I’m writing on the fiftieth anniversary of the Bloody Sunday Massacre in Derry, Northern Ireland. U2 did a song about it, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, and there was a movie, “Bloody Sunday”, that did a really good job of showing how a peaceful demonstration can easily turn into dozens of civilians bleeding in the street.
Fourteen people died — thirteen of them either immediately or soon after; the fourteenth died a few months later as a result of his injuries. Many more people were injured — shot, hit by shrapnel, beaten or run over by military vehicles. It was a massacre in the truest sense — the victims were unarmed civilians; the aggressors were British soldiers, firing into crowds. Many of the dead and wounded were attempting to flee or to help other victims. None of the soldiers were injured and none of them were held accountable.
There were, of course, many times before and after Bloody Sunday when the Irish attacked the occupying English with whatever weapons they had — neither side was wholly innocent — but the Brits always had the advantage, and they could, at any time, have rolled through Northern Ireland with tanks and flamethrowers and utterly annihilated Irish resistance. They didn’t because that would have looked pretty bad to the international community, who were keeping a close eye on things. The British had massacred large numbers of civilians in occupied countries before — they killed somewhere between 400 and 1,500 people in the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, at Amritsar, Punjab, in 1919, to name just one, and again, no one was held accountable. That’s just how military occupations are.
When Jesus was walking around preaching and healing the sick, Israel was occupied by Rome. Roman soldiers and officials are mentioned frequently in the Gospels. Some of those Romans may have been sadistic brutes who looked for opportunities to oppress the Jews, but there were certainly others who were just doing their jobs. Some of them might have had sympathy for the Jews. Matthew and Luke report that a Roman centurion came to Jesus and asked Him to heal his servant. The exchange ends with Jesus praising the centurion’s faith.
Matthew was a tax collector before Jesus called him. That means he worked for the Romans, which means he would have been considered a traitor by other Jews — politically and religiously, because politics was woven together with religion, sort of like in the conflict between the Catholic Irish and the Protestant British.
Another one of Jesus’s disciples was Simon the Zealot. In this instance, “zealot” means that he was one of the Jews who resisted the Romans — a partisan. Zealots would have made direct attacks against Roman forces very rarely — that would be a huge risk, and could cause massive reprisal. Rome didn’t care what the international community thought. The only reason they had to not level a city and kill everyone in it was that dead people don’t pay taxes. They were willing to let the Jews practice their religion, and they tolerated some dissent, but they could only be pushed so far. Zealots like Simon would have directed more of their violence against Jews who worked for the Romans — tax collectors, for example.
Until Jesus showed up, Simon would have been happy to kill Matthew. Jesus, of course, knew who He was calling. When He saw Bartholomew, aka Nathanael, standing under a fig tree, He sent Philip to get him, saying “Look, a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Jesus knew who Bartholomew was. He knew who Simon and Matthew were. He deliberately recruited them. Maybe they weren’t buddies, but they must have believed that what Jesus was doing was more important than anything else.
That’s how Christians are supposed to act. Paul said “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female — for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”, Galatians 3:28. The pairs he names — Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female — were clear social opposites in his time and place. Today, in America, he might have paired a police officer and a Black Lives Matter activist. Within the body of Christ, there should be no conflict between them.
The Bloody Sunday Massacre was part of a long fight that included who should control real estate — the most common cause of wars — that also included two branches of the Body of Christ, Protestants and Catholics. The whole history of Christianity is red with bloody disputes between members of the Body of Christ. We can’t change any of that now, but we can turn away from it. We can choose not to fight each other anymore. It’s what Jesus would have us do — and He makes it possible.