During Holy Week, we see Jesus betrayed and treated unjustly in the scriptures again and again. The Pharisees plot against him. Caiaphas and the Sanhedrim plan his death and excuse their actions to each other. Judas betrays his master with a kiss. Herod mocks Jesus. Roman soldiers beat him. The Jews call for his death and the Romans laugh to see Jesus tortured and killed. Hardly anyone in Jerusalem can escape blame for Jesus’ death. Yet, in the Apostle’s Creed, blame for the suffering and crucifixion of Christ falls squarely and only at the feet of Pontius Pilate.
Those words, “who suffered under Pontius Pilate,” are repeated over and over again by Christians all around the world. My wife and I have often discussed what a terrible fate that must be, to have your name forever associated with the suffering of Jesus. I’ve also often thought, if Pilate were to hear the accusation, he might object, “Why just me?! Why not ‘betrayed by Judas Iscariot’ or ‘scapegoated by Caiaphas’? Aren’t they just as guilty?”
Certainly, the Apostle’s Creed may seem a bit one sided in it’s description of the Passion. Yet, it’s no accident this creed includes his name. And I’ve read many explanations as to why Pilate earned this ignominious fate. But I think one reason we hear Pilate’s name is because he stands for the “old kingdoms and powers” that Christ came to supplant with the Kingdom of God. Just as Moses stands for “The Law” and Elijah for “The Prophets,” Pilate, conversely, stands in the Apostle’s Creed for all of the injustice and suffering Christ endured under the Kingdoms of the world.
I don’t just mean here a kind of “institutional injustice” organized from the top down. Remember, Pilate is not really the chief perpetrator of injustice in the story of Christ. The plot against Jesus begins long before Pilate even knows who the strange Rabbi is. In a way, all Pilate does is put his bureaucratic rubber stamp on the man’s execution. And before he does, he wavers and equivocates on the subject, trying to avoid the judgement. He knows Jesus is innocent and undeserving of crucifixion. He sees the injustice. He sees what he knows is wrong. And participates by not putting a stop to the terrible circus.
And, for most who perpetuate injustice, this is the story. We didn’t hatch the plan. We didn’t actively bring it about. We aren’t pulling the strings. So it isn’t our problem! This is surely Pilate’s attitude. And so he practices his sophistry first. Quid est veritas, he muses. What is truth? He plays at politics with Caiaphas and Herod. He brings out a bowl and puts on a show of “washing his hands” of the crime he is about to commit.
But once you have seen injustice, you cannot wash your hands of it. You can announce, “I wash my hands of this.” And you can even literally wash your hands. But the injustice will still stain your fingers. So I think the Apostle’s Creed is insightful here. Because this is often the way of injustice in our world. Sure, occasionally, there are those who draw up an evil plan from scratch. But, much more often, suffering is perpetuated by those who see it and do nothing. Our reasons for doing nothing are varied but often accompanied by a bit of sophistry and a wringing of our hands.
I don’t want to invent platitudes here about how ignoring evil is just as bad as committing said evil. However, Jesus is quite clear in Matthew 25 that if you fail to feed the hungry then you fail to feed him (or clothe him, visit him, etc.). And he seems to think this is really bad. Like “eternal punishment” bad.
So is failing to clothe the naked morally equivalent to what Pilate’s ordering the execution of an innocent man? I don’t think so. But both acts require turning a blind eye to injustice (at least, according to a biblical understanding of injustice which is not something I’ll get into here). Jesus is clear that following him means helping those who are suffering even if we are not the direct cause of their suffering. Anything less means joining the line of goats filing their way down to eternal fire.
Now, as someone who sees lots of suffering and does precious little to alleviate it, this is a bit frightening. And as much as I like goats, I do not want to join them in hell. But this is where the Apostle’s Creed has good news for people like me! We profess to believe in the Catholic Church. Which is an institution, yes. But also the body of Christ. As a part of this body, not only are our sins forgiven but we are equipped to become like Christ. Here, we are not free from suffering. But we are free to become the very flesh of him who delved into the depths of suffering and overcame. We are free to be the Body of Christ, the body he will use to finally overturn the old powers and advance his Kingdom.