One of the defining characteristics of a modern-day Pharisee is that you don’t know you are one. You’re self-righteous, power-hungry, and merciless—but too hard-hearted to ever realize it.
Pontius Pilate, on the other hand, was a little more self-aware. His problem was passivity and cowardice, not willful ignorance.
At the moment, I think I’m more like Pontius Pilate. Many of us white evangelical Christians are like Pontius Pilate.
The Roman governor knew Jesus’ execution was unjust. He even said so–he spoke up and said that Jesus had done nothing wrong. When he authorized Jesus’ execution, Pilate symbolically washed his hands of Jesus’ blood–just like Christians posting a heartfelt Instagram message after yet another Black or Asian life is taken. Pontius Pilate hoped that his emotional anguish and public denunciation of Jesus’ death would somehow make him less complicit. It didn’t.
Do you believe that the Holy Spirit’s power is real, able to work and move and make an impact in our world? Does the Holy Spirit live in you? If so, your responsibility is even greater than Pontius Pilate’s, for you have been given heavenly power and authority.
Jesus’ Way Isn’t “Safe”
Put your hope in politics and you will quickly fall into despair–or worse, you’ll be consumed and corrupted. But neither can we disengage and opt out of politics. Passivity may seem like the safer option, but it makes us the same as Pontius Pilate when he surrendered Jesus to the will of the crowd. As usual, Jesus points His followers to a third way. We must remember that our ultimate hope is heavenly, and stand up for justice and love on earth.
Evangelical Christians have tremendous political, cultural, and financial influence. We do not hesitate to wield our power when it comes to religious freedom or abortion. What stops us from attacking personal and systemic racism with everything we’ve got? We could organize, strategize, and become a formidable anti-racism force.
At an individual level, the Holy Spirit will use us if we open our hearts. Each of us has different gifts! Preachers can speak honestly and clearly about anti-racism from the pulpit. Teachers can help others identify and understand their racial biases and moderate discussions about structural racism. Anyone who can put together a Mother’s Day Luncheon can organize a Christian anti-racism seminar! Anyone who can survive a weekend Youth Group retreat can handle a phone call campaign to demand prison reform.
We have reasons to stay out of it. Pontius Pilate had his reasons, too. It was complicated. Jesus was innocent of political rebellion, but if Pontius Pilate stood side by side with this radical, things could spiral and he’d be a part of the whole mess. It was safer to stick with the established powers at play (i.e. the Pharisees). It was safer to preserve peace at that moment, even if it cost a life.
Anti-racist activists are not Jesus, so the comparison is imperfect, just as anti-racist activists are imperfect. Yet the similarities are clear—white, evangelical Christians are afraid to join anti-racist actions for fear that that something will go wrong. We’re afraid to work with people we don’t share views with. We’re afraid to wade into the giant mess of it all.
It’s safer keep things as they are. It’s safer not to get involved when an innocent man dies (or when many Black, Latino, and Asian people die). It’s safer to label it a random misfortune when police mace a nine-year old Black girl. It’s safer not to question the system that brings a six-year old Black boy to court for picking a tulip. And as Pontius Pilate asked, “What is truth?” How do we know what really happened between the police officer and that little girl as she cried for her daddy?
Faith Without Works is Dead
Jesus wasn’t too pleased with thoughts and prayers unaccompanied by action. Love without action hurts people. A parent can feel love for their child and still neglect them.
In Matthew 25, Jesus tells His last, precious stories before the events of the crucifiction unfold.
He tells us that one day He’ll separate the “sheep” from the “goats,” and He won’t sort us by our intentions or how sad we felt about injustice. He’ll sort us by what we’ve done—and says when we fail to act on behalf of the vulnerable, He’s the one we’re neglecting.
As a child and young adult, I felt scared and guilty when I read Jesus’ description of separating the sheep and the goats. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus intended! Wallowing in guilt just makes me self-involved. Niether do I love people well when I’m acting out of fear.
I think Jesus was trying to say, “Wake up! Look around! Stir your stumps!”
When I don’t offer anything to the homeless guy on the corner, that’s Jesus I’m passing by. When I don’t care for sick people by wearing a mask, I’m endangering Jesus. When I fail to welcome strangers, I’m shutting out Jesus. Wake up! Look around! Stir your stumps!
And in the video of George Floyd’s death, that’s Jesus on the pavement gasping, “I can’t breath!”
Heartbreak and prayers are appropriate. But it is not enough. The evangelical Christian community is not an active presence in the fight against racism. We claim innocence, we choose passivity. We would prefer justice, but won’t put our necks out to make it happen. We are Pontius Pilate.