“i took part in the resistance against the romans,” reveals jesus christ
The Zealot guerrilla fighters used to hide in the caves here.
RACHEL We have returned to Jerusalem with just a few days remaining before Holy Week, and we continue with our exclusive interviews with Jesus Christ. Today we want to ask him a question of much urgency these days Jesus, do you approve of violence or condemn it?
JESUS Why do you say it’s an urgent question these days?
RACHEL Come over here near this kiosk. Let me just read you the headlines “47 dead in two attacks” – “new U.S. threats in the Middle East” – “tribal wars continue in Central Africa”. Jesus, our world is very violent.
JESUS And so is my country. These days I’ve seen a lot soldiers around here.
RACHEL They’re Israeli soldiers, occupying Palestinian territories.
JESUS I also lived in a world of great violence in my time, Rachel.
RACHEL But in the films your world seems to have been so peaceful and idyllic, with lots of birds and flowers.
JESUS No, it wasn’t that way at all. When I was born, my country was already occupied by the Roman troops.
RACHEL What did that mean?
JESUS Humiliations, death, and of course taxes. Our country paid extremely high tributes to the Roman emperor. They used to drain us dry.
RACHEL So the concept of imperialism is something familiar to you?
JESUS Very familiar. I saw Roman soldiers in the land from the time I was a kid. They used to enter the villages, they robbed, they raped the women. They despised us and thought they were the masters of everything.
RACHEL Do you remember any especially bloody event?
JESUS I was young, but I remember when the Romans crucified hundreds of rebels in Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee. I went there and saw it with my own eyes. People were always rising up against the Romans.
RACHEL Was it guerrilla warfare, armed violence?
JESUS The Romans had swords and shields. They had horses. How could you fight them without arms? In my homeland, Galilee, a movement called the Zealots arose; they were an armed group.
RACHEL That was the first armed resistance?
JESUS No, before the Zealots there were other groups, inspired by the Maccabees, who had risen up against the Greek empire a hundred years earlier. My mother gave the name Simon to one of my brothers in memory of a great Maccabean leader.
RACHEL And did you… did you get involved in that resistance?
JESUS We all took part, in one way or another, either involved in the fighting or providing cover for those who were. The women took food to the rebels, who used to hide in the caves of Arbel, I remember.
RACHEL And what did you do?
JESUS As a boy, I used to carry messages. We used to inform them about where the Roman troops were moving. As a youth, I supported them at various times. Yes, I did.
RACHEL Was it a nationalist movement?
JESUS It was. We wanted a free country. We wanted the Romans to leave.
RACHEL Were the Zealots a political party?
JESUS They were very well organized. They carried out attacks. They were very brave, but also quite fanatical.
RACHEL And in your group, … did you allow that kind of people in?
JESUS I announced God’s Kingdom in Galilee, and the first ones to joined were my paisanos from the north. Some of them were Zealots, or at least had been before. I didn’t bother to ask them about that.
RACHEL Let’s get back to our starting point do you approve of violence or condemn it?
JESUS I think that there are many forms of violence, Rachel. The occupation of my country by military force was violence. The taxes the Romans collected came from the sweat of our people. That also was violence.
RACHEL In a message sent to us, a listener reminds us that Oscar Romero, who was bishop of San Salvador, one of the real saints, used to distinguish between the institutionalized violence of those who hold power and the “reactive violence” of those who resist. What do you think of that?
JESUS I think that’s well said, because you can’t use the same yardstick to measure the violence of those on top and the reaction of the people at the bottom. For example, in my day, how could you compare the violence of the Romans with that of the Zealots?
RACHEL And what is your opinion, esteemed audience? What will the president of the United States have to say about these declarations? What will the leaders of the European Union say? Will they bring criminal charges against Jesus Christ, accusing him of being an international terrorist? From Jerusalem, this is Rachel Perez, reporting for Emisoras Latinas.
ANNOUNCER Another God is Possible. Exclusive interviews with Jesus Christ in his second coming to Earth. A production of María and José Ignacio López Vigil, with the support of the Syd Forum and Christian Aid.
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A violent world
Jesus was born and grew up in a land that was militarily occupied. In his time, the Roman empire was the greatest power in the known world. Some 70 years before Jesus was born, his country, Palestine, was made into one more of the many colonized provinces that Rome had on the Mediterranean shores. This meant that the country was ruled a by subservient government, its territory was occupied by Roman troops, and its people were subjected to highly exploitative taxation.
