Don’t Give Us Barrabas

Now at that feast he released unto them one prisoner, whomsoever they desired. And there was one named Barabbas, which lay bound with them …..who had committed murder in the insurrection. And the multitude crying aloud began to desire him to do as he had ever done unto them. But Pilate answered them, saying, “Will ye that I release unto you Jesus who is called the Christ?” For he knew that the Sanhedrin had delivered him for envy. But the Sanhedrin moved the people, that he should rather release Barabbas unto them.– Mark 15: 6-11

I grew up Catholic, and in a Catholic household you develop a certain mystic mindset. There is magical thinking not just in the transubstantiation at the heart of the Catholic Mass, but also in the everyday unofficial folk beliefs that orbit the Church’s teachings. You bury a St. Joseph statue in the yard of a house you want to sell. You don’t eat meat on Fridays, and during Easter weekend, you don’t watch TV or listen to the radio from 4pm Friday until Easter morning, to honor the silence of Christ in the tomb. To this day I still quietly and instinctively invoke the mantra to St. Anthony my mother and grandmother taught me whenever I lose something;

Tony Tony look around.
Something lost, must be found.

I grew up believing a great many things from the Bible. I could accept parting seas and pillars of fire, resurrections and ascensions, transfigurations and temptations by the Devil. I accepted the reality of God and miracles with the open readiness of a child’s mind.

But there was one thing from my earliest Scriptural studies I could never really understand.

It was the people’s choice of Barrabas the murderer over Jesus Christ.

In the story of the Passion, Pilate the Roman governor, not wanting to condemn Jesus to death, finds what he believes will be a zero hour out for himself and Jesus in a procedural loophole that allows him to release a prisoner to the Judeans on the feast of Passover. He has Jesus scourged and humiliated and then presents him to the people alongside Barrabas, who is described as a murderer (in later readings I’ve heard him described as an insurrectionist, possibly a cultural hero, but as a kid, I always understood him to be a straight up criminal).

The crowd is given the choice of releasing Barrabas, who it is implied is an unrepentant criminal that will go back to his old ways and Jesus, whose crime to me as a kid, was sort of nebulous, but, doctrinal biases and differences of creed laid aside (I’m not flat out not advocating Christianity over Judaism or vice versa here), can be boiled down to preaching change; a change in the law, a change in the word of God, away from the days of stoning women to love-thy-neighbor and blessed-are-the-meek.

barrabasThe crowd chooses Barrabas.

As a kid, this boggled my mind.

“But why did they want him dead?” I would ask my mother in exasperation. “What did Jesus do?”

He healed the sick and disabled. He brought back the dead. He preached love and togetherness, even to the hated Samaritans and the tax collectors.  He fed the hungry, and encouraged charity to the poor.

The only violent thing he ever did in the Gospel narrative is drive the moneylenders out of the Temple.

Now do you see where this post is going to become political?

Belief in God is irrelevant to this analysis. If you think the Bible is fiction, that’s fine. The most enduring fiction retains relevancy to the current human condition. Shakespeare endures. To Kill A Mockingbird endures. The Bible, like it or not, endures.

So, as Jesus would, take the tale of Barrabas as parable if you will. How does it apply to us now in this moment? What is to be learned here?

Given the choice between Barrabas and Christ, to a child, the decision is clear. One is a good man who teaches nothing but love and togetherness, an end to greed, and whose actions bespeak his heart. The other, a man, good or bad, but not loving, not peaceful. A man whose criminality is perhaps symptomatic of the society he is imprisoned by; a man whose actions are destructive. Entropic maybe, but impotent. No one remember Barrabas except that he was freed over Jesus.

One choice representing the progressive, the good, and the new. One representing the path of love.

The other representing the regressive. The static and self-consuming path of violence.

One old, one new.

There’s a great line in Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ where Willem Dafoe’s Jesus hollers;

“I’m throwing away the law. I have a new law and a new hope.”

“Has God changed his mind about the old law?” his heckler retorts, laughing.

“No. He just thinks our hearts are ready to hold more, that’s all.”

Can we not apply this narrative to the current political situation in this country?

A few weeks ago I posted about the dangers of a Trump presidency. I don’t feel any different about the dark prospects of such a thing coming true, but I’ve sobered a bit in my fear of him and his supporters.

