Jesus the Activist, and the Importance of Non-Violence

I have a friend who always says that Jesus was completely a-political.  In some sense I suppose she’s right: he always avoided partisan issues (e.g. Pharisees vs. Sadducees).  But is the realm of politics limited to discussing which party or system of governance we follow?

Today I was driving a feed truck, but I really wanted to be in Winnipeg.  On any other day, Winnipeg is one of the last places I would want to be.  But today, Winnipeg hosted two major events that I had hoped to attend: the Slut Walk, in which people protest the horrible idea that the way a woman dresses makes her responsible for her own rape; and most of all, Occupy Winnipeg, the Winnipeg counterpart to Occupy Wall Street.  This movement started on Wall Street, as people gathered in public spaces, “occupying” them by their continued presence, as a reminder and a statement that these spaces are indeed public–that our country belongs to us.  Since then, Occupy has become a movement that’s spread to Europe, Asia, and Australia.  Today, Occupy protests occurred in many major Canadian cities, with thousands gathering in Toronto and hundreds here in Winnipeg.  This has become a global movement, and a major impetus for social change.  Does Jesus have anything to say in situations like this?

Perhaps we’re more comfortable with Jesus speaking to people’s needs: feeding the poor, healing the sick, touching the untouchables.  Nobody has a problem with associating those things with Jesus.  They were his M.O., the things that characterized his life and, to a large extent, his legacy.  Consider this, then.  The things that the people at Occupy are protesting include: injustice in regard to economic crimes; promised jobs that have not materialized (i.e. the poor are growing in number, and need to be fed); a medical system that exploits the sick; and a growing class distinction, as the middle class disappears into poverty and the rich get richer.  Among other things.  It isn’t very difficult to draw lines between these social/political movements and what Jesus did and taught.

Do we have trouble seeing Jesus as political because he was a religious figure, rather than a politician?  Trick question: in Jesus’ day, there was no distinction.  Religion was politics and politics was religion, not just because the Emperor claimed to be a god; it was not the pride of the emperor that caused the religious and political systems to mix, but the mixed religious/political system that enforced the pride of the emperor.  The “separation of church and state” is useful, but we’re naive to think that these two spheres don’t overlap in their demands on us.

Do we have trouble seeing Jesus as political because he didn’t protest?  Because he didn’t engage in civil disobedience?  Because he didn’t advocate direct resistance to the powers that be?  In point of fact, he did all of those things.

Jesus protested against the unjust religious system that held his people in bondage.  He taught against this system, and called its leaders (the Pharisees and Sadducees) to account, to their faces.  This religious system victimized people financially (through heavy temple taxes) and spiritually (through intense legalism), creating a class division between the rich and pious religious leaders, and the poor sinners.  God had set up a system that would have guaranteed a more just and equitable society: every 50th year was called a Year of Jubilee, in which all land which had been sold reverted to its original owner, and all debts were cancelled.  Jesus proclaimed a Year of Jubilee when he read the words of Isaiah:

And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are oppressed,
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”
And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him.
And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” – Luke 4:17-21

Jesus engaged in civil disobedience.  He marched into the outer temple court (the court of the Gentiles, the only place Gentiles could come to in the Temple), which the religious authorities had allowed to become a marketplace for the selling of sacrifices and the changing of money, and he turned over the tables of the merchants, driving their animals out of the Temple courts with a whip.  Don’t think that the merchants were breaking the rules by being there, or that Jesus’ action wasn’t a type of active resistance to an oppressive regime.  The religious authorities were getting rich off of the religious observances of the people, and the court of the Gentiles was where the financial transactions all took place.

Jesus engaged in active resistance to unjust use of authority, and he taught others to do likewise:

“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 an evildoer, But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” – Matthew 5:38-41

We tend to see this as “be a doormat to whoever picks on you,” but it was actually instruction on non-violent direct resistance.  A Roman soldier or citizen could treat non-citizens however they liked, so they treated them inhumanly: it was common practice for them to slap a non-citizen with the back of their hand.  A right-handed person’s backhand slap would fall across your right cheek, so by turning your left cheek to them, you were forcing them to slap you forehand, which was a strike reserved for other human beings.  Rather than passivity, it was actively (and non-violently) reinforcing one’s status as a human being.  In this, Jesus counselled his followers to resist social oppression.

Similarly, the instruction to give your cloak to the one who sues you for your coat is not generosity, but active non-violent resistance.  A court in that day was a public place, and elders or representatives of some higher authority would hear the complaints of the people.  In 1st century Palestine, the land was controlled by the state, the religious authorities, or rich landowners.  If someone couldn’t pay the many taxes, or their rent, or any other debt, they could be sued; if they still didn’t cough it up, they’d go to prison or sell themselves into slavery to pay the debt.  In Jesus’ example, picture a wealthy landowner suing someone for their coat – presumably, the last of their possessions.  All the person has left now is their “cloak”, which is a euphemism for their undergarment.  In this situation, Jesus suggests that this poor person also remove their undergarment and give it to the one suing them, showing everyone in this public place how the rich have taken absolutely everything from the poor.  In this, Jesus counselled his followers to resist financial oppression.

Finally, a Roman soldier could demand that a non-citizen carry his pack for him for up to one mile – and no more.  Jesus suggests that, if asked to carry the pack of his oppressor, a Palestinian non-citizen should offer, even insist, to carry it two miles.  An act of kindness, but have you ever heard of “killing them with kindness?”  This act of kindness would put the soldier in danger of being court-martialed for abusing his power, on the one hand, and should make him see the non-citizen as a person more worthy of respect, on the other.  In this, Jesus counselled his followers to resist political oppression.

