Sympathy for the Devil…or Pilate

Ecce Homo by Antonio Ciseri c. 1880

Sympathy for the Devil…or Pilate
Brian Zahnd

Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul and faith
And I was ‘round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game

–The Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil

In his fascinating novel, The Master and Margarita, Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov creates an imaginary conversation between the Roman governor Pontius Pilate and the Galilean prophet Yeshua. When asked about his views on government, Bulgakov’s Yeshua says, “All power is a form of violence over people.” The peasant preacher of Bulgakov’s novel goes on to contrast the governments of power and violence with the peaceable kingdom of truth and justice. In response Pontius Pilate rages, “There never has been, nor yet shall be a greater or more perfect government in this world than the rule of the emperor Tiberius!” When Pilate asks Yeshua if he believes this kingdom of truth will come, Yeshua answers with conviction, “It will.” Pilate cannot stand for this. In a memorable passage Bulgakov’s Pilate rails against the possibility of the kingdom of God ever coming and supplanting Caesar’s empire.

“It will never come!” Pilate suddenly shouted. Many years ago in the Valley of the Virgins Pilate had shouted in that same voice to his horsemen: “Cut them down! Cut them down!” And again he raised his parade-ground voice, “Criminal! Criminal! Criminal! Do you imagine, you miserable creature, that a Roman Procurator could release a man who has said what you have said to me? I don’t believe in your ideas!

In The Master and Margarita, Pontius Pilate seems to have little personal animosity toward the wandering Galilean preacher, but Pilate hates his ideas. In the end what forces the Procurator to condemn Yeshua to crucifixion is the preacher’s revolutionary ideas about power, truth, and violence. Like Pilate we too wrestle with the conflict we have between Jesus and his unsettling ideas. We often want to separate Jesus from his ideas.

This bifurcation between Jesus and his political ideas has a history — it can be traced back to the early fourth century when Christianity first attained favored status in the Roman Empire. In October of 312 the Roman general Constantine came to power after winning a decisive battle in which he used Christian symbols as a fetish, placing them as talismans upon the weapons of war. (The incongruence is absolutely stunning!) Having emerged victorious in a Roman civil war and securing his position as emperor, Constantine attributed his military victory to the Christian god. In short order the wheels were set in motion for Christianity to become the state religion of the Roman Empire. The kingdom of God had been eclipsed by Christian empire.

Almost overnight the church found itself in a chaplaincy role to the empire and on a trajectory that would lead to the catastrophe of a deeply compromised Christianity. The catastrophe of church as vassal to the state would find its most grotesque expression in the medieval crusades when under the banner of the cross Christians killed in the name of Christ. The crusades are perhaps the most egregious example of how distorted Christianity can become when we separate Christ from his ideas.

Yet we continue to do this — we worship Jesus as savior while dismissing his ideas about peace. For seventeen centuries Christianity has offered a gospel that largely ignores Jesus’ ideas about peace, violence, and human society. We have embraced a privatized, postmortem gospel that stresses Jesus as “personal savior,” while at the same time discounting his political ideas. This leaves us free to run the world the way it has always been run: by the power of the sword.

Under pressure from the ideology of empire, concepts like freedom and truth gain radically different meanings than those intended by Christ; freedom becomes a euphemism for vanquishing (instead of loving) enemies; truth finds its ultimate form in the will to power (expressed in the willingness to kill). This is a long way from the ideas of peace, love, and forgiveness set forth by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

It was Jesus’ ideas about truth and freedom that made him dangerous to the principalities and powers. But today our gospel isn’t very dangerous. It’s been tamed and domesticated. If Jesus of Nazareth had preached the paper-thin version of what passes for the “gospel” today — a shrunken, postmortem promise of “going to heaven when you die” — Pilate would have shrugged his shoulders and released the Nazarene, warning him not to get mixed up in the affairs of the real world. But that’s not what happened. Why? Because Pilate was smart enough to understand that what Jesus was preaching was a challenge to the philosophy of empire (or as we prefer to call it today, “superpower”).

In making Christ the chaplain-in-chief of Constantinian Christianity what we have unwittingly done is invent a Manichean Jesus who saves our souls while leaving us free to run the affairs of the world as we see fit. Which is what we want — especially if the present arrangement of the world has our own particular nation situated near the top. Because while we believe in Jesus as savior of the private soul, we remain largely unconvinced about his ideas for saving the world. We have a kind of sympathy for Pilate. Certainly seventeen centuries of church history strongly suggest this is the case. American Christians especially should keep in mind that we as the modern Romans — the privileged citizens of the world’s lone superpower — have more in common with Pontius Pilate than we do with Galilean peasants. Miroslav Volf sums it up well,

Pilate deserves our sympathies, not because he was a good though tragically mistaken man, but because we are not much better. We may believe in Jesus, but we do not believe in his ideas, at least not his ideas about violence, truth, and justice.
(Exclusion and Embrace, p. 276)


(The artwork is Ecce Homo by Antonio Ciseri, 1871)

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