A favourite saying among Christian lefties is that the curious thing about biblical revelation is its tendency to lead adherents of Gospel teaching into conflict with the established order. It is for this, and respecting the less comforting messages which leap out at us during textual reading, that some theologians go farther yet, referring to 'the dangerous memory of Jesus Christ.' The admonition here, with no holds barred, is that whomsoever dare tread the same path as he did may also expect to end up on the Cross. Perhaps any such suffering similar humiliation today represent an appropriate starting point in broaching the question as to who those currently fitting this category are - and, without doubt, our list should be endless. Signs coming out of associated circles would suggest that academics of political science (and related) faculties in universities across the United States are now summarily warned to collaborate with the current propaganda onslaught around the war in Afghanistan, and are even being covertly threatened with censure should they fall out of line. 'Think too much, ask too many questions and it's tickets for you folks,' is the latest unimpeachable charge in what has become a new wave of information control to hail a stinging echo of the MacCarthy era, further signalling overwhelming concern that the current administration bodes ill for America's thinking public.
To return, then, to the problem of Jesus, always clearer to us is how any serious study of the Gospels runs the risk of yielding a protagonist far away from the dour, anally-retentive character of popular Renaissance motif who, artistic excellence notwithstanding, looks forever lost in a self- involved huddle of private messianic ardour. Instead, for his habit of compromising on certain aspects of Mosaic Law and choosing the wrong friends, the man who emerges would assuredly not have passed for good company in contemporary circles, which is why someone like Nicodemus would hazard a meeting with him only under cover of the dark (Jn 3:1,2). No small support, one might opine, for the assertion that association with this guy had little place among what, to us, would pass as the equivalent of the tea parties or gentleman's clubs of his day.
Later he would spell out what it might cost to join his band : 'They will expel you from the synagogues, and indeed the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is doing a holy service for God.' (Jn 16:2) The caution immediately impels us to ask why, in the first place, our man (or any connected with him) should have been deemed persona non grata. In John (1:46) we read that Nathaneal expressed some disappointment on learning that a rabbi enjoying as much renown as Jesus should hail from such a place as Nazareth, a town in Galilee. Jesus would himself appear to vocalise something of that resentment which might have been a common reaction among Galileans fed up with the popular temptation to lump them all together as thugs, when he asks of those sent to arrest him : 'Am I a bandit, that you had to set out with swords and clubs ?' (Lk 22:52). Without question his origins at once associate him with the fringes of acceptable Jewish society and imply contact with people marginalized by those observant groups which formed the religious elite and which had a reputation for being fencesitters in Roman Palestine (Lk 7:33). For such, the Pharisees and most especially the Saducees, Galilee was considered a breeding ground for retrogrades and dissidents, teeming with Zealots and their associate group, the sicarii (dagger bearers), who carried out political assassinations, in no uncertain terms considering themselves freedom fighters within an occupied Israel. Indeed, the memorable insurgence of Judas the Galilean continued to be all the rage long after it had been unceremoniously snuffed out (Acts 5:37). Yet even if we know from Mt 26:52 that Jesus did not prefer violence as a solution to Israel's political ills, neither does he pass for our definition of a pacifist. Lk 22:3 relates him predicting before his arrest the impending hostilities to which his disciples would be subjected, then instructing them to carry an extra sword - presumably as a means of self-defense in the event of possible attack. Again, during the high priest's interrogation he would appear almost to demand of a temple guard who had slapped him (and decidedly not timidly) : '…why do you strike me ?' (Jn 18:23)
Faced with this less endearing, almost confrontational Jesus, one is drawn to consider how his own ministry might have evolved. Represented by Saul's election and anointing by Samuel as nagid (commander) rather than as melek (king), we have it that right from it's institution the most significant leadership role in Israel was viewed in parallel to military prowess. Among devout Jews the anticipated messiah was thus expected to facilitate triumphant deliverance of both Yahweh's chosen and his land from foreign rule and, in this singular achievement, to be greater than the likes of Saul and even David. As one raised in the orthodox tradition Jesus' own preparation would certainly have included contemporary thinking around the messiah and, in all probability, any ideas he entertained treating of interpretation of his own identity would doubtless have been influenced as a consequence. Yet though we have it that he did not die a warrior in the desired sense, the question as to whether his sympathies ever tended in such a radical direction remains sketchy. If they had, it would be reasonable to assume that fulminations in recent history would have dissuaded him from pursuing that course. It is likely that as a young boy he would have heard talk of the Gladiators' War, which ended with the mass execution of six thousand captured slaves (71 BC), crucified for attempting a revolt against their Roman overlords. In the wake of this short-lived, if laudable, fighting force mobilized by Spartacus, Jesus would have thought twice about suggesting to his followers that any form of armed resistance could seriously entertain any hope of challenging the might of Rome. Moreover, there is the provocative reference to 'Simon the zealot' (Lk 6:15) among his disciples, from which we glean that, had he been opposed to the methods of those we might consider the terrorists of his day, it would be an overstatement to suggest that he was entirely intolerant of them or he would not have included such in his close circle.
