I’ve been trying to pray for politicians lately. They seem like they could need it. But it’s not easy for me to be sincere in the endeavor. Many politicians make my skin crawl, some more than others.
I’ve found the best way to get into the right frame of mind to accomplish the feat is to ponder the plight of Pontius Pilate. As a Roman prelate, he struggled with what must have been the mother-of-all political problems: what to do with Jesus of Nazareth?
In the end, of course, Pilate failed to reach a just decision, even though the truth was standing right in front of him.
I wonder what I might have done in the same situation. Would I have fared better than Pilate? Would you?
When Jesus is led to the praetorium, after having been arrested, questioned, and abused in the house of Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate asks him, “So, you are a king?” (Jn 18:33).
Jesus’ answer is curious, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.”
Pilate then asks a question that has resonated through the ages to blare alarm-like into our own times: “What is truth?”
Did Pilate not understand Jesus’ previous answer? Jesus is not an earthly king. He is the embodiment of truth. How can this be so? It must have seemed impossible to Pilate. It’s no wonder he is confused.
Pilate is a Roman citizen and falls back on that which granted him power: rendering up to Caesar what is Caesar’s. For Pilate, Jesus is a political problem. From this perspective, the one he knows best, truth is created by those who hold power. To put it another way, political power necessarily relativizes truth.
In Plato’s Republic, Thrasymachus put it this way: “Justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.” For Pilate, justice, then, is Roman, and it’s up to him to maintain Roman (i.e. personal) power.
Yet, Pilate did hear Jesus at some level and so knows the truth. After questioning the prisoner, he goes out to Jesus’ accusers and says, “I find no crime in him.”
In an attempt to spare Jesus from the wrath of those who feared that the upstart from Nazareth might usurp their political power, Pilate appeals to that sense of power by his willingness to play out a Jewish custom.
“But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover; will you have me release for you the King of the Jews?”
The Jews, not to be outmaneuvered—the ball is in their court for the moment—cry out, “Not this man, but Barabbas!”
Now Barabbas was a revolutionary who stood against what he saw as an oppressive government of racially biased and wealth-consumed men. He was a violent man.
Pilate knows this. He also knows he has more political power than those accusing Jesus. He has the power of Rome and the dreaded Roman military. In another attempt to save Jesus, Pilate turns to him and says, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you and power to crucify you?”
For Jesus, power is neither relative nor political. He answers, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore he who delivered me to you has the greater sin.”
Hearing this, Pilate, for a third time, tries to spare Jesus. The Jews, however, remain firm in their resolve. “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend; everyone who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar.”
Check. The Jews employ Pilate’s political system against him just as he had attempted to use their tradition to thwart their desire to be rid of Jesus once and for all. Pilate hears them loud and clear. He replies in kind, “Here is your King!”
Sensing triumph, the Jews cry out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate, wanting to be done with it, says, “Shall I crucify your King?”
The chief priests answer, “We have no king but Caesar,” and thus commit to relativizing truth once and for all.
Pilate, outplayed, hands over Jesus to be crucified.
I have often wondered if Pilate later realized that he had witnessed divinity in human form and converted to Christianity. There is evidence to support the notion. At the end of the second century, no less than Tertullian claimed that when Pilate arrived in Rome he told Tiberius about the miracles that accompanied the death of Jesus because he was “already a Christian in his conscience.”
According to the Aleteia, “early Christians saw Pilate in a very different way. Augustine hailed Pilate as a convert. Eventually, certain churches, including the Greek Orthodox and Coptic faiths, named Pilate and his wife saints. And when Pilate first shows up in Christian art in the mid-fourth century, he is juxtaposed with Abraham, Daniel, and other great believers.”
What is not up for debate is that Pontius Pilate bore witness to Jesus Christ. As a Roman prefect, coming face-to-face with such a miracle—the miracle—must have been disorienting, to say the least. It’s not too much to pray that, when he got his wits back and was able to digest the glory he had beheld, Pilate fell to his knees and asked for forgiveness for the part he had played in the crucifixion of the Lord.
It’s not a bother to pray for such a soul as Pilate’s.
Today’s politicians are far removed—many from God, all from first-century Judea. The presence of God in their historical lives is not a political problem as it was for Pilate. Some have genuine faith and many more do not, judging from their actions. Even those who claim to believe are suspect these days. Can a professed Catholic politician support abortion? The fact that such a question is being asked is telling of our times.
In 1995, Joan Osborne, in her debut album, released the song, “ One of Us?” It was a catchy tune and became popular, hitting number four on the US Billboard Hot 100 and getting three Grammy nominations. The song touched upon the notion of meeting God in person.
Maybe that’s why it was so popular.
And would you want to see If seeing meant that you would have to believe In things like heaven and in Jesus and the Saints And all the prophets?
I wager that the preponderance of today’s politicians would answer “No” to the question, just as the majority of politicians in first-century Rome would have. It’s not so different, now and then.
But maybe some of the politicians, those very few, in the thick of political intrigue as Pilate was, grasping for power, will come to see the light. Pilate sentenced Jesus to a horrendous death, but even then it was not too late for him to be saved. There is no “too late” when it comes to accepting God into your life.
That’s why I pray for politicians. I pray that each of them believes or comes to believe the truth that is Jesus Christ. It’s the least I can do.
Some days, it’s the best I can do.
Note: First published in Catholic World Report