Jesus: Activist for Social Justice

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Christian Nonviolence by Walter Wink

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” (attributed to Jesus in Matthew 5:38-41, Revised Standard Version)

What was Jesus teaching when He made statements like the above to common people?

Most of those who heard his words were those most suffering under a yoke of domination at the hands of a literalist and fundamentalist leadership – a leadership that sustained itself by claiming that the Letter of the Law took precedent of any so-called “Spirit of the law?”

Those in power remained in power precisely with an intimidating pretense that strongly implied that the combination of priestliness and scriptural knowledge meant a superior connection to the original intent of God the Law-Giver. Moving way beyond the Old Testament prescription for priesthood-directed ceremonial functions, that leadership pretended to speak for a God; a God who the common people believed only spoke directly through prophets – historical figures from their past whose words were found in scripture.

Whether or not liberal Christians accept the idea of God speaking to humans through living prophets today, we need no historical camera to see how – in the absence of God’s prophets in the tradition of Isaiah, Jeremiah and the others – we are left with to deal with the same kind of pretending theological con-men with whom Jesus had to deal.

Walter Wink, in an article entitled Christian Nonviolence, addresses those who find themselves stymied between the pick-and-choose citing of Biblical versus by fundamentalist leaders and what might seem like the unrealistic idealism encountered in the words of Jesus.

“Many who have committed their lives to working for change and justice in the world simply dismiss Jesus’ teachings about nonviolence as impractical idealism. And with good reason.

“Turn the other cheek” suggests the passive, Christian doormat quality that has made so many Christians cowardly and complicit in the face of injustice.

“Resist not evil” seems to break the back of all opposition to evil and counsel submission.

“Going the second mile” has become a platitude meaning nothing more than “extend yourself.” Rather than fostering structural change, such attitudes encourage collaboration with the oppressor.”

It seems that much of today’s traditional Christian preachers exploit that ambiguity with their own version of “Christian-specific” actions that are presented as the best means of changing lives, society and the world. Building on the idea of conversion, accepting Jesus as one’s personal savior is offered as an action of simple-but-powerful life change that makes attractive what in reality is an unhealthy psychological shift into passivity.

If you have that “born-again” experience, your new habit of spiritual change often grinds to an abrupt halt. Exhortation to participate in the newly found group-think of your new familial congregation – as led by Biblical-based and authoritative church leadership – may not encourage you to think freely once saved.

Those who led you to the light may try to continue leading you with their own version of what God wants of you.

Psychologically, independent thought and action are encouraged so long as the objectives of the congregation are being pursued. Initiative must be channeled into the priorities of the local or parent church organization. Initiative based on independent thinking and action based on spontaneous spiritual-prompting are considered safe only within the context of congregational group-think.

That group think is directed and monitored by those who offer the pretense of knowing more about what God wants of his people.

These last paragraphs aptly describe the suffering society in which Jesus walked the walk and talked the talk. The walk and the talk were neither passive nor pacifist; neither impractical idealism nor comforting generalities about long-term patience and endurance.

Jesus was more interested in the context of his own time rather than in a hope for a future house with many mansions – a hope and consolation that did nothing to stop injustice, tyranny and violence.

Again, Walther Wink:

“Jesus never behaved in such ways. Whatever the source of the misunderstanding, it is neither Jesus nor his teaching, which, when given a fair hearing in its original social context, is arguably one of the most revolutionary political statements ever uttered.

When the court translators working in the hire of King James chose to translate “antistenai” as “Resist not evil,” they were doing something more than rendering Greek into English. They were translating nonviolent resistance into docility.

The Greek word means more than simply to “stand against” or “resist.” It means to resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in an insurrection.

Jesus did not tell his oppressed hearers not to resist evil. His entire ministry is at odds with such a preposterous idea. He is, rather, warning against responding to evil in kind by letting the oppressor set the terms of our opposition.

