British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by J. C. Griffiths
Pontius Pilate
Lumpa Church
I have a great deal of sympathy for Pontius Pilate; I once found myself in a situation very similar to his. Our problems were very much alike and arose from the same cause - the habit sometimes favoured by imperial governments of leaving a certain amount of legal and administrative authority in the hands of local institutions, while reserving for themselves the right to levy taxes and ultimately control matters involving life and death. Such a system, appropriately called "indirect rule", had the advantage of saving money and allowing what we would now call a measure of self-government. Indirect rule was practised in Central Africa by the British and in Palestine under the Romans.

To consider my case first. In the days just before freedom and independence came to Central Africa I was posted in charge of a somewhat remote district straddling the long road, from Lusaka in what is now known as Zambia, to Dar es Salaam in what is now known as Tanzania. This district was a difficult district. In the first place it was the centre of influence of a most powerful tribe, so powerful that it was once able to sell its captives from lesser tribes to the Arab slave traders. Its paramount chief, a man of terrifying aspect, was so feared that his subjects on meeting him lay on their backs on the ground and fawned before him. The authority of this chief, as of other chiefs, was supported by the government at Lusaka under the policy of indirect rule. In the second place, the district was also the home district of Kenneth Kaunda, then coming into prominence as the leader of the political party most likely to come into power, under the independence constitution then being promised by the British government at Westminster. Finally, and most important for my story, a certain local woman had had a vision of the Holy Mother and, attracting a number of adherents, created her own church, the Lumpa church by name. Her followers, profiting by the presence nearby of a Roman Catholic mission, built their own church, copying the design of the other but increasing theirs by the size of a brick in each dimension.

The founding of a settled community of this nature was offensive to each of the two powers I have mentioned. The Lumpa priestess had urged her followers to abjure false gods and throw away the bones and other magic talismans through which the chief maintained his hold over his people. Furthermore, shifting cultivation being the practice in Central Africa, the existence of a settled community derogated from the power of the chief, who designated each new patch of jungle for cultivation. From another angle, when the young men moved around the area enrolling new members to swell the votes necessary for victory in the elections soon to be held, the Lumpa people refused to sign up, protesting that their allegiance was to God and not to any political party. Amid these conflicting currents I thought it my duty to preserve the balance as well as I could.

Pontius Pilate's task was not dissimilar. Even today Palestine is, as many people would admit, not an easy country to administer. Pontius Pilate was not a fully fledged governor in charge of a province but, as procurator, was a lesser official whose task it was to maintain Roman sovereignty over Palestine. He had powerful forces with which to contend. The Herods were "Kings" (as the Gospels sometimes call them), who ruled over certain areas within Palestine. The Herods came of a family converted to Judaism and their characters may be judged by their deeds. It was a Herod who ordered the massacre of the Innocents which forced Joseph and Mary to seek refuge in Egypt. Another Herod gave orders for John the Baptist to be executed and his head brought to him in a charger. It was a ruthless act in a ruthless country. In addition, Pilate was faced with a powerful priestly hierarchy, enjoying considerable religious and legal authority throughout Palestine.

A reading of the four Gospels must convince the ordinary reader that Jesus was brought before Pilate for what we would today call "confirmation of sentence" passed on him by the high priest and the clerics. Pilate, having seen Jesus and, as the Gospels say, having considered the evidence adduced against Jesus, did not like the look of the case. As a Roman who had not been long in Palestine, he could not be expected to be familiar with all the intricacies of Jewish politics, and so he sought guidance from Herod in Galilee, where Jesus had mainly practised his ministry. But Herod, who had heard of Jesus but not seen him, sent Jesus back to Pilate. Pilate then tried again. As it was the feast in preparation for the Passover, he had the privilege of releasing one prisoner. Pilate sought to release Jesus but the crowd, in what we would call today an expression of "public opinion", called for Barabbas. As a last resort Pilate called on Jesus to defend himself. Jesus remained silent, for how could he explain in such a court that his Kingdom was that of God, not that of man? Pilate then gave up and ordered that the crucifixion should proceed. As a last gesture Pilate had the words "King of the Jews" placed at the head of the Cross. This annoyed the priests who protested to Pilate. It seems to me that, in his dislike of the task forced upon him, he did this on purpose to "get his own back" on the priests and not to jest at Jesus' expense. It is a strange tradition that some of the early Christians bore no ill will against Pilate and believed his wife to have been a Christian.

The final story of the Lumpa church is soon told. A year or two after I had left the district and the political party I have mentioned had won the election and come into power, the army was sent against the Lumpa people for reasons of which I am not aware. There was some resistance and much slaughter. The remnants of the people fled over the border to Zaire in whose deep jungles, even today, others have sought refuge. The "church" was eventually allowed to return home, but the last I heard of them was a report by a speaker on the "Sunday" programme of Radio 4 who said that he had visited the scene and nothing was left but ruins.

In AD 70 a similar fate befell Jerusalem. The Jews rose and the Romans, losing patience, destroyed Jerusalem and created the "diaspora", the effects of which are still with us. In this twilight world of ours it is often hard to reconcile the demands of Church and State. It would be one of those useless "what ifs" of history to ask what difference it would have made if Pilate had indeed released Jesus.

Colonial Map
North-Eastern Northern Rhodesia, 1947
Colony Profile
Northern Rhodesia
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 75
October 1997
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