13 When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha).
14 It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon. “Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.
15 But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!” “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked. “We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.
16 Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.
-The Gospel of John 19: 12-16
It was Easter in the Christian tradition yesterday, which brought to mind --- among other things --- Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor large and in charge when Jesus Christ was brought before him on trumped up charges by Jewish authorities intent on ridding themselves of what they perceived as an enormous threat to their power.
So… how’d you like to go down in history --- two thousand years’ worth of history --- with your name immortalized as the stooge who ordered/acquiesced to the execution of the Christian Messiah? Yikes. Who was this guy? Well, besides the accounts of the four Gospels, we really know very little about Pilate, and much of what we think we know is apocryphal. We do know he was reluctant to authorize the crucifixion of Jesus… although, in the end, as he watched the crowd become more and more restive, he crumbled under the pressure and did so --- although he feebly attempted to tell the crowd, “This Is Not My Fault. It’s Yours.” (C.S. Lewis dryly observed that “Pilate was merciful till it became risky.”) If not a true villain, at least a cad of the first order, right? Thoroughly unlikeable/disgusting character.
And yet… it is possible to view Pilate in a sympathetic light, I’ve found. (Although, to be clear, I’m not trying to exonerate him.)
What brought all this to mind? Why, watching The Green Mile the other day, the Frank Darabont film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, of course. The protagonist is a modern Pontius Pilate. Really.
No, I’m not in a dissociative state, thanks very much. Nor have I lost my marbles.
For the benefit of those unfamiliar with it, The Green Mile is a 1999 film primarily set in 1930s Louisiana (told in flashback from present day) by an aged version of the protagonist, Paul Edgecomb (played with his usual folksy charm by Tom Hanks). Paul is a prison guard responsible for death row, and one day an extraordinary prisoner arrives on his block: John Coffey, a physically enormous but mentally slow black man convicted of raping and murdering two little white girls. Just another prisoner to be sat down in due course in Ol’ Sparky (the electric chair) on the Green Mile (so nicknamed for the green linoleum covering its floor). Except he isn’t. As the plot progresses, Paul starts to realize John has a truly miraculous ability to heal --- anything from a urinary tract infection to terminal cancer. And John is innocent of the charges against him, although the manner in which Paul discovers this is completely supernatural, and therefore not going to stand up in any court of law. So what is he to do? John is, in Paul’s own words, “a miracle of God.” How can he execute John, knowing that?
In real life, this is a terrible situation to be in, one that we all justifiably pray we never have to face. But from a writing standpoint, it’s a great dilemma to put a character in. Having created a totally likeable, decent, thoughtful man in Paul, the author throws him this awful conundrum. No flashy pyrotechnics or tired plot devices, just a real no-win scenario. (I don’t know whether Stephen King deliberately set out to tell the story of Pilate or whether that kinda just happened in the telling, but I do know he deliberately made John Coffey a Christ figure.) How do you come out the other side of that decision in a way that satisfies moral obligations and society’s requirements? The answer is, you don’t. They are completely irreconcilable wants. Something in that equation has to give, and that generates great inner conflict. Which is what Paul feels. And what Pilate may have felt, although he didn’t have the relationship with Jesus that Paul has with John.
In the end, of course, Paul does the same thing as Pilate: he crumbles under the pressure and does the safe thing, which I suspect --- although I’d like to think otherwise --- is what most of us, probably including me, would do. It’s an all-too-human trait, and Lewis was bang-on in his (pessimistic) observation.
Unlike Pilate, though, Paul knows full well what he’s doing when he supervises John’s execution, and more importantly, doesn’t try to shrug off responsibility.
And that is refreshing.