Jesus the Activist (Part 4 of 4)
“It should not surprise us that the One we follow was executed as a criminal, and that there will be times when we are called to break unjust laws ourselves.” Tim Keller
Augustine famously said, “An unjust law is no law at all.” Sometimes good people have to break bad laws and when possible, change those laws. Jesus always prioritized people over precepts. Since he did only what he saw the Father doing, his “civil disobedience” could be better described as “holy obedience.”
In Part 1 we set the stage with “What Makes Jesus Angry?” In a word the answer is: “injustice.” When the powerful take advantage of the powerless, Jesus gets angry! Then in Part 2 we saw the sociopolitical reason Jesus turned tables over and drove out the animals from their Temple stalls. In Part 3 we showed how Jesus was anything but passive in his nonviolent revolution. Lastly, let’s look at the right, no, the “mandate” we have as his followers to be holy obedient activists.
You’ve probably noticed that there are protests all around the globe right now. Though they’re not all for the same reasons, by the same side of the “aisle” (so to speak), or necessarily reflect the way of Jesus, the protestors want something from their government that they are currently not receiving.
The protests in Asia, Europe, South America, the Caribbean and the Middle East reflect a worldwide frustration at inequality, corrupt governments and broken promises. Some describe them as “last straw” riots. In Hong Kong, it was an extradition dispute involving a murder suspect. In Beirut, it was a proposed tax. In Chile, it was a hike in subway fares. None of which sound very big by themselves, but they came at a time following a long line of other disappointments big and small.
I myself have attended a number of marches, protests, and demonstrations for such things as more strict gun control laws, to end family separations at our southern border, promoting better earth-care practices, and opposing late-term abortions. Protest of one kind of another about injustice is not only a right in our country but a mandate for people of conscience.
In their protests, marches, and boycotts civil rights activists in the 60s did something quite similar to what Jesus did a the temple. In the 1964 March on Washington, for instance, they demanded that America live up to its creed of “liberty and justice for all.” They were nonviolent yet unyielding in their disruption of the systemic racial and class injustice in the country. During his speech that day in essence Martin Luther King Jr. called the men and women sitting in seats of power a “den of thieves.” He claimed that they had issued to the poor and the black community a “bad check… a check marked ‘Insufficient Funds.’” He preached that the “inalienable rights” of all people didn’t seem to apply to them.
“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice!”
It’s in these collective statements of outrage that the powers are exposed and the powerless are empowered and has contributed to social change. This is what the God-inspired prophetic voice, the Church, the “conscience of the state,” does. It speaks to injustice, to inequitable systems and calls for them to be brought into closer alignment with the intentions of our founding fathers and the Author and Finisher of our faith.
In the same way that Jesus’ symbolic foot-washing episode invites us to “go and do likewise,” his confrontation with the powers by shutting down the Temple that day was an example for us to follow as well. Though we have no record of the disciples turning over Temple tables later on, we can surmise that something sunk into their consciences that day. Later when they included Paul into their apostolic ranks the only thing they wanted him to be sure to do was to “remember the poor, which was the very thing [he] had been eager to do all along.” (Galatians 2:10).
I’m of the opinion that such a Spirit-infused outrage toward the unjust systems of governance and Mammon-addicted culture is what we need to see today in the Church. Such a task is never popular with those who prefer to preserve their earthly privilege and conserve their prosperity at the expense of those endowed with less socioeconomic clout. For Jesus and a long line of other God-called agitators it meant rejection, ostracism, and death. He made it quite clear that anyone who follows in his steps are signing up for some of the same.
Those who confront the empire’s sins and speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves are not well-liked among those at the top of the social heap. Clarence Jordan asks why American Christians are not persecuted to the extent the early Church members were. “Is it because unchristian Americans are that much better than unchristian Romans, or is our light so dim that the tormentor cannot see it? What are the things we do that are worth persecuting?”
Those who find power in the truth are obligated to speak truth to power. “Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’” says Martin Luther King Jr. “Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there are times when you must take a stand that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but you must do it because it is right.”
Apple CEO Tim Cook said: “Apple is about changing the world. It became clear to me a number of years ago that you don’t do that by staying quiet about things that matter.” In many ways I see the Church muzzled and afraid to give voice to the things that matter.
If not us, who?
If not here, where?
If not now, when?
It seems to me that God is challenging us to confront our culture rather than cower in the corner. We might have to turn over some tables, gum up the corrupt system, and say, “No more! Do you hear me? No more!” We can’t confront the system and be cozy with it at the same time. It’s hard to turn over the tables at which we ourselves sit.
As John F. Kennedy said, “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.”
Questions? Thoughts? Objections?