Pilate vs. The Truth: A Biblical Confrontation for Post-Truth Christians

By John Thatamanil

Christians of all stripes should know better, but white American evangelicals don’t seem to: there is an absolute contradiction between following the One who spoke of himself as “The Way, The Truth, and the Life,” and following Donald Trump, America’s former prevaricator-in-chief. One of the fundamental questions that American Christians will have to ponder as they reckon with the last five years is, “How and why did white evangelical Christians become not only indifferent to truth but avid consumers of falsehood and conspiracy theories? My aim is not to answer so much as to bring this contradiction into sharp relief by examining the epic confrontation between Jesus and Pilate.

Consider the infamously skeptical utterance, “What is truth?” by Pontius Pilate, Governor of the Roman province of Judea, who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus (Gospel of John). Those same words might be a motto for Christians sporting signs, “Jesus is my Savior; Trump is my President.” These banner-bearers have so fused Christianity and white nationalism that they see no conflict in following The New Testament—which makes indifference to truth a mark of those who oppose the Christ—and following Trump, who spouted 30, 573 false or misleading claims while in office. Disregard for Trump’s mendacity is a glaring incongruity at the heart of white evangelical fidelity to their political messiah.

Surely things have gone badly wrong when Christians sound more like Pilate than Christ.

White evangelicals should return to the scene in which Jesus stands trial before Pilate. The Gospel writer seeks to portray the petty tyrant as reluctant to convict Jesus, but the historical record tells a different story: Pilate was so notorious for his capricious cruelty that he was too much even for imperial Rome, which recalled the blood-thirsty tyrant.

Already, we face a problem of truth: it appears that the Bible seeks to soft-pedal Pilate’s brutality to curry favor with the Roman empire. Hence, the book of John shifts blame for the crucifixion onto the Jews, an act of narrative violence that has led to millennia of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. Cozying up to coercive power has its costs whether it happens inside or outside the Bible.

John’s Pilate tries to ascertain whether Jesus had counter-imperial ambitions. Are you a king, he asks? Jesus responds, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over . . . . But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Jesus’ words suggest that he is not a ruler Pilate would recognize. He is not of this world—not because his kingdom is supernatural but because it is not secured by violence. In this world, the sovereignty of kings is secured by arms. Jesus assures Pilate that he is not that kind of sovereign.

Pilate seems a bit lost; what other kind of king could there be? He is unsettled because Jesus seems to say that he is some kind of king. For Pilate that spells trouble. Pilate: “So you are a king?” Jesus: “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”

This elicits from Pilate the infamous sentence: “What is truth?” John’s readers understand the irony. They know Pilate has put the question wrong. It ought to be “Who is the truth?” For there Jesus stands before him, the logos, the truth, made flesh. The Gospel generates what amounts to an inside joke. Pilate has no clue that the person who stands before him is the truth. The answer to his question is literally staring him in the face.

The Gospel continues to contrast violence with truth. If Jesus were a run of the mill king, his followers would resort to violence. Instead, Jesus is a king who comes to “testify to truth.” Pilate couldn’t care less about truth: truth is whatever he says it is. He thinks his military capacity grants him the power to bend reality to his will. When later, Jesus keeps silent, Pilate declares, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” As with torturers ancient and modern, Pilate insists, I can make you talk. But Jesus, the Truth, refuses to capitulate.

Pilate’s indifference to truth brutally exhibits what Jesus names and Nietzsche unmasks when he writes in “On Truth and Lying in a Non-moral Sense” that truth is “a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, anthropomorphisms” that “after long use seem solid, canonical, and binding to a nation.” In John, truth stands before Pilate, who wields the overwhelming force of Roman might, but truth does not yield. Truth disavows Roman authority, noting that what little authority Rome has ultimately comes “from above.”

Jesus neither recognizes nor bends to Rome’s will. Truth claims its own sovereignty over and against the claims of coercion and violence.

What is the nature of Jesus’ and truth’s sovereignty? The Gospel of Matthew explains: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. . . .”

Jesus overturns worldly standards of power where great ones are liars and tyrants. This is the kind of greatness that Trump heralded in his desire to Make America Great Again. Jesus has no interest in such “greatness.”

If Pilate represents the love of power, Jesus instantiates the power of love. He comes to serve not to be served.

Trumpism is a perversion of the scriptural suspicion of sovereignty-by-coercion. By calmly stating that he isn’t a potentate in Pilate’s mold, Jesus upends the contest of powers, of king against king, of petty tyrant against petty tyrant. Ultimately, it is not Pilate the “great” who tries Jesus and determines the truth about him. Jesus interrogates and exposes worldly lies and supposed “greatness.”

Would white American evangelicals be less inclined to kowtow to the crudest of contemporary liars and Pilates if they reread their own scriptures? Would they go so wrong on what constitutes truth and greatness? Matters are rarely resolved so simply. Still, a strong dose of Bible 101 might be a good place to start to learn that the love of coercive power is incompatible with the power of truth and serving love.

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John J. Thatamanil is Associate Professor of Theology and World Religions at Union Theological Seminary. He is the author of Circling the Elephant: A Comparative Theology of Religious Diversity and The Immanent Divine: God, Creation, and the Human Predicament. He teaches courses on comparative theology, theologies of religions as well as a course on Gandhi and King. He is a past-President of the North American Paul Tillich Society and the founding chair of the American Academy of Religion’s Theological Education Committee. His Op-Eds have appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and a variety of sites online.


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Photo credits: Antonio Ciseri, “Ecce Homo” (1862), in public domain, downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

 


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