Re-interpreting Easter as a challenge to governance

Arch Bishop Martin Kivuva of Mombasa Catholic Arch Diocese gives sacraments to faithfuls during the Easter Sunday prayers at the Mombasa Cathedral church in Mombasa County on Sunday,021st April,2019.[Maarufu Mohamed,Standard]

In the world of Judeo-Christianity, currently standing at about 2.4 billion people, the Passover/Easter period is one of celebrating the end of sad and momentous events with long term impact on humanity.

It commemorates a mixture of religious beliefs and claims of bad governance on the part of those in authority in pharaonic Egypt and in Judea when Pontius Pilate was governor and Tiberius was the Roman emperor. It is a warning of what can happen when cheats head religious organs and the incompetent and unjust rule polities.

Two faith founders nearly 1,300 years apart; Moses and Jesus, were raised in Egypt, the cradle of the concept of a State as a political/administrative unit and of using religion as a tool of governance. Moses grew up and lived in the Egyptian palace for 40 years, learning about every aspect of Egyptian education, statecraft, and religion as an instrument of governance when Amenhotep III and Akhenaton were forcing Egyptians into monotheism in order to reduce likely religious challenges.

Upon Akhenaton’s death, Moses went into exile and returned 40 years later as a liberator. Bringing death waves to kill Egyptians and ‘Pass over’ Hebrew houses.  This Passover became an annual ritual for the evolving religion, Judaism, based on the laws of Moses in which the top law was insistence on only one God. This became part of the Hebrew identity that was in conflict with the dictates of the Roman Empire.

Small sect

Rome was then in transition from being a Republic with governance checks and balances to becoming an empire. It was ruled by unaccountable men starting with Caesar Augustus followed by Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero who committed suicide. Nero blamed the great fire, in 64, on a small sect of people associated with Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus was crucified during Passover when Tiberius was emperor, Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Joseph Caiaphas was chief priest in Jerusalem. Tiberius had appointed Valerius Gratus governor of Judea who then appointed Caiaphas to be the high priest. Tiberius also appointed Pilate to replace Gratus. Together, Caiaphas and Pilate were responsible for an injustice that still reverberates 2,000 years later.

Having attained positions dubiously, neither could administer justice. Caiaphas, leading the Sanhedrin, condoned and personally benefited from temple defilement and therefore felt threatened by the Nazarene condemnation. It was after Jesus took a whip and chased traders and money changers from the temple in Jerusalem that Caiaphas decided to have Jesus killed.

On his part, Jesus had annoyed religious leaders but he did not want to anger ordinary people. When Peter, seemingly one of his bodyguards, cut off the ear of a Caiaphas associated soldier, Jesus quickly patched the ear and ordered Peter to return the sword to its place. His quarrels were with the high priests who defiled places of worship and not with the ordinary functionaries.

Administrative competence

The appointment of both Caiaphas as chief priest, and Pilate as governor, pointed to weaknesses in the empire governance system that condoned corruption and mischief mongering. Appointed mainly because of corruption rather than piety and high connections rather than administrative competence, Caiaphas and Pilate are examples of the damage that can arise out of cronies and misfits.

While the Caiaphas anger towards Jesus was driven by vengeance and pecuniary instincts disguised as religious concerns, the Pilate inability to act justly was driven by incompetence, indecisiveness, and lack of sense of justice backbone.

The entreaties of his well-connected wife, Claudia Procula, not to allow an injustice to take place failed to persuade Pilate to act right. Instead, the governor declared Jesus innocent, grandly washed his hands, and then freed a murderer, Barabbas.

Later, Christians would consider Claudia, to be among the earliest martyrs for the nascent church. As for Claudia’s husband Pilate, the washing of the hands, probably to cleanse his warped logic in governance, did not cleanse his incompetence in holding such high office.

The importance of Caiaphas and Pilate in Easter celebrations is therefore not just about their involvement in an event that took place over 2000 years ago, it is in the lessons to be derived from having religious and administrative misfits in high positions. While in thousands of religious organisations, leaders tend to be spiritual descendants of Caiaphas, Pilate has modern kinsmen in political/governance units.

In smooth times, such misfits do not attract attention because structures take care of routine business as usual things. In rough times, however, their incompetence and crookedness blinds them as they plunge society into prolonged misery.

Their inherent lack of vision becomes evident and stimulates upheavals and probable revolutions. To a large extent, therefore, people are Easter celebrating the fruits of high level religious crookedness that Caiaphas represents and governance incompetence that Pilate symbolizes. It is everywhere.

Prof Munene teaches History and International Relations at USIU.

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Passover/Easter periodJudeo-ChristianityPontius PilateEaster celebrations