew 6:24 would imply, depending on context, one of many potential courses of action- perpetual civil disobedience even to the point of death, or Christian anarchism, or a theocratic fusion of divine and temporal authority, or monasticism generally divorced from the laws of the state, or something that similarly refutes the authority of Caesar and affirms only the authority of Christ. Indeed, these have been some of the responses Christians have answered with when figuring out how to order society to bring about the Kingdom. None of them have brought the Kingdom to Earth.

The fact is, all people who live in a civilized society- and in particular, the leaders of civilized society, and even more particularly, the leaders of civilized society who happen to be Christians of any sort- necessarily serve two masters: Caesar and Christ. Our non-Christian brothers and sisters do not necessarily believe they serve Christ, but all the same, the universal moral demands of kindness and selflessness C.S. Lewis documents in The Abolition of Man as “The Tao” generally tug upon every civilized human heart, regardless of cultural or experiential conditioning. There is a universal human nature that features benevolence and love. Meanwhile, James Burnham’s “objective science of politics” dealing with raw configurations of social power common to societies of men everywhere, which he explores in The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, seems to be more or less applicable to polities across recorded history. There is a universal human nature that features amorality and force.

The “Tao” of C.S. Lewis, those behaviors and principles of virtue and dignity which order our treatment of each other, more or less corresponds with our service to Christ. The “objective science of politics” of James Burnham, those behaviors and principles that order our social relations and promote peace and order to preclude chaos and destruction, more or less corresponds with our service to Caesar. Both are in us; due to how we are wired, due to our nature, due to our Original Sin, we must necessarily serve two masters, both Caesar and Christ.

That is a tension we must confront. It’s not as simple, as Isaiah Berlin insists it is in his magisterial essay The Originality of Machiavelli, as a choice between one way to be good and another. There are indeed at least two ways to be good, as Berlin recounts- the life of the statesman and the life of the monk, the one oriented towards a healthy polity, the other oriented towards a healthy spirit. And a monk should not attempt to be a statesman, nor should a statesman attempt to be a monk. But a mere focus on which path of life we ought to take is not the sole question we must ask, for statesmen still have souls, and monks still live in societies.

There is a deeper question, a deeper tension.


Original Sin and Political Reality

The great question before us is this- can we be truly good human beings while being good citizens? Can we truly serve both Caesar and Christ and retain sanctity of conscience as good Christians?

Reinhold Niebuhr’s answer is a resounding “No!” 

Niebuhr, the great American Protestant theologian of the mid-20th Century, infamously argued that it is quite possible for individuals to be good, but quite impossible for larger groups including states and societies to be good, if goodness is defined, as it ought to be, as the capacity for self-transcendence and service and sacrifice to higher causes, finally including service to God through sacrifice for fellow human beings. A man can give himself up for those around him. A society cannot- and any statesman who would sacrifice his country for other countries would be committing the worst of evils upon his own people. Niebuhr argues that such a statesman would deserve nothing less than execution by hanging.

This little snippet of Niebuhr’s political philosophy- excellently detailed and presented in full in the collection Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics: His Political Philosophy and its Application to Our Age as Expressed in His Writings, edited by Harry Davis and Robert Good- is worth pondering. Niebuhr’s political writings overflow with the social and political application of Original Sin, and his basic thesis on political and social life can probably be formulated in a single sentence:

Because of the Original Sin latent in human nature, human society and politics will always be fundamentally unjust, corrupt, and brutal, in need of both secular order and spiritual guidance- which are fundamentally incompatible

In other words, there can be no Heaven on Earth. The City of God is celestial, beyond our collective reach; though individuals might live generally holy and humane lives, saints- regardless of their sacrifice- still acknowledge themselves to be sinners, and are correct in at the very least a socio-political sense, and a sense of their human nature. We are forever condemned to inhabit the City of Man.

