Jesus and Empire: Victory Over the Powers

Following World War II, European church leaders struggled with how their churches had been swept along in the war fever that engulfed the world. German Christians were especially mortified by the way their churches had enthusiastically supported the Nazis. A few German church leaders like Dietrich Bonhoeffer had resisted but most had bought into Nazi propaganda. This was shaped by a long history of combining church and state. Furthermore, their fierce opposition to communism had blinded them to the evils of Nazism.

Now they were being asked to take sides in the emerging Cold War standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, the two superpowers that had emerged from the devastation of World War II. Both adversaries quickly developed nuclear weapons with the potential of destroying the whole world. At a church gathering in divided Germany, Dutch theologian Hendrik Berkhof, gave a talk where he related the New Testament language of “principalities and powers” to the ideologies and power structures in our world. He made the claim that Jesus, through his death and resurrection, had broken the stranglehold that these powers have on our lives.

The common way of understanding these Powers had been as ethereal, other-worldly entities such as demons. What this fails to recognize is the relationship between the Powers and this-worldly tangible manifestations of them. The Powers become visible as the Roman Empire and people like Caiaphas and Pilate who had Jesus executed for blasphemy and treason.

As followers of Jesus, we need to connect the dots between these Powers and how they impact our lives. Biblical scholar Walter Wink has done extensive work on this. Drawing on the Apostle Paul’s claim that our struggle “is against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness” (Eph. 6:12), Wink translates it into our time and situation,

as contending against the spirituality of institutions, against the ideologies and metaphors and legitimations that prop them up, against the greed and covetousness that give them life, against the individual egocentricities that the Powers so easily hook, against the ideology that pits short-term gain against the long-term good of the whole.1

It’s not that the Powers are intrinsically evil. Rather, they are at once both good and evil, though to varying degrees. They’re part of God’s good creation with a mandate to serve humanity and all creation. A Power becomes a force for evil when it usurps that God-given role and instead becomes a self-serving system of Domination. People crave the certainty and security that such Powers promise. Berkhof describes what happened in Germany:

When Hitler took the helm of Germany in 1933, the Powers of Volk, race, and state took a new grip on [people]. Thousands were grateful, after the confusion of the preceding years, to find their lives again protected from chaos, order and security restored. No one could withhold himself [or herself] without utmost effort, from the grasp these Powers had on [their] inner and outer lives.2

We now see a resurgence of these same Powers of Domination through various forms of nationalism and xenophobia. The Christian message is that Jesus, through his death and resurrection, exposed the Powers as imposters and thereby triumphed over them. The good news is that through the cross we are reconciled to God. This is more than redemption from our personal sin and guilt; it includes our liberation from slavery to the Powers.

1 Walter Wink, Naming the Powers (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 140.

2 Hendrick Berkhof, Christ and the Powers (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1977), 32.

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Jesus’ Third Way (continued)

We generally think Jesus is telling us to passively accept violence and insult when he tells us to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5: 38-41). He’s instead giving us some imaginative examples of how to stand up for ourselves. The Greek word translated “resist” in Jesus’ teaching is antistenai, meaning literally to stand (stenai) against (anti). This is a technical term for warfare, describing two armies marching toward each other and, when they meet, standing against each other in hand-to-hand combat. According to New Testament scholar Walter Wink:

Jesus is not telling us to submit to evil, but to refuse to oppose it on its own terms. We are not to let the opponent dictate the methods of our opposition. He is urging us to transcend both passivity and violence by finding a third way. One that is at once assertive and yet nonviolent.1

A better translation is, “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil but, instead, turn the other cheek.” This requires explanation. We imagine someone making a fist and punching me in the face but that’s incorrect. In the ancient world, the left hand was used for unclean tasks. Therefore, the hitter would be striking with his or her right hand. Right hand, right cheek—the only possible way is with a backhand. By turning the other cheek, you make it impossible for that person to backhand you again. He could make a fist and punch you but that would make you his equal. Walter Wink explains:

The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place.2

Jesus’ second example of assertive nonviolence takes place in a court setting where a creditor sues a poor man, demanding everything including his cloak or outer garment. This is sheer humiliation. Jesus is telling the poor debtor to show how unjust the system is by stripping of his undergarment as well and standing naked before his creditor. The shame of nakedness in Judaism fell less on the naked person than on the person seeing or causing nakedness.

