2021 started off with the proverbial “bang” as the world watched in horror as the riots at the US Capitol Building unfolded. We all had a sense of both dread and awe as we watched the unthinkable happen. For racialized minority, it was also a visceral in your face reminder of the “two Americas” at work. One for white people, one for everyone else. That’s not a surprise. Canada has the same examples of white supremacy in real-time so we can’t shirk responsibility.
The stunning problem associated with the insurrection is how many white evangelicals and fundamentalists SUPPORT the action and rhetoric. They may have not been physically there, but their words and culture support the actions, deflect responsibility of the rioters, and provide the breeding grounds for the matter of white supremacy to continue to gain steam.
Which begs the question. What does Jesus have to say about this?
In the Bible the “insurrection” as we understand it is used in one place–the story of Jesus the Christ vs. Jesus Barabbas.
How the story unfolds is a deep implication of how white Protestant traditions govern their beliefs and actions, whether explicitly or implicitly.
Let’s take a look at the story. First, some context during a period Protestants call the ‘Intertestamental’ period. Israel has been under the thumb of conquering nation after conquering nation for centuries. For a few brief generations they have their own rule called the Hasmonean Dynasty. But as quickly as it arrives, it dissipates to the new conquering force–Rome.
Imagine yourself under a conquering colonizing force. White people can’t. But others can, particularly Indigenous folks. When you’re under oppression you long for?…LIBERATION of course.
The Hasmonean dynasty ruled until 37BCE. As Rome incurred, different factions emerged to fight off the oppressor and achieve liberation. That’s key. The collective hope of Israel during the time of the Gospels (and Jesus) is one that longed for liberation. How that would come together depended on which faction your were a part of.
When Jesus arrives he builds an inner circle of disciples. They actually come from different walks of life and different groups. Which is to say they had differing ideas of what a liberated Israel looked like and how it would to be. Usually, it was deliverance through the sword.
Fast-forward to the Passion Narrative. Matt. 27:15; Mark 15:6; Luke 23:17. When Jesus was put on trial, in a twist, Pilate (representing the colonizing force) offers to release one prisoner. The crowd chants for Barabbas. Jesus is sent to Calvary.
Let’s look deeper.
Our picture of Barabbas is one dominated by art and contemporary film that pit him as a murderous rampage. It’s more accurate to describe him as an attractive liberative figure. He was part of violent insurrections, yet even so, many saw him at the movement as delivering Israel’s people from bondage. See the connections?
Barabbas was likely a well known figure who was trying to give the people what they wanted. But his approach wasn’t the way of Jesus. (Peter is chastised for trying this approach in John 18).
The story is in all 4 Gospels which also screams importance. Each add layers. Matthew notably pits both figures against each other by giving them the SAME name. Jesus the Messiah vs. Jesus Barabbas. The image below from Giovanni Gasparro is a contemporary image that pits two stunning and attractive figures apart, yet simultaneously tethered together.
It’s evident. Choose your hero. The insurrectionist who brings liberation by the sword. Or the Messiah who bring liberation through the non-violent atonement of the cross.
It’s not a stretch to describe insurrectionists in modern days who are using violence for their form of liberation. The additional caveat would be to note those who have sought to advance their cause by the sword are not actually seeking liberation, they are trying to PRESERVE power for continued domination. The opposite of laying one’s life down for a friend and loving your enemies.
If you like this story you can find a fuller exegesis in Drew G. I. Hart‘s book Who Will be a Witness.