Judas Maccabeus (‘Judah the Hammer’) was apparently a pretty popular historical figure in the time of Jesus. He led the Jewish revolt against the tyranny of the Seleucid empire (169-160 B.C.), and is seen as one of the greatest warriors in Jewish history. You can read a popular version of his story in the Apocrypha, in the First Book of Maccabees.
Judas used force and violence in the name of God to defeat the enemies of God. He managed to drive out the Greek tyrants, but one of his strategies for doing so – an insignificant little treaty with Rome – was to have fateful consequences in the years ahead.
In the time of Jesus it was the Romans who had become the oppressors of the Jewish nation, and when Jewish people looked for a Messiah to deliver them, it was someone like Judas Maccabeus they were expecting – another king like David who would use violence and war in the name of God against the enemies of God. This was the idea that fired the Zealots, and there is no doubt that the force of this expectation was a constant backdrop to the ministry of Jesus.
Which makes his choices all the more striking. He deliberately rejected the route of violence and war, calling on his followers instead to love their enemies, pray for those who hated them, and bless those who persecuted them. He accepted for himself Daniel’s Messianic title ‘the son of man’ (see Daniel 7:13-14), but, in a boldly original move, understood it against Isaiah’s picture of the servant who would do the will of Yahweh and would suffer for it, as ‘Yahweh has laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (Isaiah 53:6). And so, rather than ‘taking out’ his enemies, he allowed himself to be ‘taken out’, forbidding his disciples to resist; he practised his own teaching of loving his enemies and praying for those who hated him, and he commanded his disciples to follow his example. After his resurrection, he sent out his armies to the ends of the earth, but he sent them out with no weapon but the gospel of peace and the command to love.
Today, however, as the heirs of 1600 years of ‘Christendom’ (the rather strange political arrangement in which the church tacitly agreed to turn its back on certain troublesome aspects of the teaching of Jesus, in exchange for acceptance as the religion of choice), most Christians have made their peace with the idea of using violence in the name of God to destroy the enemies of God. It strikes me that the language that many Christians use would be more appropriate for followers of Judas Maccabeus than for followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Which Saviour do we really want – the one who loved his enemies and called us to do the same, or the one who slaughtered his enemies in the name of God and national security? I think I know the answer.
Today the world has been told that Osama bin Laden is dead. There is great rejoicing in many circles; some say this makes the world a safer place, some say justice has been served, some say the garbage has been taken out (I’m quoting from three status updates that appeared on my own Facebook news feed). But I want to end with two reflections that also appeared on my news feed. First, from a friend in British Columbia:
Glad to see some closure re 9/11, and totally understand the elation of my U.S. friends. However, even before today, I’ve been wrestling with a Western inconsistency: We don’t hunt down and shoot accused criminals among our citizenry without due process; but we do it overseas to citizens of other countries without blinking. Am I missing something?
Second, from Brian MacLaren, quoted by Maggi Dawn:
Joyfully celebrating the killing of a killer who joyfully celebrated killing carries an irony that I hope will not be lost on us. Are we learning anything, or simply spinning harder in the cycle of violence?… As you talk about this news, I hope you will consider how your response can counter rather than reinforce the cycles of violence that spin around us. And please God, help us bring healing beauty to the ugliness of violence in whatever small way we can.
Jesus of Nazareth or Judas Maccabeus? I wonder which Saviour we would prefer.