Testing Trials, Egregious Errors: Good Friday Reflections

Luke 22: 71a – And they said, “What further need do we have of testimony?”

Matthew 24: 27 – Now when Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this Man’s blood; you yourselves shall see.”

A good friend summed up the apparent hopelessness of our position.  She said, “…sometimes, they won’t let you be clergy, much as Bonhoeffer was not allowed be a Lutheran Pastor or the theologian he was called to be”.  She added, “sometimes, all there is to do is stand and face what is coming. You did not choose this path: it is a vocation, and we just cannot imagine the cost.  What is asked of you is not necessarily to fight back, but simply to stand. They will keep attacking. Thank you for not running away….”.

According to Mark, Jesus had two “hearings”. The first was before the Sanhedrin. The intended outcome, conviction for blasphemy and then execution, was determined before the hearing. To achieve this end, witnesses, who offered trumped-up evidence, were used. As it turned out, the witnesses were either unpersuasive speakers or simply liars. When this approach did not succeed, the High Priest asked an outraged rhetorical question about Jesus’s self-understanding and identity, assuming that the expected answer (which Jesus did in fact give) could not be true. At this point, the High Priest declared “Jesus’ guilt before polling his fellow justices…the other members of the Sanhedrin go along with this mockery of justice, chiming in with a unanimous death sentence”.

Why did the members of the Sanhedrin not themselves carry out the execution of Jesus by stoning, as was sometimes the practice (see John 8:1-12, Acts 7:54-60), but send Jesus to Pilate for another hearing? The usual explanation is that “except for some agreed-upon, automatically punishable crimes, the execution of capital punishment was under the control of the Roman prefect/procurator, not of the Sanhedrin authorities”. Perhaps this is right, but if it is, Pilate was not following the usual practice of Roman officials to leave to the Jewish leaders themselves questions about what we might call “theological issues” (Acts 18:12-15, 23:26-30).

The reason why the Jews remitted the case to Pilate is because the Sanhedrin feared that the many people who supported Jesus would not have stood by if Jesus were stoned to death. So, the Sanhedrin asked Pilate also to try the case by misrepresenting Jesus’s claim to be “the king of the Jews” and by presenting these words – theirs, not Jesus’s – as a challenge to Roman rule. In effect, the charge they laid is sedition, for which the sentence was execution. They pressed Pilate to convict Jesus on this ground and, as a penalty, to crucify him.

At the public trial before Pontius Pilate, he was mindful of the Jewish festival that was taking place and of the teeming crowds that were in Jerusalem. He buckled to Jewish pressure for a speedy outcome, probably because he wished to avoid the civil disorder that was a risk at festivals. He also wanted to avoid forfeiting the support of the Jewish leaders on whose co-operation for public order, especially at festivals, he depended. For the sake of peace, he placated the watching crowds whom the Jewish leaders had stirred up to demand that Jesus be executed (Mark 15:11, 15).

Pilate ignored his clear and plain legal duty to hold a proper investigation to determine innocence or guilt, and then impose an appropriate sentence. In contrast and at a later time, Festus, a procurator of Judea (59-62 CE), was an example of a Roman official whose approach to a capital charge was more obviously fair. In Acts, he is reported to have said of charges laid against Paul that it was “‘not the custom of the Romans to give up anyone [to execution] before the accused met the accusers face to face concerning the charges against him’” (Acts 25:16).

Whichever explanation is right about why, according to Mark, the Jews sent Jesus to Pilate, the point for us to note is that the Sanhedrin, which judged and condemned Jesus, manipulated and schemed to deflect onto others responsibility for the outcomes the members of the Sanhedrin wanted. They ignored the onerous responsibility of true justice, namely, that those who try people and pass sentence (or who remit cases for trial elsewhere) are to take responsibility for their actions, knowing they are accountable to a higher authority. Rather, the members of the Sanhedrin used others – Pilate and the crowds – as instruments to achieve the unjust outcomes they had connived to achieve. Injustices use others in their machinations.

Pilate was a representative of civil power and clearly unpersuaded by the allegation that Jesus claimed to be a king. He realised that Jesus had done no wrong over which he had legitimate jurisdiction. Even after Jesus had been “accused of many things”, Pilate asked, “What evil has [Jesus] done?”. He did not receive any kind of answer. He could have regarded the issues as internal to the Jews and for them to settle. However, Pilate’s aim was not justice but expediency. He showed little interest in a fair-minded and dispassionate investigation, and saw the death of Jesus as an instrumentally good for civil order, and his own reputation with Rome. The outcome of the hearing before Pilate, with its palpable lack of evidence, was craven, and it led to the destruction of an innocent man. Such a use of power is neither just nor based on truth. It is not the way that power with God is to be used.

So, there it is: expediency, flawed justice, lack of evidence, a crowd baying to destroy an innocent man: “what need have we have of any proper process, or of further testimony?”.  Does this sound at all familiar to any of you here today?  Or others crying out for justice? Alexander Solzhenitsyn once opined that there always is this fallacious belief: “it would not be the same here and now…”: such evil things would now be impossible. He did not agree.

