Pilate and Judas Are My Role Models

October 16, 2011

You don’t see many children named Pilate or Judas, those two names being perhaps the most instinctively reviled ones in all of Western culture. Their names are synonymous with cowardice and betrayal, and yet, I think we have something to learn from these two. My thinking on this subject is spurred by Peter Rollins and his excellent books, The Fidelity of Betrayal and Insurrection. Judas plays a prominent role in the first book, and while Pilate is never mentioned specifically in Insurrection I cannot help but think of him as I ponder Rollins’ arguments.

Crudely put, in The Fidelity of Betrayal, Rollins argues that in order to really be faithful to Christianity, and Jesus, then we have to be prepared to betray it, we have to be prepared to betray even Jesus to death. So the phrase “What Would Judas Do?” becomes the operative motto of the book, turning Judas into a person making a difficult choice in order to remain faithful to his teacher. From this Rollins asks us to consider the ways in which we have to betray our foundations in order to remain faithful to them. How often does the law which grounds us contain inscribed within it the means of its own betrayal? A law (however you want to configure it) can entrench the very injustice it claims to combat. Rollins would argue, and I agree, that the only way to remain faithful to the law– to the rules and mythologies that animate us– in this circumstance is to betray it, to burn it down.

This is where Insurrection picks up it’s tale. Pilate has been on my mind for about a month now. I had already taken him on as somewhat of a role model, calling on the way Mikhail Bulgakov wrote about him in The Master and Margarita. The act of washing one’s hands of a situation or a person is something we’re told is a sign of weakness. But Bulgakov portrays Pilate as a tormented man wracked by guilt and doubt, and for him the only way out of an impossible situation was to mourn and wash his hands of the matter. I think there is much to be commended in this approach.

Rollins goes farther yet in his description of the ways we have to actively destroy our animating principles in order to really enter farther into them. Drawing on the postmodern critiques of ideology, Rollins lays bare the way Christianity has inoculated itself against doubt by letting it. Modern Christianity has invited doubt, a/theism in Rollins’ formulation, in, but in so doing it has defanged it. The God of the modern church is practically the definition of the deus ex machina, an external entity with no previous relation to the action that sweeps in to neatly tie things together. So our talk of doubt gets surrounded by hymns and catechisms espousing certainty over mystery, and sermons that broach the subject always come around to saying, “But God loves you, and God will never let go of you.” If we say one thing, but all of our actions affirm another, in which thing do we really believe? It’s like a person holding a meeting about the evils of corporations in a Starbucks.

Except that as he was dying, Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus wasn’t intellectually doubting here– he addresses his complaint directly to God– but his experience was just that, experiential. Jesus felt the absence of a God he believed in/was at the moment of his death. And rather than running from it, Jesus said it out loud. In anguish. Jesus welcomed the absence and the doubt in.

Pete would argue that we have to undergo a crucifixion experience in order to pass beyond the ironic distance that our religious forms give us. Our God has to die in order to be Resurrected. For a person to experience things being made new, they have to do away with the old things. We have to let the doubt in, and we have to let it destroy everything. God cannot be the security blanket that makes everything ok. We can’t become mature human beings if we never allow ourselves to truly experience bewilderment and dislocation. “A dark night of the soul with the lights on” does us no good. This is where Pilate comes in for me. Because at the end of the day, as the ruling authority in Judea, Pilate killed Jesus.

And we have to be our own Pilate. Not only does our God have to die, we have to kill him.

2 Responses to “Pilate and Judas Are My Role Models”

  1. Katie said

    So glad you’re doing some blogging again! I enjoyed reading this post and I look forward to chewing on the ideas over the next days…

  2. Evan said

    After reading your post, I can’t help but disagree with a few of the points that you, or perhaps I should say Rollins, is advocating. Obviously, I understand that concept that we should be loyal to our faith, even if that means taking our loyalty to extreme measures, but we cannot, of course go so far as to actually, “betray” Jesus, in the true sense of that word. If we were to literally “betray” Jesus, that would be the end of everything… Betrayal is much too weighty a word.

    Secondly, I, and I’m sure you yourself, would agree, that Jesus’ experience on the cross was a completely original event in the history of mankind. That is to say, that the implications of Jesus’ death on the cross make it something that can and will never be replicated. He experienced this absence of God so that those who believe would never have to experience that agony themselves. He didn’t welcome the absence, he endured it, understanding that only he could fulfill so great a duty.

    In addition, I would say that we can and should consider God as our “security blanket,” (although I might take issue with that term as well) I would contend that its only because we have this “security” that we can become mature human beings. We do experience bewilderment and dislocation, yes, but these things are , in and of themselves, not positive. They only become positive things, things that help us mature, because we can frame them in terms of our security. Bewilderment and dislocation, outside of this security, would more likely than not just end in despair.

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