The third example is of a Roman soldier compelling a Palestinian to carry his pack for one mile, a common, hated occurrence that created lots of resentment. Wouldn’t agreeing to go a second mile simply be aiding and abetting your oppressor? Not necessarily. A soldier who forced a civilian to carry his pack for more than one mile was breaking military code. We can imagine our civilian carrying the soldier’s pack, chatting with him, and then when they arrive at the mile marker, cheerfully keep on walking and say, “Hey, you look tired; let me carry it another mile.” What’s going on here? Is he insulting the soldier’s strength? Will he report the soldier to his commanding officer and get him in disciplined for violating the military code? From a situation of being forced into labor, he has now taken back the initiative.

In all three examples, Jesus is demonstrating how to stand up for ourselves without resorting to counter-violence, which would play into the hand of our oppressor. A third way between passively submitting or violently fighting back is taking a creative, nonviolent transforming initiative. Instead of responding on our oppressor’s terms, we’re making him or her respond to us on different terms.

[i] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be (New York: Galilee, 1998), 100-101.

[ii] Ibid., 101.

Jesus and Empire: The Third Way

The United States is our world’s dominant political, military, and economic power. In many ways, America is the new Roman Empire, only bigger and more powerful. What would Jesus do? It’s complicated. America is both like and unlike the ancient Roman Empire. Still, the way we use our military and economic clout to put “America first” is similar enough to ancient Rome to give us pause.

We need to maintain a healthy tension between our Christian faith and our American citizenship. Drew Hart, the author of the book Trouble I’ve Seen, is blunt. He says that too many Christians don’t think it’s necessary to immerse ourselves in the gospel stories as long as we call on the name of Jesus. That’s why we’re not concerned that the Jesus we follow sometimes bears more similarity to Uncle Sam or ourselves than to our crucified Messiah.1

New testament scholars identify two broad aspects to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God. One is God’s judgment on oppressive rulers who exploit vulnerable people. The other is announcing the beginning of a grassroots renewal movement in Palestine. This is what Jesus was doing when he called his disciples and traveled from town to town in his healing and teaching ministry. The gospel story is that God identifies with the dispossessed. Drew Hart writes:

This is the precise way God chose to reveal God’s self to the world, demonstrating a deep identification with the majority of the world who struggle with dehumanizing poverty and oppression under dominating forces. Jesus’ birth in the manger was a visible protest against the powers of this world that denigrate the dispossessed.2

This is hard stuff because, like Jesus’ first disciples, our penchant is to identify with the rich and powerful. When the disciples argued about who would be greatest, Jesus turned the tables on them. The kind of servant leadership he insists on is in juxtaposition to the top-down, authoritarian leadership of rulers in the pyramidical, patronage system of the Roman Empire:

The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves (Luke 22:25-26).

Likewise, the community of disciples should not become caught up in the violence of the empire or the counter-violence of the Zealot resistance fighters. Jesus counsels a “third way” with his often-misunderstood teaching on turning the other cheek. We often take it to mean being passive or cowardly in response to violence. That’s wrong! It does not mean allowing powerful people, especially powerful men, to take advantage of us. Instead, Jesus is teaching us how to stand up for ourselves. It’s learning how to resist, but without violence. We can think of it as engaging in transforming initiatives. (I’ll explain that in my next blog post.)

1 Drew Hart, Trouble I’ve Seen (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2016), 59.

2 Ibid., 62.

Jesus and Empire: Proclaiming Good News

Jesus’ lifetime was one of the lowest points in Jewish history. Palestine had suffered centuries of foreign occupation and was now a colony of Imperial Rome. While the Roman Empire maintained garrisons of troops in resistive territories, their preferred system of rule was through local client rulers like King Herod or Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest.

