Villainy in the Easter Story

Villains.

They may not be the first thing that comes to mind around Easter, but that doesn’t mean the story isn’t rife with them. Plotting villains, treacherous villains, cruelly opportunistic villains, apathetic villains – virtually every form of human evil and moral failing is on display in the last week of Jesus’s earthly life. It’s worth examining this, not only for how it may affect us directly, but how it may affect our stories at the game table and elsewhere.

Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him. “But not during the Feast,” they said, “or there may be a riot among the people.-Matthew 26:3-5

Premeditated Villainy: The most stereotypical form of villainy is on display with the elders and religious leaders. They’ve determined that Jesus is a threat to their power base, and that simply cannot be allowed to continue. In their minds, He is dangerous, and in such a way and to such an extent that not only must the threat be removed, but an example must be made. We can be guilty of this when we engineer the downfall of others for our own gain, and in our stories, these villains tend to be powerful masterminds at the center of a spider’s web. However, this kind of scheming, premeditated villainy can also be the purview of lone bad actors. A lot of armed robberies, whether of a bank or a gas station, are planned out in at least some detail up front. It’s also worth noting that this sort of villainy can easily spawn more, drawing others into the plot to play a role that they may have never intended to play.

Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over. -Matthew 26: 14-16

Treacherous Villainy:  The most painful form of villainy is treason. Being betrayed by a friend hurts and it also often comes a surprise, which amplifies the pain. The motivations of the betrayer can span the entire spectrum of sympathetic or utterly reprehensible. People have been betrayed in both reality and fiction for everything from sport all the way up to grave threats on the betrayer’s own life or family. In Judas Iscariot’s case, it’s likely that his disappointment in Jesus’s lack of violent political overthrow of the Roman oppressors led him to betray Jesus.

For the third time he spoke to them: “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.” But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will. -Luke 23:22-25

Passive Villainy: Pontius Pilate didn’t set out to torture and execute an innocent man, but he succumbed to pressure to do so. In his mind, the consequences of continuing to defy the mob were too high and too dangerous, politically and personally. He may have even been right. So in the end, he did something he knew was wrong in order to maintain his own position. Given the ruthlessness and cruelty of the Roman empire, it’s relatively easy to forgive Pilate, if only because his misdeeds feel so familiar. The failure to take a stand and do the right thing and the rationalization that failing to stop something bad from happening isn’t our problem or our fault are familiar paths that many, I suspect all, of us have walked down before. In stories, these villains, if they’re even seen that way, are often the most sympathetic and are certainly the most petty. The guard that takes a bribe to look the other way, the merchant who owes a favor the local crime boss calls in, and countless others who do “little things” are the foundation many an evil plot, both in fiction and in reality, has been built upon. The famous Edmund Burke quote “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” references this phenomenon.

Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. -Matthew 27:27-31

Opportunistic Villainy:  I doubt any of the soldiers in that company woke up that morning planning to cruelly beat and humiliate an innocent man, but when the opportunity presented itself, they took to it with gusto. The casual cruelty of a child pulling the legs or wings off of an insect, the driver that blocks a lane change before an exit out of spite, the person humiliating another with an embarrassing story in front of an audience – these are all familiar scenes. People can be vicious, and sometimes the reason isn’t clear, even to the person doing it. Humanity is an apex predator, and I think some of that wiring is in all of us. In fiction, these villains can be hard to pull off properly, because they often don’t have much in the way of understandable motivation for what they do, other than that sometimes people get satisfaction out of hurting each other. This sort of villainy is best used in fiction as a complication. Someone is feeling petty today, so now the obvious solution to whatever problem is at hand won’t work. This is a strong narrative spice and should be used sparingly, or the players will begin to suspect the GM of being this way toward them.

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” “What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.” So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. -Matthew 27:3-5

 

Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said. But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. Then he went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.” He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!” After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.” Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!” Immediately a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.- Matthew 26:69-75

 

When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”-Matthew 27:24

Despair and Repentance: People who knowingly do evil seldom get out of the experience without some remorse. People have varying levels of empathy, but most have some sort of internal moral compass, and even when we deny to others that what we’ve done is wrong, oftentimes we know or at least wonder differently.  This is an often-forgotten element in fiction, even if it is all too real in our lives, and I think by making every evildoer into an unrepentant monster, we pull a lot of gravity, texture, and useful symbolic weight out of our stories in the process.

When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.-Luke 23:33-34

Forgiveness and Grace: It is important to remember that the end game for all of this is that God forgives us our sins, which is a very, very good thing, because I know that I have been the villain many more times than I’d like, and as much as I hate to admit it, as long as I’m alive and human, it will almost certainly happen again.

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