I want to write about Masada. Qumran and the Dead Sea were cool, but Masada was so important. I’ll just focus there, and hope to write carefully, knowing I am apt to offend deep sensibilities.
Masada is way out there in the Judean Desert, high up on a mountaintop, in view of the Dead Sea. The Hasmoenean rebels fortified it when they were fighting Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the 160s B.C.E. Then Herod the Great, a builder of edifices and a paranoid par excellence, constructed a magnificent fortified palace here between 37 and 31 B.C.E. It was a small village, but a first rate Roman getaway, defended by incredibly steep cliffs and high walls, with stores of food and a water supply, deliberately designed to withstand a siege. Herod spared no expense to make this place impregnable.
In 66 C.E. the Jewish Rebellion against Rome, beginning far to the North at Caesarea Maritima, brought a swift and devastating response from the Empire. In 70, Jerusalem was sacked and Herod’s Temple destroyed. The zealots, the second most extreme revolutionary party, had led the rebellion. The Sicarii (perhaps a splinter party from the zealots), were more extreme, more inclined to terrorism and assassination. The Sicarii escaped Jerusalem and took refuge in the old Masada fortress. In 73, the Romans laid siege to Masada. Eventually the Romans breached the wall and were going to enter the citadel the next day. Facing certain defeat, the Jewish leader Menahem eloquently persuaded his followers to choose death over defeat. That night, the rebel soldiers slew their own wives and children. By a process of drawing lots, 10 soldiers were chosen to kill the others. One soldier drew the lot to kill the other nine then fall on his own sword. When the Romans entered Masada, they were awed by the heroic courage and honor of the rebels – 960 of them dead in one night.
Masada is a model for heroic defenses like the Mesolonghi in the Greek War for Independence (1924) and the Alamo in the Texas Revolution (1836). But here’s my problem with valorizing the rebel defenders of Masada:
Yesterday we sat on the side of the Mount of Olives at the Dominus Flavit site and read Luke 19: 41ff, where Jesus wept over Jerusalem, saying, “If you, even you, had only known what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes.” He went on to prophesy siege and destruction. Marcus Borg, N. T. Wright, and the late Walter Wink have all portrayed Jesus as calling Israel to repent from nationalistic violence and turn to non-violent ways of finding freedom despite Roman rule.
One woman at Masada did not participate in the mass suicide. She slipped away with five children and hid them from the rebel soldiers. I say the woman who saved the children was real hero of Masada -- not those who killed their own families and themselves. The tragic death of the rebels at Masada was a classic case of those who live by the sword dying by the sword. Not long before the siege, the rebels themselves had raided the nearby Jewish village of Ein Gedi, killing 700 women and children, in order to take their food and resources to equip Masada to withstand a siege. But passing a verdict on people long dead is not the important point. Jesus’ message to us is the point. In order to explain it, I need to distinguish among three things. These are my definitions:
Patriotism – is love of one’s country, commitment to the health, happiness, and flourishing of one’s land and people. It makes patriots serve the common good.
Nationalism – is a competitive drive to make one’s nation first, to be richer, stronger, smarter, better than other nations. The need to be first makes it intolerable for a nationalist to see his nation dominated by another.
Imperialism – is nationalism on steroids. The imperialist wants his nation to prove it is the best by dominating other nations.
Masada is a case of nationalism resisting imperialism. But notice how the Romans admired the rebels. The same values, the same impulse that undergirds nationalism leads ultimately to imperialism. The nationalist and the imperialist are not so different after all. Heroic martyrs to nationalist resistance establish a country’s righteous claim to become an empire. Violence in defense of one’s own freedom evolves all to readily into the violence to deprive someone else of his or her freedom. The cause of freedom is righteous, but the means to win it can corrupt. Patriotism is good – but nationalism and imperialism are two sides of one evil coin.
None of us is exempt from using the experience of victimization as an excuse to commit the same wrong against someone else. The martyrdom of Christians during the period of persecution gave us our moral mandate to commit atrocities against pagans during the reign of Justinian and to go on committing pogroms and against Jews for centuries. See James Carroll, The Sword of Constantine. When we start in violence, ending in violence is all but certain.
Jesus prescribed a different way of responding to oppression. He said, “Do not mirror violence with violence.” Do not do unto others as they have done unto you. Resist, but non-violently, with wisdom, with intelligence, cleverly, with a godly relational power stronger than the dominating power of brute force. It is a spiritual practice. It is political aikido.
I know I say this as a white middle class American. I say it from the perspective of the imperialist. In that sense, I have no right to speak. Jesus clearly condemned the power of empire as well as the attempt to overthrow empire by empire’s own violent means. But Jesus was one of the oppressed people. So was Gandhi. So was Martin Luther King, Jr. So was Lech Walesa (despite his recent anti-gay statements he is a hero for freedom). So are Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and Aung San Su Kyi. They all used Jesus’ way brilliantly. When we raise Jesus’ teaching about non-violence, the automatic response is, “What about Hitler? What about the holocaust?” It is a fair question and I don’t know that I have the answer. But here’s a fact to remember. The only country in Europe that simply chose not to participate in the holocaust was Denmark – and they did it through non-violent, clever, relational-power resistance. Starting with the king, the entire country wore the yellow star that labeled Jews. Solidarity, not violence, stopped the holocaust cold in Denmark.
Opposing evil is crucial. But how we oppose it is even more so. Reinhold Niebuhr said that democracy is not threatened as much by its enemies as by the power it uses to defeat its enemies. That was never more true than today.