In the time of Jesus the Roman troops maintained “peace and order” in Galilee. They did so with the arrogance characteristic of occupying armies, which believe themselves to be the masters of the lives and the properties of the subject population. Such insolent disregard of people led to frequent rape of women, pillaging of farmers’ properties and repression of anyone who tried to oppose them.
The spirit of the Maccabees
The Maccabee brothers, who lived about 160 years before Jesus, were the great heroes of the Jewish resistance to the Greek domination of Palestine. They organized a genuine guerrilla war and won important victories against the powerful Greek empire. The Jewish people recalled the Maccabees as symbols of courage, patriotism and freedom.
The death of Herod the Great, after a tyrannical reign that lasted 40 years, was an especially critical moment in a Palestine already dominated by the Roman empire. In Galilee, which was far removed from the bureaucratic law and order that reigned in Jerusalem and Judea, several armed insurrection movements arose. They received tremendous support from the people and nurtured the rurally based Zealot movement, which was a group that had broken away from the Pharissees; it was founded by a man called Judas the Galilean, who found his inspiration in the Maccabean tradition.
Around the years of Jesus’ birth, Judas the Galilean organized resistance to the census that had been ordered by Rome. Later, when Jesus was a youth, the same Judas led a great uprising against the Romans. He conquered the city of Sepphoris, which was just six kilometers from Nazareth; at that time it was the capital of Galilee and the main commercial center for textiles in Palestine. A serious confrontation took place there between the Romans and a strong guerrilla group. Quintilius Varus, the Roman legate in Syria, crushed that revolt in cruel and bloody fashion. Sepphoris was reduced to ashes, and hundreds of Zealots were crucified in the city. Herod Antipas rebuilt the city years later.
The blow was a hard one for the Zealot movement, and it took years for them to reorganize. Although these events are not mentioned in the gospels, which fail even to mention the name of the city of Sepphoris, Jesus certainly had firsthand knowledge of all this since Nazareth was so close by.
Zealots: zealous nationalists
The word “zealot” comes from “zeal” and is related to the word “jealous”. The Zealots were zealous, truly passionate about the defense of God’s honor. They were called “zealots” because they defended the “jealous” God, the God who does not tolerate other gods, such as money, Roman emperors, or unjust laws. The Zealots carried on clandestine activities, and some of them waged guerrilla warfare, especially in Galilee, where Roman control was weaker. They had a program of agrarian reform, demanding that all property be redistributed in a just manner. They also proposed the cancellation of debts, following the model of the Mosaic Jubilee Year, the Year of Grace. They were opposed to any payment of taxes to Rome. The small farmers and other poor people of Israel, worn down by the taxes, were sympathizers of the movement, collaborated with its members and provided them support and cover.
The most radical group within the Zealot movement was that of the “Sicarios”, who always carried under their tunics small daggers, called “sicas”; they committed frequent attacks against the Romans. The Zealots and Sicarios used to kidnap important people; they assaulted the haciendas and houses of the rich, and they ransacked the Roman arsenals. They understood their struggle to be an authentic “holy war”. The punishment Rome meted out to anyone found guilty of such crimes against the empire was death on the cross.
The Zealots were not bloodthirsty revolutionaries or what we today call “terrorists”. Neither can they be identified with a political party, as we understand that term today. Their ideology had deep roots in religious tradition: the Israelites understood their country to be a “holy land” which should not be oppressed by foreigners. The Zealots were characterized by a passionate nationalism and a profound spirituality based on the proclamations of the prophets. Their practice was distinguished by its urgency: they wanted to free Israel immediately from Roman domination. Ideologically they were perhaps the group that most clearly represented the thirst for freedom that the people of Israel experienced in the final centuries of their history.
How many Zealots were there among “the twelve”?
Given all these characteristics, the Zealots must have had great expectations of Jesus, and the crowd appeal of the Nazarene prophet certainly must have attracted their attention. Jesus, as a Galilean, must have been familiar with the Zealot movement and certainly was in agreement with them on many issues.
