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

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Remembering a Committed Peacemaker

I was dismayed when I read a New York Times news report last week that the bodies of two UN researchers were found in a shallow grave in the eastern Congo. I remember one of them, Michael Sharp, as a passionate, fun-loving, and gifted student in a class on Global Peace and Justice that I had taught at Eastern Mennonite University. He loved studying and debating various peace and justice topics.

Michael first worked in eastern Congo with Mennonite Central Committee and then began to serve with the UN peacekeeping mission there. Those who worked with him said that “he was a very hard-nosed truth seeker and would go the extra mile to nail down the evidence.” They also said that “he had tremendous empathy, even for some of the nastiest people he worked with.”

Colleagues described Michael as a professional with extensive experience in tough places. He had worked in the Congo for five years and had developed an extensive relational network with rebel commanders and local leaders, most of whom he had met in church. One colleague said that he had told her: “Rebels go to church. You build a relationship with them there.”

His father John says that Michael’s work had been rooted in his faith. “From early on he caught a passion for peacemaking and peace-building in the world.” He believed that peacebuilders should be willing to take the same risks as military people take.  Now we mourn the deaths of Michael, his UN colleague, and their translator, three gifted peacemakers. Three other Congolese nationals who were traveling with them are still missing. We remember and pray for the friends and family of all these people.

This is incredibly sad. The lives of two young peacebuilders were cruelly snuffed out. Even sadder is the sheer magnitude of the pain and suffering in eastern Congo. The UN estimates that currently there are at least 2.7 million internally displaced people in the Congo and approximately 450,000 refugees in other nations. Estimates vary widely but the death toll may have reached more than four million people since the conflict began following the genocide in neighboring Rwanda in 1994.

The hopeful part is remembering Michael Sharp, such a remarkable young man with a passion for creating a more peaceful world in a region that has known so much death and suffering. He knew the risks he was taking and recently told his mother that he wasn’t afraid to die. His life was so full of purpose, joy, and compassion. He lived more in his thirty-four years than most of us do in a much longer lifetime. That’s why I placed the picture of him having fun with children in the Congo on our communion table last Sunday.

Being a Hospitable Tribe

No matter where we live, one of the challenges for us as followers of Jesus, is to liberate ourselves from the prejudice in our society and even in ourselves. It’s never easy. We often think of it as racism but according to theologian and activist Drew Hart:

The language of race obscures rather than clarifies human similarity and difference. It is smoke and mirrors. Instead of being a biological fact, race is a social construct. . . We should never separate race from its ideological and political work. The global practices of European domination, colonization, and conquest in the Americas and Africa in the sixteenth century required ideological justification.[1]

The social construct of race served as that justification. Deconstructing race is therefore hard, important work. Thinking we’re colorblind or pretending that racism doesn’t exist is actually harmful. Religion scholar and writer Diana Butler Bass has instructive insights on human difference that can help us. She writes:

Unless one is a hermit, most of us naturally sort into groups of likeness. We hang out with those we like around shared concerns and similar tastes. That is the basis of friendship, the secret ingredient of neighborliness and community. That’s the rub: human beings are tribal people. We always have been and always will be.[2]

And that’s a good thing. We all feel more comfortable around people who are like us. Still such tribes can become restrictive and we then begin to long for the freedom to live fuller, more meaningful lives. To be honest, the tight, restrictive community I grew up in sometimes made me feel like I was suffocating. It’s why I loved living in Asia for many years and it’s why I treasure the rich diversity of Northern Virginia.

Diana Butler Bass says that “a fine line is crossed . . . when tribes become clans and neighborhoods become enclaves. Clans almost always have the compulsion to fight other clans; enclaves typically feed on paranoia about the outside world.”[3] Her answer to this dilemma is the spiritual practice of hospitality and what she calls “hospitable tribes.” I like to think of our church as a hospitable tribe that welcomes and celebrates the rich diversity in our midst and is not afraid to grapple with prejudice in our midst, whatever form it may take.

[1] Drew Hart, Trouble I’ve Seen (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2016), 48-49.

[2] Diana Butler Bass, Grounded (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 213.

[3] Ibid., 214.

Love Your Enemies (part 3)

Plowshares

Evangelical pastor Brian Zahnd had once been a big supporter of American militarism. He enthusiastically cheered during the first Gulf War and delivered a patriotic, anti-Islamic sermon after 9/11. Then he was converted and wrote the book, A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace. (As we know, Mars is the Roman god of war). Brian writes:

[Americans] have embraced a privatized . . . gospel that stresses Jesus dying for our sins but at the same time ignores his [politics]. This leaves us free to run the world the way it has always been run: by the power of the sword. Under pressure from the ideology of empire, concepts like freedom and truth gain radically different meanings than those intended by Christ.

