Pontius Pilate and the inversion of Cynicism

One of the many things that interest me about the Passion narrative in the Gospel of John is how he writes Pilate. Pilate is the epitome of worldly wise, battle hardened, cynical wisdom. His one liners of “What is Truth?” (John 18.38) and “What I have written, I have written” (John 19.22) show us the sardonic gallows humor of a man who doesn’t believe anything anymore, except the power of power to crush and silence. And yet...

In saying “What is Truth?”, Pilate intends to demean the possibility that there is anything true or real to depend on, and to highlight our utter inability to grasp it if we found it. But his cynical gesture inadvertently points to the Truth of the Cosmos embodied in human flesh standing right next to him. For the Truth that grounds our existence is not found in the fleeting experiences of power or profit or pleasure which never seem to satisfy. Nor is the Truth that pain and death and destruction have the last word, even if they often seem to get the last laugh. The Truth is found in the infinite Love that embraces the cosmos, and relativizes all of our petty quarrels and quickly collapsing kingdoms. And right there in Pilate’s presence, that Love who spoke Life into existence finds its fullest human expression, even though Pilate does not realize it. 

In saying “What I have written, I have written”, Pilate intends to mock the Jewish leaders who are condemning an innocent man to protect their own power and privilege. Instead, Pilate’s sarcastic one liner inadvertently proclaims the Gospel that Jesus is the King who brings fulfillment to all the hopes and dreams of the Jewish religion by his embodiment of God’s self-sacrificial Love (in other words: The entire trajectory of the Hebrew Scriptures points to a God of Christlike Love). Thus, what is most ironic about Pilate’s irony is that it reaches past irony and touches sincerity. In Pilate, cynical irony has effectively spent itself only to find the sincerity it was seeking (and hiding from) all along. 

This is because cynicism, despite its battle hardened toughness, is really a response to pain and vulnerability. It is a rhetorical pose we take to shield ourselves from being further hurt by the hypocrisy and malevolence of other people. Cynicism is a cry that people ought to be better than they are, that society ought to be healthier than it is, but that will never happen, so we need to prepare for more pain instead. Cynicism thus is a kind of psychological callous. And like a callous on the palms prepares our hand to work with abrasive and painful materials, so also cynicism prepares our hearts to work with abrasive and painful people. 

Cynicism accomplishes this through irony: The reversal of sincerity, under the guise of sincerity. Sincerity hopes for the best outcomes, and expects the best of people. Cynicism mouths the words of sincerity, but means the precise opposite: That hope for the best outcome is naive, and only the worst is realistic. That, if we are smart, we ought to expect the worst of people because they will let us down every time. Cynicism uses sincerity as a kind of parasite, to mock and destroy sincerity by using the very words and expectations of sincerity to show that sincerity is naive and ridiculous. Cynicism pretends to know that the only things that are Real are entropy, betrayal, destruction, and meaninglessness. 

Until Pilate. Christ uses the deconstructive power of cynicism to deconstruct itself and point beyond itself back to Hope. Because at the very core of cynicism is a yearning, a festering splinter, that bears witness by its persistent pain that things ought to be better than they are... If only we could believe that and hope that. When cynicism loses this splinter of hope irritating the conscience, it becomes cruelty and sadism and hate. A cynical soul still has hope. It can still change. It can still recognize Reality, despite all the pain that involves. A cruel soul has ceased to be human and has become hell on Earth. 

So through Pilate’s jaded worldliness, we glimpse that Hope for which cynicism secretly longs: Crucified yet triumphant over destruction. In Pilate, cynicism has effectively overcome itself and revealed its own secret hope, although Pilate does not yet recognize this when we leave him in the Gospel story. And yet, for the jaded and worldly wise reader— the quintessential postmodern reader— what we have is this:

1. We start with sincerity, when words and actions naively and directly point to the Reality they represent. 

2. We next move to deception and hypocrisy, when words and actions mean precisely the opposite of Reality, because they are attempting to deceive and use others to get what they want. 

3. Then we move to Cynicism, the defensive callous to protect from hypocrisy and deception by feigning the words and actions of sincerity in the ironic reversal of sincerity, to indicate that everything is broken and everyone is a deceptive hypocrite. Cynicism screams: Don’t trust anyone. 

4. And finally, the reversal of Cynicism happens when it’s pretended sincerity winds up actually pointing to the Reality it thought was too good to be true. 

Pilate has moved through all of these stages, and now he sits face to face with the Life that cannot be defeated and the Love that cannot be killed. Yet he doesn’t realize it. And it leaves us wondering: Will he be able to see past the protective walls of his Cynicism to glimpse that what he has yearned for all along is staring at him in the face?

We don’t know from this Gospel Story. But ultimately Pilate’s story is not our main concern. Our main concern is rather our own soul. Our souls are enlightened, technological, postmodern, worldly wise, jaded, and cynical. Yet, we have the fulfillment of our secret hidden hopes staring us face to face in the face of Jesus. But do we still have the capacity to recognize it?

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.