Any study of history, when informed by a realistic appraisal of human nature and political society, will support this claim. The glorious and virtuous city-states and empires Machiavelli celebrates- the Roman Republic, Athens, Persia, Israel- all acquired their states through conquest, and built their cities on the skulls of the vanquished. Machiavelli himself argues that every just order is founded on some prior injustice of sorts. And this is not limited to the empires and city-states of antiquity- the great Medieval civilizations, especially Tang China and the Abbasid Caliphate-Empire, were attained through conquest and bloodshed- and kept order by the same means. Jack Weatherford’s interpretation of the Mongol empire reveals similar moral dichotomies. Turning to modernity, we see Europe’s great, free nation-states- Holland, France, and most of all Great Britain- build empires abroad on the bones and through the sweat of the natives of their domains, while by the 19th Century suppressing their own working classes. We Americans are no different, having conquered our continent through the veritable genocide of Native American cultures, or at the very least the extermination of their political power and freedom.

Who can say, though, that the order, stability, and freedom of Rome, Athens, Persia, Israel, Tang China, Abbasid Islam, the Mongol Khanate, France, Holland, and America was all for naught? Who could say it was pernicious? Who could say that the world would have been better off had none of these great empires come to prominence and ruled their domains with brute force and wise statecraft combined?

Great cities are built on the skulls of the vanquished. The innocent are slain along with the guilty. Poverty stands next to prosperity, peace next to violence, all existing in a broader, morally repugnant yet morally necessary whole. And the fate of Christ in the empire of Caesar is certain. As Niebuhr tellingly and fittingly said, “nations crucify their moral rebels with their criminals upon the same Golgotha…” And here’s the rub- the moral rebels, the Christs, who rail against the temporal order are right, more right in the ultimate sense than the legionaries who crucify them. But they are a threat to the temporal order in which humans live, laden as it is by Original Sin, an order that for all its sinfulness and cruelty and temporality must be preserved. For that Christ goes to the cross.

Here, then, is the dilemma of the statesman, and in particular the Christian statesman- St. Thomas More, perhaps.

By the very nature of the statesman’s profession, he manages, protects, and advances, through unsavory means, a finite, morally compromised political order whose very existence was brought forth and is maintained through such unsavory means. The statesman, in a very real way, must sacrifice his capability to live a good and Christian life in the interests of the broader public good, so that others may live good and Christian lives or whatever sorts of lives they please, kept in safety, harmony, and comfort by the statesman’s responsibility and vigilance. George Orwell meant, but never said, apparently, that “we rest easy at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf.” And to paraphrase Machiavelli, “A true statesman must love his country more than his soul.” The ways of Caesar are not and can never be squared with the ways of Christ.

This is not a mere the-ends-justify-the-means utilitarianism, nor is it a fanatical and revolutionary egg-cracking omelet-making in the sake of worldly salvation. As Isaiah Berlin’s Machiavelli says, “the moral ideal for which no sacrifice is too great- the welfare of the polity, is the highest form of social existence attainable by man.” But “in choosing the life of a statesman or an active citizen, one commits oneself to a rejection of good behavior.” It is necessary that someone does this- this way of life is the only way to “create or resurrect or maintain an order which will satisfy men’s most permanent earthly interests.” And as any political realist knows, without order- the most prominent of men’s earthly interests- there can be no civilization, no virtue, no justice, no society, no progress. All this is tainted by the original sin of political reality, which in turn is tainted by the Original Sin endemic to the human breast and to our fallen human nature. There is no Heaven on Earth.


The Fullness of Christ’s Sacrifice and Love

In a way, the statesman is simultaneously Christ and Anti-Christ. He is a Christ in that he sacrifices a thing fundamental to his life- his conscience and, very likely, even his soul- so that order might be maintained, so that his countrymen might live more happily and in no fear of death or anarchy. This is sacrificial love in a form almost more sublime than mere earthly death in the protection of the state and people- it is a forfeiture of one’s own conscience to a cause greater than self. Christ gave up his life on the cross so that our sins might be forgiven; statesmen give up their consciences at the throne so that their people might live.

On the other hand, the statesman is most certainly the Anti-Christ- he practices the wicked Machiavellian doctrines and cults of power and order and war, his hands are unwashably stained with Christ’s blood and the blood of innocents, he must practice force and fraud and treachery to maintain a political society whose nature is not love, but is force and fraud and treachery. He is the realization, and defends the unholy realm, of Original Sin.

