AN EYE FOR AN EYE, A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH
The whole Jerusalem trembled upon learning of the death of John, the prophet of the desert, beheaded like a paschal lamb in the prison cell of Machaerus. Many wept for him, as if they had lost a father and become orphaned. The news spread from house to house. Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, ordered that security be tightened in the streets of the city to prevent any peoples’ uprising. But the zealots were never intimidated by the event...
A Zealot: Comrades, the blood of the son of Zechariah must be avenged. Herod beheaded John. May the heads of all Herodians fall!
The revolutionary zealots had their daggers hidden under their tunics. That night they went to the barrio of the silversmiths, near the tower of the Angle, where Herod Antipas had his palace and where the Herodians, followers of the King of Galilee, lived.
A Zealot: Less one... Let’s go, hurry...!
The following day, dawn greeted the people with the heads of four Herodians balancing between the arches of the aqueduct...
Woman: Damn! And next they’ll behead our children!
Another Woman: May God protect my neighbor, Ruth. She has a son who is imprisoned in the Antonia Tower. The retaliation of the Romans, instigated by the courtesans of King Herod, took place immediately... At the first hour in the afternoon, when the sun was at its height, and the black and yellow flags waved atop the Antonia Tower, ten young Israelites, sympathizers of the zealots, were crucified at the Skull, the macabre hill where political prisoners were executed...
Man: Damn these Romans! You’ll all pay for this someday.
Another Man: Shut up, imbecile, or you’ll be nailed like these unfortunate ones...
In front of the ten who were condemned to death, a cryer, cupping his mouth with his hands, was yelling for others to hear him and be forewarned.
Soldier: This is how those who rebel against Rome will end up!... Your sons will suffer the same fate if they continue to conspire against the imperial eagle!... Long live the emperor! Death to the rebels!
Man: Someday, you’ll pay for this, sons of bitches!
The ten crucified men remained agonizing that whole night. Their desperate cries and curses could be heard from the walls of the city. The victims’ mothers were pulling their hair and scratching their faces beside the crosses, pleading clemency for their sons, in vain.... Jerusalem could not sleep that night....
Zealot: Listen, Simon. We shall meet at Mark’s house at nighttime. Is that okay with you? Tell Jesus of Nazareth, and the rest of the group. Don’t come together so as not to arouse suspicion. Hurry up.
Judas Iscariot, and Simon, the freckled one who had contacts with the zealots of the capital, brought us the message. Barrabas’ group had a plan and they wanted to know if they could count on us...
Jesus: What’s wrong with you, Philip? Are you afraid?
Philip: Afraid, no, but horrified... Uff... Who ever asked me to come with you to this city?
Jesus: He who doesn’t risk himself accomplishes nothing, fat head. Right, friends? Let’s go and find out what they want from us.
When the sun hid itself behind Mount Zion, we left by twos and passing through different streets came to Mark’s house, Peter’s friend and a sympathizer of the movement who lived near the Gate of the Valley...
All lights were out so as not to call the attention of the soldiers patrolling ceaselessly, even to the last nook of the city. Greetings were made in silence. Then we sat on the ground. And this way, amid shadows, Barrabas, the leader of the zealots, began to speak...
Barrabas: A tooth for a tooth, comrades. Herod beheaded the prophet, John, in Machaerus, and we shall avenge his death by beheading four traitors. We have hardly cleansed our daggers and now we have to use them again. They have crucified ten of our best men.
A Zealot: May their blood spill on Pontius Pilate’s head! God’s curse be on him and Herod Antipas!
Barrabas: Pilate thinks we’ll be scared. Well, he’ll have all the wood cut from Phoenicia for the cross of every man in Israel, for all of us, when the moment comes!
Barrabas had been imprisoned before. Twice he had been trapped by the Romans and twice he was able to escape when he was about to be executed. He was still the object of their manhunt in Perea...
Barrabas: Okay, what now, Galileans? Can we count on all of you?
Philip: What for?
Barrabas: What else! To get rid of a dozen Romans and a number of treacherous Jews in our midst. We can’t allow these henchmen to overcome us... So, what do you say? Can we count on you or not?
Jesus: Then what?
Barrabas: What did you say, Nazarene?
Jesus: I said, what happens next?