I’ve paid attention to a lot of polls. I’m no longer afraid that he can win. I think the backlash against him is so strong with the good people of this country that he probably can’t be elected, no matter who he goes up against, Sanders or Clinton. Even his own party is recoiling from the toxicity of his candidacy.

But there is still a very real and very present, and perhaps, more important choice before us.

This electoral race is not really between Trump’s ultimate darkness and ‘whomever.’ Trump has become so blustery and outrageous as to be a carnival sideshow, an analogy born out by his stint in terrible reality television.  To speak against Trump is as big a waste of time as debating Klansmen or neo-Nazis. It’s like picking a fight with a small child. I have faith that the majority of us see him for the clown he is. He’s so obviously bad as to be cartoonish, just an insecure man preying on the same old like him have used to rile people up since the anti-Chinese movements of the 1800’s.

But are their gradations of what is good?

I have evolved my thinking just a bit. I think now that the choice of which candidate defeats Trump is perhaps more important than a lot of people realize. I think it will decide the direction of this nation for decades to come.

Are we a truly progressive people, or are we content to tread water in the swimming pool of a sinking cruise liner?

Will we still let fear rule us and decide our choices?

I don’t mean to suggest that Bernie Sanders is some kind of messianic figure in comparing him to Christ in the story of Barrabas if we take it as parable. But between him and Hillary Clinton, which is the more Christ-like? Which is the more akin to Barrabas?

In one of the televised town hall meetings, I bet, one you didn’t see, Sanders was asked if he believed in God.

This was his answer;

“Every great religion in the world — Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism — essentially comes down to: ‘Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.’ What I have believed in my whole life — I believed it when I was a 22-year-old kid getting arrested in Chicago fighting segregation — I’ve believed it in my whole life.

That we are in this together — not just, not words. The truth is at some level when you hurt, when your children hurt, I hurt. I hurt. And when my kids hurt, you hurt. And it’s very easy to turn our backs on kids who are hungry, or veterans who are sleeping out on the street, and we can develop a psyche, a psychology which is ‘I don’t have to worry about them; all I’m gonna worry about is myself; I need to make another 5 billion dollars.’

But I believe that what human nature is about is that everybody in this room impacts everybody else in all kinds of ways that we can’t even understand. It’s beyond intellect. It’s a spiritual, emotional thing. So I believe that when we do the right thing, when we try to treat people with respect and dignity, when we say that that child who is hungry is my child, I think we are more human when we do that, than when we say ‘hey, this whole world is me, I need more and more, I don’t care about anyone else.’ That’s my religion. That’s what I believe in.

And I think most people around the world — whatever their religion, their color — share that belief. That we are in it together as human beings. And it becomes more and more practical. If we destroy the planet because we don’t deal with climate change. Trust me, we are all in it together… and that is what my spirituality is about.”

The message is pretty clear, isn’t it?

Put aside any visceral reactions to this analogy you may have as a believer or non-believer and look at this rationally.

Bernie’s ideas seem radical. But they’re at least 2,000 years old. Take free college tuition and fair taxation of the rich and universal healthcare and distill them to their roots.

Bernie wants to institute a tax on the currently un-taxed practice of stock speculation on Wall Street. He wants to raise the taxes on the 1% of persons and corporations who have been, if not illegally, than immorally withholding their fair share of contributions to our collective society through offshore tax shelters, yet enjoying its benefits.

It’s all right here.

He wants to go after those who aren’t paying their taxes, basically. And there’s enough money there to pay for the programs he wants to institute. Billions of dollars. Currently, billionaire hedge fund managers pay a lower tax rate than nurses. Which profession contributes more to society, do you think?

Hoffman-ChristAndTheRichYoungRulerIn the story of Jesus, there is related an encounter between Christ and a rich and wealthy man who asks the rabbi;

“What can I do to inherit the kingdom of Heaven?”

Jesus replies;

“Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor. Then come, follow me.”

This saddens the wealthy man, who goes away, unwilling to give up his riches.

Jesus says;

“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

I used to think of this as a condemnation of the wealthy. Perhaps it is. But as in the best parables, it has a double meaning. It’s a lament. Jesus and the rich man are both saddened and disappointed.

Greed has infected the rich man’s life to the point where his material wealth is more important to him than the fate of his eternal soul.

