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Pragmatism and Principle

by Kevin Clark

Two men faced each other across the expanse of a wide room. Although events had pushed them together, the two could not have been more different.

The one man had been born into wealth and privilege, with all of his earthly needs filled by servants. The other had been born into a crushing poverty, but with loving parents who cared for him.

The one was accustomed to giving orders and having them followed immediately, backed up by the force of law. The other attracted followers to himself by his presence and sheer force of his will.

The one, arrayed in the finest silks, sat upon a throne of marble. The other stood, clad in the purple of royalty, and wearing an odd sort of crown.

Outside, a throng of people gathered, and called for blood. They would have the life of one of these two men, but which one?

It was up to one of the men to decide, for one of them held the life of the other in his hands.

When Jesus faced Pilate in Jerusalem upon that day, it was not exactly the meeting of opposites. It was more a case of fullness meeting emptiness. It was not a case of matter and anti-matter, but more a case of matter and doesn’t matter.

Pilate was a politician, who was given the responsibility of running a province of Rome. His job was not to see that truth and justice were upheld, but simply to ensure that the ships taking treasure back to Rome ran on time. For someone such as Pilate, a man devoted to pragmatism and the wisdom of the world, Jesus was an inscrutable puzzle.

Jesus was a different kind of man than Pilate had ever encountered. Pilate lorded his authority over Jesus, saying to Jesus, “Do you not know I have the power to crucify you and the power to free you?” Yet, Jesus was neither awed nor intimidated by Pilate. Jesus said to Pilate, “For this was I born, and for this came I into the world; that I should give testimony to the truth. Every one that is of the truth, hears my voice.” In response to Jesus, Pilate answered, “What is truth?”

Of course, having the very incarnation of Truth in front of him, Pilate could rightly have asked, “What is truth?” and then might have learned at the feet of Jesus. But that was not the motivation of the question. His was a rhetorical question. By asking “What is truth?” Pilate meant there was nothing that could be called truth. The only truth Pilate recognized at that moment was the truth of the mob outside his doors. Whether it was right or wrong to comply with the desires of the mob simply did not enter into Pilate’s thinking.

This conflict between principle and pragmatism is a conflict which we often find in our own lives. The question is usually not, what is right? We generally know that. The question is, will we do what is right? Will we be guided by principle or by pragmatism?

Our society today is ruled by a tyranny of pragmatism. We are told that food should be withheld from the terminally ill because it is easier for everyone. We are told that if unwanted babies are aborted, then we won’t need to build so many jails to house criminals later on. We are told that we should go along to get along, and not upset anyone by daring to speak an offensive truth.

It often seems that pragmatism is wisdom; that we should do the easy thing, the expedient thing; and perhaps we will live to fight another day, a far off day when principle might win out. However, pragmatism is not true wisdom, because it does not stand up over time. Between the two men who stood there that day, Jesus and Pilate, who won in the end?

The gains that are achieved by pragmatism are only for this moment, this hour, this day. Pragmatism is never a cry that stirs men’s souls for long. No general has ever rallied his troops by telling them that they will take the easy way out. No president has ever inspired his people by hewing blindly to poll results.

Disbelief may carry someone through a day, but it will never carry anyone through life. It is never the unbelievers who triumph in the end, because unbelievers have no reason to push on against all odds toward their goal.

It is principle which stands up over time. It was through belief in a principle that a ragtag group of twelve men converted the world. It was through belief in a principle that they were willing to give up all of themselves.

As the Scriptures tell us,“Without a vision, the people perish.”

It can safely be said that home schooling is not pragmatic. The pragmatic approach is to turn children over to public schools to be educated. Doing so saves a great deal of time, money, and aggravation. Instead of staying home and teaching the children, both parents can be out in the working world, and so maximize their earning potential. Making a choice to home school usually means less money for vacations, less money for cars, clothes, and houses. It means less money for the parents in their retirement accounts. It is definitely not a pragmatic decision.

It is a decision that parents make out of principle, because they too wish to “testify to the truth.”

The world, the media—these are the stand-ins for the mob today. The world rarely gathers outside our window and loudly clamors for us to do what is right. No, it clamors for us to do what is wrong, or rather, to deny that anything is wrong. We can go along with the world as Pilate did; we can turn our backs on untruths and injustice and pretend they have nothing to do with us. Or, we can travel another path. A path trod so many years ago by a suffering but unbroken Galilean.