When I was teaching more, when I taught texts of all sorts, I often asked, "Who are you in this story?" It was a way to talk about characters, a different route in. It seemed to work especially well with students who weren't used to talking about literature.
Of course, some of you will recognize this exercise as having spiritual roots. It's very similar to one type of Lectio Divina, a way to dive deeply into a sacred text. I've experienced and led similar exercises in spiritual settings too.
So, last night, as I'm at Good Friday service listening to the Passion of Christ according to the Gospel of St. John, I thought, "Oh my heavens, I'm identifying with Pontius Pilate!"
I don't want to identify with Pontius Pilate. I'm doubtful of the depiction of Pilate, for one thing. Historical records paint a very different picture of Pilate than the Gospel of John does. The historical Pilate probably didn't hesitate before having Christ crucified. The Gospel of John shows Pilate going to great lengths to save Jesus, all for nothing. Of course, Pilate doesn't have the spine to say, "I won't have this man crucified. It's wrong, and I won't do it."
Again, let me say, the historical picture of Pilate paints a man who was hard to the point of cruelty. It's not the man we see in the Gospel. Scholars suspect that Pilate gets to be a more sympathetic character because at the time the Gospel of John was written, the Roman empire was getting ever more serious about eradicating Christians.
As I was listening to the Gospel for Good Friday, I was struck by Pilate's attempts to determine the right thing to do with this conflict that fell into his lap. I could almost sense his frustration at having to deal with an issue that should have been handled at much lower levels than his. I could see his irritation at having to deal with this Jesus, who was making no effort to help his cause. How well I know his annoyance at all of these people who were bothering him with what seemed like such a trivial matter, considering the storm clouds that were gathering in the distance.
Those of us who work in administration will recognize aspects of our work lives in the Good Friday service. Not a week goes by when I don't find myself saying, "I did not get a Ph.D. in British Literature for this!" I find myself having to attend to all sorts of details which seem trivial to me, while the whole higher education world seems to be one of the next bubbles to burst and threaten the whole economy. I find myself having to have similar discussions with students every week: "Of course you failed the class. You haven't attended the last 8 classes. You only turned in 1 assignment out of the 5 required. I don't see that the teacher treated you unfairly at all."
Like Pilate, I find myself tugged in all sorts of directions. That's the life of an administrator after all. I wonder if Pilate spent time asking, "Am I working on this issue while neglecting that really important issue? What's lurking out there? What am I forgetting?"
Unlike Pilate, I do not have to make life or death decisions. No one is crucified because of me.
Well, not literally. We could probably have fun arguing about whether or not student loans are a symbolic crucifixion. I spend time worrying about students who take on crushing debt and then leave school before finishing their degrees. What kind of future can they expect? And then I say, "Well, it's a national problem, and who am I to think I can solve it?"
And so, I hear Pilate's thinking echoing in my brain as I wash my hands of the whole issue. Like another character in the Passion narrative, I hear the crowing of the rooster. I think of all the ways I collaborate with the Powers and Principalities that work to keep us in the dark prison of oppression. Like Pilate's wife, I'm haunted by bad dreams. Like Judas, I have 30 silver coins and a bad feeling.
Do I have the beginning of a poem here or am I stretching too far?
The Summer of Reading
5 weeks ago