In praise of ditherers: How we're all related to Pontius Pilate

Politicians have long been accused of hesitancy and crowd-pleasing, writes George Pitcher. But it all goes back to the man who condemned the Christ

The current UK government has been widely characterised over the past year by its habit of dithering – and not just by left-wing critics. One of the most outspoken detractors of the Cabinet’s capacity for hesitancy, for example, has been Piers Morgan, of ITV’s Good Morning Britain.

As a former fan of Margaret Thatcher and friend of Donald Trump, Morgan can hardly be described as a Leftie – though, in fairness, someone who has been physically assaulted twice by Jeremy Clarkson might only make a tenuous claim to be a modern Conservative.

The point is that it’s a commonplace to hold that prime minister Boris Johnson is a ditherer, leading – if that’s a verb that can be deployed in this context – a government of nodding donkeys. But dithering is actually a common characteristic of power in the UK in recent decades.

Johnson’s predecessor as PM, Theresa May, called a snap general election, but then spent her entire campaign dithering around, while mouthing “strong and stable”, thereby losing her majority and giving Johnson his chance to pounce (not that he did – he dithered). David Cameron took the policy U-turn to an art form, from child refugees to disability benefit cuts, at his peak managing three reversals in a week.

Gordon Brown bottled it over calling an election as soon as he arrived in Number 10, falling for Cameron’s empty rhetoric of being up for the fight. The less said about John Major, who fiddled with a Cones Hotline while the Tory party burned over Europe, the better. Ditherers all.

Semi-suicidal misadventures

We really have to go back to Tony Blair and the Thatcher years to find a lack of pusillanimous hesitancy and procrastination. The Iraq War and the Poll Tax respectively may have cost them their legacies, but no one can deny the firmness of their convictions in the pursuits of those semi-suicidal misadventures.

Part of the reason for this is that Blair lost and Thatcher never had the desire to be crowd-pleasers. Blair became separated from the “eye-catching initiatives” of his early years as PM by a developing messianic complex that made him believe he could walk on water. And Thatcher was a reformist ideologue, a mindset that rarely courts popularity.

By contrast, Johnson’s desire to be liked, to be the bearer only of great news, to be the hail-fellow-well-met jester of the saloon bar, is well documented. Hence countless lives lost to late lockdowns and early easing of them, inadequate sourcing of the bleak materials of PPE and hearty handshakes in hospitals – the road for him to intensive care.

Johnson, like so many powerful people, wants to be a crowd-pleaser. Outside war, this is usually an achievable aspiration for a leader, if only temporarily (note, in this context, the luckless Neville Chamberlain, though arguably war was inevitable when he tried to appease Adolph Hitler, a notable and rather bigger crowd-pleaser).

Which brings us, just two days after Ash Wednesday, to the case of local Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who bookends the penitential season of Lent in the Christian Church as it prepares for its greatest feast at Easter. Pilate features both at the start and end of Lent, because the cross features both on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday.

On Ash Wednesday, it’s our custom to conduct the Imposition of Ashes, the dabbing of the symbol of the cross in ashes and oil on the foreheads of congregants at Holy Communion, intoning the words “Remember that dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return” (though this year, because of health restrictions, we daubed an ash cross on a pillow-case on behalf of all congregants).

It’s an affirmation of our mortality and, in its way, echoes the Roman “Momento mori”, the words whispered by the auriga, a slave with gladiator status, into the ears of triumphant military commanders, to remind them that they too would die.

Pilate needed no such reminder of his mortality. He was no god-like Roman chieftain. He was a petty local apparatchik who managed not only to alienate the local Temple Jews in his remote outpost of empire in Judea, but in doing so mightily anger his emperor, Tiberius, back in Rome.

To incur the displeasure of the Emperor not only lost him his job – recalled to Rome, Pilate could expect summary execution and was saved only by Tiberius predeceasing him on his journey there by a matter of days.

