Jesus the Activist (Part 1 of 4)
“It is right to be angry at injustice, and problematic to be apathetic toward injustice.” Carl Gregg
In the last decade or so I have attended a number of protest marches and rallies in San Francisco and Santa Cruz regarding gun violence, immigration reform, racial equality, environmental justice, and pro-life issues. I am aware that many Christians consider such activities as unbiblical and a waste of time. I’ve heard them all:
“Jesus never marched for peace… You should just trust God to work it all out… The extent of the believer’s interaction with politics is the voting booth… Christians should only be concerned about the spiritual transformation of individuals, not gallivanting around railing against political and economic systems… If we transform enough people through salvation, the social justice issues will work themselves out.”
I beg to differ on these justifications, if not excuses people make regarding public justice. Regardless of your view on this or your party affiliation, I hope you’ll give a short time to read this and the next few posts on “Jesus the Activist.”
I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Jesus gets outraged, and maybe at the top of his list of aggravations is injustice, especially the systemic kind. Those who claim that Jesus was an apolitical preacher with no interest in addressing the socially prejudiced and politically oppressive context by which he was surrounded are, in my view, mistaken. A quick tour of that sociopolitical context might help clear up this point and substantiate my claim that Jesus cares so deeply for the vulnerable it outrages him when their dignity is diminished by unjust systems.
Speaking of unjust systems, by way of the Temple tax the priestly nobility in Jesus’ day raked in massive revenue to pay for their extravagant projects and lifestyles. Josephus, the Jewish historian of the time, deemed the priests as nothing but a band of avaricious “lovers of luxury.” Caiaphas the High priest waded head high in Rome’s money and in the power to go with it. The majority of priests formed a landowning aristocracy, tasked with extorting their fellow citizens and keeping order in their communities, a role for which they were dearly compensated by Rome.
When a Jewish peasants’ poverty became so dire that they couldn’t even feed their families, the aristocracy––“out of the goodness of their hearts”––made them loans on which they expected them to default so they could confiscate their property and reduce them to lifelong slavery. The brave souls that resisted this injustice were met with Rome’s wrath. Their heads were removed and their bodies hung on crosses to point out what happens to those who resist the empire’s gravitational pull.
Jesus and his family belonged to a class of employed peasants just one wrung above beggars and slaves. As day labor carpenters he and his brothers most likely plied the bulk of their trade in more populated cities rather than in their tiny, depressed hamlet of Nazareth. As it happened the city of Sepphoris, a mere few miles walk away, found itself in desperate need of tradesmen such as them.
Right around the year of Jesus’ birth, in order to quell a resistance movement Herod had Sepphoris burned to the ground. Then he crucified more than two thousand men and made slaves of the women and children. The Roman soldiers wouldn’t take the crucified dead down until their flesh had all but rotted away, thus providing an assault on both the sight and the stench of death to everyone nearby.
Soon thereafter, Herod’s son, Antipas moved to the burnt ruins of the city and conscripted thousands of laborers to transform it into a royal city fit for a king. Jesus would have been about ten years old when the reconstruction project began. He and his brothers would likely have joined the workforce, walking back and forth between their poor hamlet and Antipas’ cosmopolitan capital, “building palatial houses for the Jewish aristocracy during the day,” says Reza Aslan, “returning to his crumbling mud – brick home at night.”
We can imagine Jesus, while constructing lavish homes in Sepphoris repeatedly laying eyes on Antipas parading past in his royal chariot, arrayed in extravagance. This was the man whom he later called “that Fox” (Luke 13:32), the one who beheaded his cousin, John the Baptizer, the man who wished to do the same to him.
It’s no coincidence that with rare exception Jesus’ teaching and miracles benefitted those who found themselves furthest beneath Rome’s heavy boot. His words and works were intended to be a direct challenge to the prosperous and powerful Roman occupiers and their Jewish collaborators. He both practiced and preached his “gospel to the poor.” (Luke 4:18)
Though he loves all people equally, God may seem biased toward the world’s most destitute. But as Ron Sider points out, “equal concern for everyone requires special attention to specific people. In a family, loving parents do not provide equal tutorial time to a son struggling hard to scrape by with D’s and a daughter easily making A’s. Precisely in order to be ‘impartial’ and love both equally, they devote extra time to helping the needier child… (Good firefighters do not spend equal time at every house; they are ‘partial’ to homes on fire.)”
Predictably both the Roman and Jewish powers feared that the marginalized citizenry would take back control of their lives and ultimately organize to reclaim their country. They preserved the “Pax” (peace) in their Pax Romana so long as they kept their feet on the necks of those who might threaten it. Jesus and his followers posed such a threat.
Stay tuned for Part 2 where we talk about what how Jesus kicks some rich and powerful Roman and Jewish a@*! I’ll give you a clue. It has to do with what looks like a crazy man chasing animals and doves with a whip, and men so traumatized they run away leaving their ill-gotten booty scattered on the floor.