Power and Pilate

In my determination to try and summarise a theology of play I’m intending to try and address each form of play separately. I have been focusing recently on power. Easter week seems to be an appropriate time to consider it bearing in mind all the various expressions of power that take place during this time within the Passion story.

The play of power is a classic example of where play can be easily understood to have negative connotations, where play is subverted ie anti-play. We associate power play with manipulation, oppression, the assertion of one will over another. The context of these plays can be anywhere from the boardroom to the bedroom, but it is focused on the imposition of power. Largely its stimulus is to gain security, to maintain control. People who impose their power on others tend to be afraid at heart. Whether that is fear of someone looking better than them or fear of being shafted by others, seeing the world through their own dark lens. It can also be about greed, an understanding of what can be gained if power is exerted and a willingness to let nothing get in the way of that. We understand easily the way in which power makes people play against each other, aggressively and for self-interest from office bullying to war.

But of more importance to us is the question “how does God approach power?” Quite clearly you could write a book just on this one question, but during this week perhaps focusing on the Passion story tells us much of what we need to know.

First Jesus is offered power by the crowds on Palm Sunday. They hail him as the King of the Jews, and the Son of David. They lay their own cloaks on the road before him, perhaps showing that they are prepared and happy for him to “walk on them”. It’s clear that he does recognise himself to be the King of Israel in the sense that he deliberately seeks out the donkeys that Isaiah says the King will ride to Jerusalem on. But the power they offer is the same one he has already rejected at the beginning of his ministry, power to make the whole world bow before him.

Then, when he is “handed over” to the Jewish authorities by Judas’ subversion, rather than fight back and applaud Peter for his use of the sword on the High Priest’s servant, he tells Peter to put away his sword and heals the servant’s ear. This directly results in his arrest.

The Jewish authorities appear to be prepared to use false witnesses to condemn and get rid of him – thereby abusing their power – and they finally find means to bring him before Pilate by claiming that he has blasphemed, calling on an authority not their own (the need to defend God) to justify their means – killing him. Again Jesus doesn’t say anything to justify himself.

Once he comes before Pilate it gets even more interesting. Jesus refuses to play the game the Jews are playing with Pilate. Where the Caiaphas and his subordinates use Pilate’s power to get Jesus killed, he could equally well use Pilate’s power to get himself acquitted. Pilate says to him,

“Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”

But Jesus won’t play the game. He simply doesn’t engage with this, Pilate has to make the decision about Jesus’s life on his own. And of course, because pilate is human and nervous he comes up with a compromise for his integrity – when it becomes apparent that the Jews will riot if he doesn’t crucify Jesus he publically and literally washes his hands of the affair. Which signs Jesus’s death warrant.

Throughout the process Jesus submits to humiliation after humiliation, he doesn’t even exercise that kind of power that seems entirely reasonable and even good, to try and justify his innocence in the face of obvious politics.

What are we supposed to make of this? How on earth can we apply this to our own lives? This is a very difficult question.

The only answer that makes any sense is that God’s power stands in opposition to that of the world. What Jesus does is give up any power of his own and allow it all be run by God. It’s extreme – but the whole Passion story is extreme. And so necessary. What God can achieve when we simply give up our own power is extraordinary – in this case the redemption of humanity.

But this is a difficult experience for most human beings. We feel that being co-creators with God of our own lives we should also be co-controllers. But the two things are quite different. Creation is a slow, organic process perhaps a collaborative process between organisms and environments. Control is a directed, driven process and only one person can have control at any one time. To be effective for God we have to let God take control and that can mean being subjected to humiliation and destruction as much as it can lead to glory and enjoyment.

It can be very difficult, but there are ways to make it easier. If we are able to remember that God himself in Christ went through worse humiliation and was subject to more intense power plays than we will be then we can have some sense of purpose, or of point. If we really want God to achieve the things he needs to (in our lives and in the world in general) then some people have to make themselves available to him. We can struggle to do this through just allowing him to get on with it.

Jesus said to Pilate,

You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin”

The lesson of Easter is that God’s power and the worlds are diametrically opposed, but in the end it is God who has all the power. That makes our humiliations a little easier to bear.


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