Who would you best be cast as in a Passion Play? There is no shortage of options. Peter, perhaps – who denies Jesus, but is forgiven. Maybe Judas, who betrays Christ but cannot forgive himself. Or the disciple who leans close to his master at supper, but runs away from him in the garden, later that same evening. Or Mary who, as is the way of mothers, sticks with her son but who too – as is also their way – may not understand why he acts as he does. Every once in a while the day on which Christ’s death is commemorated coincides with the day when his birth is celebrated. So it is today: this year, Good Friday and the Annunciation fall on the same day, a reminder that just as Jesus’s death was an act of free will, so was Mary’s acceptance of his birth, or so Christians believe.
Then there is another member of the cast. Pilate – who, were he a saint (and some traditions claim he was), would surely be the patron saint of politicians. He finds Christ not guilty but none the less proposes to flog him: “I…have found no fault in this man touching those things whereof ye accuse him…I will therefore chastise him, and release him.” What this decision lacks in logic, let alone humanity, it makes up for in pragmatism. Pilate is under pressure. He has the chief priests and the elders at his door – the equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury and his bishops or the Chief Executive of the Equality Commission and its members or whoever most packs a punch in modern Britain.
It is the Passover – a time when tensions in Jerusalem run high. He wants rid of the problem. He needs to make a snap decision. His accusers say that Jesus should die “because he made himself the Son of God”. Such a religious claim has nothing much to do with Pilate, so they try a different tack instead: “If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend: whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar.” It is this suggestion of disloyalty to Caesar, according to St John’s Gospel, that swings his verdict. But even then Pilate does not condemn Jesus to death. Instead, he does what any professional politician would do: he consults a focus group.
This takes the form of a crowd, which is given the choice of a man called Jesus, son of the Father, or another man called Jesus, son of the father (at least, according to some early manuscripts of St Matthew’s Gospel, for “Barabbas” means “son of the father”, and these versions put “Jesus” before that name). It is a kind of bloody version of Britain’s Got Talent. One man gets released. The other gets crucified. The phone lines are open! Text in your votes! Pilate is the Donald Trump of the programme, to mix our reality shows up just a bit. It is his role to say the words the crowd has been waiting for, namely, “You’re fired!” – or, in this case, “You’re crucified!”, a fate almost infinitely worse.
But if Pilate is like a certain type of politician in first wanting to find a compromise, no matter how messy – literally, in this case – and then seeking out a focus group, he is also like one in what he does next. He still hankers after releasing Christ (the Pilate of the gospels is a good deal softer-hearted than the Pilate of other accounts), but then sees the crowd about to riot. This is getting serious, he must have thought. Time for action, not words. A tough, lonely decision must be made. Judea needs the smack of firm government. Jerusalem deserves a brighter, more secure future. Pilate has a plan for every stage of your life! Christ is packed off to the gallows.
And so, having first tried to strike a deal and then call upon a focus group, he takes the final politicianly step. He washes his hands “before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it”. Today, his spin doctors would brief that he didn’t actually take the decision to crucify Jesus: the crowd did. Pilate had simply been “in listening mode”. He is “sorry” for the crucifixion, but will not apologise for it. The Roman authorities “make mistakes”, but he “listens and learns”. In any event, the Jewish people face a choice. Competence under the Romans. Or chaos under the Zealots. As the creed doesn’t quite say, “He was crucified under Donald Trump”.
I mock Pilate, but not altogether, because I sympathise with his predicament. Indeed, I almost identify with him. I find it hard not to feel for the twitchy, status-conscious, consensus-seeking, compassionate conservative that the Gospel accounts nearly make him out to be. The Judean Governor is like our Prime Minister – another man who sometimes finds himself in tight corners – in at least one sense. He needs “more time to think” than he gets. Had I been editing the ConservativeHome of his day, I might have argued that Pilate deserved a break in Lanzarote, or whatever its equivalent may have been. As he didn’t put it: “terms are like shredded wheat – and one in Judea is quite enough”.
Yet I would most appropriately not be cast as Pilate at all – like you, dear reader; like all of us. Nor Peter. Nor the beloved disciple. Nor even Judas. I am more like a member of that Judean crowd – that focus group not organised under the auspices of Lord Ashcroft Polls. It is sometimes said that one loses oneself in a crowd, and the figure of speech applies almost literally. The urge to lose one’s identity, to become part of something bigger, is woven deep into human nature. When people speak of “the wisdom of crowds” they seem to mean the wisdom of lots of individually taken decisions – which, considered together, are likely to hit upon the truth.
But there is also a folly of crowds, as on that first Good Friday: the moment when that sense of self vanishes, and the crowd becomes a mob. Mobs get angry; mobs are fickle. One day, they cry “Hosanna!” The next, “Crucify him!” They don’t want Jesus, the Son of the Father, who sacrifices himself. They want the other Jesus, the son of the father, who himself kills others: the Che Guevara of the Judean resistance movement. They want action, lights, and music. They form in dangerous times. Thankfully, we are some way off mob politics in Britain. But in the world of Twitter, the potential is there, and sometimes the reality too. Against the mob stands not Pilate, but the voice of the individual conscience. Which is where Good Friday comes in, and a solitary man staggering towards Calvary – and beyond.