Is there any question of why they killed him?

The early church carried on being political after Jesus ascended.  The phrase “Jesus is Lord” was a direct riff on the imperial slogan “Caesar is Lord.”  The Apostles were preaching about Jesus’ death and resurrection, against the direct orders of the religious authorities, who had the authority to imprison and torture them.  The Apostles simply said “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.  For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20).  Paul was imprisoned over and over again, and was ultimately executed (as were several of the other Apostles).  These men were deemed enemies of the state, because they carried on Jesus’ message.

So yes, Jesus has something to say about protests, civil disobedience, and non-violent direct action!  Rather than wondering at the notion of Jesus being political, we should be wondering at the notion that the Church today is not.  Again, this does not mean that we should be picking a “Christian party” to rule our country, but rather that we should be speaking out against injustice and insisting on the full status and rights of human beings (and I would add our environment to this as well).  This is a very exciting time to be a Christian, because there are so many people who are finally willing to stand up for something.  In some ways, the people down at Occupy are more like Jesus than most Christians – scandalous!  Theologians talk about the scandal of the gospel (that God would become a human, serve humans, and die for humans).  The scandal of the gospel today is that it actually demands that we stand up for others and make a difference in our society!  We should be out there with the Occupiers, because they need us.  We have something that they need.

When I look at movements like Occupy, I see a lot of angry people who want to see change, but their demands and their grievances are all over the map.  These movements are not overly organized, and tend to collect people from every imaginable group of the oppressed, dispossessed, disenfranchised, and disturbed, including every special interest group you can name.  To make real change, a movement needs focus – a list of real demands, a manifesto if you will.  We have one, as taught by the Son of God.

Another downside to large protest movements is that they often make the mistake of incorporating violence.  All it takes is one person taking a swing at a cop, and suddenly there are mass arrests, beatings, and new legislation to crack down on protests.  Tonight I watched a documentary called Capitalism Is the Crisis, and it was quite good for the first half.  The second half seemed to be advocating anarchism and violent resistance.  Ironically, when it comes to protests the anarchists seem to be the best organized, and groups like the “Black Bloc” turn peaceful protests into firebombed police cars and broken shop windows.  Last summer in Toronto this gave the police all the justification they needed to perpetrate the largest mass-arrest in Canadian history, arresting over 1100 people and holding most of them for several days without charge, subjecting them to all kinds of abuse.  Any time someone speaks out against it, though, it’s easy for the government to paint all protestors as violent thugs, and thus justify their actions.

Jesus was not just an activist, he was a brilliant activist.  He broke a lot of laws, but only unjust ones.  He paid his taxes, and never used violence.  He was, in a word, blameless.  That is what gave his teachings authority: because he was right!  All governments, even dictators, govern by the consent of the people, because if the people rise up then no government can stop them.  All governments, therefore, have to at least pretend to be legitimate and just.  So if a law is obviously unjust, they can’t be publicly seen to be punishing people for doing the right thing by disobeying it!  Jesus was a public figure, so any mistreatment of him by anyone would be widely reported; his execution seriously undermined the authority of the political and religious regimes that ruled Palestine, and spawned a movement that ended up taking over the world’s greatest empire.

Today, we’re all public figures.  There are cameras everywhere.  Protestors are catching on, chanting “the whole world is watching” whenever police start abusing their power.  Each and every one of us has more chance than ever of joining in Jesus’ civil disobedience and non-violent resistance.  If we’re doing what is right, then we’ll expose the “authorities” as being unjust, and any force they use against us will only further judge them.  Any time we resort to violence, we enter into a personal, human conflict; but every time we’re non-violent, the struggle is one of truth vs. injustice.

So this is my call to the Church: don’t pass up this opportunity.  People are trying to act like Jesus, so let’s show them how it’s done!

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2 thoughts on “Jesus the Activist, and the Importance of Non-Violence

  1. I have many activist friends who discarded their Christian beliefs because they believe it is ‘incompatible’ with their political views (or maybe it is just the same old ‘college atheist’ angst thing). But I agree with your view on Jesus, and the universality of political struggle.
    However, I am not that convinced on the non-violence part. Personally I believe that violence is hard to accept or justify, but it is just the natural tendency of things, (especially if for the oppressed it is a matter of survival ) the way history unfolds.
    By the way, great post!

    • Thanks John!

      Yes, I’m very tired of the notion that “politics and religion don’t mix” (as a Christian friend who is politically active told me yesterday). Inevitably, if our religion does not influence our political views, then our religion is empty and impractical. We ought to recognize that, whether we want them to or not, our religious views impact our politics, and our politics impact our understanding of religion, because these two things are ultimately not separable in the same way that I cannot divide myself in two.

      As for non-violence, I know that it’s easy for me to talk about non-violence from Canada, while in your part of the world violence is more of a regular reality. While I’m not a strict pacifist in the sense that I wouldn’t allow someone else to be hurt without offering strong resistance, I see more and more the power of non-violence, even (and especially!) in violent situations (e.g. Arab spring). That makes me challenge the conventional wisdom, which says that violence is the natural way of things.

      Thanks for reading, and keep challenging the notion that Jesus is apolitical!

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