Hannah Arendt, our foremost scholar of totalitarianism, had this to say: “totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.” That is part of the reason why Donald Trump got away with so much. He once said: “I value loyalty above everything else, more than brains, more than drive and more than energy”. Trump’s exultation of personal loyalty over expertise is exactly what we see in the Church of England today. 

The National Safeguarding Team is riddled with this crippling virus; they caught it off the Archbishops’ Council. Indeed, almost every Bishop’s Senior Staff Team has the virus, as do all Diocesan Synods and most of General Synod.  There is no vaccine. Most church committees that have the virus do not even know they are ill, and have no way of recognising how weak they have become. 

Those leading the Church of England claim that we are making progress on all safeguarding fronts.  In truth, we are locked in an endless, cruel slow circularity.  One that is not overseen by theological leadership, but rather an ecclesial version of Foucault’s “carceral system” – process-orientated project-managed persecution that makes an example of one; but then sets entire cohorts of Barabbas’ free. Where is the justice, reason and proportionality?

The Church of England runs an unsafe, unprofessional, untrustworthy, unreliable and unstable safeguarding system. It is partial in who it expedites, and who it excoriates.  The system lacks self-awareness, emotional intelligence, integrity (i.e., has no employment law rights for clergy accused), probity or compassion. Its Core Groups are untrained, unlicensed and unregulated. There are barely written conflicts of interest policy. The accused and the abused are not allowed legal representation and instead are met with bias and gassy-gossip masquerading as ‘pastoral concern’.

The only safe thing left to do is not be part of an unsafe system. The system is incompetent, corrupt and unfit for purpose, and one that fails, soils and stigmatizes everyone it comes into contact with. The system set up to deal with abuse is systematically abusive. It is harmful, and dangerous. The system is riddled with favouritism, nepotism, incompetence and scapegoating. Small institutions run by small people will strive for sectarian objectives…and produce sickly results.

I have called this out because I dare to believe we might be speaking for the many, not the few.  I am also free to speak my mind, and I choose to do so.  As George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four) wrote, “if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.  Yes, that was Orwell.  It could just as easily have been Tutu, Gandhi, Mandela or Martin Luther King Jr. Bonhoeffer wrote “Not to speak is to speak; not to act is to act”. Far too many of our church leaders will not comment or speak out. They fail to register concern or any compassion, as though their silence and inaction absolved them.

I am not asking for protests or for rebellion.  I call instead for quiet revolution, reform and loyal dissent.  Our refusal to put up with the poor leadership in the Church of England that has given us this culture and ecclesial politics, and expects us to live with it. We should not tolerate it one bit longer.  We should instead seek a proper, deep and cleansing spiritual renewal. But first we may need some proper public exorcism within our institution before we can even get this work started.

Giving ourselves totally to Christ is not an abstraction or a pious thought. It must be concrete and communal. Freedom is responsibility. It means to live within the truth, even when it hurts. The early twentieth century Young Christian Workers movement who went by the name of ‘Jocists’ had a motto: See, Judge, Act. See meant to be awake to the realities around you. Judge was a command to discern soberly the meaning of those realities in the light of what you knew to be true, especially from the teachings of Christ.  Act, that finally, after you reach a mind, you are then required to resist evil.

The cowardice and indifference amongst our church leadership is extremely disturbing to observe, and even worse to experience. I have seen far too much of it over the years. But my experience of it, personally, and first-hand, has left me wondering if any person who is unable to care and show moral courage and leadership should ever be a Bishop of anywhere to anyone. I think not. A Bishop who cannot show care for their clergy surely needs to find a different job.

Perhaps like me you are weary of lame excuses that sanction poor procedures, poor practice, and poor prelates.  We are in desperate need of fearless care and moral leadership that begins at home, and weeds out the dysfunctional and damaging systems, customs and praxis that cause much suffering.  We should perhaps begin with safeguarding, which is now so unsafe that it has become as wicked as any of the abuse it was supposed to be addressing.  But where will we find a Bishop today with courage and conviction to take responsibility?

John Banville, writing of the abuse scandals that have engulfed the Roman Catholic Church for decades, noted that “everyone knew, but no-one said…I have heard no-one address the question of what it means, in this context, to know” (‘A Century of Looking the Other Way’, New York Times, 22 May 2009).  The Church of England knows its own corruption too; yet chooses silence, indifference and amnesia.  I have no right to a Good Samaritan. Nobody does. But surely that is the point of the parable? Good, humane care is what Jesus asks us to do. It is worth the risk. In God’s eyes, every person is worth that risk – Jesus embodies that. Is it really too much to ask for Bishops, governance and leadership in our churches who understand this, to now act? I dare to hope we will live to see the day when our churches are led with courage, compassion, care and wisdom. By lions, not donkeys; shepherds, not wolves; Good People, not Daleks (with flat batteries and circuitry issues0. I fear we cannot wait much longer, but wait in hope, we must.