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April 8, 2004

Senator Pontius

Mel Gibson's portrayal of Pontius Pilate in The Passion of the Christ is one of those reflective topics that tells one more about a reviewer than about the film. Consider, for example, Andrew Sullivan:

Pilate and his wife are portrayed as saints forced by politics and the Jewish elders to kill a man they know is innocent.

More than anything, this sentence highlights one of modern politics' most potent weapons: the passive voice. Can politics force one to do evil? Sullivan believes that Pilate is absolved of blame because he acted merely according to the demands of his role.

Father Raymond J. de Souza begs to differ:

That such conduct would be considered admirable reveals serious moral confusion. The evangelists likely did not doubt that they were painting a damning portrayal of Pilate. His conduct is not that of a man consumed by rage or overpowered by events. He is cool and in control of himself. His compromises are not capitulations. They are careful calculations; calculations in which the fate of an innocent man is no more than dust on the scales.

Far from mitigating it, the contemplative acquiescence to evil is the sine qua non of culpability. Perhaps it could be argued that sacrificing Jesus was an expedient means to the arguably good end of minimizing the risk of broader bloodshed. Even skirting the complicated Catholic demand that we never do evil that good might come of it, with effort, a reasonably intelligent person could think of other means to the same end. They may have required more effort and been more difficult, but morality isn't generally a simple, easy matter in a fallen world.

So yes, it's certainlyrevealing how people see Pilate, and Fr. de Souza is correct to dub him as the patron politician of our day: "He was clearly personally opposed to the crucifixion." But he had to separate his own private beliefs to the objective demands of his office. How lamentable that we have excised the necessity of morality from the parts of life where its lack can do the most damage, albeit at the smallest apparent personal cost.

"Apparent" being the operative word.

Posted by Justin Katz at April 8, 2004 6:32 PM