Jesus the Collateral Damage, Jesus the Insurgent

Posted: April 15, 2009 in Uncategorized
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More civilians died in Afghanistan from U.S. bombs while we ate ham and deviled eggs. I did not post often during Holy Week because I wanted to not make every part of my faith about my opposition to war. So I took a week off. But as hard as I try to keep it out, the story of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection speaks to and stands in judgment of the actions of the United States in Afghanistan.

Nationalist revolutionary sentiment simmered just beneath the surface of Jesus’ society. Before, during, and after Jesus’ time with us, that sentiment sporadically boiled over into insurrections. N.T. Wright:

I don’t find…neat divisions between protesters, prophets, bandits and messiahs helpful. Josephus’ accounts of several of the movements [listed as] ‘protesters’ and ‘prophets’ spill over into his accounts of ‘banditry’…Several of the ‘prophetic’ movements, too, were in fact closely linked with revolutionary brigandry. The followers of the ‘Samaritan’ were armed, and ended up fighting. The unnamed prophets of War 2.258-60/Antiquities 20.167b-8 are subsumed under the general brigandage noted in Antiquities 20.167a. The ‘Egyptian’, according to War 2.262, intended to force entry to Jerusalem, overpower the Roman garrison, and set himself up as a tyrant. The unnamed prophet of Antiquities 20.188 appeared in the context of widespread brigandry… Jonathan the Weaver (War 7.437-50 [not book 6 as in your Historical Jesus p. 451]) had, according to Life 424f., aroused a stasis in Galilee. That leaves, from the ‘prophets’, John the Baptist, Theudas, some unnamed prophets (who are urging the people to stay and fight rather than flee), and the remarkable Jesus ben Ananias.

…Start with the eagle-incident. The young hotheads were egged on by the teachers Judas and Matthias, who were then killed on Herod’s orders (War 1.648-55; Ant. 17.149-66). Continue with the violent revolt the following Passover, which was renewed at Pentecost (War 2.1-13; 39-50; Ant. 17.206-18; 250-64). Of the latter, Josephus says that it involved ‘a countless multitude’ from all over Palestine, especially Judaea itself…They laid siege to the Romans, fought them, and besieged the commander himself in the palace. At this, anarchy broke out in Palestine (War 2.55; Ant. 17.269, referring to ‘continuous and countless new tumults’), including a revolt by Herod’s veterans …and one by Judas, son of Hezekiah…

Then there is Judas the Galilean himself (War 2.118, etc.), whether or not he is the same person as Judas the son of Hezekiah the bandit leader (see NTPG 180). There are his sons, Judas and Simon (Ant. 20.102), who were crucified in the late 40s (presumably crucifixion for insurrection feels much the same even if you’re not a card-carrying peasant). There is Barabbas, and the revolt in which he took part (Luke 23.19; in John 18.40 Barabbas is described as a lestes, ‘brigand’). Presumably the two lestai crucified alongside Jesus count as well. Then there are all the ‘common people’ who were punished along with Eleazar ben Deinaeus; in War 2.253, Josephus says the number of them was ‘incalculable’. Then there are the further outbreaks of brigandage reported in War 2.264f.; these maybe the same ones who are mentioned in 2.271 (whom you note), but in the earlier passage it appears that the revolutionary fervour was far more widespread than a small group.

Then there are the Sicarii (War 4.198, Ant. 20.186f., etc.). …[and] John of Gischala and his followers (refs. in NTPG 177 n. 54). Finally, of course, there is Bar-Kochba.

When all these are added up, what emerges is a picture of widespread revolutionary tendencies across the country, the century, and a fair amount of the social spectrum. Josephus (who might be wildly misleading, but he is almost our only source) repeatedly stresses the large number of people involved…For the most part, protesters and the followers of ‘prophets’ could expect to be involved in violent action, just as bandits/brigands and the followers of ‘messiahs’ would.

I agree, in other words, with two interesting contemporary sources. First, Martin Goodman (The Ruling Class of Judaea, Cambridge 1987, p. 108): ‘There was no separate anti-Roman movement in first-century Judaism; rather, anti-gentile attitudes which originated long before A.D. 6, perhaps in Maccabean time, inspired many different groups, permeating the whole Jewish population and varying only in their intensity’ (my italics). Second, Richard Horsley and John Hanson (Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs, Minneapolis, 1985, p. xv): ‘Most of the ideas believed to be distinctive to the Zealots, almost all of them relatively widely attested in our limited source, were probably common Palestinian Jewish ideas… opposition to the Roman rule of Jewish Palestine may have been far more widespread and spontaneous… than previously imagined’ (my italics). This is what I was talking about. This is the basis upon which I have argued, not indeed that Jesus was not interested injustice (!), but that he proposed a very different sort of revolution, which subverted this widespread ideology as well as the oppressive forces to which it was reacting.

In other words, Romans occupiers were engaged in their own version of counterinsurgency. Though many differences exist between the Roman counterinsurgency and the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, striking parallels also exist. The Roman strategy to control and exploit their provinces, especially in Jesus’ region, involved backing a particular claimant to power that would be answerable to Rome and reinforcing that claimant with Roman military force to ensure Roman access to the region’s wealth and resources. Jewish folks watched their elites get rich through association with the Romans and the corrupt system backed by the Romans. Foreign occupation of land they believed was promised them by God was also a deep offense to their religious sensibilities.

Revolutionary factions played on this discontent and demanded from those within their sphere of influence a strict loyalty to the symbols of Jewish distinctiveness (hence the obsession with ritual observances among the antagonists in the gospels).

