This week, I received two very thoughtful critiques on my last two posts, On turning the other cheek (and how it doesn’t mean what you think it means) and Clearing the temple courts: what Jesus did about systemic injustice. Both of them made me stop and think seriously, and I thought it would be nice to bring them into dialogue with my original thesis and hopefully come up with an even better and stronger position than where I started.* I’ll break these comments up into sections and address them in a back-and-forth, debate-style essay. First, let’s start with the most recent comment:
The "movement" of the Sermon on the Mount
The idea that Jesus’ teaching in the sermon on the mount (a sermon which is characterized by the emphasis Jesus places on weakness) is actually about asserting yourself as an individual seems to go against the movement of the whole sermon (Blessed are the meek, turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, pray for your persecutor, love your enemy) and Jesus’ ministry in general (take up your cross, greatest is least, etc.).
-tylerjarvis from Reddit
I have actually been thinking about beginning a series working through the Sermon on the Mount that I was tentatively calling “A Christian Anarchist Manifesto”, so this comment is timely, and it’s a great place to begin the discussion.
Tyler points out the contrast between a revolutionary reading of the Sermon and a traditional, “meek and mild” reading. In his words, I am making “turning the other cheek” about “asserting yourself as an individual”. This may have been a misreading of my original point, or it may be that I got so caught up in one train of thought that I went too far down that road. If either of those are the case, I want to clarify that I don’t think individualism is in any way compatible with the Kingdom vision of Jesus.
I’ve written a lot about the dangers of individualism. Western society is built on it (more on that later), and contemporary American culture shows it at its worst. The idea that we are all self-determined, self-made men and women who don’t need any communal identity (apart from the ones we choose independently) is beyond problematic. It’s unnatural. It’s not how we were designed to live, and it is totally foreign to the cultural setting of both the Old and New Testaments. The invitation to the Kingdom of God is not about getting my personal get out of hell free card. It’s about joining in with God’s cosmic project of making a people for his name. By joining that people, I am given a new identity and a new citizenship. So to suggest that the purpose of these verses is for individuals to assert their identity is, in my mind, a dangerous one that would probably undo the whole premise they are built upon.
But here’s what changes everything: this Kingdom is upside-down. The last are first, the poor are blessed, and the lepers and marginalized are given seats of honor at the banquet. In order to read the verses on going the extra mile and turning the other cheek as revolutionary subversions of the system and “assertions of humanity” for the underprivileged, we have to remember who the original audience was: poor Galilean peasants.
Tyler is right in saying that the sermon is characterized by an emphasis on weakness, but the original audience was weak. This sermon was not a call for those in high places to give it all up (he taught that elsewhere), but it was an affirmation - yes, an assertion - of the humanity of his original audience. Jesus is telling them that the things that make them despised and worthless in the eyes of the world are actually what make them closest to the image of the Kingdom. The values of the wealthy and powerful are actually distortions of God’s good purpose for humanity - so by being deprived of these things, the poor are necessarily primed for the Kingdom in a unique way.
Rather than teaching people how to “assert their humanity”, I might phrase it this way: Jesus was asserting their humanity for them by giving them a radically new perspective on the way the world works. He was also giving them new “tactics” for how to live into that reality. These tactics involved demonstrating a radically different values system, including a refusal to cave in to the many dehumanizing forms of oppression that they faced. Jesus’s emphasis is on weakness, because we find God in weakness and emptiness. This weakness exposes and shames the powers of coercion and oppression, but not for the purpose of seizing power for itself. Instead, turning the other cheek and going the other miles are revolutionary ways to challenge those systems and testify to a totally different one.
This article illustrates some of the problems with liberation theology. Yes God cares for the oppressed; but he cares more about focusing people's minds on himself in worship, prayer, and humility. -Dan
Dan, another commentor, raises some very interesting points in his comment on clearing the temple courts. This is a great place to bring the Beatitudes, the first few lines of the sermon, into the discussion:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:3-4)
Throughout Scripture, we see that God has a heart for the poor and marginalized. In fact, liberation theologians have spent most of the last century talking about “God’s preferential option for the poor”, which is basically what I discussed in the last section.
Dan’s wording implies a dichotomy between caring for the condition of the oppressed and caring for inner spirituality. To continue my train of thought from before, I think that asserting the humanity and Kingdom-likeness of the poor and marginalized is a crucial part of “focusing people’s minds on himself in worship, prayer, and humility”.** By showing up in the Temple and challenging the oppressive system, Jesus was pointing to what it looks like to do exactly that. I think it is a dangerous game to try to separate people’s lived experiences of poverty and abuse from their inner spiritual disposition. Sadly, it is a game that the Western Church has often played very well over the last 1500 years. We need to reject this dichotomy as a false one.
Strong and defiant?
