Jesus Radicals Blog 2005-2017
By: Drew G.I. Hart
Note: Originally posted at Drew's blog Taking Jesus Seriously on the Christian Century.
"When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he became enraged. He sent men to kill all the children in Bethlehem and throughout the surrounding region from the age of two and under, according to the time he had learned from the wise men. Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:
Christmas, for many, is about the warm and fuzzy feelings that come from buying and sharing gifts with loved ones and for some it is also a reminder of Jesus’ birth. The Christian calendar pushes us even further past the commercialism and the narrowness of that one day and turns the church’s attention towards cycling through a season of anticipating the coming of Jesus. We can be thankful for this redirection. However, since much of the Christian calendar as we know it developed alongside Christendom, Advent also frequently failed to communicate the good news of Jesus’ coming in the midst of the cycles of violence and oppression. If we are to understand the delivering force of Jesus’ coming and presence on the earth, we must un-domesticate the Jesus story.
The cycles of violence and oppression in our world are certainly not new. Over and over again societies have chosen to organize their lives through systems that violate the dignity of the poor, crush the oppressed, and execute the dreamers that find the courage to live into the possibilities of another world. This is reenacted through the biblical story and through all of human history. For example, in our society today, Black Americans are scripted by the broader society’s narrative as suspicious and dangerous criminals that need constant surveillance. It is believed that vigilante policing is needed to remove and control their black bodies and the danger they present to other Americans. Furthermore, too many African American communities are a den of exploitation. As black people fled the south from white terrorism in the early 20th century, they were systematically forced into racially confined borders now called ghettos. The resources, opportunities, and institutions, as well as economic wealth, were removed or significantly stifled in these neighborhoods while those that were able to labor frequently did so only to bring more wealth to those outside of their communities. This colonial-like exploitation is combined with ongoing violence, discrimination, and demonization. Mob violence and lynching, police brutality, and entire systems, like the convict leasing system of the early 20th century or the modern day prison industrial complex, disproportionately targeted black communities.
Today the choice to take the path of destruction and death rather than the way of life can be seen when we do not fund education but instead funnel that money towards prisons, when we spend more money on a global military complex rather than for the flourishing of those who are hungry and impoverished. In the United States, many are calling for the mass deportation of thousands of vulnerable refugees, our society is targeting Muslims through dehumanizing and hateful threats, and many people refuse to see the imago Dei in LGBTQ persons. Women (disproportionately WOC) still continue to experience sexual assaults on our college campuses as well as in their neighborhoods and homes. And our society recently watched as the ongoing forces of violence brutally unfolded once again against indigenous Americans and their relation to their ancestral lands. In this country, the vicious cycles of violence and oppression are intertwined with the multidimensional overlaps of white supremacy, patriarchy, and plutocracy. Far from abstract ideas and theories, these forces have been devastating real people and the bodies they inhabit.
Jesus came into a society that also had been going through its own ongoing cycles of violence and oppression. Not only was he born under Roman occupation, but more directly under Herod the Great, who according to the book of Matthew was an egotistical and self-conscious leader that couldn’t help but attempt to squelch anyone and everyone that competed with his reign (sound familiar?). According to Matthew's account, Herod got fooled by the wise men because he wanted them to report back to him about the status of the Messiah but instead they took another route back home to avoid him. Getting outsmarted and bamboozled made him very angry. Herod unleashed a violent top-down decree that targeted the young boys in and around the Bethlehem region. This unjust “Law and Order” attempt to shut down the possibility that another world could arise, one that could exist without him as its leader, became a death-dealing attack on vulnerable children. Infant boys up to toddlers the age of 2 were being dragged out of their homes and executed. This regional genocide of the boys, within this gospel narrative, was all part of an attempt to uphold and renew Herod’s imagined supremacy in the land. Parents, siblings, and neighbors watched as an inhumane policy manifested into young lifeless Jewish boys’ bodies laying on the ground as though their lives were not precious. In response, mothers lamented and wailed:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
The cries of those that suffer were heard by God. While Herod probably closed his ears to the pain of those that had loved ones abruptly taken, God had heard their weeping and would not abandon them. The God of the Bible is not a Herod or Caesar-like figure but just with super-sized power. God’s character is holy and unlike such fragile rulers. God does not puppet humanity nor does our Creator orchestrate every human event (though God certainly is present in those moments actively overcoming our evil with divine good). God has not preordained evil nor does he find pleasure in human violence. Rather than imposing Godself onto others, God is present in the world actively but non-coercively shepherding creation towards liberation and shalom. Jesus’ coming, as such, is no different.
