Christ or Barabbas? A Palm Sunday lesson for our own day and age

Annie Valloton's drawing for the Good News Bible
READINGS: Mark 15:1-15 (GNT)

From “The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus” by Robert W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar (Poleridge Press, San Francisco, 1998, p. 153)  

The Barabbas segment is wholly fictional, in spite of the fact that the name Barabbas is actually attested on ossuaries (small stone coffins) from the period. Barabbas means “son of the father,” the son (bar in Aramaic) of Abba, the Aramaic address Jesus uses for God in the Lord’s Prayer. That “son” is substituted for Jesus, who in Christian minds is the “son of the Father.” When Pilate asks the crowd what he is to do with “the king of the Judeans,” they call out to have him crucified (vv. 12-14). There is considerable irony in that scene: the Judeans are now to assume responsibility for the death of someone called their king (v. 12). Pilate gives way to the will of the crowd, has Jesus flogged in accordance with Roman practice, and turns Jesus over to his enemies to be crucified. That scene, although the product of Mark's vivid imagination, has wrought untold and untellable tragedy in the history of the relation of Christians to Jews. There is no black deep enough to symbolize adequately the black mark this fiction has etched in Christian history.

Christ or Barabbas? A Palm Sunday lesson for our own day and age

As a child, my world was powerfully shaped — as are those of still too many children today — with the dangerous and simplistic, binary idea that the world can be divided into “goodies” and “baddies”: Indians in the westerns and Germans, Italians or Japanese in the war films I watched on Saturday morning TV who were the baddies whilst cowboys, the British, Americans and the French were the goodies. Simple.

In my Sunday School Bible classes, the situation wasn’t any better, a fact that can be illustrated via the story we heard in our readings. The Bible translation of choice in the late 1960s and early 1970s was the Good News Bible with it’s memorable and evocative line-drawings by Annie Valloton and I remember being very disturbed by both the story about, and Valloton’s drawing of, the crowd’s response to Pilate’s question about whether Jesus or Barabbas should be released. I mean it was obvious — at least to my eight, nine and ten-year-old self — that Jesus was the goodie and Barabbas was the baddie and yet, despite this so-called “obvious” truth, there was the crowd howling for Jesus’ crucifixion. How could that have happened? Given the poor, naive and utterly un-nuanced way the gospel stories were taught in my Sunday School I could not but help come to the conclusion that, therefore, the Jews were the baddies and so how could I not be angry with their culpable blindness? In our readings we heard the least offensive version of the story from Mark’s gospel but, in Matthew’s telling of the story, we are led to believe that the Jews displayed their full guilt in the matter by shouting out, “Let the responsibility for his death fall on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25). This verse is a key element in the creation of the most virulent forms of both Christian and secular antisemitism imaginable that, across the next two millennia, led to deaths of millions upon millions of Jews. It’s an evil that remains with us to this day and, as Robert Funk noted in our readings, “There is no black deep enough to symbolize adequately the black mark this fiction has etched in Christian history.”

Apollo 17
Looking back forty years I can see how easy it might have been for me to have accepted Matthew’s evil verse as a true representation of Christians as the “goodies” and Jews as the “baddies” but I was graced beyond measure by the fact that my paternal grandparents had a long and close friendship with the Jewish family who lived next door in north London. When my dad and their son were both courting, they sometimes went out together to the pictures and, following their respective marriages and we children came along, that is to say, me and my sister and their two children, they kept up their friendship and, once a year around Christmas/Hanukkah time, we’d all meet up either at our house in Ware and then Kirby-le-Soken or at their house in north London and a great time was had by all. It was always good fun but I particularly remember the visit to their house on December 11, 1972. I remember the exact date because we children were allowed to stay up late to watch the landing of Apollo 17. Thrilling, world and culture uniting stuff.

I can see that this friendship with a Jewish family was, in retrospect, one of the most influential experiences of my early life because it taught me to be acutely suspicious of all stories that attempted to split — or at least had the effect of causing a split between — people into binary us/them categories where ne’er the twain shall meet. The fact was that our friends were clearly not the culpable villains of the gospels, committers of deicide — of killing God — but were, instead, ordinary, good, kind people. And so I found myself choosing the truth of that real friendship over the lie of the gospel stories just as in later years, after careful reading about the subject, I chose a proper, rounded understanding about Native American Indian, German, Japanese and Italian cultures over the racist and xenophobic pictures often presented to me in too many films, newspapers and conversations down the pub or at certain family gatherings containing a racist relative. 

Anyway, the massive disjunction between my poor religious education and the reality of a family friendship with a Jewish family set-up in me a strong desire better to understand how this anti-semitic state of affairs could have come to be. This eventually blossomed into my later post-graduate study in the field of Jewish-Christian relations and the discovery that the story which so disturbed me was, in truth, an utterly fictional one. Here I don’t have time to lay out before you the historical and textual evidence for this but later on, if you want to know what that evidence is, please talk to me.

