Heard a great sermon at my parents’ church in Coffs Harbour, in mid-north coast NSW, Australia last week. (Coffs is halfway between Sydney and Brisbane, and a great place for a summer holiday.) It’s actually a rather old-fashioned church in worship style, but I respect the pastor, David Mitchell, and he was on the money last Sunday.
His talk was based on Matthew 27:16-26:
16 At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas.
17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?”
18 For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.
19 While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”
20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.
21 “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor. “Barabbas,” they answered.
22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!”
23 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
24 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!”
25 All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”
26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. (Matt. 27:16-26 NIV)
In light of the Lindt Cafe hostage drama a couple of weeks prior in Sydney, and then only a few days before he spoke, the shootings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, David’s angle was to use the text above to help us think about how the Christian should view sacred vigilantes or holy war.
The message was simple. This episode in Jesus’ final trials presents to us alternate ways of advancing a cause: the way of Jesus, and the way of Barabbas. Barabbas is the partisan, the vigilante, the sicarius or dagger bearer. He was willing to kill for the cause and had such kills chalked up already. Were they Romans, or were they Jews who had co-operated with the Romans? It’s funny how the vigilante ends up killing his own people so freely where they are perceived to co-operate with the enemy. They are easier to reach, for one thing.
David admitted with simple honesty that Christians (or Christendom, we might say) had used this approach in the past to try to advance the cause, infamously during the Crusades. But the Crusades did not have good theological justification from the New Testament and specifically from Jesus’ teaching. If you want to run a Christian (military) crusade, you really need to ignore many parts of the New Testament. (Is the Old Testament a different story? Let’s hold that off for the next post.)
The way of Jesus is not the way of the sword. When Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, one of Jesus’ disciples decided it was time for a heroic last stand, and took a swipe at the arresting party with a sword (Matt. 26:51-52; Mark 14:47; Luke 22:49-51). John’s Gospel alone identifies the wielder as Peter, and he probably wasn’t just aiming to remove the guy’s ear. As a soldier, he made a good fisherman.
Each Gospel reports that Jesus brought this final resistance to an abrupt halt, while casting Jesus’ reply and reasoning rather differently. But Matthew offers the most detail. “All who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52 NIV). Jesus continues there by saying that if he wished to resist his enemies, he would sooner use heavenly troops and weapons. But that was not his purpose in any case. His victory would come ironically by way of abject defeat and death, followed by unexpected return from death.
A spiritual kingdom cannot be won and defended with human weapons (John 18:36), even if its citizens live in a human world. The Crusades were not only barbaric in practice but were theologically ill-conceived. The way of Jesus is not the way of Barabbas. The New Testament defends the secular government’s right to ‘bear the sword’ for purposes of maintaining justice in society, and arguably, for national defence, but it never authorizes the use of force or violent militancy to advance the Christian cause.
Jihad can never be the tool of the disciple of Jesus. The disciple of Jesus never has permission to kill for the cause.
The disciple of Jesus simply has permission to die for the cause. Indeed, where necessary, the obligation so to die.
But if it came to that, would I be willing to die? I hope so. Would I retaliate? I hope not, but when we’re angry, reason takes a back seat. Would I reneg? I don’t know. I hope I would join the great and honoured ranks of the martyrs.
What would you do?
Next post: Joshua and Jihad – part I of II on Joshua, Jesus and Jihad