Jesus’ coming as the messiah of God should be understood in response to the troubles of this world. The enduring night of violence and oppression are not inconsequential to Jesus’ presence among us. Jesus was born into the chaos of violence and oppression, but the Way of Jesus invites disciples to enter, in contrast, into a gracious and life-giving path of deliverance out of these devastating cycles. Yes, he came to deliver us from our sin; our personal sin, our collective sin, our societal and systemic sin, and our generational sin, etc. By God’s grace, there is a better Way than remaining complacent in the status quo world as it is. We should not be comfortable with this arrangement and we certainly should not be conforming to its patterns. Through the delivering Way of Jesus, enemies are converted into friends, the oppressed are liberated, the last are made first, the outcasts are gathered around the Messianic banquet table, and in Jesus we find our hope.
When we take a closer look at vs. 18 in the second chapter of Matthew, we are told that Rachel is weeping for her children and refuses to be comforted. At a quick glance this might feel like a passage of despair, but a careful reading reveals the true hope Jesus provides for us. This passage is quoting from Jeremiah 31:15. In the original biblical context, this verse of lament is actually situated in a passage steeped with a dramatic proclamation of hope that God is about to do a new thing which will restore God’s people from exile and distress. In the broader passage that sandwiches this one verse, God commits to a coming time when the children of God will be rescued from oppression, returned to their land, and rebuilt as a people. All of this flows out of their humbly walking with God through faithful repentance (31:16). This is hope in God's shalom; the restoration of God's people living into their calling with one another, with their Creator, and with the land.
Whether you celebrate Christmas or Advent, what matters is that we grasp the liberating power that the Way of Jesus has opened up for us. It is a non-coercive gift, but when we accept the call to become a disciple of Jesus, following his teachings and life, we abide with God and we participate in a divine disruption of the cycles that kill and destroy life and flourishing. 1 John 2:6 reminds us that abiding in God requires also that we live as Jesus lived. That should be a reminder that warm and fuzzy feelings through Christmas carols or advent liturgy are fine, but if it doesn't break the cycles of violence and oppression devastating our lives while we follow Jesus tangibly every day in community with others, then we probably are not centered in God as much as we might like to think. The United States has some difficult days ahead, so the presence of Jesus made real in our lives, which is able to deliver us from which entangles us, is needed if we are going to struggle for peace and justice in a faithfully credible way. There are many people weeping and lamenting these days, unable to be comforted because of the suffering they have already experienced, and for others they weep because of the fear of the possibility of hardships to come. May there be a people of God that can, by God’s grace, walk as Jesus walked while drying their tears and helping them encounter the Messiah’s reign breaking into their world this season.
Drew G. I. Hart is an author and professor in theology and ethics. His blog Taking Jesus Seriously is hosted by the Christian Century.
By: Brian Miller
“I knew my actions were wrong, but I convinced myself that normal rules didn’t apply. I never thought about who I was hurting. Instead, I thought only about myself. I ran straight through the boundaries that a married couple should live by. I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled.”
These are the words of a man on a journey of descent. It is not for us to judge whether these words are real or not—or where this descent will lead. The life of Tiger Woods over the last number of months illustrates the universal principle for the human situation, that if we want to experience healing and hope, our journey requires descent. Either we humble ourselves and choose descent, or descent chooses us (because of our own choices).
Our gospel lesson calls us again to embrace descent. Luke’s gospel situates the narrative of the temptation of Jesus directly after the “mountain top” experience of his baptism. Now, full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is led into the wilderness. Somewhere in the course of a forty day fast, Jesus became famished. Jesus is utterly human. He is weak. He is vulnerable. He is dependent on the Holy Spirit. The devil comes to him.
Jesus, turn this stone into bread… Jesus, turn this tax return into the good life… Jesus, bless me and expand my territory–my right to buy and use my way to happiness. And while you are at it Jesus, why don’t you take care of the bread problem. You could have such an effective ministry as the Son of God if you would just solve the bread problem in the world. And besides, you look a bit hungry yourself.
The first temptation is framed around the most basic issue of human life—bread. This first temptation (and the other two) are based on a false premise—that Jesus needs to prove he is the Son of God. Jesus is concerned about the bread problem in the world, but this is not the way it will be solved in his kingdom—by miraculous acts of stone into bread. His kingdom IS about bread—both physical and spiritual, but it will require an alternative way of thinking about bread.
Bread is the source of life. Every culture, every system, every ideology tells some story about bread and our relationship to it. Capitalism teaches us how to make bread (or anything) and sell it for a profit in the market. Socialism attempts to artificially control the bread market so that all will have an equal amount. On the streets, you do whatever it takes to turn stone into bread. Each of these approaches to bread provides a different way of thinking about our relationship with bread.
What does Jesus say about bread? Jesus says that one does not live by bread alone. Jesus says it is not so much about the bread, but about the word of God—the framing story through which we make sense of our lives and the world. The Gospel of the Kingdom is about a different way of being in relationship with bread.
So much violence in our world…within ourselves has to do with living in framing stories which establish a distorted relationship with bread. Both with Jesus and with the physical things which are necessary for human life.
So we don’t depend on Jesus to turn stones into bread to solve the bread problem of our world. Jesus, in his Kingdom, calls us to share our loaves and fishes…or pennies.
Second temptation: Glory and Authority in exchange for Power…
Jesus, here are all the kingdoms of the world. I will give their glory and all this authority to you… Jesus, here is a list of candidates we need to get elected so your kingdom can come… We have the right candidates in place, the media outlets, the organization to go all the way this time. We have included all the Christian churches in the communication blitz. It’s all set up for your kingdom to come this election…if you just worship me.
Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
The devil shows Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world.” I’m pretty sure this included the United States of America. Jesus rejects the temptation of bringing his reign in the clothes of the emperor.
For much of church history, those who claimed the name Christian have acted as if Jesus got this one wrong. Christendom tried to baptize the state and the way of the sword. We have rejected the way of the cross. We have even thought we can put scripture on our weapons. This is not new. This is all from the same playbook. I’m just not sure it’s the playbook of Jesus.
The second temptation is about worship. It is a question of whether we will worship the way of empire—which is always power over. Or, will we worship Jesus, who embraces the way of the cross as the way to bring the Kingdom. Do we recognize the political implications of our worship? Our worship is not an escape from the real world. Quite the opposite, it is a way of coming to grips with an invasion of another life from another world into the present age.
Walter Brueggemann says it so well:
“The lectionary is unrelenting in its narrative about another life in another world, the one that God wills and gives. Readers are endlessly in the process of deciding, always yet again, for the alternative, refusing the seductions of the ‘belly’-propelled regime.” – Sojourners, February 2010
So this place we are meeting is an embassy of the kingdom of Jesus. Through our baptism, we are made citizens in the kingdom of Jesus—which is a revolution of cross-bearing love. We are given credentials and invited to live as ambassadors of reconciliation. This is our primary identity as disciples. This is what ourbaptism means. This is what it means to be a part of covenant community. This is why it is so important to gather together for common worship—so that we actually are discipled—formed—into this alternative life.
How does our common worship center us in a different narrative and equip us to “always yet again” decide for the alternative narrative which rejects the temptation to go after the glory and authority of the current age as a way of bringing the Kingdom of Jesus?
Third Temptation: Market-driven Christianity
Jesus, why don’t you go up to the temple and throw yourself off. God will protect you. That’s what the Bible says… Jesus, you need to make a name for yourself. How do you expect to have a successful ministry, if you don’t do something spectacular…something to draw a crowd…a following. Jesus, this is just the kind of thing people are looking for. We could really market this. Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Jesus does not opt for the gimmick—jumping off the Temple. Jesus is not driven by ego, or the need to make his ministry appealing to the masses. He is not about putting on a good show.
Jesus rejects the temptation to extract the Good News of the Kingdom from ordinary life to the artificial medium of religious antics. His kingdom represents a descent from market-driven Christianity into the messiness of crowds where there are unclean spirits. He calls us to descend with him from our illusions of invincibility and entitlement to the earthy…ordinary way of crosses, suffering-love, humility and repentance.
It is appropriate that our gospel reading on this first Sunday of Lent centers around Jesus fasting. Did you see the question in the Saturday paper?
Say What (Sat. paper) question/responses: If you had to go a week without technology what would you miss the most and why?
The fasting discipline of Lent helps us follow Jesus in resisting the temptations all around us. So hear this invitation from The Book of Common Prayer:
I invite you in the name of the Church (Jesus), to self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
Like Jesus, may the fullness of the Spirit sustain us as we are led into the wilderness—in our lives and in the world. This too is part of the journey.
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