You are interested in making people strong and defiant but God is interested in making people humble and full of his spirit. -Dan
Dan continues expanding on his dichotomy with another one. I think I clarified a lot of this in the first section. I don’t feel particularly interested in “making people strong and defiant” if we mean people who are trying to drag down systems of power and set up their own, which I think may be what Dan is hearing from me. I’ve been pretty outspoken that systems of power are not the domain of the Kingdom of God.
However, the good news of the Kingdom (in contrast to the good news of Caesar) is strong and defiant against the kingdoms of this world; and it is demonstrated by people who are “humble and full of his spirit”. So I think this is also a false dichotomy, and one that we need to reject. If we take either of these (strong/defiant and humble/spirit-filled) in isolation, then we will end up with a distorted version of the Kingdom. Both of them need to inform each other in order to be truly Christlike. Many movements in church history (and today) are focusing on one or the other as though it is an either-or choice. It isn’t.
The song that Mary sings (the Magnificat) after hearing she will be the mother of the Christ is a perfect example of this. The whole text is in Luke 1:46-56, but these selections show both humility and defiance in the very same breath as Mary contemplated the dawning of a new age for humanity:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.”
This is the question we need to ask: where is the line between “making people strong and defiant” and giving a voice to the voiceless?
Defending our honor?
As Oswald Chambers wrote, when we defend our honor we are demonstrating that we do not trust God, that we do not believe in his love. Jesus clears the temple because of his zeal for the Lord's house, not because he was demonstrating against exploitation. -Dan
I’ve covered most of this already, but I wanted to address Dan’s comment in full. I love Oswald Chambers, but I’m confident that he was writing about something rather different than I am. If by “defending our honor”, we mean picking a fight when we are falsely slandered or mistreated, then I would agree. (Although I think saying “we do not believe in his love” is a bit harsh.) But what about asserting the honor that the poor and disenfranchised already have in the eyes of God?
This is at least part of what I think Jesus was doing when he cleared the temple courts, but unfortunately this seems to have created another dichotomy. I believe that everything I wrote about in the previous article was a demonstration of zeal for the Lord’s house. The problem is that centuries of prioritizing “inner spirituality” over a holistic view of the Kingdom that also stands by the side of the oppressed makes it too easy for us to fall into this black-and-white thinking.
It’s possible I ignored inner spirituality too much in my rhetoric in all of the articles I’ve brought up here. It’s also possible I have carried over some of the dichotomous thinking (it’s so hard to escape!) and allowed my own thoughts to become reactionary. I’m not entirely sure. That’s why I’m grateful for comments like these that make me stop and think. I intend no disrespect to Tyler or Dan by “debating” with them here; in fact, I’m very grateful they took the time to reply respectfully! And on a (mostly playful) final note, I’ll tackle the last two sentences of Dan’s comment:
Please do not divide the world into oppressor vs oppressed like Marx did. You will destroy Western civilization. -Dan
I’m no Marxist, but I’m certainly not a capitalist either. Still, you don’t have to be either to admit the fact that there are oppressed and oppressors, both in the Biblical story and in our own. I’m far more interested in what it looks like to live out the upside-down Kingdom as the Church than I am in debating class warfare. As for Western civilization, I appreciate the compliment that you think I’m strong enough to destroy it, but I’m confident it has enough momentum to do that all on its own. Besides, who said that would that be such a bad thing? (Kidding here, but honestly, civilizations rise and fall, and each one of them likes to think of itself as the best expression of God’s plan for humanity. If our Kingdom vision is so tied up with whatever we mean by “Western civilization” that deconstructing it is harmful, then I think we need a broader vision.)
Some final thoughts
The question for those of us who are not poor, first-century Galilean peasants is, "How then should we read this?" The issues raised in this article are products of (at least) fifteen centuries of thought from a Church that has enjoyed significantly more wealth, power, and street cred than her first and second century equivalent. I can't imagine anyone in the original audience raising their hands to ask these kinds of questions (and I don't mean just the one about Marxism).
I have been careful not to propose a direct application of any of these passages to current events. Direct applications are issues of context, not general blog posts; but it is my hope that these blog posts will become part of a larger conversation with the text that shapes our collective imagination and helps us respond in the best way possible to poverty and oppression in our world (and in case you were wondering, I don't just mean the current racial issues in the US).
To all my readers: Please keep commenting or clicking the contact button, because my imagination needs to be shaped too, and I enjoy being provoked just as much as I enjoy being provocative.
*(This is the definition of dialectical thinking, where a thesis compared and contrasted with an antithesis lead us to a synthesis that is even better than both the original arguments.)
**I hope this doesn’t need to be clarified, but all quotes in this article are only meant to reference the commentor's original words. For me at least, it can be easy to see them and read them as sarcastic “air quotes”, which is not what I intend here.