Not the Gospel

Last week our kids took the dogs for a walk (bless them). Along the way they encountered a couple of friendly folks handing out free fire insurance and a ticket to heaven, otherwise known as a “gospel tract.”

Not the gospel.

You know what I mean. Maybe you’ve had someone stop by your house with a “gospel tract,” or you’ve seen one left on a restaurant table or in a public bathroom (yes, people do that). Maybe you’ve even handed them out yourself at some point (full disclosure: I have).

A “gospel tract” is a small pamphlet that tells people how to get to heaven. There are many different versions, but that’s the gist of it. They offer, as I said above, a kind of “fire insurance and a ticket to heaven”—salvation from eternal torture in hell, to eternal bliss with God beyond this earthly life.

The tract my kids brought home is entitled, “Heaven: How Do I Get There?” It assures its reader that they can “KNOW how to get to Heaven” based on “the very Word of God,” by which is meant the Bible. Quoting Bible verses, then, the tract proceeds to outline the gospel in four points: i) “We are all sinners.” ii) “There is a penalty for our sin,” described as “death in Hell.” iii) “Jesus Christ paid that penalty for us.” And, iv) “Trust and take Jesus as your personal Saviour.” The tract then gives a prayer the reader can pray, affirming these four things, and it declares that if you have prayed this prayer “You will go to Heaven, not by what man teaches, but by God’s Word.”

It’s a nice tract: attractive, simple, clear, and confident. There’s only one problem with it: it doesn’t actually present the gospel. This “gospel tract” my kids brought home is, in fact, not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Now, this is a bit of a touchy topic. Most Christians likely believe some form of the message found in this “gospel tract”: we all sin, and so we all deserve God’s penalty for our sin; but Jesus has died to pay the penalty for our sin and so, if we believe this, we will go to heaven when we die. Even more, most Christians likely believe this “gospel” is clearly taught in the Bible, and that it is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. So, when someone questions this, accusations of “rejecting the Bible” and “denying the gospel” and “not believing in heaven” and “not believing in Jesus” and “not being a true Christian” fly fast and furious.

That is ironic, and terribly tragic, given that it is actually the “gospel” of these “gospel tracts” that is not the biblical gospel.

I’d encourage anyone who doubts this to do some simple Bible study. Go to all the places in the New Testament where “gospel” or “good news” is mentioned, and read around those verses to see how this “gospel” is described. Then read through the evangelistic speeches in the book of Acts, all those places where the Apostles preach a message of salvation to people. Take some notes on what the gospel is, what the message of salvation is, what is included—and not included—in the true “gospel of Jesus Christ.”

If you do that, here are just two of the surprising things you’ll discover.

First, the gospel is not about us leaving earth and escaping hell and going to heaven. It’s about God’s kingdom coming near, God’s reign of justice and peace and life being established on earth. None of the New Testament descriptions of the gospel even mentions “hell,” and any time “heaven” is mentioned it’s talking about blessings coming from heaven to earth.

Mark’s Gospel says this quite directly: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the gospel.’” In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus states what this “come near” means: it means God’s kingdom coming “on earth.” This was the Jewish expectation of God’s kingdom: however the reign of God would come about, it would come about on earth, bringing true justice and lasting peace and flourishing life. This was in fact the “gospel” promised by the Prophet Isaiah: that God would come and establish God’s reign on earth, a reign of liberation for the captives and justice for the oppressed.

Also not the gospel.

In various ways the rest of the New Testament affirms this. Every time Jesus is called “Christ” or “Messiah,” for example, it is like a mini-statement of faith: Jesus is the promised king bringing in God’s kingdom on earth. To say that the gospel is a story about “Jesus Christ” means that God’s kingdom is brought about on earth through Jesus’ whole life and ministry. To say that “Christ died for our sins,” or to “preach Christ crucified,” means that God’s kingdom is brought about on earth through Jesus’ death. To say that “Christ was raised on the third day,” that by resurrecting him from the dead “God has made this Jesus both Lord and Messiah,” means that God’s kingdom is brought about on earth through Jesus’ resurrection.

This leads right into the second thing: the gospel doesn’t just focus on Jesus’ death, but as much or more on Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, the gospel encompasses Jesus’ whole life and ministry. There are only a couple of places in the New Testament where Jesus’ death is the sole focus of the gospel being described. Most often there are other things about Jesus also mentioned, and sometimes Jesus’ death isn’t even in the picture.

