One of the less visited hidden areas of this cathedral is the gaol. Like all medieval abbeys, which were also the local Lords of the Manor, in our case the Soke of Peterborough, Peterborough Abbey had a gaol. It’s just on the righthand side as you come through the archway from Cathedral Square. There is even an old cell door in there. Fittingly it now houses our security team – not in the cell but in that area.
Justice is an important concept in the Bible. It occurs throughout and the people are condemned solidly in the Old Testament by the prophets for their failures and oppression, for corrupt weights and measures, and selling justice to the highest bidder. Injustice is incompatible with righteousness, being true to the calling to be God’s people. Holy lives are just lives. Communities of faith, built on faith, place justice at the top of the to-do list. It is how governments are judged. If they don’t uphold justice above all else, they fail and are roundly condemned for it.
The most chilling six words in Mark’s account of Jesus being judged by Pilate in that reading are: “So wishing to satisfy the crowd” (Mark 15:15). With those words justice is denied and Jesus is handed over to be crucified. Instead of assessing the evidence, which he seems to want to do, Pilate when no evidence is forthcoming, hears the baying crowd and gives in. We have laws to ensure that a fair trial takes place. And Magna Carta, which may well have had a first draft written in this abbey, or at least some of the preliminary notes and thoughts roughed out, is concerned to ensure that the accused are tried by their peers, by juries. The aim is to ensure fairness and impartiality. Justice matters and the peace of the realm, of any realm, is built on it
At the moment, the Knights Chamber is being used by one of the Nightingale Courts, the overspill courts. It feels appropriate at every level. Justice is being facilitated and supported.
Whenever there is a temptation to play to the gallery to effectively ‘sell’ justice for political popularity, great damage is done – to the accused and to the common life. A healthy community needs a healthy judicial system which needs to be independent from interference. That goes for sentencing too. And there are quite a few examples of people around the world being held without fair trials and so many regimes where justice is denied, as a means of silencing opposition or scrutiny. Myanmar is in turmoil as we see injustice upon injustice meted out.
The death of Jesus is brought about by an act of injustice and power abdicating its responsibilities. In Matthew’s Gospel (27:24), Pilate even washes his hands to show he is not to blame, which is nonsense because, whatever he thinks, it’s his judgement call. I find a poignant echo in the priest washing his or her hands before presiding at the Eucharist. It always has a bite for me as someone with leadership responsibilities. How do I exercise the responsibilities I have and use the power I have? How do I exercise judgement?
At times I have had to sit in judgement in employment appeals – as a school governor or employer. Ensuring justice is done matters. People’s livelihoods and futures rest on it. Sometimes the needs of others have to be taken into account too. There is no washing away of the responsibility and knowing it’s my call. And many of us have these moments, from dealing with squabbling children shouting “it was his fault” to more serious judgement calls. Pilate can be an uncomfortable character in the passion narrative.
There is a twist in the power dynamic of Jesus appearing before Pilate. The gospels are at pains to make it clear that Jesus is no mere victim. He is not merely ‘done to’, but exercises agency in permitting it to happen, in embracing the passion. It is this willing act of self-sacrifice that turns an act of outrage and injustice, abuse of power and abdication of power, into one of redemption. The resurrection is not just a rescuing of a situation that went wrong, but the outworking and fulfilment of this moment of agency, accepting what is to come. In so doing, Jesus plunges into the depths of the darkness of human suffering and of violence. He delves into a place we all know well and comes among us fully.
In his appearance before the court of Pilate, Jesus turns the tables. He is neither victim nor is he passively ‘done to’, though he does embrace ‘victimhood’. That does not let Pilate off the hook with a mere hand-wash. Pilate has responsibility and he bows to the crowd, sending an innocent man to his death. Pilate, actually, doesn’t really care that much about Jesus. And that ‘not caring’ is his inditement as it is everyone’s who doesn’t care enough. Whenever it is expedient to let someone die or suffer, we pick the wrong side be it violence, racial abuse or denial of it being real, sexual exploitation or abuse or something else. And so it is precisely to Pilate, to us, that redemption comes calling.
In the gospel Jesus identifies with the victims and so the # MeToo has quite an ally. The Duchess of Cambridge laying flowers in Clapham Common for Sarah Everard spoke powerfully into that story, a story she could relate to sharing the experience of every woman. Jesus embracing ‘victimhood’, enters all our stories and it is played out here before Pilate and the baying crowd. He enters those stories to bring his redeeming love to bear because in an ancient phrase, the unassumed is the unredeemed. Jesus’ redeeming work takes in the whole scope of human endeavour, pain and abusing. Over this next few hours, there is no dark place that is left untouched by Christ’s saving work on the cross to which he is about to be sent.
For men, for white people, all of us have an uncomfortable challenge as Jesus stands before Pilate. Will we wash our hands claiming it is not our fault or responsibility? Or will we look to see where we do have agency, unacknowledged attitudes at work or decisions to make? Will we give in to the crowd, peer pressure? Or will we call it out when we see it, choose to be different? Will we, in effect, send Jesus to his cross?
Address for Good Friday, Peterborough Cathedral, 2nd April 2021