No Shortage of Messiahs

This articles was published in Conspire Magazine's Summer 2009 issue. It is a shorter version of The Gospel in a Time of War.


The feast of Passover was a volatile time during the period of the New Testament. The Romans overlords were understandably nervous as Jews commemorated Israel's national story: liberation from slavery at the hands of an imperial power. Not infrequently during the festival days, the rallying call of “Out of Egypt” prompted a would-be messiah to act on the parallels between the ancient and contemporary realities of oppression, seeking to bring about a new liberation.

There was no shortage of Jewish messiahs in the years of Jesus' life. In the eighty years surrounding the death of Christ, at least nine men were known as messiahs and established a large following, only to end up on a Roman cross.

The Gospels tell of one particular Passover and some particular potential messiahs. On this day, Jesus of Nazareth is but one of four men who were to be executed by Rome as political insurgents. The two men crucified with Jesus are called in English “thieves.” But this akin to calling Robin Hood a thief. The Greek word lestes was a term used by Rome for military revolutionaries. They were bandits, whose attacks had a political edge. They were doing justice to the masses by returning good stolen by conquest and excessive taxation. They were symbolically stealing the glory and power from Rome.

The other is a prisoner who, it is recounted, is presented before the people by Pilate, with the offer to release one of two prisoners (likely to avoid a riot). His name is given as Barabbas, and he is specifically mentioned as an insurrectionist and murderer.

This scene may be one of the most important -- yet least understood -- in the Gospels. Pilate offers the people the choice of either Jesus of Nazareth or Barabbas, both under indictment of sedation. One will be released, one will be executed.

There is a profound irony in that moment. The gospels speak of Jesus as the son of God, or the “son of Abba.” In Hebrew, this would be bar Abbas. Barabbas.

That's right: Two sons of God presented to the people. Both on trial on the same day for the same crime. They not only share similar names, but they make similar claims: Both claim to be the Christ, the messiah, the chosen one who would lead Israel out of bondage, the son of the liberating God whose judgment was imminent and whose reign would be established. And Rome reckoned both of them to be dangerous.

We are rarely taught to think of Jesus as a revolutionary. Yet his most frequent phrase is the “kingdom of God,” which sets him in fundamental opposition to the kingdom of Rome. In fact, Jesus consistently subverts terms of Roman rule: When he proclaims “Good News,” he uses the style and phrasing of a military announcement from Rome. To claim to be born under a star was a sign that one was destined to become an emperor, and when Herod makes the bloody decision to exterminate all the boys in the area of the star, he attempts to quash the threat to the throne. Even the term for church, eklesia, is subversive. A literal translation would be “province,” the name for Roman quadrants (similar to states). It was also referred to the place where one was granted official citizenship.

His opponents in the gospel certainly understood the revolutionary dimension of his ministry. When Jesus is mocked by the Sadducees (a powerful group of Israelite politicians profiting from Roman occupation) for being from Galilee, they make reference to Judas of Galilee, a failed messiah, who founded the Zealots, a militant group of theocratic-nationalists who preached that God alone was the ruler of Israel (Acts 5:7). The poverty-ridden fishing village region of Galilee was in fact regarded as the recruiting ground for the Zealots.

The early church understood this completely. The core profession “Jesus is Lord” has a startling political dimension, essentially declaring that conversion to Christianity must be juxtaposed to the phrase “Caesar is Lord,” the phrase by which one gained citizenship into the Roman Empire at the eklesia. Jesus is propagating a new type of citizenship.

So Jesus fits the role of revolutionary well, and Pilate was right in presenting him alongside Barabbas. They are strangely similar. At the same time, these two sons of God were profoundly different.

According to the historical accounts of the time, insurrectionists like Barabbas, and especially the Pharisees, who may well have backed him, preached an eschatology (author's note: eschatology is the theology of how God will act in human history) centered around the destruction of enemies, and proclaimed the theological justification for violence by demonizing those who would “define” the community of Israel.

