Senseless war and bloodshed — and the triumph of a humble artisan

Regretfully, the Churches are divided — a split between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ukraine Orthodox Church.

Mar 25, 2022

By Anil Netto
Of late, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has dominated conversations and heightened anxieties.

It set me thinking about what transpired during First Century Roman-occupied Palestine, where Jesus lived.

But first: the International Military Tribunal, after World War Two, stated in its judgment that because war is evil, “to initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

So, just as it was a supreme international crime for the US to invade Iraq and other countries, so it is for Russia to invade Ukraine.

Various reasons have been used to justify the invasion: Nato’s expansion closer to Russia’s borders, alleged bio labs and Nazi elements in Ukraine, and the suffering of Russian minorities in eastern Ukraine.

But surely, nothing good can come out of an invasion. Think of the senseless bloodshed, the exodus of refugees and the misery of ordinary people.

The international economic order is split, with many Western nations falling in line with US-inspired sanctions, whereas China has taken a more independent path, fostering ties with Russia.

Even worse, the spectre of nuclear war, which Russia has hinted at, hangs over humanity. It all takes us back to the dark era of the Cold War.

Regretfully, the Churches are divided — a split between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ukraine Orthodox Church.

No matter what, it is always tragic when any Church is seen to support a war.

Both sides — the West and Russia — have demonised each other. We can be sure neither side are angels. But it is also true that one sovereign nation, Russia, led by Vladimir Putin, has invaded another – and annexed territory.

The invasion and the ensuing sanctions have disrupted the existing integrated global economic order, sparking price increases that are hurting even more of humanity.

But remember, the integrated global economic order — while allowing for the free flow of goods and services across nations until the invasion — has also concentrated immense wealth in the hands of a small minority, including Russian oligarchs, at the top.

In contrast, teeming masses of humanity have been struggling to survive.

So, whose side should we take?

It is said that in the fog of war, the truth is the first casualty. No wonder, when Pontius Pilate was confronted with the Truth in the person of Jesus, he could not recognise it. Instead, he feigned ignorance: “Truth? What is truth?”

Pilate’s ‘truth’ was something else – Roman imperial power based on military conquest that imposed an uneasy, artificial peace, and imperial theology, which regarded the emperor as a deified entity, a son of god.

With such a harsh peace imposed, the Romans, with local collaborators, could ruthlessly extract wealth from conquered territories, imposing punitive taxes that left the masses burdened.

In this Empire’s version of ‘truth’, no other dissenting views would be tolerated. Rather, other truths would be nipped in the bud.

Empires and military occupiers often fail to realise that it is often easier to invade and seize new territories than to hold on to them. In the history of Southeast Asia, we witness how the Portuguese, Dutch, British, French and US colonial powers conquered vast swathes of land — but where are these powers now?

The Holy Land itself was invaded and occupied by wave after wave of foreign powers.

Jesus emerged on the scene when King Herod was on his way out in much agony. Herod’s kingdom fell under his sons and then part of it, Judea, under direct Roman rule through a prefect.

As the religious and political taxes rose, ferment brewed in the occupied territories, erupting in rebel uprisings, especially in 4BC and AD6.

During Passover, the Jewish feast to commemorate the exodus from slavery in Egypt to freedom, feelings ran high. The population in Jerusalem swelled from about 60,000 to several hundred thousand during the festival.

So, Passover was a tricky time for Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, based in the balmy harbour town of Caesarea Maritima, along the Mediterranean coast, with just 3,000 Roman troops. As Passover approached, they would march about 90km to Jerusalem and keep a watchful eye on proceedings at the Temple.

Passover marked the liberation from slavery for the Jews – but they also knew they were now under Roman occupation.

The irony was not lost on the pilgrims. They only had to look up at the Antonia Fortress, northwest of the Temple complex, which overlooked the city. Here Roman soldiers kept a close eye on the teeming cauldron of pilgrims at the gleaming Temple complex.

The Temple priests had to strike a delicate balance between serving the Roman occupiers while ministering to the religious rituals of the Jews — and running a lucrative business at the Temple, which Jesus quickly spotted.

For the Romans, any sign of disturbance had to be nipped in the bud. They did not hesitate to use harsh methods to put down any hint of a rebellion. Cruel floggings and crucifixions were par for the course and Jesus was one of many who were harshly dealt with.

The public display of crucified victims was meant to strike fear among the public – much the same way that Japanese occupiers put up the decapitated heads of executed victims in public places in Malaya during World War Two.

Resistance to Roman rule came from Jewish zealots who led uprisings against Roman rule. Their rebel leaders were usually regarded as ‘messiahs’. A splinter group of ‘terrorists’ were known as the Sicarii, for they hid small daggers (sicae) in their cloaks to strike swiftly at their targets.

Violence was met with even more violence, culminating in the First Jewish-Roman War in AD66-73, when the magnificent Temple was utterly destroyed. Possibly about a million people perished, with almost a hundred thousand captured or enslaved. A sea of blood covered the Temple grounds.

Jesus must have sensed the apocalyptic doom that was approaching as He witnessed events unfolding around AD30. Which side would He take in the brewing maelstrom?

Neither — for He knew violence was not the answer. He steered a different path — to the disappointment of those who expected a political messiah.

Jesus stayed clear of the urban centres that propped up Roman rule such as the fancy new cities like Sepphoris and Tiberias, where the nouveau riche who supported the ruling class lived. He also distanced Himself from the Jewish zealots and famously admonished Peter for taking out his sword.

Jesus mainly associated with humble peasants and fisherfolk and proclaimed a new kingdom of God. This can't have gone well with Roman and Temple spies whose ears would have pricked up at any mention of a kingdom apart from the existing order.

Jesus spoke of non-violence, distributive justice, compassion and love — a far cry from the violent punitive justice of Roman rule and the oppressive taxation that benefited the political-religious elite and concentrated wealth in their hands.
As for the Jewish-Roman War, the rebels were eventually crushed and scattered to places like Galilee. Their Roman conquerors claimed the spoils and enslaved those they captured.

It is said that victors get to write history – and so the Romans did.

Indeed, hardly any mention of Jesus appears in official (Roman historians’) accounts except for a sentence here and there. Jesus himself did not write anything for posterity.

But the supreme irony is that it was the Roman Empire that eventually collapsed, and it was the followers of the resurrected artisan working on the fringes who ‘captured’ the soul of Rome, turning it into a major spiritual centre of Christianity.

(Anil Netto is a freelance writer and activist based in Penang. He believes we are all called to build the kingdom of God in this world.)

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