Choosing Barabbas

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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?

Is It Time for a New Declaration of Barmen?

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Karl Barth

The Declaration of Barmen. No, this isn’t the drunken bloviations of a bunch of good old boys who have had a few too many at the local pub. Rather, this was a serious statement formulated by Karl Barth and agreed to by representatives of Germany’s Confessional Churches to address the rising threat of Nazi tyranny and the usurpation of the place of Christ by the state in the life of the church. It basically argued that the church cannot and would not give to the state what belongs to Christ alone and spoke out against the idolatry of the “great leader”

In its various articles it confessed:

  • There was no other power beside Christ who reveals God’s salvation.
  • That there was no area of life not under the Lordship of Christ.
  • That the church could not abandon its order or message to conform to prevailing ideological or political convictions.
  • The church could not allow special leaders, particular instruments of the state, to rule over its life.
  • The church could not and would not become an organ of the state.
  • The church could not subordinate the Word and work of Christ to any state agenda.

A friend of mine wondered whether it is time for another such declaration. I wonder particularly if it is time for such a declaration among the churches of America.

It seems to me that for too long we have looked to the political powers-that-be, whether on the right or the left, as our source of hope and have made of government an idol.

It seems to me that for too long the church in America has been politically captive to the left or the right rather than focusing on its distinctive message of the in-breaking rule of God.

It seems to me that for too long we have been infatuated with electing the “right” political leader into office and have lodged far too great a hope in fallible human beings and governments.

Karl Barth and the German leaders who signed this Declaration were prescient in recognizing the political captivity and the idolatry of power that was gaining a foothold in the German churches and compromising the Christian message with a gospel of power and hate that destroyed six million Jews, and countless others in the World War that followed. Unfortunately, much of the German church did not heed this declaration, and sadly, a deeply compromised church lost its power to speak into the life of a Germany re-building after the war.

I wonder if we have reached a critical juncture in the life of the church in America where we need to clearly choose between politics and the gospel of the kingdom of Jesus. And I say this across the spectrum from liberal to conservative in both the political and theological senses. Will the church in America simply mirror the political divides of this country, which we have done through so much of our national history (think of the debates on slavery)? Or will we seize this moment, which might be our last, to repent of our idolatry, and political captivity, and divisions among ourselves?

Is it time for a new Declaration of Barmen? Time and past time, I would say.

The Missing Middle–Is it Time for a Third Way People?

I was going to write about something else today, but came across a guest post by Sara Cunningham in Ed Stetzer’s column at the Christianity Today site titled, “The Missing Middle: Three Expressions of Christ I’m Yearning to See In Evangelicalism“. Earlier this week, the same columnist posted an interview with local pastor Rich Nathan on a similar theme: “Both-And: My Interview with Rich Nathan“.

Both of these captured my attention as I’ve been thinking about the blog series my son and I have been doing on You Lost Me. I’m convinced that one of the problems that has plagued the evangelical Christian community with which I would most closely identify is our cultural and political captivity. Most of those my age are captives to the right. Many of those my son’s age are captives to the left. And hence we become lost to each other. What is troubling to me, and this seemed to be born out in the Cunningham post, is that it seems there aren’t that many, or that many who are vocal for being captive to the kingdom way which challenges our cultural and political captivities of left and right.

One of the things my theological training taught me is that nothing can be totally wrong. Very simply Satan (or whatever you want to call him) cannot create anything, but only twist the good things God has made. No human perspective can be utterly wrong or evil, nor can it be utterly pure. Yet this is where much of our cultural and political discourse has ended up. It forces me to be either pro-life or pro-women. It forces me to be pro-environment or pro-development.  It forces me to choose between “entitlements” for the poor and “entitlements” for the rich. It forces me not only to be alienated from others in my country, but even from others in the body of Christ who might identify differently. This is our cultural-political captivity and it is based on the lie that the “other” is utterly evil and we are utterly good.

When we celebrate Advent and Christmas, we celebrate the Jesus who delivers us from not only our personal captivities which we often think of under the rubric of “sin”, but also in his call to the kingdom, delivers us from all our captivating cultural and political allegiances. John Howard Yoder, in The Politics of Jesus argues that the church is its own polis, its own political structure and should not allow itself to be taken captive by others but to be shaped by its allegiance to Jesus.

The terms “centrist” and “both-and” have reasons to commend them. I like the term “Third Way”, which I first picked up from an early work of Os Guinness, The Dust of Death. We are neither just a compromise between left and right, which is often what I associate with “centrist”, which can also simply mean pragmatist. And while “both-and” often is true in things like combining both grace and truth, I struggle with the fact that there are some things that just are mutually contradictory–I cannot both love my neighbor and pollute their water supply.

Allegiance to Jesus brings me together with people from very different places and our oneness is not one of adopting the same perspective but rather being called by the same Redeemer. And as we read the scriptures from very different places, I discover a narrative that is both pro-life and pro-women, a narrative that is both pro-entrepreneurship with a kingdom vision, and pro-caring for “the least of these”. It is not for nothing that Jesus is called The Reconciler. Again and again I’ve seen polarities become creative tensions productive of great good.

I realize this post has been very “situated” in Christian terms. That is where I’m situated. But those of us in this country are all situated in a polarized culture. Finding ways to reconcile, to bring together those polarities in a way that thwarts the evil of hostilities toward the other and releases the best of what we all bring seems to be a matter all of us should care about deeply. These are my thoughts of how the Christian community could contribute to healing these hostilities. What are yours?