Freedom becomes a euphemism for vanquishing (instead of loving) enemies; truth finds its ultimate form in the will to power (expressed in the willingness to kill). This is a long way from the ideas of peace, love, and forgiveness set forth by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.[i]

There are huge differences between political parties in our world. Some are more militaristic, tied to economic elites, and prone to exploit our fears and prejudices. (Different parties exploit different kinds of fears and prejudices.) Yet, there’s no major political party in our country that doesn’t subscribe to an ideology of empire. All think that loving our enemies would be a kind of suicide.

I consider such things as I decide on my support for a given party or political candidate. At the same time, I refuse to identify myself with any political party without qualification. I’m a follower of Jesus and for me, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Within the reign of God, the power of love is understood to be more powerful than violence and hating our enemies.

Jesus is telling us, “Be like God who loves and blesses everyone.” If we instead love those who love us and hate those who hate us, we’re just like everyone else. Instead, like God, we’re called to be complete in our love. We may be severely tested on this in our present political climate.

[i] Brian Zahnd, A Farewell to Mars (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2014), 34.

Love Your Enemies (part 2)

Plowshares

Our notion of American exceptionalism and of fighting our enemies to protect our freedom, democracy, and capitalism is a modern version of the myth of redemptive violence. It’s as old as history but its keeps continually evolving into different forms. In Jesus’ day, it took the form of Pax Romana (the peace of Rome)—a peace brutally enforced by Roman legions.

In the fourth century, when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, it became Christendom fighting against all kinds internal enemies, including Jews and those considered to be heretics, and external enemies such as Islam. This was followed by independent European nations dividing the world between themselves and fighting each other for their colonial empires. That struggle was at the root of the two world wars in the twentieth century. This was followed by the Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union.

A key part of the myth of redemptive violence is dividing the world between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” This is Star Wars stuff. Pastor Greg Boyd writes, “To be willing to kill, soldiers must believe they are the good guys who are righteously fighting the bad guys—to defend God, country, truth, justice, equality, freedom, or whatever.”[i]

National and military leaders go to great lengths to perpetuate this myth because they simply can’t sustain an effective war unless soldiers and ordinary citizens remain confident that our cause is just. We need to believe that something more than chance has decided which side we’re on. Many in my generation lost our confidence in that myth during the Vietnam War; we no longer believed what we were being told about that war, why we were fighting there, or the justice of our cause.

Let’s return to the issue that Khrushchev raised about following Jesus’ example of loving our enemies. Christians followed Jesus’ example of loving their enemies (sometimes as great cost) for the first three hundred years. That changed when the Roman general Constantine came to power after winning a decisive battle in a civil war in which he had symbols of the cross placed on his weapons of war. (The incongruence is stunning!).

The wheels had been set in motion for Christianity to become the state religion of the Roman Empire and the enemies of Rome were now assumed to be the enemies of God. Popular American Christianity is another version of this. I’ll expand on this in my next blog post.

[i] Gregory Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 93.

Practice Reconciliation (part 2)

We all have a proclivity for breaking ourselves into teams of us against them. Part of the genius of faith in Jesus is that it breaks down such distinctions and walls of separation. It never comes easily but we know that this is what the kin-dom of God looks like. Christena Cleveland writes, “This is a tall order that requires a real and fierce conversation on the elephant in the church: privilege and power differentials. For some reason, high-status people (in my experience, particularly white men) have a hard time seeing and admitting that they are in fact high-status people who enjoy privileges that aren’t afforded to low-status people” (Disunity in Christ, 166).

This is the situation that Paul tackled head-on in the church in Corinth. People were dividing themselves into groups loyal to either Paul our Apollos. He had planted the church and then Apollos became a prominent leader after Paul left. We don’t know what the division was about but we can assume that both were high-status men. It’s easy to see how such a situation could develop. Many loved Paul and resisted any changes Apollos may have initiated. We can assume that Apollos was a little insecure and perhaps a bit sensitive about his status and role. He was naturally charismatic and others were drawn to him.

We don’t know if there was a concrete issue like same-sex marriage (which is tearing churches apart today) that church members in Corinth were fighting about but we always find such an issue to legitimize our prejudices and ambitions . Paul told them that such party loyalties indicate that we’re spiritual babies who cannot even eat solid food. Furthermore, both he and Apollos are mere workers in the church, which he likens to a field. One planted and another watered and each will receive his wages at the end of the day for the work he has done. Neither can take credit for the growth. That belongs to God.