And in a way, it is not only the statesman who is the Anti-Christ- for every citizen and subject of any political society is similarly guilty, for they partake in the fruits of political order which is purchased through force and fraud. They did not commit the crimes, but their happiness rests on the fact that rough men committed such crimes for their sake. It is not only Pontius Pilate who crucified Christ- it was the Roman citizens who stood by, the Pharisees and their followers who demanded the crucifixion, the Roman soldiers who did the dirty work, and all the rest. Every political order is basically cruel, at least as cruel as the Roman one; every inhabitant of any political order has such cruelty as the price of their safety.

Is it not now obvious how Original Sin most vividly manifests itself in the City of Man? But such barbarity is not the ultimate reality.

God, in his infinite love, mercy, forgiveness, and wisdom, knows that Man will be imperfect- knows that Man will sin against him, and in fact does sin against him by the mere fact of his living in naturally unjust political society. He knows all this, and loves us anyway.

We cannot build a Heaven on Earth- we can never behave, in an ultimate sense, as we ought to behave, for we are laden with Original Sin. We cannot save ourselves.

And that is why, in the broadest sense, Christ died for us, to save us- we need his salvation, and he, in his love for us, saves us from our sin, our sin which is endemic to all our actions and all our institutions. Nothing earthly, nothing of man is ultimate reality, valuable though it is; God is the ultimate reality, and we in our weakness approach him only through the sacrifice of Christ- His sacrifice of himself for us. His sacrifice for us, remember, at our hands- at my hands. At the hands of Pontius Pilate, the statesman, the defender of the temporal order of Rome.


Why I Portrayed Pontius Pilate

As the FOCUS missionaries here at USC remind me often, “we crucify Christ every day.” How much the more in public life, in the life of the state and society? How much the more for he or she who accepts the responsibility of the statesman? As I argue, the duty of the statesman is as follows:

“The first imperatives of good statecraft are the preservation of society through the preclusion or victorious conclusion of catastrophic revolution, and the preservation of the state through the preclusion or victorious conclusion of catastrophic war. The best way to do this is to promote the preservation and ameliorative reformation of political order, domestic and international.”

 I played Pontius Pilate for many reasons, but above all, for a reason of ritual importance to me. I wanted to have the experience of crucifying Christ in the name of the public good- the experience of having his blood on my hands in a figurative sense, and vainly attempting to wash it off- the experience of the tragedy of statecraft- to humble myself, in preparation for a potential future in public life. For the knowledge that we always do some form of evil in statecraft, it seems to me, does not engender a moral cynicism. It seems to me that, rather, it would inculcate a moral humility in the leader- the knowledge that no action of his is ever fully good, ever fully justified, ever fully just, and that he forever has the blood of Christ on his hands. This, in turn, would make him ever the more sensitive to the preservation of human dignity where possible, through preserving and reforming society and the state; meanwhile it would steel him against the utopian and perfectionist illusions so many earnest young activists and new politicians destroy themselves with, or, at times, destroy the world with.

Given the tragedy of human life and the tragedy of the statesman’s responsibility, I thought it was only fitting that I learn it now. Such is why I volunteered to portray Pontius Pilate- to remind myself of the solemn obligation of the statesman and citizen; to remind myself of the humility in which I, broken flesh, must hold myself; to remind myself that nothing I ever do will ever be perfect or lasting such as God’s good work, and that we in politics do not bring about God’s Kingdom on Earth, nor should we try to build an equivalent; to remind myself that I, and all mankind, need Christ’s love and grace and sacrifice and salvation, for we have sinned merely by our social organization.

I only wish I could communicate this understanding, if it is correct, to others like me, with similar ambitions. For we are all Pontius Pilate, in public life, and we all need Christ’s salvation- the love and forgiveness of the man we condemned to the cross.

3 responses to “We Are All Pontius Pilate”

  1. areteara says :

    This is beautiful and smart and deep and powerful. Keep writing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: