By Dr Ken Baker
(From the January - March 2017 issue of VOX.)
That’s what Jesus asked those who came to arrest Him (Luke 22:52). The Greek word lestes (thief) was the contemporary term for those engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Romans (according to Josephus, Jewish War, 2.13.3). So Jesus was asking, in effect, “Am I your typical revolutionary?”
The answer, of course, was “No.” He was a different kind of revolutionary, and so are we.
Many would seek to portray Jesus as a sort of political activist, standing up for the dispossessed against the rich landowners and imperialist oppressors, and His “endorsement” has been widely assumed of a whole range of political causes. Every election seems to evoke heated debate about which side He would support, if any.
At the same time, others would fiercely deny any revolutionary intent at all, affirming that His “kingdom” was “spiritual” and “not of this world” so “you shouldn’t get involved.”
But Jesus was a revolutionary, and so are we. This revolution is quieter, deeper and more pervasive. Salt and light, remember. It is the tidal rise of a huge counter-culture. Jesus did not herald the overthrow of a particular political system, but the overthrow of the kingdom of Evil in all its forms. So, though we have no political agenda or party badge, that is the revolution of which followers of Jesus are a part. We are to revolt against the cultural values of a fallen and broken world, choosing instead to live by the standards of God’s kingdom. Rather than seeking revenge, we are to forgive. Rather than seeking to dominate, we are to serve. Rather than being consumed with hatred, we are to be people who love.
But, to be quite candid about it, many of us are a little wary of participating in social justice, not wishing to be associated with “secular” movements, and feeling uncomfortable delving into issues outside our comfort zones.
Jesus cared deeply and acted decisively. He went out of His way to help the alienated, mistreated, and those facing injustice. We do a disservice to the gospel message by removing the cultural context from Jesus’s ministry and watering down His message to one of religious platitudes. By contrast, He intentionally, purposefully, and passionately tackled specific causes. He radically addressed the diverse and complicated conflicts of the time and constantly challenged the status quo. He seemed, in fact, to target the marginalised, telling stories about Samaritans as heroes, making friends of tax collectors and treating prostitutes as honoured guests.
We get uncomfortable facing the complex and controversial issues surrounding, say, ethnicity, class and gender. So we take verses such as “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) to mean that nothing else matters beyond our faith in Christ, that all these cultural dividers are now redundant.
But these things do matter to God, because right here in the verse, God is recognising that there are various laws, expectations, practices, and opinions regarding each distinction mentioned.
Paul validates all the cultural issues associated with Jews, Gentiles, slaves, the free, men, and women rather than disregarding them. He states that Jesus is relevant to these differences and is working throughout their lives by understanding the unique pros and cons they’re dealing with — the privileges, disadvantages, stereotypes, assumptions, treatment, rights, social values and expectations they face.
Mark Battson concludes: “Participating in social justice is a Christian tradition inspired by Jesus, not liberal causes, populist agendas, media platforms, lawmakers or mainstream fads. It’s a deeply spiritual practice.”
So if, then, we are revolutionaries, what does the revolution look like?
N.T.Wright, in Simply Jesus, reflects: “When God wants to change the world, He doesn’t send in the tanks. He sends in the meek, the mourners, those who are hungry and thirsty for God’s justice, the peacemakers, and so on.
“…It is because of this that the world has been changed by people like … Desmond Tutu, working and praying not just to end apartheid, but to end it in such a way as to produce a reconciled, forgiving South Africa; by Cicely Saunders, starting a hospice for terminally ill patients ignored by the medical profession and launching a movement that has, within a generation, spread right around the globe….
“Jesus rules the world today not just through His people ‘behaving themselves,’ keeping a code of ethics, and engaging in certain spiritual practices, important though those are. . . Jesus rules the world through those who launch new initiatives that radically challenge the accepted ways of doing things; jubilee projects to remit ridiculous and unpayable debt, housing trusts that provide accommodation for low-income families or homeless people, local and sustainable agricultural projects that care for creation instead of destroying it in the hope of quick profit, and so on.”
It’s not a matter of pitting social causes against the gospel message of Christ; it’s a matter of realising that these causes are actually an intrinsic part of what the Gospel is all about.
Ken Baker is a writer and pastor living in Bandon, County Cork.