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.