Authority and power are often conflated and confused. Before beginning to write this, I checked back on the story of Jesus before Pilate, a man who it seems had virtually no innate authority and so clung to power by any means available to him. This, of course, made him dangerous, although it was not power in itself that did so, but Pilate’s innate weakness, his fear of being exposed as someone who obeyed his wife’s dreams, as a corrupt puppet of the distant Roman authorities, who was afraid of his boss, who was angry and confused when faced with the kind of authority that gave the lie to the power he wielded, the kind of authority held by the tortured Galilean standing before him.
Confusion and the fear of being made to look weak made him violent and vindictive. He wanted some sort of payback for being put in a job that no one else wanted, and left to get on with it, while still being held accountable for the slightest mistake, his or someone else’s. Perhaps he had been looking around for some military general, or failed intelligence official, to punish for his unfortunate predicament. But there seemed to be none, so the Galilean would have to satisfy the crowd’s blood lust and distract them for a little longer from his own precarious hold on power.
We are seeing reflections of this Pilate moment in UK politics right now, although the emphasis is slightly different. Here, we see leaders who break the laws they make and, though fined, still manage to convey a sense of moral impunity, of entitlement to both power and authority. But they have confused and conflated these two widely differing concepts. Like Pilate, they have traded genuine authority in exchange for the power that sustains and drives them like a drug, so they have no shame. Drugs have the effect of making a person oblivious of shame. Power is in this respect a kind of moral narcotic, or hallucinogenic. It warps and distorts a person’s soul.
We see something quite different in the President of the Ukraine, a man centred on truth and justice, facing down the enemy, not through power, or even personal charisma, but with authority. Jesus tells Pilate that he would have no authority unless it was given to him by God. I think what he meant was that Pilate in fact had no authority at all, only power. Whether Pilate sensed the underlying truth of this exchange is hard to know. What we do know is that he was weak and afraid. We see the opposite in Volodymyr Zelensky, a man of authority who has the trust of his people and of the free world because, like Jesus, he bears witness to the truth.
‘What is truth?’ Pilate asked. It was the wrong question, or at least one that was its own answer. The truth that Jesus spoke of, and that Zelensky bears witness to, speaks for itself. We recognise in the Ukrainian President something in the nature of a goodness that we have perhaps all lost sight of, in our relativistic, pragmatic ways of dealing with defining moments such as those which politicians are called upon to face up to from time to time.
What infuriates the Russians is that, like Jesus, Zelensky wears the mantle of authority, so bearing witness to truth, with ease but not with a sense of entitlement. He wears it in the way Christ carries his Cross, wearily, bravely, with generosity of spirit and with the kind of patience that overcomes all things. If anyone is in doubt about what true authority consists of, look to Volodymyr Zelensky, a Christ figure for the times we live in.