The Romans worked to keep a lid on this simmering pot by controlling the elites of the culture, and failing that, they used overwhelming military force. (Although I’d note that military force failed to quell the insurgent sentiment until they decided in A.D. 70 and again in A.D. 135 to crush Jerusalem utterly, walling the city in, crucifying tens of thousands, and allowing the residents to starve to death before leveling it…hardly a tactic any Christian could countenance.)

This context is essential to understanding what happened to Jesus on Good Friday. This is what Jesus means when he makes his cryptic statement about (and I’m paraphrasing) buying a sword just before his arrest because he was about to be numbered among the lawless. It’s a warning to his disciples that he’s about to be arrested under the charge of being an insurgent. This is why his accusers try to sell Pilate on the idea that he’s inciting revolution, tax resistance and that he’s claiming to be the rightful king. As Wright points out above, Jesus is crucified between two lestes, brigands, likely insurgents, as an insurgent himself. Jesus Christ died as collateral damage in Rome’s counterinsurgency campaign.

That’s not the whole story, however, and this is where the story takes a dark, holy turn. Pilate offers to free Jesus as a goodwill gesture during the festival. Jesus’ accusers refuse. They ask instead for Barabbas, who had taken part in an insurrection, a man who would kill a Roman given the chance and who has devoted his life to the violent revolutionary sentiment Jesus vociferously opposed. Jesus’ life is literally given to save the life of, not an innocent civilian, but an insurgent.

When we kill civilians, we express regret, declare our intention not to do it again, but note that in war, these things happen. But when we adopt this attitude, we count ourselves among those willing to accept the killing of Christ as an acceptable price to pay in pursuit of our agenda. Jesus tells us, “That which you do to the least of these you do also to me.” When we kill civilians while attempting to kill Talibs, we kill Christ.

That we should avoid killing people who are not parties to the conflict is a non-controversial proposition among Christians. What we often fail to consider, however, is whether the activity in which we were engaged when we killed those civilians is acceptable in light of Jesus’ teachings and example. Jesus died as a non-combatant, but he died in place of an insurgent. Not a doe-eyed innocent caught in a crossfire–a real life, violent insurgent, the ally of those who gave Jesus over for execution. Mountains of writing deal with the various ways in which Jesus’ death and resurrection “save” us. But on Good Friday, the only person literally saved by Jesus’ death was a man who took up arms against a foreign occupation and who may not have minded that someone like Jesus, naysayer to the revolution, died in his place.

The gospel accounts of Jesus death, therefore, condemn not only the collateral manslaughter of innocents in the pursuit of insurgents, but also of the belief that insurgents deserve to die. If we are to follow Christ, then we must not only put our lives on the line to save the innocent; we must also be willing to die in place of an insurgent.

Christians in Iraq and Afghanistan, put down your guns.

Elsewhere: Sean Paul Kelley offers a powerful story about the human costs of our violence in Afghanistan.

  1. […] Jesus the Collateral Damage, Jesus the Insurgent posted on April 15th, 2009 at Return Good for Evil […]

  2. Sporkmaster says:

    “then we must not only put our lives on the line to save the innocent; we must also be willing to die in place of an insurgent.”

    It is easy to say that when your life is not the one on the line. While lethal force is always a last resort, it is unrealistic to expect people not to defend themselves when attacked. For example of a case I heard in a meeting. Guy decides to throw a grenade at a American gun truck and runs off. The gunner not only sees the guy that threw it red handed, now sees where he is after the attack. He was able to wound the attacker and was later captured.

    Now with your statement are you sugesting that he should have not have fired at the guy? Becuase you cannot assume that he does not have another grenade or will try again with more successful results.

    “Christians in Iraq and Afghanistan, put down your guns.”

    Again this is where ideals and reality clash. Weapons are there as a last resort against those that would use it as a first resort.

  3. dcrowe says:

    Hey Sporkmaster:

    It is easy to say that when your life is not the one on the line. While lethal force is always a last resort, it is unrealistic to expect people not to defend themselves when attacked.

    Well, yeah, of course it’s easier to say outside of a given situation. That’s kind of a non sequitor, though. There’s no moral guideline that isn’t easy to subscribe to in theory. So while you do have a point, it’s not a point that I feel has any bearing on the truth of the statement you’re disputing. If you want to dispute the idea that Christians should be willing to die rather than kill an insurgent, I feel you have to do one of the following:

    1) Challenge my interpretation of the Good Friday narrative and of the Gospel stories in general and what they tell us about Jesus. If you’re not going to do that, I think you’ll have to

    2a) Challenge whether Jesus intended his followers to base their ethics on his teachings and example, or

    2b) Assert that Jesus was wrong, and that Christians in Iraq and Afghanistan should not be following his teachings or example. (Maybe this is your intent?)

    Regarding your example, I’d ask you to more precisely define “last resort.” That’s a fairly fluid term. Are you saying that the guy in your example literally tried every single possible method to reach his goal short of shooting the grenade thrower? That’s a pretty heavy burden to prove. I’d note that your definition seems to include the absolute rigidity of goals, i.e. that it’s the “last resort given that the person in question is not willing to give up a given goal.”

    You’re absolutely right: I have no assurance that person will not try to grenade me again, but based on my understanding of the teachings of Christ, I don’t consider defense of myself or my tribe a justification for harming another person. Safety is not a “Christian” value, per se.

    Again this is where ideals and reality clash. Weapons are there as a last resort against those that would use it as a first resort.

    Wow that’s a pretty idealistic perspective that has the convenient result of making weapons in your hands good while making the weapons in the opponents hands evil. That’s a great bumper sticker, but not so great as an ethical guide. Show me one warlord in the world that would not agree with this statement: “You can only use violence in cases where nonviolence would not work.”

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