“I have no god”, Barabbas answered at last. . .
“Why then do you bear this ‘Christos Iesus” carved on your disk?”
“Because I want to believe,” Barabbas said
This is not a book review, but it is a meditation inspired by a remarkable book that I read last week. The book is the short novel Barabbas (1950) by the Nobel-Prize winning Swedish novelist Pär Lagerkvist. Barabbas imagines the life of the murderer and thief who was pardoned on the day that Jesus was crucified. Because it is not a book review, it contains spoilers. You have been warned.
The Barabbas that Lagerkvist creates is the first Christian in one important sense: he was the first member of the human race to be redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The redemption is immediate and tangible. He is literally released from a death sentence because Christ is crucified. In this way he becomes a stand in for all people who are ransomed from sin and death by the atonement of Jesus Christ. (Symbolism and all; great literature works that way).
Lagerkvist’s Barabbas also tries to be a Christian in the spiritual sense. Sort of. When he learns that the man who died for him is also considered to have been a god–somebody who had the power to prevent what happened to him, Barabbas becomes obsessed with trying to understand why a god would choose to die. He actually gets the right answer fairly early on, when he asks a disciple what the Master taught, and she responds, “love one another.” Multiple characters tell him the same thing, but it makes no sense to him. Love has never been a part of his life.
But as he becomes increasingly obsessed with Christ, Barabbas makes several attempts to declare himself a Christian. He allows another follower to inscribe Christos Iesus on his Roman slave medallion–indicating that he has become Christ’s slave. He resolves to dedicate his life and his heart to this new Master, but it is his old life and his old heart that he wants to dedicate: a life filled with violence and a heart devoid of love. He doesn’t want to convert to Christianity; he wants to join Team Jesus.
And he does. Sort of. In fits and starts. At several key points in the novel, Barabbas manifests what he believes to be his devotion to a cause by acting violently in defense of its followers. He kills a Jewish priest who is stoning a Christian girl. He murders and desecrates the bodies of temple guards when he believes them to have persecuted Christians. And finally, he tries to burn down Rome itself because he believes that this will hasten Christ’s return. In the end, he is crucified like the Master he never learned to serve. Not once in his life did he ever love another person. On the cross, he commends his soul, not to God, but to darkness, for this has always been his Master.
And he is not alone. Barabbas is a parable meant to be generalized to the human condition—with specific application to those who profess to be Christians or other kinds of religious people. Humans are tribal. The urge to divide other humans up into “usses” and “thems” comes from deep within our mammalian brains, which evolved in a tribal environment. Along with being “carnal, sensual, and devilish,” the natural human is hard wired to want to be part of a tribe. Our identity is deeply bound up with questions like, “whose side am I on?” and “what is good for people like me?”
Ultimately, Pär Lagerkvist is concerned–in all the right ways–with the power of religious belief on the tribal mind. The great promise of religion is that it has the power to move us beyond our tribal narratives and towards a universal embrace of humanity. The great danger of religion is that it can so easily become another tribe. The line between the promise and the danger is simply the extent to which we understand, internalize, and allow ourselves to be changed by that whole bit about loving one another.