The Gospel of Radical Reversals
Jesus, who was a Palestinian Jew living under Roman occupation, preached a message that was anti-state and anti-religious imperialism. In fact, many believe that the Roman authorities and the elite within the Sanhedrin killed Jesus for espousing this anti-Roman, anti-Sanhedrin sentiment. Holy Week and Easter are now past, but the controversies that led to Jesus’ death are never far from us.
Let’s take a brief look at some of Jesus’ teachings and acts that stirred turmoil within the social and religious circles of His day, and ponder how they continue to affect us today.
• The Roman authorities forced its subjects to believe that the emperor was the savior, son of god, and redeemer of all peoples. Consequently, when returning from a military victory, the emperor would enter Rome in a triumphant procession that buttressed his might and power. So for a peasant from a marginalized town of an occupied territory to enter Jerusalem triumphantly (as a Savior) and to postulate Himself as God’s son and the messiah was not only a brazen sign of mockery of the emperor, but also of the Roman Empire.
• Jesus’ tirade against the vendors at the Temple was also a radical act. Since the Sanhedrin demanded a large portion of the vendors’ profits as rent for their space in the Temple’s outer portion, and since they kept the funds rather than investing them in improving the lot of the community’s poor, Jesus — in true prophetic fashion — denounced the corruption. He would not let others use religion as a means to garner wealth and prestige.
• Jesus’ overall message, summarized in His sermon on the plain (Luke 6:17-49), reverses the first century social order by placing the poor and meek first and the rich and powerful last. In the oppressive first century Galilean milieu, the poor and meek were the impoverished Jews (particularly women and children), while the Roman and Jewish male elites constituted the powerful upper class.
Both the Roman Empire and the Sanhedrin worked in collusion to keep the peace against constant rebellious threats from the occupied Jews. Jesus’ messages and actions therefore threatened both the Sanhedrin’s and the Roman Empire’s imperialist power and thus their legitimacy in the ancient Palestinian region. For His radical message and acts, Jesus paid the ultimate price.
Given the radical anti-imperialist message of Jesus, I often wonder whether Christians in the United States and Europe grasp Jesus’ radical gospel. I especially contemplate whether the young (ages 15-24) Christians truly comprehend it. These children of the empire, compared to the children of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, live relatively well. They do not normally witness their friends shot in the street; they usually do not die from starvation; and they do not know what it means to be persecuted for their parents’ political and religious views.
This speculation grew as I started teaching a high school class on Scripture. The student body at the high school I taught was heavily Haitian and Hispanic. Few of these students were third and fourth generation Americans who lived, by their own admission, in comfort. Others found themselves residing in the United States after escaping the repressive political and economic situations in Haiti and some Latin American countries. And still others were first-generation Americans who live in rough neighborhoods and ghettos, where, as one student told me, “doing drugs, stealing, and fighting were everyday things.”
As we began exploring the prophets of the Tanakh and Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament, an interesting dynamic unfolded. Those who live in rough neighborhoods and those who had escaped a repressive economic and political context to live in the United States became extremely interested in what these prophets had to say about poverty, imperialism, and violence. On the other hand, those whose families had been established in the United States for several decades and who live in affluent neighborhoods did not really participate in the conversations about Jesus’ message of hope for the impoverished, oppressed, and marginalized. In fact, several of these students ignored their peers’ reflections on how they identified with Jesus’ message.
This dynamic is perhaps related to another phenomenon, namely the growth of Christianity in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America and its decline in North America and Europe. It is no secret that Christianity has become a religion of the Global South. Jesus’ anti-imperialist message is relevant in countries where several inhabitants live in extreme poverty and/or suffer from political persecution.
In the countries with relative political and economic stability, however, Jesus’ gospel is perhaps losing its radical edge. Rather, the focus in these wealthy countries is more on personal spirituality, personal sin, and personal salvation. Within these same countries, perhaps the only ones who truly comprehend the radical nature of Jesus’ message are the individuals who live in impoverished neighborhoods and/or are immigrants. May they — through their suffering and identification with the poor rabbi carpenter — inspire the children of the empire to help forge a globally just and sustainable society.