Barabbas as “Freedom Fighter”?

Barabbas is an interesting figure I had not given much thought to previously. When I was growing up, he was always presented as a “bad man” and a “murderer” that the crowd chose to release instead of Jesus. This was  meant to shock us and make us wonder why they would reject the perfect man for an evil person. But I wonder if this oversimplifies their choice.

Some translations describe Barabbas as a “robber”; however, there is some evidence that this is better translated as “revolutionary”, which makes sense considering he is also said to have committed murder during an “insurrection”.

It was only last Palm Sunday that the “insurrection” term jumped out at me. It seems likely that Barabbas had been sentenced to death for rebellion against Rome. Perhaps he was viewed as a freedom fighter by many of his countrymen.

At the time, many of Christ’s followers expected that he would be an earthly political ruler that would use his power to overthrow Roman rule and reestablish an independent Jewish state. Last Palm Sunday was the first time I wondered if maybe the people in the crowd that chose Barabbas were disappointed that Jesus had allowed himself to be arrested instead of fighting back. How many people in the crowd before Pilate had also been cheering Christ’s Triumphal entry into Jerusalem, expecting a revolutionary and a new powerful king? They likely wondered why he hadn’t used his miraculous powers to break his chains and vaporize the Romans.

The crowd totally missed Jesus’s message. They likely perceived Jesus as weak and Barabbas as someone who was willing to fight back. They were focused on immediate and earthly political concerns.

To me, it seems we are too often the crowd when we want to use Christianity to prop up our parochial interests, like the disturbing blending of Christianity and patriotism/nationalism happening in the US today (though it has happened in various places around the world throughout history).

We, like the crowd, miss the point: Christianity’s radically universalist message. The focus on caring for all people and the “bigger picture” of the supernatural element of existence over the present’s concerns, especially earthly power struggles.

This Christian worldview calls us to reject our earthly loyalties to our nations, political parties, and even our families. This is in tension with what I believe is a natural human tendency towards tribalism. While “tribalism” is often used as a negative term, I actually find a lot of value in it, whether it means being a patriot or taking care of one’s own family first. But Christianity makes this kind of crazy call to resist our tribal instinct.

The tension between Christianity and natural tribalism is one of the things that most attracts me to Christianity. It is not intuitive and that makes it interesting. It doesn’t seem like a religion that was created to reaffirm existing earthly power structures or human intuition.

It is impossible for humans to perfectly practice Christ’s universalist message and totally abandon our tribal loyalties. We can only hope that we live in a healthy tension with Christianity that keeps us from being fully sucked into our instinctual tribalism, which history shows can get very dark very fast.

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