Saturday: Torturing the insurrectionist

April 3, 2010

Jesus is arguably the most famous person to be tortured to death as an insurrectionist by an occupying imperial army.

Crucifixion is execution by stress position. Though the victim was often nailed to the cross, as Jesus was, you did not normally die of these wounds, and the victim often was only hung on the cross with rope. You died gradually of asphyxiation from the position in which you hung, sometimes complicated by shock and dehydration, depending on how badly you had been treated while in custody.

Why did the Romans torture Jesus? Why did George W. Bush and Dick Cheney torture insurrectionists at Abu Ghraib and in the CIA’s secret ‘black sites’?

Aside, that is, from the dehumanization of the enemy that is the sine qua non for all warfare. Aside from ideology, which inevitably claims that a little evil is justified in order to protect a greater good. Aside from the naked rush that the powerful feel when exercising their power over others. Aside from the lesson that terror teaches other enemies of the state. Aside from these breakdowns of morality, reason, character and political justice that make torture possible—empires torture dissidents to get information.

“Hail, King of the Jews,” mocked the soldiers as they stripped Jesus, crowned him with thorns and beat him with a staff (the symbol of royal military authority in ancient Israel—“thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me”). “He saved others but he can’t save himself!” Go ahead, save yourself. TELL US WHO YOUR FRIENDS ARE. Especially that fellow with the sword.

George W. Bush believes that the torture of Jesus was necessary to save his immortal soul. George W. Bush believes that torturing insurrectionists in Iraq was necessary to save American lives. For George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Jack Bauer, and many Americans, torture has legitimate salvific power. Never mind that the torturer assumes the place of the Romans who murdered their God.

Meanwhile, while the torturers are playing with Jesus, the fellow with the sword is skulking around in their very midst. Peter, wanted by the police for insurrection, assault with a deadly weapon, attempted murder, and associating with a known terrorist, has infiltrated the police compound and hides under their very noses. Thrice, people think they recognize him, and yet he does not run away. Instead he denies their accusations and stays.

Why? What is he doing there? The only answer that makes any sense is that he’s looking for a way to spring his leader from jail, to save him from a terrible death. Does that not sound like the Peter who launched himself into the water without thinking? Is that not about the bravest thing you can imagine him doing? Is it not a miracle that he escaped alive?

A generation later, when confession of faith and martyrdom were becoming idealized and even fetishized, Peter looks like a coward. But in the moment, he was a hero with extraordinary courage, resourcefulness and loyalty.

He couldn’t save Jesus, but Jesus did save him. Jesus never cracked. He never told his torturers who his confederates were. He took the rap for them all.

His followers did, apparently, try one mass demonstration aimed at getting Jesus released. At least that’s how I read the weird and impossible account of Pilate and Barabbas (informed again by the work of Hyam Maccoby). First, the Pilate of Christian Scripture is a wimp, a pathetic if not quite sympathetic character. But the real Pontius Pilate was so vicious and oppressive that the emperor had him removed from office! And we have no record of any tradition of releasing prisoners (especially one like Barabbas, convicted also, of insurrection) on Passover (a holiday dedicated to revolution against empire), a practice that is unthinkable as official Roman imperial policy. So a crowd may have demanded that the authorities release Barabbas, but we can be pretty sure it never happened.

But who was Barabbas? Let’s look at his name: in Aramaic, Jesus’ native tongue and the universal Semitic language of the time: “bar Abbas” means “son of the father.” Father—as in “Our Abbas who art in heaven.”

“Son of the Father” is redundant and meaningless on its own. But it is the obvious appellation for the man whose Father said at his baptism, “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased.” For the man who taught the Lord’s Prayer.

And it is perfectly reasonable to think that a crowd might gather to demand Jesus’ release, calling out the epithet by which he had become known: “Give us bar Abbas!” Well, it didn’t work. They crucify insurrectionists, don’t they.

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