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Washing Pilate’s Hands

ISSUE:  Autumn 1932

There was but one other visitor rummaging among the dusty files in the library of the Musee de la Guerre in Vincennes that sultry afternoon in April. He was an elderly gentleman who wore a tightly-buttoned black frock-coat, the traditional vade mecum and hall-mark of the savant in France. Save for a bristling pompadour brushed back stiffly from his forehead, his snow-white hair was closely cropped. A rural college professor, one might have assumed, out to verify some subtly elusive fact in this huge labyrinth of information. In answer to my greeting as I entered the stranger mumbled a curt “bon jour.” With that he plunged back hastily into the pile of documents which lay spread out pell-mell on the table before him. It was not until I had finally installed myself with the books I had come to consult that the stranger’s extraordinary behavior began to divert my attention from the manuscript in hand. Every once in a while he would fling back his chair, step across the room with quick, nervous strides, glance over the titles on the bookshelves, and lug one of the yellowed tomes over to the table where he was taking notes. In this he had so little in common with the usual type of bonquiniste one encounters in every provincial French library, that his nervousness imperceptibly began to communicate itself to me. This man apparently knew nothing of the patience, akin to resignation, which the exasperating system of red tape in vogue in France’s public institutions nurtures in the human breast. Certainly he was not in the state of grace engendered by listening to slow-ticking clocks while easy-going attendants look up the books desired. On the contrary, the man in front of me was decidedly noisy. He slapped his books down on the table. He closed them with a bang. There were half-suppressed exclamations of annoyance. In short, he paid no attention whatever to the solemn admonitions to “Silence Absolu!” placarded all over the walls.

As by miracle the lone attendant of the reading-room, whom I had come to know on previous visits as a pitiless enforcer of the rules, seemed not only to have relaxed enforcement for once, but actually to be helping in breaking the regulations. This usually so gruff and monosyllabic old veteran had suddenly taken to stamping and stumping around the room on his wooden leg in a high state of excitement. No sooner had the white-haired visitor pounced upon a book on the shelves than the functionary would rush forth from his cosy corner to offer assistance. And conversely, when the visitor was about to take his seat, the attendant made sure to be on hand to push the chair like my lord’s butler.

Who was the visitor anyway? That he was a man of distinction seemed plain enough, judging from the flunkey’s obsequiousness. No such honors had ever been shown a browser before, as far as I could remember. What had he come to do in the Musee of drowsy afternoons1 memory? You couldn’t even hear the flies buzzing against the windows, such a stir he made!

To be sure, those steel-blue eyes of the stranger seemed vaguely familiar. But where had I seen that impressive face before? The white hair and the rock-like features made me think involuntarily of a piece of marble sculpture. If only he would sit still for a minute, I mused, I might possibly locate him in my mental index. I did not search for long. For just as I was beginning to worry about the matter, the visitor suddenly looked up with an impatient gesture and called out sharply to the attendant: “Turn on the light, please!”

Meekly and promptly came the answer: “At once, Monsieur le Marechal!” A Marshal, was he? Of course he was. Who else could it be? How could I have puzzled so long? Maybe it was the frock-coat that had put me off the track. If only he had been in uniform. . , . But there he was sitting before me; majestic Lyautey, whom the French, with classic flavor, call “Lyautey Africanus,” the man who succeeded in transforming the external civilization of North Africa, and who will go down in history as the builder of the Moroccan Empire. How could I have been so blind? No wonder the veteran-attendant was in a nervous sweat. A Marshal in the reading-room!

It had been raining softly outside. Now it was pouring. Thunder rolled over the old Donjon of Vincennes, of which the library forms a part. Sudden gusts of wind came howling through the huge chimney. The storm was tapping on the window-panes. Three or four times the electric light in the room dimmed ominously. Presently it went out for good. The room was plunged in semi-darkness as the storm swelled into a tempest. I walked over to the window to look out. The sky was black. Violet bolts of lightning shot through the inky clouds and lit up the spires of the Gothic chapel in the square with a sulphurous glow. Marshal Lyautey also came over to the window. Before our eyes the lightning struck a scaffold around the stunted tower across the square and sent it crashing down with frightful clatter upon the flagstones below. The entire square at our feet was turned into a boiling lake. The clock tower above the castle gate struck three. At the same time the bells were answered with a rattling clap of thunder.

“I have never seen such a rainstorm in my life,” I ventured, rather timidly.

“I have,” replied the Marshal emphatically. “In Africa I have seen the rain wash away in half an hour a road system which it took thousands of men a year to construct. And not just once. I have seen it several times. In Jerusalem, too, where I was visiting in 1897, I saw the streets turned into rivers in less than a quarter of an hour. The houses were like islands. We were marooned in our hotel for days on end.”

We stood silently watching the swirling flood below. The flashes of lightning made me jump back from the window at times, but the Marshal never budged an inch. So he had been to Jerusalem, I mused. I had just returned from the Holy City myself a few months before. Walking around in the tortuous alleys of the bazaar, I had frequently gone around day-dreaming, as any man must involuntarily do in that historic environment, about the most tremendous human drama once enacted within its walls. What had been the thoughts of Lyautey Africanus on that subject in Jerusalem? I wondered. What had he thought, for instance, standing before the ruins of the Roman Forum, or while strolling along the Via Dolorosa? Here, they would have told him, Saint Peter stood warming his hands on the night of his denial. There Pilate washed his hands after launching the disturbing question, “What is truth?” More than anybody else, perhaps, Lyautey could put himself in Pilate’s place. Had he not been proconsul of France in Morocco, as Pontius had been Rome’s governor in Judea? Had not Lyautey the reputation of having dealt wisely with rebellious Semitic mobs in the flaming soukhs of Marrakesh and Fez? How woidd Lyautey Africanus have gone about Pilate’s job? What would he have done with Jesus? For a few moments I stood in mental debate as to whether the posing of these questions would be indelicate or impolite.

