Everything about the message and life of Jesus revealed the nature of the empires we build against others, to secure our personal interests, and how this imposes isolation, exclusion, deprivation, violence and suffering on others as the necessary collateral damage of our own safety.
This was not only revealed in the teachings of Jesus, but also in the reasons he was tried and executed as a “sinner,” scapegoated for the safety and wellbeing of Jerusalem and the power and wealth structures that then existed. This murder of an innocent victim was designed to awaken us to our “mistreatment of others for the greater good,” and turn us instead towards securing the safety and wellbeing of weak members who live as our neighbours and foreigners.
The gospel of Jesus Christ turns us and our nations towards care for the victim, and this is the truth the gospel speaks to power. It says that power does not have the right to mistreat the weak for the sake of its continuance. The gospel of Christ opens our eyes to the delusion that injustice can be employed for the sake of justice, because our case is different, superior in some way.
Jesus taught that instead of securing our welfare through power, we are to secure it through pursuing justice for the poor, mercy and non-violent peace. This means taking up our cross to suffer rather than to execute violence against others. This is what Jesus did in laying down his life, calling us to follow. He told us to deny the power of worldly kingdoms and instead to seek the power of the heavenly kingdom, which is to come into this world through us.
To refuse this “way” that the early church observed, replacing the rational of Jerusalem and Rome with footwashing and enemy love, is to refuse the kingdom of God. There is no killing for the greater good, for the sake of patriotism, for the sake of our “better nation.” This was the solid doctrine and life of the church. While we resist this, the kingdom of God can never come amongst us. While we resist enemy love, we are resisting the kingdom of God, no matter how “Christian” we are.
In speaking about Lazarus and the Rich Man, the foreigner on the road to Jericho, the barns the people were building for themselves, the exclusion of others at their parties and circles of care, Jesus was denouncing the ways in which they sought the welfare of their own community through the punishment and suffering of others. He was revealing that their inhospitality towards others, excused based on their superior morality and faith, was actually a form of violence that was satanic in its origin. It denied that they were children of God, even though they claimed the orthodox religious heritage of the day.
In refusing the satanic offer of the powers of this world, the armies of the nations, to enhance the purposes, safety and wellbeing of the kingdom of God, Jesus showed that this is not the way the kingdom of God comes, nor is it the arm of the church in our renewing mission to the world. Yet, today much of the church still pursues worldly power to secure its welfare and protection.
Jesus taught how we are to secure our interest, and the interests of others. “Go and learn what this means, ‘I don’t want sacrifice, but justice, mercy and the true knowledge of what God is like.’” He didn’t want the religious piety of the Pharisees and their sanctioning of others to sustain their faith, but instead mercy towards those made to suffer by the powers and unjust markets of the world.
Yet today, we as rich Christians may seek a strong political leader to secure our own “freedom of speech and freedom of faith,” not to secure the wellbeing of the poor, the rescue of the refugees, peace in war-torn nations, food for the starving, medicine for the sick, justice in our corrupt economies, restoration for fallen nations, the restoration of native populations, or the renewal of the natural world, over which we have been given a caring stewardship.
Instead, we often copy the world around us, seeking our own welfare at the expense of others, copying the greed of empire in securing our own safety, rather than learning about reconciliation with our so-called enemies. We buttress and strengthen propaganda against others, to excuse the fortunes of our lives, and risk the environment around us, not caring for the natural life God made us to protect. And when called to repent of these things, we say our faith is spiritual and heavenly, not social and earthly.
Jesus taught us that if we protect the interests of others then our own freedom of speech and religious liberty is in the end protected. He taught us we obtain freedom by giving up our own life, not by putting up walls against the poverty and misfortune of others. When we serve others, he said, in line with the whole biblical witness, we witness against and overcome the evil of the world, while raising the liberty level for us all.
What we are saying here is highlighted in the encounter Jesus had with Pontius Pilate. Jesus said he came to bear witness to the truth. For Pilate “truth” was that which sustained his seat and the power of Rome. Rome was truth. Power was truth. That is often the case today. “Truth” is evaluated based on what sustains our own interests. “Truth” for Pilate was that if he didn’t give the Jews what they demanded he would lose his position. This “truth” often dominates our public decisions today. Or we might say our nation is “truth,” when it comes to defending our mistreatment of the poor in the world.
Coming to terms about this matter of “truth” is then central to what it means to be a Christian, a member of the heavenly kingdom transforming this world. If we hold to the world’s form of truth, we fail to bring transformation. If we care for others, even our enemies, the world around us and its relationships begin to change. We become the light bearers of this new world.
The truth that Jesus came to bear witness to wasn’t just a creedal truth, or a religious truth. It isn’t just that we hold to the right doctrines about God. It’s to do with the way we treat others, especially when our own interests are at stake. Jesus bore witness to this truth by the way he suffered and forgave his enemies. The truth he bore witness to is a way of living that is contrary to our human logic of self-interest. This is the life of Christ. The relevance of the doctrine of Christ and the atonement is that it teaches us that God humbles himself to serve his enemies. Orthodoxy is in following this, not in using the creed to isolate our neighbours. Living this is truth.
Jesus bore the reproach of his enemies. Prostitutes were in his genealogy. He was numbered among the transgressors, enemies of Israel and foreigners, not just in his death, but also in his daily life. God calls us to bear the reproach of those counted as the enemy of our people, not to stand with our people against them. We are to stand with those who suffer as our enemies, regardless of how our own people see us for doing so. This way our relationships and the new politic the church came to reveal has hope in remaking our world.