There are, however, moments in the Gospels when the Jesus who becomes visible to us is the same who appears increasingly to conclude that a more universal strategy was needful if the revolution to begin all revolutions was indeed to take place. However, if his vision of the kingdom of God strikes us as far-reaching, Matthew (14:24-28) recounts that it was not always so. Thoughtless remarks concerning gentiles, uttered to a Canaanite woman, betray a rather shortsighted nationalism : 'I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel,' and 'It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the little dogs'. The enlightening retort : 'Ah yes, Lord; but even little dogs eat the scraps that fall from their master's table,' suggests that she might have been instrumental in elevating his sensibilities to the level of appreciating that, after all, gentiles too might qualify as children of God, so raising the question of whether Jesus' sinlessness precluded, in this instance, the possibility that he might at times have shared with the rest of humankind certain limitations of insight and reason. An answer here is perhaps of less import than is the illumination which the incident highlights for Jesus' own developing system : that the part religion was playing as the qualifying determiner of social exclusion had reached ridiculous proportions. Eventually, of course, he would carry this logic further, extending beyond the cosy world of his own somewhat divided community to that of the gentiles and, further yet, to Israel's imperialist enemies.
In conclusion, Jesus was not a slogan-shouting activist who condemned 'the system,' willy-nilly, as something 'out there' which had to be replaced at all costs and with little reflection around possibilities of new models. His praise of the centurion's faith (Lk 7:9) should make it clear that his vision of the world was broader than this - that, though he displayed little patience for authority (Jn 18:36), he had the spiritual maturity to see through the uniform and appreciate that all regimes have their foot soldiers. This does not make light of the alternative he proposed and to which his life and death are a testimony. Indeed the incommoding memory of the God-man who was so much the friend of losers that he purposed to count himself among their ranks continues, fiendishly, to confront every generation with the challenge to create (and recreate) politically, economically, socially, and culturally inclusive solutions - or else (and we have it from history that even the self- assured Roman Empire finally fell). It should only follow, then, that as the divide between the winners and the losers widens, those excluded will begin, in increasing numbers, to pose to the West the unsettling question as to why it's agendas for progress and development are at such pains to leave them out in the cold.
Jeremias J., 'Jesus' Promise to the Nations,' SCM Ltd., London, 1958.
Boyle N., 'Who Are We Now ? Christian Humanism and the Global Market from Hegel to Heaney,' Edinburgh, 1998.
Schillebeeckx, E. 'Jesus in our Western culture : mysticism, ethics and politics'. London, SCM Press, 1987.
McLellan, D, ed. 'Political Christianity: A reader'. London: SPCK, 1997.
Pixner, B. 'With Jesus in Jerusalem : His First and Last Days in Judea,' Rosh Pina, Israel, Corazin Publishing, 1998.
Bright J, 'A History of Israel,' First British Edition, 1960, London.
All biblical references from 'The New Jerusalem Bible (Standard Edition),' Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd, London, 1985.