Lent Reflection – Do I believe that sometimes violence is the right answer?

4 min. to read.

Today is the 29th day of Lent. As a part of my practice this year, I’m reading Brian Zahnd’s Lent devotional, The Unvarnished Jesus. I journal on the scripture he’s selected and his reflection, then I post daily (or near-daily) reflections of my own.

The scripture reading today is Luke 23:13-25. Here we see Jesus before Pilate, and the choice that Pilate gave the crowd..

Eventually the leaders take Jesus to Pilate, the Roman Proconsul. They had convicted Jesus of a capital crime, but because of Roman military law, they couldn’t enact the punishment without Roman authorization. Pilate examined Jesus and decided that while he might be a kook or a prophet he was’t worthy of death. He thought to solve the problem through the tradition of the Passover Clemency. Each year at Passover, Pilate released one prisoner to show Rome’s benevolence. He would let the people choose.

There was another prisoner waiting on death row named Barabbas. Pilate seems to have thought that the choice between the two was so stark that of course Jesus would be set free. When offered the choice, though, the crowd demanded Barabbas instead of Jesus. Finally, Pilate gave in to the crowds demands and political expediency. He released Barabbas and signed off on Jesus’ death warrant.

Zahnd makes a fascinating point about this choice. Barabbas wasn’t just a two-bit murderer. John’s gospel identifies Barabbas as a robber, but Matthew’s gospel identifies him as a murderer who participated in an insurrection. There’s even some early textual evidence that his name was Jesus Barabbas, and that Barabbas was either a surname, or a nick-name that might carry messianic significance. The Hebrew meaning for the name is”son of (bar) the father (abba).” So, Barabbas was in custody sentenced to death, not simply because he was a murderer, but because he had been an active participant in a violent protest against Rome’s occupation.

Who would the people choose? Would they choose the preacher calling them to forgive their enemies and find peace through reconciliation? Or would they choose the violent revolutionary, who had already shows a willingness to kill people who got in the way of his quest for liberation?

This is the choice Pilate lay before the people. It’s a choice that lays before us yet today. Choosing the path of violent power only seems pragmatic in our world of conflict. It’s the realistic option. We have to protect ourselves, don’t we? The best defense is a great offense. We can keep the peace by continually increasing our capacity to make war. We can end crime by granting more and more violent tools and powers to police. We can achieve the kind of peaceful world we long for by making sure our team is in power, and doing whatever is necessary to keep the other team out of power. Power is the way to peace. Isn’t it?

It makes a kind of sense. That’s why this tension is where following Jesus becomes the most practical. In following Jesus, we are being asked to set aside the tools of power and violence. Even though they seem to work!

Zahnd paints the contrast starkly: “On Good Friday we are given the choice between two versions of Jesus–Jesus Barabbas or Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus of Nazareth calls us to the way of peace by loving our enemies and the practice of radical forgiveness. Jesus Barabbas is willing to fight our wars and kill our enemies in the name of freedom.”

Lent invites us to set aside power and violence in exchange for radical forgiveness. This way is life.

2 thoughts on “Lent Reflection – Do I believe that sometimes violence is the right answer?

  1. Thanks for the Lent devotional. I had never understood this about Barrabbus. A revolutionary instead of common criminal or murderer. This reading seems so timely.

    1. It certainly makes the crowd’s choice make more sense, doesn’t it? If Barabbas was just a criminal, then the crowd choosing to free him was simply an act of spite toward Jesus. But Jesus was popular with the crowds. It would have been quite difficult for the leaders to get the crowds to act in spite towards him, unless they could convince the crowd that he had betrayed them in some way. Being able to compare him to Barabbas and say, “See Barabbas, at least, is willing to raise a hand against the Romans. This other guy? Nothing. He’s over. There’s no way he’s gonna take out the Romans.” At that point, they are appealing to the crowd’s nationalism and desire for overthrowing the hated Romans. They are, in Zahnd’s words, choosing what kind of Messiah they want. It’s chilling to think about the implications for us.

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