Another look at Pilate washing his hands

Leaders in our world today have an obligation to uphold the truth and justice, no matter what the pressure from the baying crowd out there is like. They cannot run away from responsibility in the face of clear injustice nor should they pass the buck to others.

Apr 12, 2019

By Anil Netto
What do you call it when those who are in a position of power refuse to take the correct course of action even when they know what is right, even when the truth is staring them in the face?

Sometimes important decisions are taken not in the public interest but to keep a restless mob at bay.

Now Pontius Pilate, who was the Roman prefect of Judea, was no pushover. The First Century Jewish philosopher Philo described him as someone who was “naturally inflexible” with a “blend of self-will and relentlessness”.

Philo also describes his corruption, “his acts of insolence” and his violent seizure of property. His cruelty included the “continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity”. Pilate’s vindictiveness, his habit of insulting people and furious temper were well known.

But when Jesus was brought before him, Pilate decided to do what was political expedient, to keep the restless crowd at bay. Though Pilate had a detachment of auxiliary troops stationed in Jerusalem and Caesara, it was a small force of local troops, perhaps around 3,000. To quell more serious unrest, he would have had to rely on his superior, the Roman legate in Syria, for more powerful legions.

So you can see why Pilate was anxious to keep the peace in Jerusalem, which was teeming with pilgrims, many of who were resentful of Roman occupation.

“Then Pilate saw that he was making no impression, that in fact a riot was imminent. So he took some water, washed his hands in front of the crowd and said, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your concern” (Matthew 27:24).

So to keep the peace, Pilate decided to literally wash his hands of Jesus, proclaim his own innocence and pass the buck to Jesus’ accusers – even though in his heart, he knew Jesus was innocent.

This is what happens when decisions are forced by the fear of mob rule or the fear of trouble or unrest.

Even a powerful, cruel ruler like Pilate felt he had no choice, even though the Truth was staring him in the face.

“Truth, what is truth?” he wondered aloud. For leaders like Pilate, political expediency was more important.
So he washed his hands – symbolising a denial of responsibility. From that point, Pilate did not want to know what happened to Jesus, thought he would have guessed his fate.

In modern terms, this may be known as “plausible deniability”. Basically, it is when a senior officer or leader doesn’t want to know what his subordinates or other agencies in his jurisdiction are doing. So later on, he or she can deny all knowledge of or responsibility for any wrongdoing and even proclaim innocence “of this man’s blood”.

The subordinates for their part or other agencies act somewhat independently. They think they know what the own bosses want them to do or would like them to do, without actually being given a specific order.

It reminds me of the case of Henry’s II’s knights killing that “turbulent priest” Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170 because they thought that was what Henry wanted — though he hadn’t actually given them such an order.

Or agents may be motivated by their own code of honour or loyalty to their warped version of the truth. They may even think they are preserving the peace in the land – just as no doubt, the religious teachers taught they were doing when judging Jesus.

The boss is content to leave it to others to carry out unpalatable deeds – and doesn’t want to know. The unpalatable deeds are outsourced to others, while the leaders struts around, looking respectable. When confronted with the truth about wrongdoing, he or she can issue a denial of responsibility that sounds plausible – hence the term plausible deniability.

But ultimately, no matter what the mitigating circumstances, Pilate could not escape responsibility. Crucifixion was very much a Roman form of execution and the involvement of Roman soldier in the execution was evident.
In our day and age, how often do we see leaders not taking the obvious decision in pursuing the truth. Even when they know what is the correct decision, they are mindful of the potential for unrest – and perhaps we can be sympathetic of the predicament for the threat to the peace can be all too real.

But taking the path of political expediency is also a slippery and treacherous path. The more we sacrifice the truth for expediency or to placate an angry mob, who knows what we are really sacrificing. And the more emboldened the mob could get.

Pilate, when confronted with Jesus on one hand and the baying crowd on the other, thought nothing was more important than preserving the peace. Plus he wanted to be in Caesar’s good books. How would violent outbreak in Jerusalem sound to the big man in Rome? Moreover, Pilate’s wife had a dream warning him not to have anything to do with that righteous man (Jesus).

Leaders in our world today have an obligation to uphold the truth and justice, no matter what the pressure from the baying crowd out there is like. They cannot run away from responsibility in the face of clear injustice nor should they pass the buck to others.

Total Comments:0