Despite the popularity of Reza Aslan’s current book (soon to be a major motion picture), Jesus wasn’t a Zealot. (Zealots were the insurrectionist movement that instigated the failed armed uprising against Rome in 66 CE). That idea has been trotted out ever so often since it was first espoused by the German Deist Hermann Samuel Reimarus in 1774, The last serious argument for it was S. G. F. Brandon, Jesus And The Zealots (1967) It is always drubbed into the dust by credible New Testament scholars. For a partial recap of the history of this half-baked idea, see
A rebel yes. A revolutionary. Yes, albeit a radically different kind of “revolutionary” than what we usually mean by that word. But a 1st Century nationalistic insurrectionist -- no. I won’t make the case here other than to note that there is almost no evidence either in the New Testament or other 1st Century writings to support the Reimarus/Brandon/Aslan hypothesis, virtually every word of the New Testament repudiates it, and respectable New Testament scholars along the continuum from conservative (Wright) to moderate (Wink/ Vermes) to liberal (Borg) all portray a very different Jesus.
I wouldn’t be kicking this dead horse that will probably have the good grace to lie back down before the movie goes on Netflix. But here’s the thing: It actually matters. It matters because Jesus’ mission of ushering in the Kingdom of God is about both the process and the outcome. There is no way to God’s Peaceable Kingdom except through God’s Peaceable Process. Methodist scholar Walter Wink’s seminal trilogy on non-violence in the Gospels (The Powers That Be, Unmasking The Powers, Engaging The Powers) and our own Episcopal lawyer-theologian William Stringfellow (Conscience and Obedience) expounded the process Jesus taught and saints like Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela implemented in modern times. Jesus’ way was far more revolutionary than the violence of any first century jihadist. His way was what we need now and is quite the opposite of pitting the violence of dominating power against the counter violence of someone else’s dominating power.
Today, in the United States, the necessity of a different process to produce a different social structure is more critical than ever before. The reason is simple: the kind of change we desperately need cannot be forced through the usual model of power. It takes a totally different kind of power to accomplish what we must accomplish for the sake of God and all God’s people.
Let’s start by examining (albeit briefly) our context. One of the best summaries is by the late University of Chicago political philosopher, Jean Bethke Elshtain in Democracy On Trial (1995). She wrote that a democratic society depends on laws, constitutions, and institutions, but also on “democratic dispositions”:
These include a preparedness to work with those different
from oneself toward shared ends; a combination of strong
convictions with a readiness to compromise . . . . ; and a sense
of individuality and commitment to civic goods that are not
the possession of one person or one small group alone. But
what do we see . . . ? We see deepening cynicism, a corrosive
isolation, boredom, and despair; the weakening . . . of that world
known as democratic civil society, a world of groups, associations
and ties that bind.
A few years ago, we all learned the African adage, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Well, it takes a village to accomplish much of anything. People using that adage were proposing getting our villages engaged in various worthy projects. But our basic problem is the disintegration of our villages themselves. There ain’t no village. Robert Putnam, in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000), demonstrated with devastatingly hard numbers the decline of participation in civic organizations in recent decades. All kinds of voluntary associations for a shared goal – ranging from bowling to collective bargaining to breaking down racial barriers to teaching kids agricultural skills – have declined dramatically. The Church is in good company. Parker Palmer, in Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage To Create A Politics Worthy Of The Human Spirit (2011), draws the inevitable conclusion that we are not learning the “democratic dispositions” (Christians would call them “virtues” – perhaps “civic virtues”) that are essential to our functioning as a democratic society. In the absence of those civic organizations, we are not forming the social capital (trust and camaraderie) without which neither business nor government can function smoothly. We are desperately low on oil in our social crankcase.
Sociologists, since the conservative theorist, Robert Nisbet, in the 1960s, have called these voluntary civic associations (churches, book clubs, Shriners, labor unions, etc.) “intermediate institutions” because they occupy a social space between the small social unit of the family and the large units of the state and the market. Functionally, they support families in two ways: 1. They buffer the family from pressures coming from the state and the market (like advertising directed at children); and 2. They reinforce the values and norms that sustain family life. During the decades in which the state and the market have grown, intermediate institutions have withered. So it is not surprising that the first victim of the decline of civil society is the family. We do not need to recite the sociological data on the decline of family stability. It has increased markedly over the past two decades since Elshtain noted the dangers posed to children who do not have the protection of a stable family.
The strongest predictors of domestic situations in which
which children are likely to be physically abused are stressed
out single-parent households with a teenaged mother,
often of several children, and households consisting
of a biological mother and her children living with a man
who is not related to those children or who does not accept
legal responsibility for their well being.
