A cautionary tale for twenty-first-century liberals.
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Music, "New Heaven", written by Andrew J. Brown and played by Chris Ingham (piano), Paul Higgs (trumpet), Russ Morgan (drums) and Andrew J. Brown (double bass)
Like many, perhaps most, children, my world was powerfully shaped by many adults who were willing to mislead me into believing me the world could always be divided into “goodies” and “baddies.” This was usually illustrated via the many myths of British exceptionalism which centred upon the two World Wars and the British Empire.
Although one might have hoped otherwise, in my Sunday School Bible classes the situation was no better, a fact that can be seen by considering this story found at the end of the Gospel of Matthew (27:15-26). Here it is in David Bentley Hart’s recent translation:
Now, for the festival it was the governor’s custom to release to the crowd one prisoner, whomever they wished. And they had at that time a notable prisoner named bar-Abbas. When therefore they were assembled Pilate said to them, “Whom do you wish I should release to you, bar-Abbas or Jesus, who is called the Anointed?” For he knew that they had handed him over through malice. But as he sat upon the dais his wife sent word to him, saying, “Let there be nothing between you and that just man; for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of him.” But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds that they should ask for bar-Abbas and should destroy Jesus. And in reply the governor said to them, “Which of the two do you wish that I should release to you?” And they said, “Bar-Abbas.” Pilate says to them, “What then should I do with Jesus, who is called the Anointed?” They all say, “Let him be crucified!” But he said, “Why, for what evil did he commit?” But they cried out the more, saying, “Let him be crucified!” And Pilate, seeing that it is bootless, and that unrest is being produced instead, took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; you will see to it.” And in reply all the people said, “His blood be on us and on our children.” Then he released bar-Abbas to them, but having flogged Jesus he handed him over so that he might be crucified.
In the light of my opening remarks, it was inevitable that I would instantly categorise Jesus as obviously being the goodie and Barabbas as the baddie. It should come as no surprise to learn that, therefore, I was very disturbed by the crowd’s response to Pilate’s question about whether Jesus or Barabbas should be released. Given that it was so obvious to me, why on earth was the crowd howling for the death of the goodie and the release of the baddie? How could that have happened?
My often very kind, but dangerously naïve, Sunday school teachers answered my question by simply following Matthew’s lead and blaming everything on the Jewish crowd who, by extension, became baddies themselves. Since this was all in black-and-white before me in a book I was told was the very word of God, how could I not be shocked and angry by the Jewish crowd’s willful rejection of the good man Jesus and begin to harbour a deep prejudice against them? Remember, too, that in Sunday School I was also being taught that Jesus was God and so this story was not just about killing a good man, shocking enough though that was, but a matter of deicide, nothing less than the murder of God. As far as crimes go this was as bad as it could get.
That such an idea could so easily be planted in the mind of a small and impressionable child should disturb us deeply, not least of all because this is a story which every reputable, modern, New Testament scholar thinks is entirely fictional — it’s an early example of what we would call “fake news” and “alternative facts.” But, of course, the impact of this story was not simply confined to we few children who attended a tiny, rural, English Sunday School in the 1970s, but one which has affected every child who has ever grown up in a Christian context.
The shocking truth is that this story has played a central role in the creation of a Christian anti-Judaism which has led directly to the deaths of millions upon millions of Jews over the last two-thousand years. As the New Testament scholar Robert Funk (1926-2005) reminds us, “There is no black deep enough to symbolize adequately the black mark this fiction has etched in Christian history” (“The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus” by Robert W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar, Pole-ridge Press, San Francisco, 1998, p. 153).
Looking back over forty years I still shudder when I see how easily this evil fiction might have been etched into my own bones. However, I was lucky beyond measure that my father’s grandparents had formed a close friendship with the Jewish family who lived next door to them in East Barnet, and, when my dad and their son were both courting the girls who later became their wives, they began to go out together, especially to the pictures. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and by the time my sister and I were born, each year around Christmas/Hanukkah time, our two families would meet up and a jolly and festive time was had by all.
I can see that this friendship with a Jewish family was one of the most important and influential experiences of my life because it taught me early on to be acutely suspicious of any story that was attempting to split people into binary us and them categories where ne’er the twain could meet.