The huge issue that divided people and created huge fights in the early church was the inclusion of Gentiles. Nobody wanted to exclude Gentiles but some wanted to impose conditions that marked them as second-class. This reflected a deep-seated cultural and religious divide or what sociologists call identity politics. The identity politics in our country today includes struggles surrounding racial, cultural, gender, sexual, and religious differences. This drives the fight over immigration.

It was a long struggle in the early church but Gentiles were eventually fully included as equals. Coming to that place included studying Scripture together, discerning how the Spirit was leading in real-life situations, and being committed to staying in communion with each other even when we see things differently.

We dare not forget that we’re Gentiles. Paul reminds us that we have been grafted in. A way was found to include us as equals. This is not our church; it’s Christ’s church! That should make us especially eager to bend over backward to include others, to always make sure we do not relate to others out of a sense of entitlement or privilege, and to drop everything else in order to seek reconciliation.

Practice Reconciliation

As a young man, I participated in a Paul–Timothy Program designed to develop future church leaders. As part of our training, we read about a racially diverse, fast-growing new church in Chicago called Circle Church. Formed the in the late 60s, the church met in a union hall located between black and white neighborhoods in this racially divided city. At the time, Circle Church was a model for racial diversity, but later ran into difficulties and split along racial lines. Long-standing racial segregation and prejudice in Chicago still shaped the way blacks and whites in their church related to each other. Whites were used to taking charge and were largely unaware of what we today call white privilege. Others felt left out and deeply buried racial frustrations became insurmountable.

Such discrimination goes beyond race. Women friends have told me about participating in meetings where their suggestion was ignored but then taken seriously when a male colleague said the same thing.  It can feel like you’re invisible. Women need to be better and brighter to get the same respect. But it’s tricky because a determined woman is labeled “pushy” when a male counterpart with the same characteristics is assumed to be a natural leader.

Social class and economic status easily lead to yet another kind of discrimination. Some of us are born on third base and go through life thinking we hit a triple. This has been a longstanding problem. The writer of the book of James in the New Testament scolds his congregation for giving undue honor to a rich visitor while ignoring and demeaning a poor person. He pointedly asks them, “Isn’t it the rich people who oppress you?” (2:6).

Lynn Hur, an Asian-American high school student gives us yet another twist on discrimination in America. The school she attends is predominantly Asian-American and she says it’s a privilege to grow up in an environment where she isn’t teased because of her small eyes or praised for her good English. But it can easily blind students to the racism they will face in the real world. She wants people to know three things: “Number one: Racism is not just a black-and-white situation. [It] encompasses the entirety of our colorful and complicated world. Number two: No one is completely innocent. Asians have their own assumptions and stereotypes of others, despite our experiences. Number three: I want us to look racism in the eye, name it and undo it” (The Mennonite, Feb. 2017:29).

Ben Goossen talks about white Mennonite privilege. He’s referring to those of us from European stock who can trace our genealogy back to our Anabaptist ancestors. He calls it white privilege with a twist. We’re very aware of our ethnic family names, foods, and the history of our ancestors as a persecuted religious minority. It makes us feel special but it makes others feel like they can never quite fit into our churches or ever measure up. They will always be outsiders. Such blinders keep us from seeing our white privilege. Ben Goossen says that learning about white privilege taught him to see us and our churches in a different light. He writes, “I see that even when we talk about peace and justice and righteousness, we can still be implicated in systems of oppression” (The Mennonite, Feb. 2017: 23).

Yet another divisive and often incredibly painful matter is how we relate to and include people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. A lesbian friend recently told me that some of her family will not even talk with her (a kind of verbal abuse) or allow her to come to their homes.  Jesus warns us that verbally abusing and demeaning another person is equivalent to murder. Such anger, like murder, opens the cauldron of hell. He tells us that if we are about to offer a sacrifice or gift to God and remember that our brother or sister has something against us, we should immediately drop what we’re doing, first go to be reconciled, and then return and offer our gift (Matthew 5: 21-24).

For Jesus, compassion and relationships always trump ritual and religious purity. He was fond of repeating Hosea 6:6: “For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” It’s instructive to consider the many times he went out of his way to build relationships with despised others such as the Samaritan woman. Churches continually face challenges related to the different forms of prejudice and discrimination in our world. We will want prioritize going out of our way to build relationships with despised others and to practice reconciliation.