Jesus’ lineage, being in the family line of David, is gospel—because it gives credence to the claim that he is indeed the promised Messiah come to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus’ teaching is gospel—because it teaches how we can participate in bringing about justice and peace on earth. Jesus’ miracles are gospel—because they are signs that God’s kingdom has come near, bringing flourishing life where there was none before.

Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion are gospel—because by bearing the sins of others and resisting evil powers nonviolently, even out of love, even unto death, Jesus has overcome those powers and delivered us from sin. Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation are gospel—because they are God’s declaration that Jesus is indeed the Messiah bringing about God’s kingdom through self-giving love, that he is even the true Lord over all, including any and all powers of this world.

So, when we make the gospel about leaving earth and escaping hell and going to heaven, we are proclaiming a false gospel. When we focus our attention solely on Jesus’ death in a way that doesn’t mesh with Jesus’ life, teachings, and especially his resurrection, we are proclaiming a false gospel. Sounds harsh, I know, but these popular understandings of the gospel are simply not biblical. They are not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Yes, the Bible emphasizes that sin is a reality—all those ways we cause harm through our attitudes, words, and actions. And yes, the Bible underscores that when we sin there are consequences—we experience “death,” all that is not-life, including guilt and shame and hostility and pain and even physical death. And so, yes, the Bible points us to the need to be “saved” from our sins, delivered from our harmful ways. But the gospel is not merely a private transaction between me and God, the problem solved by praying a prayer.

And yes, the Bible teaches that Jesus’ death on a cross was “for us,” “for our sins.” But Jesus’ death is not the whole of the gospel, and when that is divorced from the larger story of Jesus the Messiah bringing in God’s kingdom on earth, we can even end up with a distortion of the gospel.

And yes, the Bible assures believers that we will be “with the Lord” after death. But that is not the gospel. In fact, it’s not even the end of the story: the New Testament affirms that at the end of all things we will be resurrected to a transformed bodily existence on a renewed earth. In the end, heaven, in all its fullness, will come to earth.

All this has made me wonder: what might a true “gospel tract” look like, one that is based on the gospel as proclaimed by Jesus and his Apostles in the Bible?

[Update: Here’s a follow-up post on creating a gospel tract, and here’s the tract I’ve created!]

Fifteen Lessons I Learned (or Learned Again) in Teaching on the Cross this Lent

Through Lent this year I taught a Bible study on “The Meaning of the Cross.” We packed a lot into four weeks! We talked about crucifixion in the ancient world and the specific circumstances surrounding Jesus’ execution on a Roman cross. We talked about the theological puzzle this created for the early Christians (“Christ crucified by humans, yet raised from the dead by God—what?!”). We talked about various explanations Christians have given through history of the saving significance of Jesus’ death (“atonement models” or “theories”). This included a particular focus on (and critique of) the dominant model in modern western Protestant circles, Penal Substitution—that on the cross Jesus took our place, taking God’s punishment for our sin and appeasing God’s wrath against us for our sin.

I may create some posts from all this down the road, we’ll see. For now, though, here are fifteen lessons I learned (or learned again) in teaching on the cross through Lent (and yes, these are tweetable!):

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #1: All atonement metaphors and models reflect the culture in which they were developed. Yes, this includes Penal Substitution. Yes, it also includes recent nonviolent models. It even includes biblical metaphors.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #2: How we understand the problem determines how we understand the solution. In the NT the root problem is not “hell” or “guilt” but “sin,” all the ways we harm others/creation. The solution? Rescue from harm, restoration to wholeness.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #3: In the OT there are many bases for God’s forgiveness of sins/appeasement of God’s wrath: remorse (Ps 32), persuasion (Num 14), repentance (Jon 3), animal sacrifice (Lev 4-6), and even killing someone with proper zeal (Num 25).

