Sunday, March 27, 2016

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.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Friday, March 25, 2016

Good Friday always gets me thinking about Atonement Theories--in other words, what did the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus actually accomplish and how and why.  Atonement (or at-one-ment) is a word coined by 16th century theologian William Tyndale to describe the reconciliatory work of Christ.  Throughout the last 2,000 years, there have been quite a few different Atonement Theories: Ransom, Christus Victor, Satisfaction, Penal Substitution, Moral Influence, Covenantal, etc.  The implications of each theory are quite divergent.  Most Christians are not taught about these different theories or the differences between them.

After considerable study, the Atonement Theory I settled in on as making the most sense is one proffered by Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver which he calls Narrative Christus Victor.  Here's a pretty good summary from Weaver of Atonement Theories in general, including Narrative Christus Victor.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

"Love has no why.”

--Meister Eckhart

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Today is Palm Sunday, a day that commemorates Jesus's "triumphal entry" into Jerusalem. This was an incredibly subversive act on his part, both politically and religiously--a bit of prophetic performance art--as Jesus and his followers reenacted the ancient Jewish ritual of the king's enthronement (for which Psalm 118 was written and used). But, as biblical scholar James Sanders points out, in the case of Jesus, "The messiah has arrived and been acclaimed king. He has been recognized as king by acclamation not from those with power or authority but by a rather scragly crowd of disciples and followers."

The participants shouted "Hosanna!" which was a cry to God for justice and mercy. "Hosanna" was what a person would cry out to the judge when they came into court, a reminder to the judge to be just and fair and merciful in hearing their case. At the triumphal entry, the people were calling out to God to hear their case against the oppressive religious/civil/economic system that they were under.

Sanders says, "This enactment of the psalm [118] as a prophetic symbolic act would have been no less blasphemous and scandalous to those responsible for Israel's traditions (and they would have known them well) than similar symbolic acts performed by the prophets in the late Iron Age [such as Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel]." 

What Jesus and his followers were doing was tactically closer to what the Russian feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot did when they disrupted a service at a Moscow cathedral to protest the Orthodox Church's support of Vladimir Putin. The "triumphal entry" into Jerusalem was akin to the Occupy movement's takeover of Wall Street in order to protest social and economic inequality. A day or two later, Jesus would drive out the money-changers from the temple and he and his followers would occupy it. 

So, if you go to church today and see the children waving palm fronds, consider that what they are reenacting is a moment of bold and dangerous prophetic civil disobedience against rulers and powers and authorities and systems of oppression, and the audacious proclamation of a different king and kingdom--a rule and reign marked by mercy, fairness, truth, compassion, kindness, peace, inclusion and grace. A kingdom of shalom.  A kingdom of love. The kingdom of God.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

"Donald Trump is a clear indication that the evangelical Church is ignoring the Apostle John’s simple command, 'Do not love the world or anything in the world.' Evangelicals in our day are in love with the world and things of this world, and that is why evangelicals in our day are in love with Donald Trump."

-Rev. Robert Cunningham

Saturday, March 12, 2016