The wealthy man believes enough in Christ to ask his advice, but his own avarice is a kind of slavery he can’t bring himself to self-liberate from, even hearing the secret of his salvation from the proverbial horse’s mouth. In the context of this story, here is a prominent man of means fortunate enough to be alive during this singular moment in time when he can actually ask of his own Creator how best to live his life, and yet he squanders it in favor of retaining his earthly luxury.

mumbaiI have never understood how the fabulously wealthy of Mumbai can look out over the horrendous slums of their city, at the blameless children rooting in the trash of their society and still sleep contended in their towers of glass and steel. I’ve never understood how the Waltons can live with the notion that their multitude workers suffer under the burden of an unsustainable wage. I can’t fathom the minds of men and women who crush their fellow human beings in favor of attaining wealth and security for themselves.

Of course, some of these people are flat out vile. But isn’t it likely that a greater number are imprisoned, as sure as any heroin addict in a gilded cage built by an addiction to wealth hoarding? What’s the difference between that guy with a private skyscraper all to himself in Mumbai and the person trembling in a home stacked to the ceiling with newspapers and cat feces, unable to throw anything out?

On the flip side, there are surely pathetic, hopeless people among the poor. No stereotype comes out of nowhere. There are people who game the system. There are people conditioned to indolence by the very system which fails to help them, unable and unwilling to help themselves because they are without hope for anything better.

But the bulk of humanity does not exist in extremes. We are all of us good and bad. Many of us though, are afraid. It’s understandable. We are fragile creatures ultimately, existing on a pinpoint of existence in a vast and, to our eye, lifeless universe. We live in the moment, and care nothing for what will proceed beyond our time.

All of us are afraid to lose what we have.

Bernie Sanders doesn’t want to take the hard earnings of anyone and give it to the indolent. He wants to level the playing field of his country; give everybody the fair opportunity promised by the American Dream, so that people can proceed with hope that they really can lead better lives.

But the comfortable among us fear that. If there is no one beneath me, how do I measure my success, some might think. More of us probably think, I’m afraid someone will come and take what I have worked for.

It won’t happen. The fabulously wealthy will remain fabulously wealthy, their descendants secure for generations to come. It’s just that a little more of that money they hoard will filter to the rest of the people, to improve our country as a whole. And if you’re not fabulously wealthy, you’ll keep what you have, you just won’t make quite as much.

And to be clear, we’re talking about people earning millions of dollars a year. They’ll be fine.

Everything Sanders proposes is attainable, though it sounds and seems fantastic.

Change always does.

People fear change, though. They want things to remain staid and understandable. That’s just not how life works, though. Resisting the natural progression of change only hurts the resister.  Like the wealthy man in the parable, he loses the opportunity to be more than what he is in favor of his own hoarding. Like a monkey sitting under an apple tree with his hand stuck in a jar holding onto a single apple and refusing to let it go, he doesn’t understand how to let go of that which does not serve him, but forces him to serve it. That’s right out of Kung Fu, so don’t quote me.

What else is there to fear from a Bernie Sanders presidency, besides a decrease in the material?

Some I’ve spoken to fear he can’t deliver on his promises.

It can be done, but as he has said, not by him alone. He is not a messiah. He needs all of us behind him. He needs public involvement in the process. If a Republican senate blocks every positive measure, he needs the people to make them aware it won’t fly.

Watch his rallies, his speeches. Attend one, if you can. He can inspire the people toward this end.  The government only has what power we allow it to have.  Here in Los Angeles, early in his campaign, back in August of last year, he held a rally. My eldest son attended. The venue was at capacity, and fifteen hundred people stood outside in the dark while he spoke. When the event was over, he came out and addressed the people who couldn’t get in. What other candidate in recent memory has ever done something like this? This is why he inspires.

This is a new way of doing things for a lot of people. It’s not enough to elect the guy and sit back and watch him work. A lot of damage has been done to this country for a lot of years.  The checks and balances our political system exists under aren’t the ones we intended. It’s become checkbooks and account balances, and if we’re to move forward, it has to change.

Bernie Sanders represents that change. His movement shouldn’t be crassly and cynically dismissed as a want of the youth for ‘free stuff.’ The system we have now is juvenile and favor based, a Pavlovian black comedy of bell ringing and salivation. What Sanders proposes is a natural maturation, so long stunted by greed.

Our hearts can hold more.