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #4: There are many different kinds of blood sacrifices in the OT. Several of them had nothing to do with sin—ritual purification, thanksgiving gift, and covenant ratification, for instance.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #5: *God did not kill Jesus.* In fact, the NT consistently, emphatically declares that *humans* killed Jesus—*God* raised Jesus from the dead.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #6: Rarely if ever does the NT clearly, directly say that Jesus’ death satisfied God’s wrath, or took our punishment, or paid our penalty. One might develop a model that logically requires this, but it’s not stated.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #7: The gospel preaching of Acts describes Jesus’ death as something humans did to Jesus, not something Jesus did for us. Forgiveness of sins in Acts is dependent on our repentance, and is based on Jesus’ exaltation not his death.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #8: The gospel tradition of 1 Cor 15:3-4, including “Christ died for our sins,” was a kind of “preaching summary” of the apostolic gospel—not a full-blown theology of salvation.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #9: In the NT Jesus’ death “for us” or “for our sins” most often simply means “for our benefit” or “in relation to our sins.” Anything more is implied from its context—or read into from our context.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #10: The NT uses many different metaphors to describe Jesus’ death. All of them relate Jesus’ death to “our sins” in some way. Most of them, however, don’t do this in a “sacrifice for sins” kind of way.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #11: The Gospels don’t give much basis for Penal Substitution: Jesus rejected lethal violence and punitive justice, he agreed with the prophetic rebuke of blood sacrifice, and he forgave sins freely on God’s behalf—even his own murder!

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #12: Some Jews in Jesus’ day disputed the legitimacy of the Temple and its sacrifices. All Jews soon after Jesus’ day saw repentance and acts of mercy as “atoning,” no blood sacrifice required. Jesus fits right within this context.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #13: The dominant metaphors used by Jesus in the Gospels for interpreting his death were related to liberation from oppressive powers (Passover, Exodus, “ransom/redemption,” “new covenant”).

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #14: The dominant imagery used by Jesus in the Gospels for applying his death is “identification/participation”: Jesus stands with the sinned-against, and Jesus calls us to follow him in taking up our cross.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #15: The dominant interpretation of Jesus’ death in the NT is that it is a revelation of love: it shows God’s (and Jesus’) love for us, and it compels us to respond with love for God and for others—neighbours, strangers, even enemies.

How to put this all together? Well, I do have a few thoughts on that. As I said, I might get to developing some blog posts along those lines. In the meantime, however, you can check out a couple of past posts of mine on the cross: “The Foolishness of the Cross” and “‘Jesus Died for Our Sins’: Sketching Out Atonement.”

Does Jesus’ “Temple Tantrum” Negate Pacifism and Nonviolence?

It’s probably the story most people turn to when they want to throw a wrench in the gears of pacifism. “Jesus advocated nonviolence, you say? Well, what about when he flipped over tables and drove the moneychangers from the temple? Sounds pretty violent to me!”

Indeed it does. And, to be sure, this story, found in all four canonical Gospels, does provide a caution to pacifists against prohibiting all physical violence, much like the Matthean Jesus’ tirade against the scribes and Pharisees provides a caution against prohibiting all verbal violence.

But this caution comes with some rather large caveats.

First, the point of both this instance of physical violence by Jesus and his uses of verbal violence recorded in the Gospels is the same, and it is crucial to grasp: in each case Jesus is sending a clear warning to the powers that be who are abusing their power over others. They focus on purity over compassion, on strict adherence to the Law over mercy toward the needy, on maintaining their power and privilege over pursuing justice for the vulnerable and marginalized—and this really ticks Jesus off. You won’t find a single instance in the Gospels of Jesus verbally haranguing the poor or flipping the table of a widow—or a little child, or repentant sinner, or seeking Gentile, or any of those considered last, least, or lost in the eyes of the world.

Gospels scholars are pretty much united in recognizing that this incident in the temple was a kind of “enacted parable,” or maybe better, a kind of “prophetic symbol.” Jesus overturns tables and drives out animals in the temple courts not because that single action is actually going to halt temple commerce. Undoubtedly everyone picked up their tables, gathered their animals, and carried on with their business. But with this action Jesus served notice to the powers that be—the temple authorities, the watching Roman rulers—that their poor-oppressing and other-excluding ways were under God’s judgment.

This wasn’t a “temple tantrum” at all, but rather a deliberate, symbolic act of religious, political, and social activism.

Second, this incident does not sanction all uses of any kind of violence even for good ends. The fact remains that this is the one and only remembered incident in Jesus’ entire life and career where he used physical violence. The whole thrust of his teaching and life is against the use of violence and in favour of nonviolent resistance to powers gone bad. So, although this incident allows the possibility of Jesus-followers to use physical violence to send a message to the abusive powers that be, this is not the norm and must be done carefully, thoughtfully, and probably only as a last resort (as it apparently was for Jesus, John’s order of events notwithstanding).