Presently I found the Marshal listening sympathetically to an account of my then recent visit to the Holy Land. An amused light came into his eyes, I thought, as I began to make discreet allusions to the similarity in the respective positions of Pontius in Judea and Lyautey in Africa. Had Monsieur the Marshal, I asked, ever come across a young itinerant Arabic exhorter, some fiery Ulema whose teachings carried the flavor of revolution? Indeed he had. “Many times,” he assured me with a chuckle. Ah well, then, Monsieur the Marshal must have been able to appreciate Pilate’s position! Would His Excellency have been more indulgent had he been in Pilate’s place, or had the Roman Governor acted with a severity which the circumstances required, when he sent Jesus to Calvary for crucifixion? There. I had posed the question. I was not long in waiting for an answer.

“Pilate was unquestionably in the right,” spoke up Lyautey immediately and with conviction. “Only, the crucifixion of Jesus was but a half-measure. In Semitic countries one has to watch very carefully for the type of holy man capable of collecting a crowd. It is up to the Government to know exactly what such an individual is saying. Pilate’s intelligence service probably worked very imperfectly. At least, he doesn’t seem to have had any idea of what Jesus was saying until the high priests came to inform him. The Governor should have had daily stenographic reports of what the fellow was saying. He would have known then that Jesus had been preaching sedition for three years.”

“Was Jesus preaching sedition then?” I asked in surprise.

“Ecoutez,” resumed the Marshal, “any man who gives an answer such as Jesus gave when they showed him the coin with Caesar’s effigy is a dangerous individual. There was a potential rebel in a man who preached about a certain mysterious kingdom of the future. Whatever the nature of that kingdom, you can depend on it, there was no room in it for taxes or legions or Pilate or Caesar or any Romans at all. It is true,” the Marshal resumed after a short silence, “Pilate had not arrived in Jerusalem when Jesus chased the moneychangers from the Temple, but assuming he had any intelligence service at all, he should have acted without delay upon arrival. Jesus had been caught interfering with business. The money-changers, you might say, were the Wall Street crowd of his day. They were decent people. To this day, in Eastern cities, they form a highly-respected class in the community. What would they do with a husky, fiery young carpenter who came to kick around desks and clerks on the floor of the Stock Exchange? Hein? Tell me that!” exclaimed M. Lyautey.

“They would be sure to make short shrift of him!” I replied.

“Of course they would,” he came back. “Do you see now how indulgent Pilate was!

“When Jesus kept on preaching about his Kingdom and told his friends: ‘You see that there are princes in this world, who have authority over the people,’ and added, ‘But I say unto you, in the Kingdom it shall not be thus,’ depend upon it he was directly defying the imperial authority! Could Pilate tolerate that kind of nonsense? In hot countries subversive ideas are as contagious as the plague.

“On the other hand,” he went on, “the aristocrats of Jerusalem had made their peace with the Romans. Rome stood for order and prosperity. At the same time, the priests knew that revolt was brewing. They were watching those Galilean strangers going around in little bands. Little bands of that sort are more dangerous than an army. They have ideas. The aristocratic party realized that if a revolt broke out, Pilate would not hesitate to strike hard, with all his force, and that he would respect no person or parties. Pilate probably held the priests responsible for the maintenance of order. He had the fullest right to do so. They claimed to be men of influence and authority. From their side the Hebrew priests sized up the situation correctly when they said: ‘Better that one man suffer than that the whole nation perish.’ They were animated by a purely patriotic motive when they denounced the Galilean rebel who made incursions into the city, stirred up trouble, and then ran out again to hide in the gardens on the Mount of Olives.

“When Pilate came to Jerusalem he was confronted with a delicate situation. The city was full of strangers for the festival. Black-eyed Jewish girls were out shopping in the bazaar. The legionaires were dawdling in the doors of their barracks. In the taverns the Galilean revolutionaries, the precursors of Kochba, were drinking blood-red wine. They carried pilgrim staffs. It is easily seen what might have happened. Any vulgar bawdy-house brawl might have set the whole city aflame. The Jewish priests knew what was in the air. They wanted to prevent by all means in their power what later happened when Titus had to put things straight.

“And so they wisely warned Pilate. And Pilate did what any sensible governor would have done under the circumstances. He arrested the trouble maker and crucified him as an example,” said the Marshal.

“You would have done the same thing, then?” I asked the Proconsul of Morocco.

“No,” he said, “I wouldn’t. I said before that I consider the crucifixion of Jesus a half-measure. Had I been in Pilate’s place and had I known the damage the followers of Jesus were to inflict in days to come, how they would destroy all that was beautiful and graceful in the ancient world, I would not have been satisfied with executing Jesus. I would have put every one of his disciples up against the wall and have fusiladed them. I would not have had any compunctions in the matter, I assure you. It would have been a small matter then. They were only a handful!”

“And the Hebrew priests?”

“Those priests? They were noble patriots. They knew their country’s interest. Had I been Pilate I would have given them a cross also. But the cross of the Legion of Honor, bien entendu!”


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