by Ed Felien
And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no purse or bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one. For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was reckoned with transgressors;’ for what is written about he has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” ~ Luke. XXII: 35-38
What are we to make of this version of Jesus Christ? How can we reconcile it with our common stereotype of a prophet of peace and love?
Let’s go back and look at the times and the events surrounding the life and death of Jesus, but before that let’s look at the context in which the first gospel was written.
The Gospel of St. Mark was probably written between 60 and 75 CE in Rome for
the Christian community there. Mark began the tradition of blaming the Jews
for falsely accusing Jesus of sedition against Rome. According to Mark, the
Jewish authorities arrested him and condemned him for heresy for claiming to
be the Messiah, but then they brought him before Pontius Pilate on the charge
of sedition. Pilate questioned Jesus and seemed inclined to free him, but the
Jews insisted on his condemnation. They demanded that a prisoner be freed according
to the tradition of the Romans freeing a prisoner at Passover, and they preferred
Barrabas, a blood-stained revolutionary, to Jesus. What are we to make of this?
else was happening in the period when Mark was writing the gospel? There had
been resistance to Rome in Palestine ever since the Romans began their occupation
during the reign of Herod. It had erupted into full-scale civil war after the
death of Jesus and continued to about 70 CE when the last of the opposition
was wiped out. A few remaining resistance fighters had retreated to Massada.
The Zealots were annihilated or committed mass suicide in 73 CE.
What do we know about Jesus? Most of the information we have is from the gospels.
We know Jesus was preaching about the coming of the Kingdom of God. We know
he was hanging out with a bunch of guys, at least one of which, Simon, probably
Peter, was a Zealot. We know the Zealots were revolutionaries dedicated to assassinating
collaborators with the Romans. We know the Zealots and the Essenes (another
group with which Jesus seems to have had some affiliation) were committed to
freeing Israel of Roman control. We know the Zealots carried with them two swords,
a short sword (probably a dagger) used for assassinations and a long sword for
open combat. We know Jesus led a triumphal march into Jerusalem and went into
the temple and drove out the “moneychangers” (representatives of
the Roman government). After taking over the temple, he and his friends went
over to Mary’s house and had a Passover meal. He was arrested and executed
by the Roman Imperial government for sedition against Rome. Shortly after the
arrest and execution of Jesus, the struggle of the Jews to resist Roman rule
intensified until they had to call in reinforcements and finally defeat the
Zealots and their allies in 70 CE. They wiped out the last holdouts on Masada
in 73 CE.
This bare outline of events in his life and the context of the times suggests
a quite different picture of Jesus than the one we were spoon-fed in Sunday
school. Mark begins the tradition of taking him out of the context of his times
and making him quite the opposite of what he was. In Mark’s view, Jesus
the Christ was actually a friend of Rome who supported Roman rule and it was
the Jews of Israel that were responsible for his death. Josephus, the Romanized
Jewish historian writing about the Jewish wars, did quite the same thing at
about the same time. He blames the Zealots for bringing all the troubles down
on Israel. They are both classic examples of how conquerors (and their apologists)
blame the victims.
It is time to do away with this sugarcoated piety and find the real Jesus.
The Kingdom of God that Jesus talked about was a real kingdom. It was Israel
without Roman rule. Jews in Israel believed their country was founded by God
and that God lived in their temple. For the Romans to appoint the Sanhedrin,
the chief rabbis, and turn their temple into a marketplace and a Roman bank
was blasphemy. Taking back the temple had to be the chief strategic objective
of Jesus and the Zealots. Jesus preached about it for the three years of his
public life, and the Zealots and the Essenes preached about it for years before
What were they thinking when they marched in and took over the temple? Were
they thinking that all of Jerusalem would support them and throw out the Roman
legions? Did they believe that a massive uprising would take place that would
be superior to the military force of Rome? Most certainly, that is what they
hoped for. But, soon after the takeover they must have realized that it wasn’t
going to happen. There was no massive public uprising to support them. They
were doomed. It was only a matter of time before the authorities would find
them, arrest them and execute them. Jesus knew at the Last Supper that the best
strategy now would be for him to take full responsibility for the revolt, submit
to martyrdom and hope that his death would inspire a wider revolt.
leaving for the garden at Gethsemane, he turned and told his disciples (as quoted
above from Luke) revolution was at hand, and they better be armed for it.
