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Jesus: Activist for Social Justice

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 "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 one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles." (attributed to Jesus in Matthew 5:38-41, Revised Standard Version)

What was Jesus teaching when He made statements like the above to common people. Those who listened to him most were those most suffering under a yoke of domination at the hands of a literalist and fundamentalist leadership - a leadership that sustained itself by claiming that the Letter of the Law took precedent of any so-called "Spirit of the law?"

Those in power remained in power precisely with an intimidating pretense that strongly implied that the combination of priestliness and scriptural knowledge meant a superior connection to the original intent of God the Law-Giver. Moving way beyond the Old Testament prescription for priesthood-directed ceremonial functions, that leadership pretended to speak for a God who in reality was not speaking these leaders; a God who the common people believed only spoke directly through prophets - historical figures from their past whose words were found in scripture.

Whether or not liberal Christians accept the idea of God speaking to humans through living prophets today, we need no historical camera to see how - in the absence of God's prophets in the tradition of Isaiah, Jeremiah and the others - we are left with to deal with the same kind of pretending theological con-men with whom Jesus had to deal.

Last December, ZNet published an article by Walter Wink entitled Christian Nonviolence in which Wink addresses those who find themselves stymied between the pick-and-choose citing of Biblical versus by fundamentalist leaders and what might seem like the unrealistic idealism encountered in the words of Jesus.

"Many who have committed their lives to working for change and justice in the world simply dismiss Jesus' teachings about nonviolence as impractical idealism. And with good reason. "Turn the other cheek" suggests the passive, Christian doormat quality that has made so many Christians cowardly and complicit in the face of injustice. "Resist not evil" seems to break the back of all opposition to evil and counsel submission. "Going the second mile" has become a platitude meaning nothing more than "extend yourself." Rather than fostering structural change, such attitudes encourage collaboration with the oppressor."

It seems that today's Christian Pharisees exploit that ambiguity with their own version of "Christian-specific" actions that are presented as the best means of changing lives, society and the world. Building on the idea of conversion, accepting Jesus as one's personal savior is offered as an action of simple-but-powerful life change that makes attractive what in reality is an unhealthy psychological shift into passivity. The post "born-again" experience is rarely addressed without an open exhortation to participate in the newly found group-think of a congregation as led by Biblical-based and authoritative church leadership. Those who led you to the light will continue leading you with what God wants of you.

Psychologically, independent thought and action are encouraged so long as the objectives of the congregation are being pursued. Initiative must be channeled into the priorities of the local or parent church organization. Initiative based on independent thinking and action based pm spontaneous spiritual-prompting are considered safe only within the context of congregational group-think as directed and monitored by those who offer the pretense of knowing more about what God wants of his people.

These last two paragraphs aptly describe the suffering society in which Jesus walked the walk and talked the talk. The walk and the talk were neither passive nor pacifist; neither impractical idealism nor comforting generalities about long-term patience and endurance. Jesus was more interested in the context of the time than in a hope for a future house with many mansions - a hope and consolation that did nothing to stop injustice, tyranny and violence.

"Jesus never behaved in such ways. Whatever the source of the misunderstanding, it is neither Jesus nor his teaching, which, when given a fair hearing in its original social context, is arguably one of the most revolutionary political statements ever uttered.

When the court translators working in the hire of King James chose to translate “antistenai” as "Resist not evil," they were doing something more than rendering Greek into English. They were translating nonviolent resistance into docility. The Greek word means more than simply to "stand against" or "resist." It means to resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in an insurrection. Jesus did not tell his oppressed hearers not to resist evil. His entire ministry is at odds with such a preposterous idea. He is, rather, warning against responding to evil in kind by letting the oppressor set the terms of our opposition.

... There are three general responses to evil: (1) violent opposition, (2) passivity, and (3) the third way of militant nonviolence articulated by Jesus."

Wink's article goes on to give exceptional interpretative corrections of the traditional definitions that have impacted Christian understanding of Jesus and the context of his life so powerfully.

"But can people engaged in oppressive acts repent unless made uncomfortable with their actions? There is, admittedly, the danger of using nonviolence as a tactic of revenge and humiliation. There is also, at the opposite extreme, an equal danger of sentimentality and softness that confuses the uncompromising love of Jesus with being nice. Loving confrontation can free both the oppressed from docility and the oppressor from sin.

Even if nonviolent action does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor, it does affect those committed to it. As Martin Luther King, Jr. attested, it gives them new self-respect and calls on strength and courage they did not know they had. To those with power, Jesus' advice to the powerless may seem paltry. But to those whose lifelong pattern has been to cringe, bow, and scrape before their masters, to those who have internalized their role as inferiors, this small step is momentous."

Seeing Jesus in this light immediately evokes images of the tactics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Such is far more empowering than attempting to cope with contemporary issues in a context of literalist leadership exhorting you to in effect trust them to drive forward looking through the rear-view mirror at an inflexible and absolute Biblical interpretation that keeps them saddled on the horses that brought them to power.

Seeing Jesus in this light encourages doing good for the sake of goodness rather than a simplistic threat/promise of divine judgment at life's end.

Seeing Jesus in this light encourages compassion and real forgiveness rather than the smug judgmentalist condescension demonstrated by those who pretend to know more about what God wants - who have portrayed God as judgmental rather than righteous; as punitive rather than forgiving; as obsessed with human sexuality rather than the dignity of individual free agency.

Seeing Jesus in this light encourages action based on an understanding that a God who so loved the world certainly endorsed every word and action of His Son and therefore loves us and endorses our words and actions that reflect a true spiritual modeling on Christ.

Condemnation of resistance to religious conformity brings us to a place of hearing the self-appointed tell us that

“My Jesus is not your Jesus. My Savior is not your Savior. I own the true redeemer and you can only call Him Savior & Redeemer if I agree with you. You can only call Jesus your friend if I agree with what you mean by that.

You can only resist evil as I define evil. Any other resistance to an evil of your own perception is heresy and God will punish you for that and for not believing me."

So who really "owns" Jesus? What does social and political activism in the name of Jesus really look like?

Before one lets the Falwell's, Dobson's and LaHaye's tell you what God wants of you, think about what it means to be Christian in America. Think about the revised "tradition" of belief and attitude that is being pushed in this country at the expense of social justice, equality and compassion:

Who wants mandatory prayer in school?
Who wants to weaken separation of church and state?
Who wants censorship?
Who wants literal interpretation of Religious Scripture?
Who opposes women’s rights?
Who rejects the theory of evolution?
Who favored on invasion of Iraq? Who opposes gay rights?
Who opposes contraceptives?
Who opposes sex education?
Who favors corporal punishment?
Who declares that there is only one TRUE God?
Who declares that dissent is disloyalty?
Who looks the other way when torture and murder happen - especially if it is the torture and murder of non-citizens?
Who favors the death penalty?

One answer to the above questions: Osama Bin Laden

Anyone else come to mind?

Walter Wink's Article at ZNet: Christian Nonviolence

Arthur Ruger 2005

Arthur & Lietta Ruger 2002-2008. The American Choice is a  political internet journal based in Bay Center, Washington. The views expressed not authored by Arthur or Lietta Ruger are the writers' own and do not necessarily reflect those of The American Choice or SwanDeer Productions. Permission of author required for reprinting original material, and only requests for reprinting a specific item are considered.

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