Jesus’ inquiry somehow surprised us....
Jesus: I don’t know, Barrabas.... After hearing you speak, I’m reminded of the shepherd on top of the mountain who throws a stone, pushing another stone as it rolls down, and the two stones push down another pair, then four and then ten, until finally no one can prevent the avalanche... The violence you’re talking about is dangerous, like a stone thrown from the mountain top.
Barrabas: Enough of your stories, Jesus. It’s they who are violent, do you understand?
Jesus: Of course I do. Yes, they beat us, they destroy us, and they are the ones who sow death. But we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be influenced by their thirst for blood. The height of all this would be that they succeed in making us clones of their own image, people who know nothing but revenge...
Zealot: Okay, okay, fine, so what do you want now? Shall we just throw out our arms in surrender?
Jesus: He who crosses his arms plays along with them, too. No, Moses didn’t fold his arms in surrender before the Pharaoh.
Barrabas: Moses said: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
Jesus: That’s right, Barrabas... but whose eyes and teeth? Those of Herod’s men whom you beheaded yesterday? Who were those men, tell me?... Were they the ones who killed the prophet, John?... Were they responsible for all the injustices in our midst?... Or were they poor creatures, like you and me, who were simply dragged into fighting against us by powerful men?
Barrabas: Oh damn, why do you talk that way, you, of all people? Have you forgotten about the death of your father, Joseph?
Jesus: That’s it, precisely, Barrabas. I suffered from the pain of seeing my father beaten like a dog, for having hidden a few countrymen during the uprising in Sepphoris. I also felt in my flesh the desire for revenge. But no. Now I think this road will bring us nowhere.
Zealot: Is there another way, Nazarene? Our country needs a way out. And the only way is through the use of force.
Jesus: Are you sure? I dunno, but you from the movement want a people’s rebellion. The way I see it, the people are still reticent about it. We still have blinders on our eyes. Don’t you think we should do something first, to make the blind see and the deaf hear?... What do we gain from all this bloodshed if the people don’t understand what’s really happening?
Barrabas: We’re the people’s guide. They go where we lead them.
Jesus: Don’t you think that would be nothing more than changing the yoke?... The people ought to stand on their own two feet and learn to walk their own way. We must find our own way out, the only true way that will set us free.
Barrabas: You talk like a dreamer. But God is not as much of a dreamer as you. It is God who seeks revenge. In the name of God, we’ll all end up overcome by our enemies.
Jesus: You behead Herod’s men in God’s name. And they crucify us in the name of the same God. Tell me, how many gods are there, anyway?
Barrabas: There’s only one, Jesus. The God of the poor. If you are with God, then you’re with the poor. If you’re with the poor, then, you’re with God.
Jesus: You’re right, Barrabas. I, too, believe in the God of the poor, the one who set our ancestors free from slavery in Egypt. He’s the only existing God. The rest are idols created by the Pharaohs, so they could continue abusing their slaves. But....
Barrabas: But, what?
The waning moonlight creeped into the cracks of the house, shedding somber light on the serious faces of the zealots…
Barrabas: But what?!
Jesus: You must learn to love them, too.
Zealot: Love them?... Love whom?
Jesus: The Romans. Herod’s followers. Our enemies.
Barrabas: Is that meant to be a joke or... or we just didn’t get you right?
Jesus: Listen to me. And forgive me if I can’t make myself clear. But I think God makes the sun rise everyday not only for the good but also for the bad people. We who believe in the God of the poor must follow God’s example. We mustn’t allow ourselves to fall into this trap called hatred.
Barrabas: I can hardly see your face in the dark, Nazarene. I don’t know if it’s really you talking to me, the one they say is the prophet of justice, or if you’re simply a crazy man pretending to be a prophet.
Jesus: Look, Barrabas. If we fight for justice we shall have enemies, that’s for sure. And we’ll have to fight them, strip them of their wealth and power, as our ancestors did while getting out of Egypt. Yeah, we’ll have enemies, but we can’t do what they’re doing, we can’t be dragged into this evil act of revenge.
Barrabas: Okay, once and for all, let’s finish this off. All these are bedtime stories. Tell me if you’re willing to kill.
Jesus: No, I’m not, Barrabas.
Zealot: And so they’ll kill you, imbecile. Then, everything will have gone to perdition.