Furthermore, the Gospel accounts of the incident do not give warrant for physical violence against human persons, let alone lethal violence of any kind. The only clearly described physical violence is against property: Jesus “overturned” the tables and chairs of the sellers and moneychangers, and “poured out” their coins. Yes, Jesus “drove out” the moneychangers and “would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple,” but the Gospels don’t say how exactly Jesus accomplished this. Was it his table flipping that drove them out? His verbal tirade? Maybe his “wild-eyed prophet” look, borrowed from his Baptist cousin? We don’t know. In John’s version, yes, Jesus makes a whip, but the whip is not used against people—the text specifically says it was used to drive out the “sheep and the cattle” (pantas exebalen ek tou hierou ta te probata kai tous boas).

So yes, by all means, let’s take Jesus’ tirade in the temple into account when we’re considering a Christian pacifism or Christian nonviolence. Let’s allow it to provide a necessary caution against a kind of “pure nonviolence” that can turn into passive acceptance of evil or self-righteous denunciation of all forms of violence.

But let’s also read the Gospel accounts of this story carefully, and let’s set this single remembered incident of Jesus’ use of physical violence—nonlethal, against property not persons—in the context of a whole life and teaching that is consistent in emphasizing justice through nonviolence, peace through selfless love.

Jesus and Hell

I preach the good news of Jesus, including Jesus’ way of radical, nonviolent love. As one might expect, I get some pushback on this. “What about sin?” I hear frequently. “What about God’s judgment?” “What about God’s wrath?”

“What about hell?”

Yes, what about hell? After all, Jesus mentions hell more than anyone else in the New Testament. There’s this handy bit of practical advice, for example: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” Or this lovely bit of encouragement: “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?”

I’ll admit that my first thought when I hear these kinds of questions is that if anyone thinks my idea of love doesn’t include ideas of sin and its consequences, they aren’t listening. More on point, though, is this: if we want to understand Jesus on hell, we need to read these Gospel teachings carefully, in context, across the Testaments.

Most of the time in the Gospels, the “hell” Jesus mentions is “Gehenna.” The other times when Jesus refers to a hellish judgment, ideas of “Gehenna” are probably still in the background.

“Gehenna” is a reference to a very particular place—and it’s not some location under the earth run by the devil and staffed by his demons. “Ge-henna” refers to the “valley of Hinnom,” a small valley running along the south and west of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Gehenna today

I’ve been there—there’s nothing hellish about it at all. Nor was there in Jesus’ day.

Sometimes you’ll hear that in Jesus’ day there was a perpetually burning garbage dump in the Hinnom valley. But that’s not the case. This idea seems to have originated from a Rabbi centuries after Jesus. In Jesus’ day there was nothing hellish about Gehenna at all.

What was hellish about the valley of Hinnom was its history. There are several Old Testament passages that describe the hellish history of Gehenna. They’re all similar, but to get a taste of hell let’s focus in on one of these—Jeremiah 7, starting with 7:31:

And they [the people of Judah] go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I [Yahweh, the Lord] did not command, nor did it come into my mind.

Here we learn three key points about Gehenna, the valley of Hinnom.

1) The fires of Gehenna were made by humans, not by God.

In fact, 2) God abhorred the fires of Gehenna.

And why did God so despise the fires of Gehenna? Because 3) they were the epitome of senseless human violence, particularly violence against the most vulnerable.

But there’s more to the story of Jeremiah 7. The people of Judah are appealing to their own special status before God, hoping this will save them from foreign invasion. “The temple of Yahweh is here!” they cry—as if that will help them. “Look,” they say, “we offer all the proper sacrifices!”—as if that will make a difference.

But any special status they think they have is an illusion, all their acts of righteousness are irrelevant, because they are “oppressing the alien, the orphan, and the widow, and shedding innocent blood.” They are committing grave injustices against the most vulnerable among them—of which burning their sons and daughters in the fires of Gehenna was the most horrific.

All this explains why the tables turn at the end of the chapter:

Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away. And I will bring to an end the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land shall become a waste.

