Of Pontius Pilate, George Orwell, Christ and Elephants

Lessons learned from reading the essay “Shooting An Elephant” by George Orwell, famous as the author of “1984” and “Animal Farm.”

The Palestinian Jews of the first century AD and the Roman occupiers felt mutual contempt for one another, much like the situation with the British in Burma. Initially protesting that the accused was innocent, Pilate was pressured by the will of the people he ostensibly ruled into taking an action he had wished to avoid—executing Christ. 

Eating breakfast this morning, I causally picked up my son’s textbook on British Literature. I found myself reading an essay by George Orwell, famous as the author of 1984 and Animal Farm. The title was “Shooting An Elephant.” He described how as a young man in the days of the British Empire, he served as a police officer in rural Burma. He hated his job, the empire, and what it stood for. The “natives” hated both him and the empire. They passively expressed their contempt for him with scornful facial expressions and laughter behind his back. But it was his duty to enforce British authority in the village.

Along came a rogue elephant careening through the village. At first it just smashed a few fruit stands, but then it trampled a man to death, a “coolie.” Orwell felt obliged to call for a gun and go looking for the elephant. He really didn’t know what to do, but he knew he definitely did not want to shoot the elephant. But he was soon trailed by a crowd of two thousand villagers hungry for entertainment. He felt the collective will of the crowd expecting the elephant to be shot; he knew that disappointing them was not an option. As the local representative of the British rule, he had to appear resolute and not vacillate.

So upon finding the elephant, which was placidly standing still eating, he emptied several rounds into it. He described how it slowly crumpled to the ground with signs that he was visibly dying in agony, but never died. Orwell withdrew from the scene and was later informed that the animal died half an hour after he left. He had done something he thought was unnecessary and which he hated doing, yet was pushed into doing it by the will of a colonized people he hated and who hated him.

I see an analogy between Orwell’s experience, and the crucifixion of Christ upon the orders of the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate. The Palestinian Jews of the first century AD and the Roman occupiers felt mutual contempt for one another, much like the situation with the British in Burma. Initially protesting that the accused was innocent, Pilate was pressured by the will of the people he ostensibly ruled into taking an action he had wished to avoid—executing Christ. In these two stories we read of the death of an errant elephant and an innocent man. By reading Orwell’s essay, I feel I’ve gained new insight into the dynamics involved in the story of the crucifixion.

Larry Brown is a minister in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and serves as Professor of church history, world history, hermeneutics and missions at the African Bible College in Lilongwe, Malawi, where he has served for 28 years.