Jesus: When do you win and when do you lose? Can you tell me?
Barrabas: To hell with you, Jesus of Nazareth. You’re a crazy man, a real crazy man. Or probably, you’re a good for nothing coward, I dunno. And the rest of you, do you also think the same way as he, or are you as crazy as he?
Peter was about to respond, but at that moment, all of us almost froze to death....
Zealots: Soldiers! The soldiers are coming!
Another Zealot: The guards of Pilate! They’ve discovered us!
Another Zealot: Damn! We’re all doomed...!
Barrabas: Hurry! Flee through the garden....
Jesus: Peter, pass through that door.
Peter: What about you, Jesus?
Jesus: Go ahead. I can hold the soldiers back until you get away from here.
Peter: You’re out of your mind, Jesus. They’ll kill you....
Jesus: Go away, go away fast...
Peter: What’ll you do?
Jesus: The same thing that David did to the Philistines...
The soldiers were already banging the door....
One Soldier: Hey, who’s there?! Open the door!
Jesus: Go, go....!
Barrabas’ men ably leaped over the walls facing the other street. We slipped through the garden of Mark’s house and disappeared in the shadows. Jesus was left alone. He was trembling with fear as he opened the door...
One Soldier: Why is there so much noise around here, huh?
Jesus: Agu, agu, agu...! Ha, ha, ha...he..he!
Another Soldier: Who’s this creature?... Hey, you, what are you doing here?
Jesus: Down with the soldiers, up with the captains, down with the centurions, up with the generals! Ha, ha, ha...!
Jesus was beating over the door’s frame with his fingers and looked at the soldiers with a blank smile, as saliva dripped from his mouth over his beard, while he continued to tap the door with his palm...
One Soldier: Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? You big, stupid fool! Here, take this so you’ll learn...!
Jesus: Give it to me on the other cheek too! ha, ha!
Another Soldier: This man’s crazy. As if we hadn’t enough of his type in Jerusalem! Let’s get out of here!
Jesus: Ha, ha, he, he....! Ufff... What we should free ourselves from....
It was still dark when the group met at Lazarus’ inn, at Bethany. We were still talking, when the cocks crowed. King David acted like a fool in order to save his skin. The Moreno used the same trick, and saved all of us that day. Yeah, at times, it was better to be astute than to resort to violence.
Although the Zealots concentrated their activities on Galilean lands, the seat of the movement, they were also mobilized in Jerusalem. Pilgrimages during the holidays served as occasions for them to establish their links in the capital, where they also had groups of sympathizers. Among the revolutionaries influenced by the Zealot movement was the notorious group of assassins – terrorists armed with daggers – who found it more con¬venient to conduct their attacks at the height of the holiday celebrations. Zealots and assassins kidnapped important persons, assaulted landed properties and houses of the wealthy, and laid seige on the city’s armory. They considered their struggle as a kind of “holy war.” The jealous God who tolerates no other gods (money, the emperor, the unjust laws) gave them their name: Jealous, Zealots. The punishment for all political crimes against the Roman empire was death on the cross.
Barrabas (an Aramaic name that means “son of the father”) appears in the gospels only in the books of the passion, as a political rebel who killed a Roman soldier in an uprising. In the episode, he appears as one of the important leaders of the Zealots in Jerusalem. He ought to have heard of Jesus because he was then a popular man whom the city’s poor people listened to, putting their hopes in him. Since the zealot movement was of the people, it would be but natural for Barrabas to identify himself with Jesus and his group.
The so-called “law of retaliation” (Ex 21:23-25): “Eye for an eye...” should not be interpreted simplistically as a law of revenge. There have been efforts to oppose the God who gave Israel this “savage” law, with Jesus who was all love and mercy. But such opposition is wrong. The law of retaliation in a world of four thousand years or more, was a law that respected life: an imposition of penalty that corresponded equally to the offense, in fact sought to put a limit on revenge to stop violence. The ancient world, recipient of this law, was a bloodthirsty one, with people overpowering each other by force, and not because it was a right. All this must be taken into account in order to understand the position taken by Jesus and the Zealots as well. The latter were not terrorists thirsty for blood. They were faithful to an old legal tradition, which, in a sense, was valid in their time. Jesus came offering them another way, removing all barriers for a possible co-existence of all humankind, speaking no longer of restricted revenge, but of other values like strength in weakness and love of enemies.