Gehenna back in Moloch’s day

It’s a soul-shuddering reference to Jerusalem’s impending doom, the city’s destruction at the hands of the ruthless Babylonian armies. The people’s religiously righteous acts and supposed special status aren’t going to save them.

And all their injustice, all their oppression, all their senseless violence against the most vulnerable? It’s going to rebound against them in equally horrific fashion, until the valley of Hinnom becomes an enduring symbol of God’s judgment on the self-righteous strong who oppress the marginalized weak.

To our three points about Gehenna’s fires above we can now add three more:

4) Gehenna symbolizes God’s judgment, but this divine judgment is not an “angry God directly inflicting violence upon sinners for eternity” judgment.

It’s a 5) “reap what you sow” judgment—if we sow violence, injustice, and oppression, we will reap that violence, injustice, and oppression upon ourselves, in very human, very natural, ways, within human history and not beyond it.

It’s a 6) judgment specifically upon the powerful, those with social or economic or political or religious clout, for the ways in which they oppress and commit violence against the weak, those on the bottom rungs of our social and economic and political and religious hierarchies.

With this background on Gehenna in mind, we can now fully appreciate Jesus’ words on hell in the Gospels.

Jesus isn’t talking about a “literal hell” where unrepentant unbelievers go after they die to be tortured in God’s inferno for all eternity.

He’s talking about the violent consequences of our own violent actions, right here in our lived lives, right here in human history.

He’s talking about such consequences especially for those who use their power to oppress the weak, who live in wealth in indifference to the poor, who have the means to care for the sick and clothe the naked and feed the hungry but refuse to do so, who rest secure in their status and privilege while committing grave injustices against the vulnerable and the marginalized.

And he’s talking in particular to the uber-religious, the people who think they’re on God’s side because they believe the right things or do the right rituals—but they burden others with moral demands while doing nothing to help them, they focus on minor moral issues while neglecting the weightier matters of justice and mercy and allegiance to God above all other powers that be.

These are sobering words, serious warnings, for every age and certainly our own. But all this is right in line with the good news of Jesus and Jesus’ way of love.

After all, there’s nothing more loving, nothing more like Jesus, than standing in solidarity with the powerless, the stepped-upon, the pushed-to-the-side, and standing up to the oppressive powers that be—whatever the cost to ourselves.

And it is this hell of our own harmful actions and their destructive consequences—our sin and all its death—that Jesus has come to save us from. Jesus calls us to leave behind our damaging, violent ways and follow him in his path of compassionate, inclusive, forgiving, self-giving love. If we don’t do this the result will only be death for ourselves, for others, for the world. But if we do this we will find life, full and flourishing life for all.

This is love. This is Jesus. This is good news indeed.

Politics and Power, the Jesus Way

Politics.

I saw you cringe. It’s one of those topics not fit for polite conversation. It may be entertaining for some, intensely interesting for others, but for many it’s one of those “change the subject” kind of subjects.

Cartoon of crumbling Greek buildingBut politics are everywhere. There are politics any time we humans organize ourselves in order to make decisions for our collective interest. Actually, that’s pretty much the definition of “politics.”

And any time we are talking about making decisions, we’re talking about power: the ability to bring about change. Where there’s politics, there’s power.

Yep, there are even politics and power dynamics in church. Yep, even your church.

Politics and power are inevitable in collective human life. They are neither good nor bad; they just are.

But I sure do understand that feeling of “Ugh!” when you hear the word “politics.” After all, so much of the way we do politics—you might say “the politics of the world”—is just not very nice.

We polish up our résumés and show off our good sides: all strength, no weakness allowed.

We shore up support through strategic relationships and backroom deals and hollow promises.

We appeal to our base through polarizing rhetoric: it’s “us” versus “them.”

We listen to those who agree with us, and we ignore—or even disdain—those who don’t.

We appeal to truth—when it’s convenient for us. Otherwise it’s half-truths, sometimes a full-on lie.

We manipulate emotions through sugary, empty rhetoric. Our only harsh words are for our opponents.

We take control whenever we can, holding all the crucial resources and making all the important decisions.

We do all this either consciously (“That’s just politics!”) or subconsciously (our capacity for self-deceit is astonishing).

And we do all this, we like to think, for the ultimate good of all. We know what is best, and we’ll do whatever it takes to bring about that ultimate good. In the politics of the world, the ends justify the means.

