Although the central events of the Christian calendar are fraught with theological implications, an understandably neglected, but, at the same time, quite obvious focus can be brought to bear on these sacred mysteries, a focus that seeks to learn only from the unpleasant facts of the unjust execution of an innocent man. Obviously, the religious importance of this story is impossible to overstate. But if these events reveal something about God, then they almost certainly reveal something important about man. It is interesting, then, to reflect on the political dimension of the Passion, to learn something essential about politics and power.
As soon as one adopts this perspective, three principle antagonists quickly reveal themselves: Caiaphas, Herod and Pilate. And each of these agents utter and exemplify a political axiom.
Caiaphas, the high priest, the first earthly power before which Christ is presented, declares, “He has blasphemed!” (Mt 26:65). Behind this accusation lies no reverence for God, but rather the perennial totalitarian itch to control the thoughts of free men. Indeed, in our own generation, we have seen the rise of similar tribunals, seeking to suppress words that cause “offense.”
What was blasphemous to Caiaphas was not the denial of God, but the confession of God. This is true in our time as well. Permissive moderns cannot tolerate any reminder of morality and those who advocate the most progressive social policies are always the first to seek drastic prohibitions against those who question their beliefs, or invoke the authority of a higher power.
In Caiaphas, then, the influence of politics in the realm of religion is played out in full: what begins as suppression quickly becomes oppression. Those accused of spreading an imagined, potential intolerance invariably become the true objects of hatred and scorn.
Christ is then sent to Herod, who is unable to inflict capital punishment in a religious matter with his limited power; the Roman occupation has created a de facto separation between church and state. We cannot help but notice, however, that this separation does not lead to justice, with the trumped-up charges being thrown out. Instead, Herod is able to force an atheistic Roman potentate to intervene directly in this religious case. And, interestingly, Herod is able to make Pilate hear this case precisely because of the religious claims Christ is making. The crowd speaks for Herod when they say to Pilate, “If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar” (Jn 19:12).
Quite literally, in a state without religion, God himself becomes a rival to political power. This is the Achilles heel of all totalitarian rulers: they can admit no opposition, and thus, cannot risk granting any true freedom to those subject to them, especially religious freedom. The separation of church and state does not make the two strangers, but rivals.
And so, Christ, a religious figure accused of blasphemy, who can in no way harm the imperial power, finds himself before a Roman governor. Unable to acknowledge any source of authority other than itself, the state succumbs to paranoia and sees every other potential power as a threat. It is with an almost touching irony that Pilate asks: “Do you not know that I have authority?” (Jn 19:10) – a delusional boast that Christ quickly (and accurately) corrects.
But the maxim for which Pilate remains infamous is that cynical question: “What is truth?” (Jn 18:38). It is the question to which the totalitarian state makes itself the answer. Every impulse to control newspapers and history books finds its origin in this cynical inquiry. Indeed, in Caiaphas, Herod and Pilate, we see three different faces of the same phenomenon: a relativism that insists on the limits of every other sphere but its own – even that of truth itself.
However, the real meaning of politics in the Passion is not found in the vain machinations of these passing powers, but rather in the reality of the Resurrection. The Resurrection, insofar as it is a political event, is the vindication of the victim and the refutation of every human compromise, collusion and conspiracy: What begins as the co-ordinated efforts of the three greatest rulers of the day ends with guilty officials and cowardly soldiers, cobbling together an improbable lie (cf Mt 28:11-15).
The Passion, then, is the story of life, not death. What dies – and dies definitively – is the fantasy of every totalitarian regime and the illusion of victory that comes with every brutal and unwarranted exercise of force. The odious show-trial and execution of Jesus finds its meaning in the Resurrection, which is, in the words of one writer, “the most historical, certain and proven fact of all the events which have ever taken place.”