… There are three general responses to evil: (1) violent opposition, (2) passivity, and (3) the third way of militant nonviolence articulated by Jesus.”

Wink’s article goes on to give exceptional interpretative corrections of the traditional definitions that have impacted Christian understanding of Jesus and the context of his life so powerfully.

“But can people engaged in oppressive acts repent unless made uncomfortable with their actions?

There is, admittedly, the danger of using nonviolence as a tactic of revenge and humiliation. There is also, at the opposite extreme, an equal danger of sentimentality and softness that confuses the uncompromising love of Jesus with being nice. Loving confrontation can free both the oppressed from docility and the oppressor from sin.

Even if nonviolent action does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor, it does affect those committed to it. As Martin Luther King, Jr. attested, it gives them new self-respect and calls on strength and courage they did not know they had.

To those with power, Jesus’ advice to the powerless may seem paltry. But to those whose lifelong pattern has been to cringe, bow, and scrape before their masters, to those who have internalized their role as inferiors, this small step is momentous.”

Seeing Jesus in this light immediately evokes images of the tactics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Such is far more empowering than attempting to cope with contemporary issues in a context of literalist leadership exhorting you to in effect trust them to drive forward looking through the rear-view mirror at an inflexible and absolute Biblical interpretation.  Such keeps them saddled on the horses that brought them to power.

Seeing Jesus in this light encourages doing good for the sake of goodness rather than a simplistic threat/promise of divine judgment at life’s end.

Seeing Jesus in this light encourages compassion and real forgiveness rather than the smug judgmental condescension demonstrated by those who pretend to know more about what God wants – who have portrayed God as judgmental rather than righteous; as punitive rather than forgiving; as obsessed with human sexuality rather than the dignity of individual free agency.

Seeing Jesus in this light encourages action based on an understanding that a God who so loved the world certainly endorsed every word and action of His Son and therefore loves us and endorses our words and actions that reflect a true spiritual modeling on Christ.

Condemnation of resistance to religious conformity brings us to a place of hearing the self-appointed tell us that

“My Jesus is not your Jesus.

My Savior is not your Savior.

I own the true redeemer and you can only call Him Savior & Redeemer if I agree with you.

You can only call Jesus your friend if I agree with what you mean by that.

You can only resist evil as I define evil.

Any other resistance to an evil of your own perception is heresy and God will punish you for that and for not believing me.”

So who really “owns” Jesus? What does social and political activism in the name of Jesus really look like?

Before one lets the outspoken fundamentalist evangelicals tell you what God wants of you, think about what it means to be Christian in America.

Think about the revised “tradition” of belief and attitude that is being pushed in this country at the expense of social justice, equality and compassion. One contemporary prominent broadcaster declared recently that the concept of social justice is a perversion of the gospel, and that social justice is not something that Jesus would talk about. Social justice is, “a perversion of the gospel.” His  point was that the gospel is really about capitalism and free market economics. According to this influential individual – listened to by millions – Jesus was an anti-government conservative.

But then we must ask about social conservatives that fill this country with God-talk:

Did Jesus promote mandatory prayer in school?

Did Jesus want to weaken separation of God and Caesar?

Did Jesus advocate censorship?

Did Jesus require literal interpretation of Religious Scripture?

Did Jesus oppose women’s rights or demand that they remain silent in church?

Would Jesus have favored on invasion of Iraq?

Would Jesus absolved those who killed in His name?

Did Jesus favor corporal punishment?

Did Jesus declares himself to be the one and only true God?

Did Jesus declare that dissent is disloyalty?

Would Jesus have looked the other way when torture and murder happen?

Would Jesus have accepted the notion that collateral damage is acceptable?

Did Jesus favor the death penalty?

I then recommend the following words of Jesus which you CAN take from scriptures literally:

35 For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

 36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

 37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

 38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

 39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

 40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

 41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:

 42 For I was an hungered, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:

 43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

 44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

 45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

New Testament, Matthew 25

 

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