Jesus was not a Zealot. The Zealots were intolerably nationalistic people. They wanted Israel’s freedom from the Roman yoke, but they remained there. Jesus was patriotic because he loved his country, but he was not nationalistic. His mission did not recognize barriers nor discrimination. The Zealots were profoundly religious, but their God was exclusively for the chosen people of Israel, who in his kingdom would take revenge on the pagan nations. This was never the God of Jesus. The Zealots ardently defended the strict compliance of the law. Jesus differed from them on this point, as he advocated total freedom before the law and the authority, notwithstanding their Jewish character. Nevertheless, to absolutely oppose Jesus and the Zealots is to overlook some significant realities: Jesus related with them without reservations – in all probability some of his disciples were Zealots. Jesus shared with them many social concerns, and expressed a common desire for the coming of the kingdom of justice. Jesus’ association with this popular movement cannot be dismissed categorically. Perhaps what is most certain at this point is to affirm that what Jesus proposes is a lot more profound, and goes beyond revolution as envisioned by the Zealots.
On the question of tactics, Jesus differed from the Zealots in his stand regarding violence. In his words, as well as in his attitude, Jesus questioned the use of violence as a means. This topic is too complicated to discuss in just a word or two, nor can it be affirmed simplistically that Jesus was a non-violent man and that the gospel condemns violence in any form. One must first take into account that there is violence in the act of killing as well as in a situation where one is not allowed to live. There are not only acts of violence but also structures and situations of violence. There are violent people, but it is even more dangerous to experience violent societies, where, because of injustice, many perish from hunger, unemployment, disease and misery.... On the other hand, Jesus was also violent when he faced the authorities. His words were intensely violent. He showed violence on some occasions, especially when he figured in that forceful act in the temple’s courtyard. Nevertheless, Jesus killed no one; they killed him, instead. He never encouraged people to use any form of violence, neither did he resort to armed resistance in order to save himself, when he could have very well done so. In this Jewish context, the violence advocated by the Zealots had no hope for success; it was doomed to fail. It was an excuse for the Romans to unleash their powerful repression against the people, as happened in the year 70 after Christ, when Jerusalem was devastated by the Romans in a war against the Zealot subversives.
It is evident that before such power of arms, the Christian principally opposes with the strength there is in weakness, hidden in the true word and in the freedom one has in the struggle by not being attached to anything and therefore, with nothing to lose. Certainly, if we respond to violence with violence, we shall end up being as violent as the one we are trying to fight. On the other hand, we must not forget that starting from the Fathers of the Church, St. Thomas, up to Paul VI, the Church has defended the right to an armed revolution in a situation of prolonged injustice and when all peaceful means to overcome it have been exhausted.
Bearing this in mind, Jesus speaks of loving one’s enemies. Without taking this phrase in context, we run the risk of missing it, transforming it into a sweet formula that is bereft of meaning. In the episode, Jesus utters that difficult phrase about loving one’s enemy, basing it on his own experience. Perhaps only he who is tempted to hate his enemy can truly love. Only he who suffered from the hatred of his enemy by torture, humiliation or death, can forgive him. The one who preaches pardon and love by lip service has little authority to speak about it and is never convincing. The evangelical word about loving the enemy must be taken seriously. It cannot be overused, nor must one abuse it. In a way, the gospel does not tell us that we should not have enemies; but in having them, we must be able to love them. That is to say the gospel is not shunning conflict. It does not create conflict, neither does it encourage it. It accepts it and aims to direct it toward love.
In this episode, Jesus does not say that one has to offer the other cheek, but he himself gives it. He does it, getting his inspiration from what King David did in the land of the Philistines in order to escape from his enemies (1 S 21:11-16). It is a prophetic gesture, and therefore, a liberating one. Through his action, he saves his companions. It is a way of saying that if giving the other cheek is viewed as a form of passivity or resignation, then we are not being faithful to the gospel. However, if we consider non-violence as a manner of looking for efficacy, a strategy, astuteness, then we are very close to understanding the meaning of non-violence in the message of Jesus.
(Mt 5:38-48; Lk 6:27-36)