Rather than an exclusive membership concerned with defilement, Jesus kingdom is welcoming, mercy offering community of shared meals and good wine. He defied the dominant eschatology of the times, which called for destroying the evil hordes rallying against God and God's people. Instead he claimed that Israel's vocation was complete when the Gentiles come to join the people of God (like Ruth), listen to the Torah's wisdom (like the Queen of Sheba), and take part in the celebrations of the Jewish festivals (as in Zech. 14:8-9), and otherwise join in becoming the people of God.

Barabbas promises to free his people from their bondage by forming armed militias to oppose Rome. Jesus advocates non-violent resistance and commands his followers not to return violence with violence but to love their enemies and to do good to those who hate them.

Jesus program is laid out in the Sermon on the Mount, in which he instructs his followers in many seemingly counter-intuitive practices: “They must face their accusers and be reconciled (Matthew 5:25-26). They must not resist or resent the soldiers who commandeer the services of Galilean villagers, but must meet them with astonishing generosity (5:41). Rather than returning hostilities to the occupying force, Jesus' followers are told to “turn the other cheek” a counter move that requires the aggressor to face the oppressed not with a condescending blow -- a backhand to the left cheek -- but with a blow on the right cheek, a blow meant for a legitimate threat.

But Jesus' strongest statement is simply “Do not resist evil” (5:39). The word he uses for resist is antisternal, a term which refers very specifically to military resistance. In effect, Jesus is forbidding armed resistance to Rome -- a stance that would surely enrage Jewish nationalists.

Jesus forbids institutional violence because, ultimately, every person in the world is related. We are all children of the same God. All wars are civil wars. In the reign of God, Jews and Palestinians, Tutsis and Hutus, U.S. citizens and “illegal aliens,” Christians and Muslims, are neighbors. We are to treat each other with utmost respect and honor, the very way that we want to be treated ourselves.

Jesus is not founding a religion as much as he is calling followers into a sort of borderless, transcendent nation, with a nationality based upon the profession “Jesus is Lord” - a subversive remix of the phrasing of allegiance to Caesar, not a group of revolutionaries today declaring “I pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ” every time the American flag was raised.

Conversely, the way of Barabbas was peace through conquest, through the sword -- through the bomb.

Barabbas offer up redemptive violence, Jesus offers peace through healing for those on all sides of the conflict. When Jesus proclaims in Nazareth that he has come to fulfill the prophets and lead the people out of oppression, his proof is through healing the sick -- including the servant of a Roman centurion, a representative of the colonial overlord and enemy. To the militaristic Jew, this must have seemed like blasphemy.

This reign of God that Jesus announces is not built by coercion but by inclusion. It grows not by bombs but by the willingness to sacrifice and suffer rather than cause harm. The ethos of this kingdom does not value one life over another. It does good to those who would destroy it. Its response to threat is more and more aid, never bombs or attacks.

This kingdom Jesus preaches claims no land, defends no space, has no interest in political systems. It does not need to pass laws to take care of the needy; it just assumes the responsibility in a way that is decentralized, organic, sustainable, and local. It looks to serve and to place others before itself; it is content in recession and prosperity. It fasts to feed the needy. It creates no coinage, has no positions of power, and has no army. It works quietly withing the old systems, not trying change laws through powerful conventions, but simply living as if that reality already existed. Or to use the language of Jesus, “The kingdom of God is here now.”

The kingdom of God expects persecution. It anticipates being crushed, but it also knows that it is like a seed which must die to ear fruit. It's helpless death conquers oppression and topples regimes.

The political story of Jesus' day is the story of our own day, as it has been the story of all of human history. The suicide bombers, the warmongers, the Jews who believe their nation will not be restored until they posses all the land and will use means to take it, the Muslims who believe that they must kill to bring about the fulfillment of their prophesies; the Christians who place their own safety above the life of a foreigner, who view peace as an impediment to the second coming of Christ, who claim the term servant while seeking political power – these are part of a long history of those who believe that force is the way to bring about peace.

They are all waiting upon the second coming of Barabbas, a Christ who's wine is placed in all the old wine skins.

When given the choice by Pilate, the people opted for Barabbas. Tragically, so has much of the institutional church throughout the centuries.

The choice still faces us: Which path or revolution will we choose? Which son of God will we follow as true Messiah.