On Easter Sunday, billions of Christians gather together to celebrate the event that’s indispensable to the Christian faith — the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, without the resurrection our faith is useless. The Easter focus on the resurrection is profoundly encouraging for people of Christian faith.
But the resurrection isn’t the only lesson of Easter weekend. The story of Christ’s arrest, trial and crucifixion contains its own lessons, and one of them is quite relevant to this age and to debates about Christian engagement in the public square. Quite simply, the story of Easter weekend rebukes the Christian will to power.
To understand why, let’s revisit one of the most famous moments in Scripture. After Jesus’ arrest and show trial, Pontius Pilate, the Roman ruler of Judea, gave the people a fateful choice. It was customary to release a prisoner during Passover, and Pilate offered up Jesus. The crowd wanted someone else. “Release Barabbas to us,” they cried.
When I was a kid in Sunday school, no one ever truly explained the significance of the crowd’s choice. It mystified me. Barabbas was always described as a heinous criminal, a murderer or a robber. Thus, the crowd seemed completely irrational, even deranged. Its choice of a common criminal over Christ was incomprehensible.
Indeed, the contrast with the public reaction to Jesus’ initial entry into Jerusalem was profound. Days earlier, on what we now call Palm Sunday, Jesus entered the city to accolades. As he rode on a colt, his crowd of disciples yelled these words: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”
As I grew older, I learned more context. Jesus was not the king the throng expected. He made clear that he was more interested in saving souls than in assuming power. And Barabbas was more than a mere criminal. He was an insurrectionist. The books of Luke and Mark clearly state that he participated in a “rebellion.” Those who chose Barabbas didn’t choose a common criminal over Christ. Instead, they chose a man who defied Rome in the way they understood, a mission that Jesus rejected.
A bit of historical perspective is necessary. Jesus of Nazareth was born a Jew in the town of Bethlehem, in a land that groaned under the weight of Roman oppression. The people of Israel longed for liberation from Rome. Indeed, it was not long after Jesus’ death that they launched their first great revolt against Roman rule, a violent uprising that met a catastrophic end.
But Christ wasn’t a political leader, even though the people hoped for political liberation. As the Book of Matthew relates, Jesus had rejected Satan’s effort to tempt him with “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” if only Christ would “fall down and worship” him. Yet while Jesus refused the will to power, many of his followers simply couldn’t comprehend his purpose. They persisted in the belief that the kingdom he promised would look very much like the kingdoms of this earth, including the Roman kingdom that dominated their lives.
The spirit of Barabbas — the desire to seize or retain power, through violence if necessary — has been at war with the spirit of Christ ever since. Two millenniums of church history demonstrate a terrible truth: There was nothing uniquely evil about that ancient crowd. Instead it held up a mirror to our own nature, one that is all too eager to wield the sword, to believe that our own power is a prerequisite to justice.
Easter weekend contains more than one example of the spirit of Barabbas. When Christ was arrested, the Apostle Peter — a man who had been by his side for much of his ministry — still could not see the truth. He drew his sword, struck the high priest’s servant, and cut off his ear.
Though he was in the midst of an unjust arrest that would prove prelude to an unjust execution, Christ rebuked Peter, saying, “Put your sword back in its place, because all who take up the sword will perish by the sword.” As he reminded Peter, Jesus had the power to call on “legions of angels” to stop the arrest, but he chose not to. His purpose was to go to the cross, and as Jesus told us, that’s our purpose as well.
There is a difference between the quest for power and the quest for justice. Believers are required to “act justly.” We should not stand idly by in the face of exploitation or oppression. We do not retreat from the public square. But Christian engagement must be distinctive. It cannot emulate the world’s methods or morality.
In fact, we have a modern model. The single most consequential movement for American justice in the past century was influenced and empowered by the Black churches in the South. The civil rights movement wasn’t exclusively Christian by any means — there are Jewish Americans who gave their lives in support of their Black brothers and sisters, for example — but it was animated by faith. As John Lewis said in 2004, “Without prayer, without faith in the Almighty, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.”
Specifically, the example of Jesus dominated the minds of civil rights leaders. “We discussed and debated the teachings of the great teacher, and we would ask questions about what would Jesus do,” said Lewis. “In preparing for the sit-ins, we felt that the message was one of love — the message of love in action: Don’t hate. If someone hits you, don’t strike back. Just turn the other side. Be prepared to forgive.”
Tragically, other Southern Christians had forgotten the example of Christ. The spirit of Barabbas was alive and well in the men who trained their fire hoses on peaceful protesters, who loosed dogs on the Black children of Birmingham. They weren’t trying to seize power, but they were trying to maintain it, through violent, lawless means. Their will to power collided with the quest for justice. It is only through God’s grace and the unimaginable courage and persistence of peaceful protesters that justice prevailed, and Jim Crow laws were overturned.
The spirit of Barabbas tempts Christians even today. You see it when armed Christians idolize their guns, when angry Christians threaten and attempt to intimidate their political opponents, when fearful Christians adopt the tactics and ethos of Trumpism to preserve their power. The spirit of Barabbas most clearly captured the mob on Jan. 6, when praying Americans participated in an insurrection based on a lie.
Christ did not reject earthly rule so that his flawed followers could seize the world’s thrones. His ethos was clear: “You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions act as tyrants over them. It must not be like that among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” This Easter it is as servants, not rulers, that Christians should resolve to love this land.
David French is a columnist for The New York Times.