Any resistance to Roman rule was met with terror and vengeance. They annihilated towns and villages that dared resist, believing that failure to do so would be a sign of weakness. Anyone who fought against them was labeled a common bandit or thief and their favorite form of execution was crucifixion, which combined cruel terror and humiliation.

Roman rule in Palestine was economically devastating for the common people. They had to pay taxes to the Romans (for example, Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem to pay their taxes). They also had to pay taxes to King Herod and to the Temple in Jerusalem.  As a result, many small landholders were pushed off their lands, which were taken over by absentee landlords. Consider all the stories in the gospels about paying taxes, absentee landlords, day laborers, poor widows, and beggars.

The politics of different Jewish groups during Jesus’ lifetime was centered on their response to the Roman occupation of their land. Jewish elites, especially the Sadducees and the High Priests who were in charge of the Temple in Jerusalem, preferred to collaborate with the Romans with the provision that they could continue their own religious practices.

The opposite political response was to actively resist Roman occupation. It could take more passive forms such as tax resistance but included open rebellion. There were active resistance groups during Jesus’ lifetime known as the Zealots (those zealous for God). Biblical scholars debate how close Jesus was to the Zealots. Several of his disciples were known to be Zealots (Luke 6:16). Furthermore, Jesus’ proclamation of the “kingdom of God” echoes Zealot claims that God (not Caesar) is their king.

Yet another response was more separatist. The Pharisees focused on following Jewish purity laws on eating, tithing, keeping the Sabbath, and not associating with known sinners or Gentiles. Jesus argued with them about such things. A group known as the Essenes withdrew into the desert and started separatist religious communes there.

The politics of Jesus thoroughly scrambled these political choices. He certainly didn’t collaborate with the Romans. While he may have been sympatric to some of the agenda of the Zealots, unlike them, he did not espouse violence and he even associated with people like tax-collectors who they considered to be their enemies.  He, instead, initiated a grassroots social revolution or upside-down-kingdom. According to biblical scholar N. T. Wright, this social revolution had wider political ramifications:

Anyone announcing the kingdom of [God] was engaging in serious political action. Anyone announcing the kingdom but explicitly opposing armed resistance was engaged in doubly serious political action: not only the occupying [Roman] forces, but all those who gave allegiance to the [Zealot] resistance movement, would be enraged.1

Mark’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist in the desert preaching repentance. What drew him out there? Because, for a first century Jew, this is where you would expect a new start to take place. John was reenacting the story of how God rescued the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, led them through the Red Sea and formed them into a new people in the desert. John’s baptism was a sign was a sign of being part of the renewed people of God.

Jesus’ baptism by John was his initiation into this renewal movement. At his baptism, Jesus’ receives an epiphany of being God’s beloved Son and then is immediately after driven into the wilderness (Mark 1: 9-13).  What’s that all about? Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness symbolizes Israel’s forty years of being tested in the desert or wilderness. More than that, “the new creation begins with a renunciation of the old order.” Satan is identified as the ruler of our present world order and the wild beasts, in biblical language, symbolize the different empires in the ancient world (Daniel 7: 3,7).

The story line in Mark’s Gospel moves fast. After Jesus resisted Satan’s temptation to launch his ministry through the power of “empire,” John is arrested, foreshadowing the opposition that Jesus will also face from worldly powers. He then returns to Galilee proclaiming “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news.”

Fulfilled time is Kairos time—God’s time. Jesus announces that the reign of God, the beloved community, the new world coming, has come near and is already in our midst. The Roman Empire and her client rulers like King Herod are rightly alarmed. The message is that we can take the baptism plunge, be liberated, and become a renewed people.

Let’s back up to the very first verse in Mark’s Gospel, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The words “in the beginning” echo the first words of Genesis where God creates the world—this is indeed a new beginning. The word euangelion (good news) is the announcement of the enthronement of a new emperor or of a victory by the emperor’s armies. Biblical scholar Ched Myers writes, “Mark is taking dead aim at Caesar and his legitimating myths . . . The “good news” of Mark does not herald yet another victory by Rome’s armies; it is a declaration of war upon the political culture of the empire.”2

What does this mean for us as followers of Jesus in America? How is Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God good news in our time? What does the liberating reign of God look like in our world? How is this resisted by the powers of our day and how do they tempt us cave in and do things their way. Finally, how do we proclaim this “euangelion,” “gospel,” good news” to our neighbors? We’ll explore these questions further in following blog posts.

