PD-US, “Give us Barabbas” from volume 9 of The Bible and its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, edited by Charles F. Horne and Julius A. Bewer, published in 1910.
But the whole crowd shouted, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!”
Luke 23:18, New International Version.
We’ve just come through a weekend that began with the submission of the Mueller Report and concluded with the Barr summary. I will not be discussing this report, of which most of us still know very little. Rather I want to discuss a more basic reflex of the partisans of our national political discussion.
Those who identify with the president seem to feel that their hero has been vindicated and already are thinking about what could be done under his leadership with four more years to “Make America Great Again.”
Those who identify with the other party in our national political discussion are already in a vigorous quest to find the person who will lead them, and the nation out of what they see is a political wilderness. There are quite a cast of rivals: Amy, Andrew, Bernie, Beto, Cory, Elizabeth, Kamala, Kirsten, Jay, John D, John H., Julian, Marianne, and Tulsi. Joe Biden is still considering as are a couple of mayors and several others.
It is going to be an interesting two years.
What I want to focus on is our quest for political messiahs. I want to propose that when we pursue political messiahs, no matter the party stripe, we are choosing Barabbas.
The reference goes back to the gospel Passion narratives. The Roman governor, Pilate, under pressure to kill an innocent man, Jesus, tries to find an out with a practice of granting the release during the Jewish Passover festival of one of the prisoners sentenced to crucifixion. As an alternative to Jesus, Pilate offers an insurrectionist, someone who had challenged Rome’s rule, perhaps a political messiah to some. Pilate obviously miscalculated the crowd’s loyalties. They ask for the insurrectionist and murderer rather than the healer and teacher whose worst act was clearing the temple and preaching of a kingdom not of this world.
Then, as now, there was a hunger for political leadership that would help a nation realize its hopes and dreams, in this case political independence from the Roman empire. Now we want leaders who will guarantee religious freedom, economic greatness, health care for all (or not), green policies (or not), welcoming immigrants and refugees and/or protecting our borders, and on and on. I don’t necessarily think it a bad thing to aspire to many of these, but I’m troubled by the messianic dreams that we require our politicians to feed that they will inevitably disappoint. They will no more bring in religious, economic or social utopias than did Barabbas bring an end to Roman rule.
When we look to political leaders to be our messiahs, we are choosing Barabbas, and Barabbas will fail us.
The other thing I want to propose is that we cannot choose Barabbas and Jesus. This is particularly addressed to those who identify as Christian–of any stripe. Essentially, the act of putting hope in any political messiah is to say, “away with Jesus!” What concerns me about the political idolatry in many of our churches, whether of figures on the right or left, is that we are giving an allegiance to others of which only Jesus is properly deserving, and neglecting the political order of which he is the leader. When we surrender the church to be in the vanguard of an earthly political order, we forsake the priorities of Jesus’s political order, one that transcends nation, economic status, age, gender, ethnic background and one that promotes, not division, but justice and healing of these fault lines, creating “a beloved community,” in the words of Dr. King.
Finally, I would have you think of this. When we seek political messiahs, we not only choose Barabbas, we “crucify” Jesus. While we cannot physically put Jesus to death, when we claim to be followers of Jesus but seek political messiahs, we often turn others away from Jesus. It is striking that “nones,” the religiously unafilliated, are now the largest single group in the US, tied with those who identify as Catholic, and greater than Evangelicals who are second according to the most recent General Social Survey.
This is not a call to give up political engagement, but rather to re-order our allegiances. Instead of viewing political leaders, particularly presidents, as messiahs, could we not return to simply viewing them as public servants serving the public good? I would suggest that at best, the public good is a proximate good. Utopias of the right or the left are dangerous, in my view, and may end up as tyrannies. Might we not, instead, look for those who might serve well and leave things a bit better than they found them?
It also strikes me that when we stop looking for messiahs, we stop looking for charismatic figures. We look at character–for measures of integrity, courage, wisdom. We look at demonstrated capability and convictions. We also remember that all human beings are at best “magnificent ruins.” We stop putting them on pedestals only to knock them down.
Whether we embrace Jesus or not, might it be time, and past time for us to stop choosing Barabbas?