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What is Power? A Couple of Stories.

Pontius Pilate famously asked: ‘What is truth?’ He might just as well have asked: ‘What is power?’

Consider his situation. Pilate was the prefect of the province of Judea, the representative of the great Roman Empire. Before him stood a young other-worldly man who might be a nutter or a seer and who said nothing to defend himself. He seemed harmless enough, and his wife had just sent Pilate a message which read: ‘Have nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.’

There is no doubt in my mind that Pilate wanted to release Jesus. But in the end he was forced to recognise the power of the Roman appointed High Priest, Caiaphas, who led the move to have Jesus crucified.

So where did Caiaphas’s power come from, a power which was at that moment greater than the Roman prefect? It came surely from his ability to convince a sufficient number of his followers that Jesus was a menace, and by so doing to create a potentially discontented mass who might threaten the peace which Pilate was charged with preserving.

Through the ages politicians, whether despots, or colonial rulers or democratically elected leaders, have faced a similar dilemma. Our modern leaders often tell us: ‘Politics is the art of the possible.’ By this they mean that their power is more constrained than we imagine. They are engaged in a wrestling match with other powerful groups like foreign states, the rich, the military, academia, trades unions, popular movements and religions.

Ultimately power depends on convincing enough of the right people of your point of view, something, by the way, I was not conspicuously successful in doing within PSC! I say the ‘right people’ because most people are quite prepared to follow.

You may well wince when I say that, but what happened recently in PSC is a good example of this sheep-like mentality. If you had put the straight question to individual members: ‘Should Francis Clark-Lowes be expelled for expressing his opinion about the fate of Jews under the Nazis?’ I’ll wager a majority would have said ‘No!’ But wrap up the question in language which misinterprets what I said, and the crowd say ‘Yes’.

Marc Antony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar illustrates just the kind of wrestling match for power to which I referred. Brutus and the conspirators have killed Julius Caesar and have managed to carry the people with them. Recognising this, Marc Antony, who is intent on exposing their crime, carefully praises his opponents: ‘For Brutus is an honourable man; So are they all, all honourable men.’ But by gradually introducing a counter argument he wins round the crowd and thereby reclaims the power.

But to return to the biblical story, I refrained from describing Caiphas’s power as Jewish. The entanglement of Judaism and Christianity has been the source of much discrimination against Jews as well as of Jewish suspicion of Christians, and I have no desire to add fuel to that fire. There are those who maintain that it is misleading to discribe the people to whom Jesus and Caiaphas belonged as Jews. I haven’t yet formed a view on this matter.

I am also aware that there is very little evidence for the biblical accounts of Jesus’s life and death. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is based on much firmer ground, though it is also a fictionalised version of events. But both of these stories have the ring of truth to them. Stories are important, even if they can at times be dangerous. It is our job to monitor the way they are used.

Meanwhile my story is one of marginalisation and the power of that position!

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