This experience helped create in me a strong desire better to understand both how this anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic state of affairs could have come to be in the first place and, very importantly, how the mechanisms which made it possible might still be darkening and influencing our own times. As some of you know this interest eventually blossomed into my later post-graduate study, and then professional work, in the field of Jewish-Christian and then Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations.
In connection with this work, in the early 2000s, I found myself looking closely at the work of the conservative German jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt (1888–1985) and especially his 1922 book, Political Theology. Schmitt’s thinking about questions concerning sovereignty, the effective wielding of political power and the state of exception has been, and remains, highly influential in modern political-philosophical thought. However, for all the many valuable and powerful insights his work undeniably contains, his basic way of thinking about the world is deeply problematic and dark, not least of all because it’s so tightly bound up with his close association and juridical-political allegiance with Nazism. Indeed, he has at times been called the “crown jurist of the Third Reich”.
Now I bring Schmitt up in connection with the reading from Matthew because, like me, he was also very disturbed by the question Christ or Barabbas?, Jesus or Barabbas?
As you have heard, for me in the first instance — and I’m going to come to a darker, second instance in a moment — it was a question which caused me to resist making the kind of immediate binary judgments Matthew and much of historic Christianity wanted me to make, i.e. for Jesus and against the Jews, and then to engage in what has become a lifelong dialogue with the Jewish tradition which has, in turn, given me a deeper and more nuanced understanding of how our complex, shared world really works and, importantly, might work better.
But for Schmitt, it was a question which during the 1920s, 30s and 40s encouraged him to begin a sustained attack not only on the Jews but also on liberalism — an attack which today, in new right-wing, especially alt-right hands, is once again fully underway.
In his Political Theology (Chapter 4) Schmitt revealed that he believed “Liberalism, with its contradictions and compromises”, could not answer the question of “Christ or Barabbas?” except by making and accepting “a proposal to adjourn or appoint a commission of investigation.” Given this he sneeringly concludes that:
The essence of liberalism is negotiation, a cautious half measure, in the hope that the definitive dispute, the decisive bloody battle, can be transformed into a parliamentary debate and permit the decision to be suspended forever in an everlasting discussion.
As you can see, Schmitt did not like liberalism’s commitment to the idea that ongoing nuanced, informed debates and dialogues meant there need never be any final definitive dispute or, of course, more importantly, some decisive bloody battle. As far as Schmitt was concerned this consensual, dialogical, non-violent way of proceeding was a clear indication of the profound loss of vision and orientation he thought liberalism had brought to his own time and culture. And he came to think that one surefire way of getting it back was to develop a politics in which people were forced to confront, and immediately respond to, black-and-white, either/or questions like that of “Christ or Barabbas?”.
It’s important to be aware here that for Schmitt the primary binary question underlying everything was always “friend or enemy?”. As Charles E. Frye notes in a paper called “Carl Schmitt’s Concept of the Political”, we see that Schmitt thought the terms “friend or enemy?” should be taken:
not as metaphors or symbols, not mixed and watered down by economic, moral, and other ideas; nor are they to be taken psychologically as the expression of private feelings and tendencies. . . . Here we are not concerned with fictions and normatives, but with reality as it is and the actual possibility of this distinction.
For Schmitt, therefore, “the enemy” is not just any old competitor or adversary in general, and enemy is “in the last analysis a fighting, human totality; but it is at least this. Whether it is fighting or not depends upon the actual circumstances.” Schmitt then goes on to say that: “The concepts friend, enemy, and battle have a real meaning; they obtain and retain this meaning especially through their reference to the real possibility of physical killing.”
Now this is a deeply disturbing political philosophy is it not? And, as I hope you can see clearly, it played a key role in the development of the fascist ideology promoted by the Nazis.
