Jesus and Systemic Evil: Kingdom v. Empire
Particularly I've been thinking about the way of Jesus in response to the protests concerning police violence and systemic racism.
These are difficult waters to navigate, but we must brave the rough waters ahead.
IT'S NOT JUST FOR YOU
I want to begin by drawing your attention to two of Jesus' earliest sermons. His first real "sermon" was delivered in his hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:14-30). One Sabbath he got up to read from the scroll of Isaiah. He reads what we would label Isaiah 61:1-2a –
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
Then he sat down and declared that this passage had been fulfilled in their hearing. In other words, Jesus is the one through whom these things would come about. The kingdom of God is now here. The kingdom of heaven is breaking into the world. This is purposefully set over and against the Roman Empire and the corrupt religious system in Jerusalem.
We must contextualize Jesus. He didn't preach in a vacuum.
So far so good. But then he went on to remind them about the stories from 1st and 2nd Kings where the widow in Sidon (not Israel) was saved by God's miracle through Elijah and where Naaman, the general of Aram's (not Israel's) army, was cured of leprosy through Elisha. The crowd immediately turned on Jesus to the point of wanting to kill him! Why? Because he is reminding them that God cares about other people, too, not just the children of Israel. He was calling out their deep-seated prejudice against outsiders, the gentiles. And he is making it crystal clear that this kingdom is not just an Israel thing. It's a kingdom for everyone.
This is a classic example of a phenomenon we see happening even today in society. Let's say a certain people group enjoys a level of privilege, power, or special status among society (in this case, the Jews were the People of God and no one else was). There is a nice, obvious Us and Them set up where everyone knows their place. But then things start to change. Suddenly THEY start to gain access to the special privileges that have only been reserved for US. When THEY start gaining rights and privileges and status and wealth and power and freedoms, then it can feel like losing for US. WE haven't lost anything. But since THEY are gaining, it can feel threatening for US. Again, in this case it was the Jews' status as God's chosen, special people. But Jesus assures them that there are going to be a lot of THEM in the kingdom, too.
KINGDOM OF GOD
EMPIRE OF ROME
Next we move to his greatest recorded sermon, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The comparisons and contrasts of Jesus' sermon with the Torah were evident to all his original audience. Jesus is setting himself up as the New Moses, so to speak. But this new constitution of the new kingdom doesn't start with a list of requirements and laws, dos and don'ts. It begins with blessings. But these blessings are not like the list of blessings and curses found in Deuteronomy. There is nothing we have to do to earn the blessing. It is freely given. The kingdom of God is not a meritocracy.
The ethics and values of the Sermon on the Mount are also purposefully juxtaposed to those of both Israel's corrupt religious system and the Pax Romana. Yes, the kingdom Jesus established is the anti-empire, anti-Rome, anti-Caesar kingdom. But not in the ways we might think.
Do you remember that whole thing about "going the second mile" (Matthew 5:41)? That was a direct reference to a common, hated practice. Any Roman soldier could force any Jew in Israel to carry his pack and gear for one mile. Jesus says, "go with them a second mile." By willingly going the second mile, his followers would be highlighting the abuse of this system by those in power.
When Jesus told his followers to "love your enemies" (Matthew 5:44), who are those enemies he's talking about? Rome, of course. Rome was the power house. Rome was the occupying military force. Rome was the vile beast of Daniel 7 and the harlot "Babylon" in Revelation. It was at the hands of Rome that countless Christians would die, including Peter and Paul. Rome was systemically evil, violent, and corrupt.
There were basically four responses to the systemic evil of Roman power within the Jewish ranks. There were those like the Sadducees and the Temple Priests who buddied up with Rome. Then there were the Zealots who actively fought against the Roman occupation. Some opted to simply retreat from society altogether, like the Essenes of Qumran (think Dead Sea Scrolls). And finally there were those like the Pharisees who believed that through religious piety and adherence to the Law they could win God's favor, causing him to deliver them from Roman oppression, like had happened with Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Greece.
Jesus introduced a new way, the way of love and self-sacrifice. It wasn't the obvious way. In fact, it was the more difficult way that not many would find and follow (Matthew 7:13-14). But it was the only way. A mere forty years after Jesus' death and resurrection, Jerusalem would be sacked and the Temple would be razed to the ground never to be rebuilt. The Jews would revolt against Rome, hoping to overcome violence with more violence. The result would be utter catastrophe. But by that time (70AD) the Good News of the Kingdom of God had already spread across the Roman Empire and beyond. This new kingdom was defined not by borders or race or language, but by submission to Christ the King.
Empires come and go. There may come a day when the United States of America is no more. But the kingdom of God will never fail. There is undeniably systemic evil and racism built into the American way of life - from income inequality to healthcare access to education opportunities to law enforcement and adjudication. But our citizenship is in heaven, Paul reminds us (Philippians 3:20). Our fight is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12), but against those ingrained, unconscious evils that persist in our human power structures - in our precincts and court rooms and statehouses and even among our churches.
So how do we, as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, address and confront those evils? That's where we will pick up next time.