The Zealots went back underground. Luke says Peter denied he knew Jesus three
times. Probably the other Zealots did the same. There was no point in all of
them being crucified. There would be nothing left of the resistance.
In the movie Spartacus, at the moment when the Romans have finally put down
the slave revolt and have all the slave army captive, they ask, “Which
one of you is Spartacus?” Kirk Douglas starts to stand up to take responsibility
when Tony Curtis stands up next to him and says, “I am Spartacus.”
Then, every slave stands up and says, “I am Spartacus.” It is an
incredibly moving moment, but probably a bad strategy. Every one of them was
crucified and the slave revolt ended.
In the Easter Rebellion in Ireland in 1916 a few mad souls took over the British
Post Office in Dublin and hoped that by occupying that building they would inspire
the Irish people to rise up against the British. They were doomed revolutionaries
from the beginning, but their example was a source of strength and led to an
independent Ireland six years later.
Castro, when he attacked the Moncada Barracks on July 26, 1953, was outnumbered
10 to 1. He must have known the assault was doomed. Sixty-one rebels were killed.
Eighty were captured and half of them were tortured to death. Castro escaped
but was apprehended and stood trial. He was a lawyer and his speech in his defense,
“History will absolve me!” became the manifesto for the 26th of
July Movement that eventually overthrew Batista and American gangster colonialism.
If there is one man or one image that personifies the doomed revolutionary,
the willing martyr, in the 20th century, probably popular opinion would award
that honor to the man with the briefcase who stood in front of the tank in Tiananmen
Square in the student protests in 1989 in Beijing. He remains anonymous. He
was probably arrested and imprisoned. But it was Mao Zedong who said, “A
single spark can start a prairie fire” and “Bombard the headquarters.”
Mao continually led purges against the entrenched Party bureaucrats. He undoubtedly
would have approved of the student protests, and he would have applauded the
man who stopped the tanks.
Gandhi offered himself as a martyr for Indian independence. His tactics were
non-violence and pacifism. He fasted until the British gave in to his demands.
Of course, the British did not consider Gandhi a pacifist. They knew that if
Gandhi died on one of his fasts, India would erupt and they would be swallowed
in a tidal wave of violence. They recognized that Gandhi was holding his own
body hostage, and by threatening violent retribution he controlled the destiny
Bob Dylan ends “With God on our side” by singing, “If God
is on our side, he’ll stop the next war.”
God didn’t stop the next war. And we started them: in Vietnam, in Central
America, in Afghanistan and in Iraq.
Where would Jesus stand in the struggle in the Middle East? Would he stand with
the U. S., a nation made up of 80 percent Christians? As a Jew, would he stand
with Israel? Or, would he stand with the dispossessed Palestinians? With the
Lebanese families trying to survive Israeli bombings? With Iraqi and Afghanistani
fighters resisting an imperial power?
We live in an era of religious orthodoxy. America is ruled by a fourth generation
war profiteer who claims to be a born-again Christian, allied with a right-wing
Israeli government that claims the Torah gives them unlimited dominion over
other people, against Islamic fundamentalists who are equally intolerant of
religious or cultural diversity.
order to get beyond this fundamentalism that breeds hatred, fear and violence,
we must go through it. We cannot ignore it. We cannot dismiss it as stupid.
Intellectuals and leftists tried those tactics against Hitler in the 1930s.
It doesn’t work. We have to meet it head on and deal with it.
We have to confront Wahabi fundamentalist Islam with the culturally rich and
diverse traditions of the Sufis.
We have to confront the right-wing Israeli policies with the culturally rich
and diverse traditions of European Jewry.
We have to meet Jesus and make him our own. He doesn’t belong to bloodthirsty
bible-thumpers screaming to smite the infidel. Jesus stands with the poor and
the dispossessed and against imperialism, whether Roman or American. ||
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.
~ Matt. V: 9
Think not that I came to bring peace on the earth: I came not to bring peace,
but a sword. ~ Matt. X: 34
1:01 We are Babylon • by Steve Butcher
1:03 Radical pacifists face prison and fines for action at missile silos
• by John LaForge