Calling for Barabbas
One afternoon earlier this week, I was driving in the car and flipped the radio to the local AM Christian station, as I occasionally do. Generally their programming ranges from pre-recorded sermons to shows about parenting and marriage advice to "current events" programs which tend to mirror whatever the latest point of outrage on conservative talk radio is (Liberals! Gays! Intellectuals!). On this particular afternoon the topic of the show in progress was ISIL (or ISIS or Islamic State or Daesh or whatever we're calling them now).
The guest on the show, a "global security expert" whom I've never heard of, was making the case that the U.S. and Europe needs to "get into the gutter" and use the same "cold-blooded" tactics of brutality that ISIL uses. "If you don't want to fight the way they fight, you're going to end up being a victim,” the expert warned. "Well, we should learn that from history," the host responded, bringing up the guerilla warfare tactics used by Colonialists against British Redcoats in the Revolutionary War. The host then asked rhetorically, "Do you go to the gutter and fight them there, or do you fight them in our neighborhoods?" implying that failure to match ISIL's brutality will result in them invading American suburbs. The two Christian radio pundits went on to extol the merits of waterboarding and carpet-bombing. In order to maintain a spiritual component in the show, the host then had a different guest on to briefly talk about "our most powerful weapon against ISIL, which is prayer."
At no point was any consideration given to Jesus' teaching that we must love our enemies (which I think includes not torturing and bombing them) or Christ's command to "put away your sword" or the Apostle Paul's instruction that "we do not wage war as the world does" (2 Cor. 10) or the consistent position of the early church that Christians were not to engage in violent retribution (for example, Clement of Alexandria: “Above all, Christians are not allowed to correct with violence the delinquencies of sins.” and Justin Martyr: “We who were filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness, have each through the whole earth changed our warlike weapons,—our swords into plowshares, and our spears into implements of tillage,—and we cultivate piety, righteousness, philanthropy, faith, and hope, which we have from the Father Himself through Him who was crucified. ...we do not wage war against our enemies...” and Origen: "He [Christ] nowhere teaches that it is right for His own disciples to offer violence to any one, however wicked.” etc, etc.). None of this was mentioned by either the host or the "expert" guest on this Christian radio program.
Since it was a couple of days before Good Friday and Easter when I heard this radio conversation, it got me to thinking about Barabbas, a man mentioned in all four Gospels. Barabbas is sometimes depicted as a robber but he was actually a Jewish insurrectionist against the Romans, charged with treason and murder. At the time of Jesus there was much violent sentiment among the Jews towards their Roman overlords. The Roman occupation was brutal, the "Jewish" king Herod was a puppet tyrant, and the religious temple system in Jerusalem was corrupt. The rank-and-file Jewish people were desperately poor, oppressed and over-taxed. A common dilemma was to lose one's land as a result of tax debt and become destitute. The average Jew hated the Romans and hated those among them who collaborated with the Romans (such as tax collectors). They dreamed of a messiah--a leader appointed by God--who would arise to command them in battle to drive the Romans from their land and restore their kingdom and temple to its former glory. There was a growing movement of Zealots who were actively engaging in riots, confrontations with Roman soldiers and assassinations of Roman citizens.
Yet Jesus, popular as he was with many, continuously spoke of an altogether different type of kingdom: one marked by non-violence, peacemaking, compassion, forgiveness, fair and equal justice for everyone, care for the poor and the sick and the marginalized and the outsiders,--in a word, a kingdom characterized by shalom. Jesus and his followers traveled throughout Judea speaking of and demonstrating this kingdom, and when they came to Jerusalem they re-enacted the ritual processional celebration of a new king entering the city to take his throne. Then they occupied the temple (after Jesus had chased out the money-changers). Jesus and his followers were directly challenging the oppressive power structures and it didn't take long for those in power to react by arresting him on trumped up charges and turning him over to the Romans as an agitator of rebellion. Jesus's followers were scattered.
When the presiding Roman government official, Pontius Pilate, interviewed Jesus, he realized the innocence of the man brought before him. Rather than subject Jesus to crucifixion (a punishment typically reserved for insurrectionists, and meant to send a chilling message to the populace), Pilate offered, in accordance with a once-a-year Passover tradition, to release him. The crowd instead demanded the release of Barabbas. In choosing Barabbas, the crowd was choosing the man of violence over the man of peace. Barabbas' and the Zealots' ethos was that violence was the expedient action required to deal with the crisis of Roman occupation. Jesus' solutions were impractical.
History tells us that the people of Judea, by-and-large, continued down the road of Barabbas. Eventually an all-out rebellion broke out. Jewish freedom fighters attacked Roman garrisons. The Romans responded with a crushing scorched-earth military campaign that culminated in the horrific siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish temple--the place which Jews considered to be the locus of God's presence on earth. A few decades later, the Jews regrouped and, led by a messiah named Simon bar Kokhba, mounted another rebellion, sure that God would fight on their behalf. This time Jerusalem was utterly flattened by the Romans, hundreds of thousands of Jews died, tens of thousands were taken away into slavery and the region of Judea was, to a large extent, depopulated.
Jesus had come to his people as a prophet warning against adopting violence as a means of solving their problems. The majority instead chose the way of Barabbas. Their choice bore the dreadful fruit of suffering, devastation and death. Again and again.
And so it is mystifying to me how in these days there are so many like the radio pundits I heard this week, who claim to be followers of Jesus--the Prince of Peace--but who have joined the mob calling for Barabbas.