Now, in our parable, any choice other than Sanders, but most especially, I think, Hillary Clinton, is clearly Barrabas.

There is no doubt as to her qualifications from a concrete, technical standpoint. She thrives in our current political system. She is a servant and perhaps an unwitting victim of it.  A capitulant and a glad-hander, opportunistic and subservient to the greed-based culture which currently rules us all. Her morals and ideals are beholden to whatever favor she perceives she can garner for herself and her constituents in any given moment. Bernie Sanders will never see transcripts of the speeches she supposedly gave to various banking concerns for exorbitant fees. I doubt there ever were any speeches, just payouts. A vote for Hillary Clinton is an impotent act, like the work of Barrabas. It’s a vote for another four to eight years of what we already have, perhaps even longer, because a candidate of this caliber will not be allowed to get this close to the highest office in the land in my lifetime.

It is obvious to any person who pays close attention that the established system is attempting to block out Sanders. The media conglomerates in charge of your television news and daily papers are owned by rich persons and corporations who correctly feel that that a Sanders presidency would not be in their best(most profitable) interests.  They give more air time to Trump and Clinton (and donate vast sums to the latter’s campaign), they gloss over Hillary’s inadequacies and go over Sanders with a fine tooth comb looking to spin or exploit the least turn of phrase to her advantage (read the ridiculous story about how Sanders supposedly sided with gun manufacturers over the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre – as if anyone would ever do that and still attempt to run for President).  They dismiss Sanders at every opportunity.  They want this race to be about Clinton and Trump, because this is an event they can control. Everyone knows Trump won’t win. He’s being pumped up as a villain that Clinton must heroically defeat to the relief of everyone. Yes she seems to be a better choice than Trump, but really, her election is a more insidious move to keep things as they are.

A vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote for Barrabas. A vote based on fear of change or else fear of Trump, which is unfounded, as he’s probably not going to win. And let’s consider the latter fear. If you’re afraid Trump is going to win and take away gay marriage and civil liberties and go building walls and pushing nuclear buttons, in every poll anywhere Sanders beats Trump by a wider margin than Clinton. If you truly are afraid of Trump, then Sanders is the safer bet.

We have a singular opportunity in history right now, like the rich man in the parable. We can throw out the old rule of greed and fear and vote in a new era of prosperity for our fellow human beings.  These things being proposed may seem like pipe dreams, but many other nations have them and contrary to what the corporate media tells you, they are not failing because of them.

My best friend lives with his family in Germany. Recently he suffered a back injury. Rather than finding himself out of work and unable to pay for his treatment, his job gave him paid recovery time, and months later he returned to work debt free. He and his children live good lives. They vacation in the countryside, and they want for nothing.

Here in America, my wife and I work forty hours a week. My wife sees our children for an hour at night during the week. We have no savings, we own nothing, and don’t really expect to as we basically shovel money at my wife’s voracious college debt, and at our current rate of payment, we will until we die. We’re facing college tuition for our three children. If we vacation, it means missing payments, which compounds our debt.  We have family to rely on that will keep us from homelessness, but I wonder what our kids’ lives will be like in the future without that safety net. My kids have never had a yard to play in. Never had grass between their toes, or a tree to climb.

And yet, I know there are families much, much worse off than mine.

Why would anyone with a heart vote against the life my friend lives? How could anyone be against free education for children who want to learn, free healthcare for all? Dignity for our elderly? Lay aside your cynicism. Lay aside your fear and the hatred that it engenders, lay aside that part of yourself that says, “Well, that’s tough, but I’m doing fine. Just work harder.”

Understand that the things you rail against in society are only symptoms of the stunted development our country has suffered under due to the constant effort of a greed based power structure, and that they will change, not by building walls, not through clubbing heads and locking people up, but by educating them, taking away their own fear, giving them hope.

These things seem unrealistic, but be honest. They’re not miraculous, are they?

It took me thirty five years to finally understand the reason why anybody would ever choose Barrabas.

For my children. For your children. For the children of people neither of us have ever met.

Please don’t be afraid.


Published in: on April 11, 2016 at 9:58 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. In the notes to her play cycle “The Man Born To Be King” (1943), Dorothy Sayers writes “We must think of him [Barabbas] as a member of the I.R.A. arrested during ‘the troubles’ with Jesus presented by the English Governor General for the kindly consideration of a Dublin crowd.”

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