However, despite the story’s utter fiction, I want to conclude with a few words about another serious lesson that the false binary question of “Christ or Barabbas?” might teach us today.

It’s been many years now since I was able to read the four gospel stories which include Pilate’s question without simultaneously thinking of something the conservative German jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt (1888–1985) wrote in his “Political Theology” of 1922. His thinking in that book and others about questions concerning sovereignty and the effective wielding of political power has been, and remains, highly influential. But it’s also a deeply problematic way of thinking about the world, not least of all because it’s bound up with his close association and juridical-political allegiance with Nazism. Indeed, he has by some been called the “crown jurist of the Third Reich”. Schmitt thought that when faced with the question of Christ or Barabbas? “Liberalism, with its contradictions and compromises” could only proceed by accepting to “a proposal to adjourn or appoint a commission of investigation.” Schmitt then noted sneeringly that:

The essence of liberalism is negotiation, a cautious half measure, in the hope that the definitive dispute, the decisive bloody battle, can be transformed into a parliamentary debate and permit the decision to be suspended forever in an everlasting discussion.

As you can see Schmitt did not like liberalism's commitment to the value of ongoing dialogue at all and he sought to counter it by promoting what we might call a philosophy of “decisionism” which had some very nasty authoritarian overtones.

[In passing, it’s important to add that whilst I agree with Schmitt that liberalism (then and now) has some extremely serious problems that need urgently to be tackled I do not agree with Schmitt’s authoritarian solution to them. For an alternative solution that I personally find amenable see this article]

In a 1960 paper about Schmitt’s concept of the political Charles E. Frye said of Schmitt’s philosophy that “perhaps its most characteristic aspect is the pervasive sense of the loss of orientation”. For Schmitt this all meant that when a culture began to lose its sense of orientation one way of getting it back was to explore the possibilities that might emerge for that same culture by forcing its people to consider either/or questions such as “Christ or Barabbas?” It’s important to be aware that the underlying binary question for Schmitt was always “friend or enemy?”, terms which Schmitt believed were to be taken:

not as metaphors or symbols, not mixed and watered down by economic, moral, and other ideas; nor are they to be taken psychologically as the expression of private feelings and tendencies. . . . Here we are not concerned with fictions and normatives, but with reality as it is and the actual possibility of this distinction.

Frye then points out that for Schmitt “the enemy”

is not just any competitor or adversary in general. “Enemy is ... in the last analysis a fighting, human totality; but it is at least this. Whether it is fighting or not depends upon the actual circumstances.” And then he indicated the source of his choice of these particular terms as the specifically political concepts: “The concepts friend, enemy, and battle have a real meaning; they obtain and retain this meaning especially through their reference to the real possibility of physical killing.” Schmitt’s concept of the political ultimately derived from the specific and actual possibility of death in battle, from the most limiting of all human situations — death.

Now, here’s my chief point today. In our own age in which our, what was once called British culture, has clearly lost it’s orientation (although some may say, with some justification, that it is in fact English culture which has lost its orientation), what deeply worries me is that a similar philosophy of decisionism is threatening to become popular once again in certain people’s and groups’ religious and political attempts to solve the problem. It’s a philosophy which deliberately seeks to present people with a series of ongoing, false binary questions the answers to which divide the world up into friend/enemy, indigenous/alien, Christian/Jew, Christian/Muslim, left/right, black/white, in/out, leave/remain, and many more besides, all in the hope that this method will revive in “the people” (whatever that slippery phrase means) a powerful sense that by answering these kinds of binary questions they are, in some meaningful and exciting way, going to be heading purposefully towards a restored national political, religious and personal sense of identity and confidence.

But this is a dangerous fantasy. To see this we need only recall that ancient, fateful question “Christ or Barabbas?” and note well that it was utterly unable to deliver the Last Word on anything we might then, or now, have considered to be good and decent and of lasting worth and that, in fact, it was ultimately only able to deliver up to us all kinds of unfulfilled (and unfulfillable) expectations that led inexorably to mistrust, hatred and, at its worst, to an almost unimaginable level of cruelty, repression, violence and, ultimately, genocide.

Given this, it seems to me that today, perhaps the chief lesson we might learn from the “Christ or Barabbas?” story is not simply that it is a dangerous and pernicious fiction but also that it contains a false and extremely dangerous and deluded binary question that could only ever to serve to create a false and exceptionally dangerous us/them situation. With this in mind, I hope the story might stand for us as a salutary, Holy Week warning not to make the same kind of fateful mistake in our own time and context.

Let’s continue to think, instead, about how best we may heed Jesus’ proclamation to love our neighbour as ourselves — a proclamation which, remember, includes even those we perceive (or are being encouraged to perceive) as enemies. Nothing less than this will ever do and the cry from the crowd, from “we the people”, needs to change from Christ OR Barabbas to Christ AND Barabbas.