70% of juveniles in reform institutions came from families with a severe parental deficit. 79% of children whose parents were unmarried did not finish high school. On the other side of the equation, where the parents were married, had finished high school, and did not have children before the age of 20, such children had only an 8% chance of ending up in poverty. Numbers like these led Elshstain to conclude:
(S)temming the tide of family collapse is the best protection
we can offer a child against becoming either the victim or
the perpetrator of violence – or, as it turns out, of poverty.
But, since Elshtain wrote those words, we have not stemmed that tide – not yet. Quite the opposite.
In this context, the Church sets out to overturn the world’s ways with God’s ways, to open the door to the Peaceable Kingdom. That takes the assertion of a lot of power – but not the power of political force. We can’t form civil society by force. We can’t instill democratic dispositions by the imposition of undemocratic force. The Zealot response to a broken world doesn’t heal it. History has proved that all too well. The French Revolution overturned the bumbling old monarchy only to replace it with the Reign of Terror. The Russian Revolution overthrew the totalitarian Tsar only to replace him with the totalitarian Bolsheviks and then Stalin. The Apostles taught “Do not confront evil with evil.” 1 Peter 3: 9; Roman 12: 17. Their actual words were a military metaphor: the tactic of one army matching the strategy of the other with mirror formations. Jesus said, “Don’t do that. It doesn’t work. Don’t use thuggery to replace one gang of thugs with another.“ (paraphrase)
Religious efforts to use political force to reshape the culture along religious lines either have turned out horrifically oppressive as in Iran or utterly ineffectual as in the United States. Think of the failed efforts of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition who have succeeded mostly in alienating a whole generation from faith. In To Change The World: The Irony, Possibility And Tragedy of Christianity In The Late Modern World (2011), James Davison Hunter parses out why, as a matter of sociology and political science, the efforts of the Christian right and the Christian left are equally ineffectual because cultural change cannot be forced. The Zealots engage in an exercise in futility.
The important changes, the deep changes, happen through relationships, through personal engagement. If you strip the word of its connotations of sentimentality, you might call it “love.” The Church cannot change the world through force, bluster, or intimidation. We don’t have enough tanks or missiles. Besides tanks and missiles don’t overthrow the world’s ways with God’s ways. It takes kindness, compassion, truth telling, and mutual support to do that.
Ironically, it does not take “moral stances” and “prophetic voices” shouting at the culture from either stage left or stage right to “shape up or ship out.” It takes what Hunter calls “faithful engagement,” participating in the culture while remaining distinctively and explicitly Christian – not insisting that others be Christian but refusing to be anything other or less than Christian ourselves. Many voices in the Church today propose adapting to recent social trends by replacing congregations with de-institutionalized casual gatherings of the spiritual but not religious for interested but not committed relationships. That would be conceding the battle. It would be the Church taking on the world’s ways rather than presenting a hopeful alternative to “corrosive isolation, boredom, and despair.”
But the first step in our efforts “to change the world” must be “to change ourselves.” The first step is to take the plank out of our own eye. Matthew 7: 5. The Church doesn’t have its act together in such a way that we can say to secular society, “look at us and do what we do.” Our capacity for civility is, if anything, worse than that of secular institutions, worse even than government, almost as bad as business. The big controversies of past decades, though unavoidable if we were to move forward, have not presented us to the world as models of diversity living together in appreciation and curiosity. We have been as Fox News vs. MSNBC as anyone. We have been as apt to say “my way or the highway” as the political parties. But those big controversies are not half so destructive to our mission as our inability to negotiate smaller differences in day-to-day Church life. In Gilbert Rendle’s Behavioral Covenants In Congregations (1999), he traces the modern history of how congregations have lost the capacity for civil discourse. He says this disintegration is part of a recurring cycle in history and that it will be turning eventually. Our job is to be on the cutting edge of that change, not dragging along behind, if Christianity is to have any credibility whatsoever in the eyes of the next generation.
So, what was and is Jesus’ project and what does that tell us about our mission and how to go about it? Jesus was overturning the ways of the world with the ways of God. Oppression and insurrection are both ways of the world. He showed us something quite different – something of grace and wonder, something of healing and reconciliation, something of mercy and compassion. He showed us how to conquer death by going through it into life, how to conquer sin by forgiving it. Jesus’ way was and is paradoxical, full of serendipity and surprise. It is far more subversive than reflexively resorting to violence to combat violence, “fighting for peace.”
Jesus’ way is much bigger than social utility. The Kingdom is much bigger than a civil society that makes democracy possible. It’s cosmic. But it breaks into our 21st Century post Cold War context just as Jesus began his mission the 1st Century Roman Empire context. He meets us where we are, in the mix and muddle of our present situation, which for us is the socially disintegrated era of cynical division and isolation. Being cosmic and eternal doesn’t make the Kingdom Mission irrelevant to life here and now. Quite the opposite. The challenges of life today cannot be addressed by force or coercion. They call for grace mediated through gracious people. That makes it urgently incumbent on Christians to grow in grace so that we may become gracious to each other and the suffering world.