I bet you think I’ve just described politics in Canada or America. That may be, but what I actually had in mind was politics in the church.

Go back through the list again. That, all too often, is church politics. That, folks, is just politics, whether in the church or in society.

But Jesus calls us to another way. Jesus calls us to a radically different politics, a radically different power.

The gospel—and the Gospels—are shot through with Jesus’ upside-down politics and power.

Jesus is anointed by God’s Spirit and appointed by God’s decree: “You are my beloved Son (my chosen Messianic King, in other words); with you I am well-pleased (my chosen Suffering Servant, that is).” Jesus is King, but he’s not like other kings. Jesus brings in a kingdom, but not the way other kingdoms come.

Jesus then immediately and persistently follows through on this: he resists the temptation to seize power through evil or idolatrous means, to establish God’s kingdom through the use of overwhelming force or meticulous control—in stark contrast to the ways and means of the world.

Instead Jesus teaches love of God, love of neighbour, even love of despised enemies—and then he goes out and does it: embracing those on the fringe, exhorting those at the centre, attending to the weak, admonishing the powerful.

Rubens - Jesus on CrossSince his followers are slow to get the point, he states it bluntly: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

And finally, in the penultimate end, Jesus is enthroned on a cross. He gives his life for the good of others, he embraces utter weakness and relinquishes total control, he refuses right to the bitter end to respond with raw power or naked force. In the politics of Jesus, the means—the ways of the cross—are the ends.

In the middle of all this is a familiar story that sums up Jesus’ approach to politics and power.

In the story Peter declares that Jesus is indeed the Messianic King. Jesus accepts his declaration, but immediately emphasizes that the way to his throne is the way of the cross. Peter then rebukes Jesus: That’s not the way kingdoms are won! That’s not how the world changes! Everyone knows this, Jesus!

And in turn, Jesus rebukes Peter, with words that should strike holy fear in the heart of anyone who claims to be a Christian: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not thinking the way God thinks about such things, but the way the world thinks.”

You are not thinking the way God thinks about such things—about kings and kingdoms, about politics and power—but the way the world thinks.

The world’s politics are about “strong power.” Overwhelming physical presence. Personal charisma and authority. Psychological intimidation and emotional manipulation. Coercive words, polarizing rhetoric, and subtle deceit. Full control.

Jesus’ politics are about “weak power.” Humility, not pride. Compassion, not apathy or antipathy. Persuasion, not coercion. Forgiveness, not blame. Persevering faith, not fear. Self-giving love, not self-serving self-interest.

The world’s politics are tempting, to be sure. You can get quicker results when you force your way through, when you unilaterally push your agenda for a better world. And the longer you spin your wheels trying to achieve a goal without results, or the more pressure there is to bring about a certain objective, not now, but right now—the more tempting it is to resort to strong power.

But the history of humanity—and the smaller stories in our own lives—show over and over again that these “good” results through strong power simply do not last, and they’re often more damaging in the long run. Even in the short run, there are almost always innocent victims, physical or psychological or emotional casualties left in our wake.

Jesus’ politics take longer to achieve any good thing—like small seeds growing, or yeast working through dough—and they demand much more of us—our very lives, in fact. But the end result is shalom for all involved: wholeness, harmony, justice, and abundant life.

So what does all this have to do with church politics? What (gulp) might this even have to do with politics of any kind?

Everything, in every way.

We must resist the temptation to bring about change, even positive change, through strong power. Strong-arm tactics, passive-aggressive behaviour, divisive fearmongering, meticulous control, and more, have no place—no place at all—among followers of the crucified Jesus, whether in the church or beyond it. We need to have a patient, persevering faith, truly trusting that God’s way, the way of weak power, is in fact best.

We must repent of the ways we have engaged in strong-power politics. Again, our capacity for self-deception and self-justification is truly astonishing. This is especially so when we are convinced that our way is the best way, or that we hold the morally superior or theologically correct position. We need constant, rigorous self-monitoring and self-examination—and the humility to accept correction by others.

We must embrace Jesus’ way of weak-power politics. Seeking to persuade rather than coerce: speaking truth to power, showing compassion for weakness. Serving others in humility, not posturing before others to gain status or controlling others to ensure the change we want to see. Forgiving others when they fail, not pouncing on their faults for political leverage. Patiently pursuing long-term shalom rather than short-term gain.