Pilate was a vacillating panjandrum in the finest traditions of political dithering. And it’s a good job for the Christian faith that he was: Because no Pilate, no Cross. According to the evangelist John, he tries (at least twice) to release Jesus of Nazareth, finding no case against him. He claims it’s a problem for the Jews, not a matter for Roman jurisdiction. He tries to get away with giving Jesus a beating.

He could have pardoned Jesus instead of Barabbas, but the crowd won’t let him and, of course, he must please them. His wife, Claudia Procula, has a bad dream and tells him (in Matthew’s account) to have nothing to do with it, even as the mob bays outside for crucifixion – he’s well and truly caught between the pirate ship and the stockade.

In short, Pilate dithers and delays. He has no conviction - in either sense of that word – and it’s only when his emperor’s position is invoked that he takes fright and, forced into a decision, sends Jesus for crucifixion, famously washing his hands of the matter.

It’s true that Pilate’s hesitancy may have been written back into the story by the early Church to exculpate the Roman authorities from which Christians sought to protect themselves and, therefore, stick the blame for Jesus’s death squarely on the Jews. And it’s hard to believe that a tinpot procurator like Pilate would take an interest in the merits of a single case against an insurgent Nazarene charged with sedition, when he’d have been accustomed to approving summary executions on a daily basis.

But the story remains and demonstrates that the most influential political decision in human history – and the reason that a middle-ranking nobody’s name is recited in the Christian creeds every Sunday all over the world to this day – is the consequence of muddle, weak leadership and shameless expedience.

That might be a source of some comfort for today’s political leaders, who can reflect that, no matter how much they might flip-flop their decisions to save their own reputational skins, they’re not going to have as bad a day at the office as Pilate did.

But there’s more than that. Despairingly, at one point in the interrogation of his prisoner, Pilate asks rhetorically “What is truth?”, unaware that it is emerging from the very confusion and chaos of the situation that he is creating.

In her brilliant book, Pilate: The biography of an invented man, Ann Wroe draws on sources as diverse as medieval mystery plays and the Acta Pilati, otherwise known as the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, to construct possible profiles of Pilate and his motives. Her descriptions of how Pilate in his fresh toga and with sweetened skin privately interviews the rebel Nazarene are exquisite – their relative positions are inverted, the representative of the most powerful empire on Earth and the bruised and chained figure before him.

Pilate struggles to weigh the various political threats that he faces. Wroe’s book describes him as “the wriggling modern pragmatist”. Tony Blair, in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph in 1996 (when he was momentarily allowed to “do God”), called this moment “a timeless parable of political life”.

Pontius Pilate’s brother

Fr. Lyle Dennen, a former Archdeacon of Hackney, has what we might call a signature sermon that he titles “Pontius Pilate’s Brother”. Dennen’s elder brother Barry (who died in 2017) was an actor and singer who starred as Pilate in the original recording and film of Jesus Christ Superstar. Fr Lyle tells of how his old headmaster (I think) would greet the boy Lyle with the words: “Ah – if it isn’t Pontius Pilate’s brother.”

His point is that we’re all related to him. His characteristics are congenital. So we all find some of ourselves in Pilate and vice versa: The dithering, the crowd-pleasing, the compromise and desire to take the course of action that will keep ourselves safest, whatever the cost for others and, indeed, for ourselves. We struggle to know what is truth and we fool ourselves that we have the power to define it.

We stand before our God and kid ourselves that we understand what’s going on. As the Christ humbles himself to our service, we and all our politicians and pundits assume that we’re in charge.

Lent, partly, is about stripping away that hubris. None of us really knows what we’re doing, not one of us is as clever as we think we are. Pragmatically we’re just trying to make a decent fist of things. We don’t want to be ditherers – we want to be crowd-pleasers. We’re all Pontius Pilate’s brothers and sisters.

George Pitcher is a visiting fellow at the LSE and an Anglican priest.