It didn’t take long for people to change their profile pictures to that of the Belgian flag after the terrorists attacks occurred in Brussels yesterday. It was a thoughtful response and a way to show solidarity with the victims and the people of Belgium. This is now the second ISIS attack in Europe that has wrought fear and anxiety throughout the West. Previously, we saw French flags adorning profile pictures after what happened in Paris. With the advent of ISIS terrorism seems to have taken a front seat in our minds and consciousness not witnessed since right after 9/11. There doesn’t seem to be any way to get away from it, particularly as we get closer to November 2016. I must tell you that that this attack having occurred on Tuesday draws me even deeper into the story and dynamics of Holy Week.
Tomorrow evening we will read, hear and recall how Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus with a kiss. In the midst of this betrayal blows will be taken, swords will be drawn and ears will be cutoff . One of the disciples will even ask Jesus if they should strike the guards with their sword (Lk 22:49). A compustible situation becomes deflated because Jesus tells his disciples to put down their swords. The men, unable to use their swords, flee.
Jesus surrounded himself with an interesting cast of characters, not just fishermen and tax collectors but also zealots, that is “terrorists” in modern day parlance. He’s got Simon the Zealot, Thomas the twin and Judas Iscariot. Such men are the forebears of the terrorism that we witness today. While the former were Jews and the latter are Muslim both are cut from the same cloth. Both believed or believe in the sword to make things right, both were reacting to the oppression of foreign occupiers. There’s a reason why Thomas was ready to fight (Jn 11:16), there’s a reason why the disciples had swords on them at the arrest of Jesus. There’s also a reason why Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus. Many believe that Judas Iscariot’s surname is derived from the word “sicarri”. The sicarii also known as the “dagger men” specialized in urban political assassinations and kidnappings. They were a highly effective group of Jewish terrorists in the time leading up to the Jewish Revolt and during it. One theory is that Judas thought he was helping Jesus by betraying him, by bringing him to the point of revolution. Another idea is that Judas, being a zealot, gave up on him once he realized he was going to do away with the Temple and would not begin a Messianic movement in the vein of King David.
No matter the cause, the reality is that Jesus found himself surrounded by zealots, by terrorists, by men with such a disposition. He was even traded for one. The crowds wanted Barabbas, who may have been a member of the sicarii but nonetheless was a zealot, an ancient terrorist. All of these men were waiting for the prophecy from Daniel to be fulfilled at any moment since the 450 years had passed. Some even believed that they could fulfill it or that they could help bring about Yahweh’s vindication and the cleansing of the land from pagan filth. The prophets spoke of such things.
Does this not also sound like ISIS? There’s the same apocalyptic desire. ISIS attacks to get revenge, to provoke, to bring about restoration of their version of Islam. They want to bring about the battle of Dabiq. The prophet Mohammed foretold that there would be a showdown between Christians and Muslims which would serve as a precursor to the apocalypse in this city located in Syria. These men and women are willing to die to bring about the end days and restoration. It’s undeniable that ISIS and most of the terrorist groups of these last thirty years are but the result of Western and, in particular, US foreign policy. Such policy has had a disastrous effect on the Middle Eastern peoples. Just as the Jewish terrorists and bandits had the Romans to fight so do Islamic terrorists have Americans and Westerners to fight. Remember, such desires and destructive tendencies do not come out of a vacuum. While ISIS and other terrorist organizations would perceive the US and the West as the great oppressor and great Satan, the zealots would have perceived the Roman Empire and the Sanhedrin in a similar vein.
The disconcerting reality is that in many regards the disciples of Jesus, those who sit around the table with Jesus tomorrow evening, had much in common with the terrorists of today. That should give us pause and prompt us to think through the implications. From a sociopolitical perspective we have so much more in common with Pontius Pilate than with the others we encounter in this story. We often think of the exchange between Barabbas and Jesus as simply being about an exchange of a sinner for a saint but it goes much deeper than that. Simon, Judas Iscariot, Thomas, Barabbas, the bandits who are crucified at Jesus’ right and left, the other disciples, are all very much the product of oppression, of the sins of the privileged and the elite. Barabbas is what happens to a people who feel that they have no voice, who feel that they can’t take it anymore, who have been beat upon and pushed around for far too long. Disciples who bear swords to defend their rabbi with the hopes that this will begin the battle, the war to establishing the Kingdom of God on earth are what happens to a people who have been kicked around far too long. They resort to methods and means that can actually make a dent on an enemy that seems insurmountable like Rome or like the US and its Allies.
To see ourselves in Thomas, Judas or Barabbas or any of the other disciples is far too easy. We must go deeper than that as Christians who live in the wealthiest society the world has ever seen. Rather we must see ourselves as those who they sought to fight against. We must see ourselves as the Pilates, the Sanhedrin, the scribes, for, like them, we have much to lose if the status quo is shaken. The implications for such an understanding are vast. It might make us realize that we shouldn’t consume as much, that we should be turned off by fear mongering leaders. It might might make us realize that we need to look to the Creator and not so quickly trust in weapons and military action. It might make us realize that we need to be praying for peace and for our enemies the terrorists. It might make us realize that we need to take Jesus’ words seriously and not always look for the easy word of grace that leaves us comfortable in our sin. It might mean understanding that love for our enemies does not simply get nullified by some worldly Niehburian pragmatism. It might mean shaking off our Americentrism realizing that terrorist attacks happen continually to non-Western countries such as Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Nigeria. Most especially, it’s important for us to realize that we may be more culpable than we realize when it comes to the terrorism that afflicts us now.
May we keep the victims and the terrorists in our prayers this Holy Week as we ponder our Lord’s great love for us.