Spiderman, Pontius Pilate and the meaning of power

If you are a Spiderman fan, you may be familiar with the phrase “With great power comes great responsibility” and believe it is an original line from

Dec 11, 2015

By Anil Netto
If you are a Spiderman fan, you may be familiar with the phrase “With great power comes great responsibility” and believe it is an original line from the story.

Actually, variations of that phrase have been used in the twentieth, and even the nineteenth, century. In 1817, British MP William Lamb was reported to have said, “The possession of great power necessarily implies great responsibility.”

But even that is not the earliest use. How about the Gospels? In Luke 12:48, Jesus is recorded as having said: “When someone is given a great deal, a great deal will be demanded of that person; when someone is entrusted with a great deal, of that person even more will be expected.”

A great deal of what? It could apply to talent, wealth — and yes, even power.

Much will be demanded of those who have been given more than their fair share.

It is a huge responsibility to have power, for such power HAS to be used to serve the common good, not to enrich one’s self or to accumulate even more power.

Now, as Christmas approaches, a certain darkness has descended on the land.

The world, including our nation, is plagued with problems. War, violence, inequality and exclusion, hunger, unemployment, homelessness, disease, crime, poverty, corruption, debt and challenging economic conditions have created tremendous suffering.

The source of many these problems can be traced to two major human failings: 1) the desire for — and the fear of losing — power and 2) greed and the quest for unlimited wealth.

Indeed, one of the paradoxes of power and wealth is that no matter how much you accumulate, it is never enough. In the case  of power, another paradox is that those who crave even more power are often the least suitable to exercise them. Instead of using power and wealth for the right reasons — serving society — those who wield them, time and again, use them for absolutely the wrong reasons. For the temptations that come with power and wealth are legion.

There is a stark difference between power exercised for the common good of people and the selfish interests of those who wield power. Nowhere is this contrast greater than when Jesus is brought before the cruel and autocratic Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judaea.

On the one hand, you have Jesus, sent to the world on a mission to create a kingdom of justice, peace, compassion, mercy and love. Here is someone who believes in peace through love and justice.

On the other side, you have Pontius Pilate, who represents the might of Caesar, who no doubt considers himself little short of a divine being. This is someone who believes in securing peace through military victory, conquest and force. This is someone who believes that his source of power comes from might, and might makes right.

Between these two figures lies a vast gulf, and no wonder. The vision and ideals they stand for are poles apart.

Jesus says few words, for, what can even  he say, at this point, to convince Pilate of the utter futility of absolute power over the military, the security, the local economy, even religion, through local proxies. Powers wrongly exercised — or more accurately, exercised to serve immoral and evil ends.

This is concentrated power exercised through the apparatus of state, nothing participatory about it.

And yet, with all the power at his disposal, despite the unequal power-balance between Pilate and Jesus, the dynamics are interesting to observe.

There Jesus stands, quietly confident about where the source of all power comes from. He says, “You would have no power over me at all if it had not been given you from above; that is why the man who handed me over to you has the greater guilt” (John 19:11).

Pilate, on the other hand, because he is using power, meant to serve the common good, to serve the vested interests of the Empire and his own personal ambitions, is unnerved, anything but confident. He may even have convinced himself he is doing the right thing: preserving the peace of the annual Jewish festival against any threat to security posed by ‘rabble-rousers’ and local ‘messiahs’ like Jesus. After all, there is no shortage of such characters in first century  Palestine, seen as security threats, not to mention those religious fanatics.

And yet, all-powerful as he is from a worldly perspective, Pilate comes across as insecure, even nervous and unsure when coming face-to-face with the One representing the source of all Light and Love.

Pilate, perhaps, deep inside knows that the condemned man in front of him is innocent. He lets the kangaroo judicial process take its course, and then washes his hands. Perhaps this is his superstitious way of symbolically cleansing his conscience. What is done is then done, and no doubt Pilate will find it hard to find peace of mind after that.

Isn’t this the same for all those who exercise worldly power — not for the common good but for their own selfish ends? They may have all the apparatus of state at their disposal but, when power is used for wrong ends, to accumulate more wealth and power, then those whose original responsibility it is to serve the common good will never find peace of mind.

The trappings of wealth and power they crave, believing that it will bring them satisfaction and fulfilment, will prove to be barren illusions. They will, instead, find suspicion and division and plotting and back-stabbing in their ranks. They will then seek solace in all the wrong places, even in superstition and the occult, for if the divine purpose for which power is meant to be used  is, instead, trampled upon, where else can they find refuge but in darkness?

This is why those with power or wealth or talent have a tremendous obligation to use that power wisely, not for vested interests but for the common good of society. Gregory the Great once said, “He uses power wisely who knows how to manage it and, at the same time, resist it.”

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