But, as a person deeply shaped by liberal democracy and anti-fascist movements, here’s my personal, second instance, where things start to get a bit confusing and complicated. This is because today I, too, feel the need to make a sustained critique of liberalism, one which accepts in a nuanced way a key insight of Schmitt’s original critique. This has come about because thirty-odd years on from the end of the Second World War, in the late-1970s, liberalism began to form an abusive relationship with an ideology which has become known as neoliberalism, that is to say, the free-marketisation and commodification of absolutely everything. As Robert Kuttner sums it up
Neoliberalism’s premise is that free markets can regulate themselves; that government is inherently incompetent, captive to special interests, and an intrusion on the efficiency of the market; that in distributive terms, market outcomes are basically deserved; and that redistribution creates perverse incentives by punishing the economy’s winners and rewarding its losers. So government should get out of the market’s way (Source).
In today’s post-Brexit, post-Trump, post-truth, and mid-pandemic situation, when contemporary British, and, for that matter, wider-European and American culture has clearly lost any vestige of its immediate, post-war liberal democratic, cosmopolitan vision, orientation and consensus, we can see clearly that neoliberalism has by now almost completely hollowed out the democratic institutions of liberalism and left them as mere shells, mere appearances of what they once were. More colloquially put, the ravenous wolf has eaten grandmother, put on her clothes and, thanks to the new disguise, is now able to eat Little Red Riding Hood herself, i.e., us.
This means that now, when our apparently liberal, democratic political institutions appoint commissions of investigation and engage in parliamentary debate, these institutions are more and more being used to protect the market and not real, actual people, that is to say the demos of any true liberal democracy. In consequence, key issues of political, economic and social justice and fairness are never properly resolved and are, as Schmitt pointed out one hundred years ago, “suspended forever in an everlasting discussion.”
This is why inquiries like those purportedly looking at the Grenfell Tower disaster, the financial crimes and scandals of 2008 and the Windrush scandal, as well as the inquiries that may, or may not, be had over the procurement of millions of pieces of faulty PPE or the disaster of Track and Trac e being privatised through and through, will never deliver justice and fairness to the demos because these inquiries are designed only to deliver results deemed good for the market and those institutions and individuals who benefit directly from its profits.
It’s no wonder people are beginning to lose faith in liberalism and liberal democracy and are angrily beginning to insist upon radical change.
Now, for someone like me on the liberal-left end of the spectrum the change required is a radical restoration of a genuine liberalism by the final ending of neoliberalism and a return of power to the demos and decisively away from the market. This would be to affect a radical reorientation around a civil, cosmopolitan humanist vision of the world in which commissions of investigation and parliamentary debates can, when done properly, have a real chance to decide on what best to do about key issues concerning political, economic and social justice and fairness.
To return to the story from Matthew I think it is possible that such a change could help us appropriately to decide the Jesus or Barabbas question. But the decision would not be one based on the false, friend/enemy binary loved of Schmitt, but something much more highly nuanced, looking, perhaps, something like this: After a fair trial/commission, Jesus would be released rather than Barabbas (if, of course, the evidence allowed this) , programs would be initiated genuinely to reform the wider social situation that had helped make Barabbas the criminal he was, attempts would be made to reform Barabbas rather than execute him and, finally, safeguards would be put in place to ensure that false evidence and fake news could not be used to persecute any group within our society whether they be Jews or from any other community.
That’s the kind of thing Schmitt’s critique makes me hope for, but I fear that a revived, wholly unreformed, full-blown, Schmittian philosophy of decisionism is once again threatening to become popular amongst the many illiberal political and religious individuals and groupings who are also attempting to reorientate both themselves and wider society. But for such people and groups the change they want is one dependent upon creating an endless series of simple, fast-moving, false binary questions which are deliberately intended simplistically to divide the world up into friend/enemy, indigenous/alien, Christian/non-Christian, left/right, black/white, in/out, leave/remain, and many more besides. All this is being done, of course, in the mistaken belief that these decisions will revive in people a belief that the nation is heading assuredly towards a restored political, religious and personal sense of identity and confidence. The current obsession with displaying the Union flag at every opportunity here in the United Kingdom is but one very frightening indication of this process underway: very soon one will identified as being either for the flag or against it.
But to follow this route is to indulge in a very, very dangerous fantasy because the world always was, is and ever will be a complicated, non-binary place, and a failure to see and address this basic fact of existence will always lead us into the darkest places and times, to murder and mayhem.
So, Jesus or Barabbas?, Christ or Barabbas?
How are you going to respond to this kind of question in our own age?