In particular, we must always attend to those on the margins. Always. Even when the margins shift, and those on the outside become those at the centre, and others are now on the margins. And especially when we’re the ones at the centre—along with our friends and family and all our favourite people. Any power for change we possess—through position, wealth, education, whatever—must be used in the way of the cross for those without such power, especially the most vulnerable and unjustly treated.

In other words, we must set aside our cultural brand of Christianity with its ways of the world and respond to Jesus’ radical call to discipleship: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

This is politics and power, the Jesus way. And it’s the only way to find real life: for you, for the other, for all.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

Jesus Was a Peacenik After All

This past weekend I hosted my seminar on Jesus in history called, “Was Jesus Married? …and other awkward questions.” (The answer to that one, by the way, was, “Almost certainly not—though it is not historically impossible, and shouldn’t be theologically problematic.” Can you say, “can of worms”?)

But one of those other “awkward questions” was this one: “Was Jesus actually a violent revolutionary (and not a peacenik)?” As I conceded in the seminar, a good prima facie case can be made for Jesus’ revolutionary tendencies.

Those tendencies were undeniably “in the air” in Jesus’ day. There was a proud history of zeal for Torah among Jews of Jesus’ day, including for some a willingness to do violence against foreigners and even fellow Jews in order to uphold “righteousness” according to the Law of Moses. There was also a “zealot” movement that developed against Rome that had roots going back to Galilee in the early first century A.D., right where and when Jesus grew up.

And then there’s what Jesus himself said and did. Jesus proclaimed the imminent kingdom of God, a reality commonly understood as a political kingdom that could well require military effort to bring about. Jesus said things one could interpret as promoting violence, things about bringing and buying swords. Jesus entered Jerusalem in messianic procession and caused a disturbance in the Temple. And to top it all off, Jesus was crucified by Rome, probably for treason.

So, at first blush, the idea of Jesus as a wannabe revolutionary can seem pretty compelling. However, it collapses under the cumulative weight of a host of sayings and deeds of Jesus.

Jesus’ ethical teachings, such as in Matthew 5-7, and his mission teachings, like those in Matthew 10, are among the best attested teachings of Jesus we have. We find many of them in both Matthew and Luke in slightly different versions, we see them reflected in Paul’s writings before the Gospels were even written (e.g. Romans 12-13; 1 Corinthians 9), and we hear them in other early Christian writings of the first century (e.g. James 5, Didache 1).

Tissot - Lord's PrayerIt’s in these teachings that we find Jesus’ strongest words of peace and non-violence. “Love your neighbour,” “love your enemies,” “do not hate your brother,” “turn the other cheek,” “bless those who persecute you,” “blessed are the peacemakers,” and more are found in his ethical teachings, all connected to the “kingdom of God” which we are to pray for and to seek first. Among his mission teachings are calls for Jesus’ followers to proclaim God’s kingdom and heal the sick, giving freely and living simply. If they are rejected they are not to retaliate but simply to “shake the dust off their feet” and move on, leaving the rejecters to God’s judgment.

Other teachings of Jesus may be less widely attested in earliest Christianity, but fit snugly within these basic contours. Jesus’ kingdom parables, for example, repeatedly emphasize the idea that God’s kingdom does not come about suddenly—by force, you might say—but is planted in the world and grows quietly and slowly until its fruition. Or, for instance, Jesus’ controversies with religious leaders include the famous “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s”—a recognition of human authorities in this age, yet a declaration that God holds our ultimate and total allegiance. And running through the Synoptic Gospels is a recurring focus on the “least,” the “last,” and the “lost” as who God’s kingdom is for, as those who inhabit God’s kingdom—not the powerful or mighty but the meek and the humble, not the violent and coercive but the gentle and those who serve.

All told, the whole thrust of Jesus’ teaching is that God’s kingdom—God’s universal reign of justice and peace—is being established on earth, brought about through his, and his followers’, self-giving, suffering love for the other. This involves both love for God and for other people, including love for those marginalized among us and for those deemed to be hostile to us.