1 N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 296.

2 Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988), 124

The Human Connection (part 2)

Finding the human connection was so important for Bryan Stevenson as a first year law student. I wrote about this is my previous blog post and said that I have the same struggle with theological language that can feel just as esoteric and detached from the lives of people I serve in our church and our community.

What does it mean to say that Jesus in both fully human and fully divine? How do we understand abstract Trinitarian language about the relationship with God the Father, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit? Our common theological takeaway is a doctrine of redemption where our salvation is made possible by the incarnation, the sinless life, and the atoning death of Jesus. It’s a transaction that takes place in the spiritual realm and assures us that we will go to heaven when we die.

In theological language it’s called the doctrine of plenary atonement. It’s awfully thin soup, rather detached from the everyday lives of ordinary people. John’s Gospel can help us. It doesn’t have a nativity story, and begins instead by soaring into the farthest reaches of deity. Thinking, however, that it’s about life in the heavens would be a bad mistake.

The first three words “In the beginning” parallel the first three words in the book of Genesis. It’s about the origins of our world, including the human race. The Gospel story, as John tells it, is about a fresh beginning and a new human race. John’s Word or Light from heaven becomes flesh and is the life of humanity. Another way I’ve heard this said is that “God becomes everything we are—to make us everything God is.”

John is writing to a Gentile Christian community outside Palestine. They live in a different culture from the one in which Jesus was born. John is explaining to them that the life and teaching of Jesus comes from God and, at the same time, relates to their ordinary lives. He is placing Jesus both above and within their cultural world. John’s community believes that the spiritual world is good and the material world is evil. He counters this by saying that the eternal Word became human in the life of Jesus. It’s an affirmation that the earth and our physical lives are part of God’s good creation.

We have worth because we’re valued by God who entered our world in the human life of Jesus. In Jesus God shared our experiences including our love, joy and intimate companionship as well as our anger, our tears, and our suffering. God is not a detached deity in a world far away. Our God is an intimate, suffering God who shares both our joys and our wounds.

Jesus turns our world upside-down. In a world where social status is everything, he associates with common people and outcasts. In an anxious and fearful world, he reminds us that God cares even for the sparrows. In a world addicted to the power of violence, he demonstrates that nonviolent, suffering love is a force more powerful. This connects powerfully to the kind of world Bryan Stevenson relates to in his legal practice representing poor people and those trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system.

 

Losing and Saving our Lives

It was a pivotal juncture in Jesus’ ministry. He had just concluded a successful campaign in Galilee, where thousands flocked to him. His disciples were completely pumped and had huge dreams for where this would go and the part they would have in it. Now that Jesus is beginning his journey to Jerusalem, the spiritual center of Judaism, even greater things will certainly follow.

The location is also significant. They were in the region of Caesarea Philippi that Herod the Great’s son Philip named after himself and the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus. A huge temple in honor of Augustus accompanied the renaming, rebuilding, and glorification of the city. It was an imperial city and, according to Roman propaganda, “the empire would dominate without end and know no bounds.”

It’s here that Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, speaking for all of them, proclaims, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8: 27-30). It’s the right answer but with a fatally flawed understanding. The word messiah literally means “God’s anointed one.” This goes back to when the prophet Samuel anointed David to be the king of Israel. Devout and zealous Jews in Jesus’ time longed for a new messiah-king who would lead an armed insurgency and deliver them from the hated pagan occupiers of their land.

This is obviously what Peter was thinking. We can feel the rush of energy in his words. We’re off to Jerusalem with the goal of establishing a new Jewish dynasty. The disciples were already jockeying with each other and arguing about who would sit next to Jesus in the seat of power. We can assume that’s why Jesus instructed them to not tell anybody. This had to be a low point for him as a teacher and spiritual leader.

