Jesus, Resister, Part II: Betrayal and Death

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Yesterday was Holy Thursday.  At a special communion service, we reflected on Jesus’ prayers and betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Tonight at a Good Friday service we will meditate on the crucifixion of Jesus and consider how Christ is still being crucified in our world today.

By the time Jesus was in the Garden praying, he knew that the authorities wanted to kill him.  The Jewish religious leaders, who collaborated with Rome, were afraid that the Romans would come and destroy their nation because the movement Jesus led was so popular.  At a specially called meeting of the religious council, the chief priests and Pharisees said, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation” (John 11:47). The high priest, Caiaphas, responded to the gathered assembly: “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). Or, in the words of the King James Version, “It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.” It was expedient. This kind of justification for political violence is still going on today.

Jesus, a faithful Jew, could see where his resistance actions were taking him. When he prayed, his sweat was like great drops of blood (Luke 22:44). He knew he had a very real choice. He could have turned around and gone away from the confrontation that awaited him in Jerusalem to freedom and obscurity. But he refused to be intimidated. He refused to back down. Instead, he submitted to arrest, where he faced certain death at the hands of the governing authorities. He was taken into custody as a political prisoner, charged with sedition, tried, beaten, mocked, and finally crucified by the Roman Empire. Biblical scholar Allen Callahan says: “Why was Jesus killed? The Roman answer is good enough for me. He was causing trouble. He constituted a security risk and he was dealt with the way the Romans always deal with security risks in the provinces. This was a matter of not even so much politics, as policy. This is how the Romans handled trouble-makers, even if they didn’t intend to make trouble . . .”  According to biblical scholar L. Michael White: “The plaque which names him as Jesus, the king of the Jews, suggests that the charge on which he was executed was one of political insurrection. A threat to the Pax Romana but he’s also now a victim of the Pax Romana.”

Jesus stood for what he believed, loved God and neighbor above all, directly challenged those who were in power, and refused to back down. He resisted, nonviolently, to the point of death. In the words of Marcus Borg: “Jesus was killed because he sought, in the name and power of the Spirit, the transformation of his own culture. He issued a call for a relationship with God that would lead to a new ethos and thus to a new politics. For that goal he gave his life, even though his death was not his primary intention.”

In short, Jesus and the movement he founded threatened the network of religious, economic, political, and military Powers, so they executed him for sedition. It was a matter of national security. His death, however, did not put an end to the movement. After his brutal death, Jesus appeared to his disciples, who proclaimed that he had risen.

We have seen the Lord” became their rallying cry.  The movement spread quickly. Early Christians followed what they called the “Way.” They sought to reflect the values of the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed and to demonstrate, as Jesus did, how human life can be lived in close relationship to God, under the power and influence of the Holy Spirit, in loving community and in resistance to Powers that would degrade or destroy life.

It wasn’t long before distinctions were made, lines were drawn, creeds were developed, and hierarchies established in the early church. Under Constantine, Christianity became a religion of empire, and to this day Christianity in many of its forms has cooperated with the ruling Powers. Wars have been fought and genocide carried out under the banner of the cross. This is one of the great ironies of history, since its founder nonviolently resisted Empire at the cost of his own life.

But for the first three centuries, Christians were a persecuted minority, living in nonviolent resistance to the Roman Empire, refusing to bow to the emperor or serve in the Roman army. Many were martyred, courageously following the example of Jesus, who demonstrated the nonviolent, self-giving love of God.

Both Gandhi and King pointed to Jesus as the inspiration and model for their movements of organized nonviolent resistance. In this age of corporate globalization and empire, Jesus’ unwavering spirit of resistance and hope for transformation can give us a sense of the depth of courage and commitment that is possible in a human life lived in faithfulness to God.

(This posting includes excerpts from “Jesus, Resister” in Shaking the Gates of Hell:  Faith-Led Resistance to Corporate Globalization by Sharon Delgado.)

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