When Jesus began his own movement with the proclamation, The Kingdom of God is near!, he was echoing the hope-filled proclamations which the Zealots were making throughout all of Galilee as a rallying cry against the Roman occupiers. Furthermore, the fact that Jesus’ movement first arose and developed in Galilee made it only natural that Zealots would take part in it. Among “the twelve”, Judas was certainly a Zealot, and Simon was nicknamed “the Canaanite” or “the Zealot” (Luke 6,15). The nickname that Jesus gave the brothers James and John, dubbing them “Boanerges” (sons of thunder), and the nickname he gave Simon Peter, calling him “Bar Jona”, appear to be code names or aliases related to the Zealot movement.
Structural violence, institutionalized violence
Liberation theology proposed the concepts of “structural violence” and “institutionalized violence” to characterize structural sin, by which it means the sin of those societies that allow great inequalities to exist. They are the societies that tolerate injustices committed against the lives of the most vulnerable and where a handful of rich people live comfortably, while the poor masses suffer misery. Structures of violence are those which provoke hunger and landlessness, those which oppress the weakest citizens and leaves them completely defenseless before the powerful. Such violence becomes institutionalized by means of unjust laws, so that it is quite possible for a legal order to be quite violent, one that violates human rights.
In the course of the church’s history there have been many reflections about what Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century termed a “just war”. This concept is so broad and flexible that it has served to justify truly just armed conflicts, but also a great many barbaric wars.
Archbishop Romero, Saint Romero of America
In our present-day Latin America we have the outstanding example of Oscar Romero, who became archbishop of San Salvador right at the beginning of a civil war in El Salvador that would last twelve years. Romero was always opposed to violence as a method of resolving conflicts, even when these were quite acute, but he on several occasions made attempts, not to justify war or violence, but to differentiate between “institutionalized violence” and “reactive violence”. This distinction or dividing line was a constant theme not only in his homilies, but also and especially in his daily activities.
In his homily of June 26th, 1977, he explained himself thus: Institutionalized violence is that which oppresses by abusing its rights. Violence becomes institutionalized when it seeks to abuse power. In the face of such violence there arose a reaction in Latin America. The bishops assembled in Medellin told us: “A sign of our times is the universal longing for liberation.” And the church cannot be deaf to that cry, for it believes that that deep longing of Latin Americans comes from the Holy Spirit, who is inspiring in them awareness of their dignity and making them see the disgraceful condition in which they live. … In response to this situation of violence which has become an institution, liberation movements arise, and there is class struggle, hatred, armed violence.
Declaring that armed violence “is not Christian either” and rejecting violent methods for resolving the national problems of his time, Archbishop Romero, like Jesus, used “two measuring rods” in his reflections. He spoke strongly against “institutionalized violence” and “repressive violence”. He also condemned the “low-intensity” violence which the United States was already beginning to apply in those days against the people’s organizations in El Salvador. (In his diary he called it: this new concept of particular war, which consists in ruthlessly eliminating all efforts of the people’s organizations under the pretext of communism or terrorism.) And he tried to understand the reasons for what he called “revolutionary violence”, considering that it was a response to and a result of “repressive violence”.
Like Jesus, Archbishop Romero was aware that the violence on both sides, as it multiplied, would always develop into an uncontrollable spiral of brutality, harming mainly the people who were poorest and most vulnerable. He was equally aware that repressive violence forced those who found themselves obliged to opt for “revolutionary violence” into a desperate corner. Archbishop Romero tried to “understand” with his heart and his mind, with his words and his actions, the revolutionary option of the poor of his country and the reasons for their “reactive violence”, and that is what cost him his life.
Where war comes from
If we don’t study the matter, we are likely to think that wars are an exclusively human type of behavior, but we forget that they have their roots in animal behavior, especially in that of our nearest biological relatives, the primates. This has been documented in the book Through a Window, by the expert primatologist Jane Goodall. She tells the story of a war that took place between different populations of related chimpanzees. Chimps are the species with which we humans shared a common ancestor some six million years back.
Human behavior is full of remnants and traces of the atavistic primate behaviors that produce wars. There are three types of such behavior that we share with primates: the need to establish and defend the territories and borders that separate groups, the sense of property, and the ordering of the group on the basis of rigid hierarchies.
Aggressive forms of behavior aimed at defending territory, property, and hierarchical leadership are at the root of all human disputes, conflicts, and wars, just as they are at the root of wars among primates. For that reason, sharing of possessions, elimination of borders (while respecting and celebrating differences), and suppression of hierarchies are key strategies of humanization. Two thousand years ago, and in a much more violent world, Jesus of Nazareth was already proposing these strategies.