After being with him all this time, his disciples still didn’t get it. They still thought following God meant destroying their enemies—not loving them. So he begins to talk in a strange way that doesn’t compute. He talks about suffering, being rejected, even killed, and then raised again. We can imagine the confusion on the disciples’ faces and their sideways glances at each other. They were expecting pep-talks and strategy sessions—not this!

Peter, ever the self-assured one, took Jesus aside to help him understand the effect of such talk. We can imagine him confiding in a low voice, “You can’t talk like this. You’re demoralizing everybody!” Then, to his chagrin, Jesus turned around and rebuked him in front of the other disciples. “Get behind me Satan! Your understanding of what it means to be the Messiah isn’t spiritual in the least. It’s completely wrapped up in human understanding of power and the trappings of power. That’s a devil of an idea.”

I suspect that Jesus is talking to himself as much as to Peter. We can’t forget that this was at the core of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness when Satan took him up on a high mountain, showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and promised to give them to him, if he would worship him (Matthew 4: 8-10). Worshiping Satan is equivalent to a violent grab for power. World history is littered with the horrific consequences.

We see it being played out in the political and military turmoil in Syria and other part of the Middle East. The lives of millions of people have been destroyed as the flood of refugees keeps increasing. The obvious contemporary example is the Islamic State group known as ISIS, yet all nations have some element of domination through violence as part of their core identity. We hear slightly different versions of this perspective articulated by candidates running for public office.

Financially speaking, what would I gain if I became a billionaire and was a self-centered jerk with no true friends and no understanding of the rewards that come from freely giving myself? I’d still be a shadow of a person no matter how important I or others might think I am. What a travesty! In contrast, Jesus proposes losing our lives in order to save them. We think of those who give their lives in this ways as heroes and martyrs, people like Martin Luther King Jr. or Mother Teresa. Focusing exclusively on such exemplary people can be disempowering for ordinary folk like you and me.

We all lose our lives daily in various ways. We lose our lives when we devote ourselves to the well-being of our families and loved ones. We lose our lives when we give ourselves to serving others through our work. We lose our lives when we become engrossed in a concert or join others in a meaningful activity such as taking a walk. We lose our lives when we worship together and serve together as a congregation. We lose our lives when we join others to work for peace with justice in our world.

Finding the Song of Our Heart

There’s a never-ending interweaving of continuity and change in the life of a healthy congregation. Our past is part of who we are—both the good and the bad. We can’t shuck it off even if we wanted to. Instead, we keep revising and reshaping our identity and our vision in response to the changes in our congregation and the larger community where we live. Such evolution is part of life.

Jesus’ image of a discerning scribe is apt. “Therefore, every scribe who has been trained as a disciple for the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings old and new things out of their treasure chest” (Matt. 13:52). This is the raw stuff that informs our vision of who we are as God’s people as well as who God is calling us to become. Jesus drew on the best in the Jewish faith tradition to shape his life and teaching. These are to old things he drew out of the treasure chest. The new thing was the way he shaped it to meet the challenges of being the people of God in first century Palestine.

The scripture from Isaiah that he read in the synagogue in Nazareth, as he launched his public ministry, was the defining vision that guided the life and action of his band of disciples (Luke 4: 16-19). We might think of it as his spiritual/social platform: (1) Good news for the poor, (2) Release of captives and recovery of sight, and (3) the year of Jubilee involving a radical sharing of resources. Such a vision is a guiding dream rather than a detailed policy blueprint. It’s the song of our heart.

When I became the pastor of our church, people sometimes asked me what my vision for our congregation was and I honestly didn’t know. I knew our larger purpose of being a people of God and followers of Jesus. This sets the table so to speak. It’s our mission but it’s hardly a vision for our church.

It’s a recipe for disaster if a new pastor attempts to import her or his own vision for a congregation. The vision emerges among us as we together wrestle with who we are and how we engage our community. In my next blog post, I’ll write more about the “song of our heart” that is emerging in our congregation.