Jesus’ actions were fully in line with these teachings. One of the regular activities of Jesus widely acknowledged among historians is his practice of “communal meals.” These he viewed as symbolic of God’s kingdom, and the guest lists included repentant sinners, the socially marginalized, and other outsiders—the “least,” the “last,” and the “lost” who inherit God’s kingdom. Likewise, Jesus’ healings—he was certainly acknowledged as a healer, even if his opponents questioned the source and legitimacy of his healings—were also seen as signs of God’s kingdom, and focused on things like mercy over strict Sabbath observance, compassion over ritual purity, and inclusion of the marginalized in God’s kingdom.

Then there’s Jesus’ suffering and death. At least some early Christians viewed Jesus’ death as the crucial event for establishing God’s kingdom on earth (e.g. Mark). Certainly the manner of Jesus’ suffering and death reflected the teachings he had given—he walked the talk. He “turned the other cheek,” standing up to the powers that be and refusing to retaliate, thus exposing their violence and injustice for the evil that it was. He gave himself for the good of others, even through extreme suffering. He modeled the love he commanded.

The overwhelming portrayal of Jesus in our earliest and most extensive sources is that of one who proclaimed and lived out a counter-cultural kingdom of God—one not characterized by violence, but by non-violence, even active peacemaking.

What do we do, then, with the few anomalies, those sayings and actions of Jesus that don’t seem to fit the mould? Well, let’s take a closer look.

The “I have not come to bring peace but a sword” saying (Matt 10:34-36) is part of Jesus’ mission teaching, instructions for his disciples as they preach the gospel and heal the sick. “Sword” here is used figuratively to describe the turmoil that will result from Jesus’ kingdom message and way of life. His point—evident from the surrounding context of this statement—is simply that his kingdom message and actions will provoke resistance from the world, so his followers should be prepared for this and persevere through it.

Rembrandt Christ on the CrossWhat about “Those who do not have a sword should sell their cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:35-38)? Jesus has just alluded to his previous mission teaching, but now intensifies it: this is, once again, a warning about coming resistance to Jesus’ kingdom way. That Luke understands the particular statement as figurative is evident from the way the narrative continues. First, Jesus responds to the disciples that two swords is “enough”—rather ludicrous if Jesus was speaking literally about arming themselves either for rebellion or for defense. And second, when the disciples ask about literally using the sword to fight the mob and one of them cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Jesus responds with “No more of this!,” heals the man’s ear, and says, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a lēstēs (brigand, revolutionary)?” (In other words, “I’m not a lēstēs, people.”) Matthew’s account gets at the gist of Jesus’ real feelings about this, stripped of all irony: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (26:52).

Then there’s the “temple cleansing,” as it is often called. Yes, Jesus does exhibit violence here, something that should caution us against an unrealistic ideal of non-violence. But it’s important to temper that concession with a few other thoughts.

First, none of the Gospels indicate that Jesus committed physical violence against human persons—only John describes the “whip,” and he states this was used to “drive out” the animals. Second, scholarly consensus is that Jesus’ temple action was symbolic and prophetic, like the symbolic-prophetic actions of Ezekiel, for example. Jesus was not realistically going to stop the temple sales of animals with a one-man temple tantrum, but he could symbolically highlight the problems he saw and prophetically pronounce God’s judgment. And third, this action was motivated by a desire for justice and inclusion in the face of injustice and exclusion. Poor Jews, especially non-Judeans who had traveled from around the Empire, relied upon the animals sold in the temple courts for their sacrifices. The temple merchants, it seems, were taking advantage of their situation, keeping the temple from being a “house of prayer for all nations.”

In sum, then, Jesus’ kingdom teaching was overwhelmingly non-violent and constructive in orientation, Jesus’ kingdom actions were overwhelmingly non-violent and restorative in nature, and these realities need to govern how seemingly contradictory realities are understood.

It’s important to note that none of this makes Jesus into a modern pacifist. You don’t hear any prohibition of military service from Jesus even when interacting with Roman soldiers—in this he followed the example of John the Baptist (we Mennonites need to pause and reflect on this more). He doesn’t organize his followers toward collective acts of protest or resistance against the powers that be or their acts of violence. He doesn’t develop a program of restorative justice in contrast to the retributive models of justice around him. He doesn’t establish hospitals or schools in war torn areas in order to build a peaceful society.

Nevertheless, Jesus was a thoroughgoing peacenik—and his teachings and example provide the building blocks for a robust, active Christian pacifism that includes all these things, and more.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.