In communist societies, The Gospel challenges the peace. In totalitarian regimes, the Gospel invites revolution. And in democracies, like the one we hold so dear in the United States, The Gospel offers a blistering critique of the status quo.
So today, governments are afraid of preachers, because the Gospel has always been a political narrative. You only have to read the critiques by U.S. politicians and pundits of Pope Francis's comments on climate change and income inequality to understand the truth of this assertion.
But please understand that theology is no threat to any government. Abstract philosophical speculation is powerless.
The Truth of The Gospel, however, will always be a threat to empire of any description.
Former Brazilian Archbishop, Dom Helder Camara knew the power and the peril of Gospel truth when he said, simply, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” And in the long history of civilization, no government has yet been established, which offers the vision of biblical equality to the masses, and grants liberating hope to all of its people.
The Bible speaks of “principalities and powers” and the reference is not to the Devil and his minions but to something even more dangerous. Principalities and powers are systems of all shapes and sizes, public and private, created by often well-intentioned human beings, which become evil by their blind force, and wreak devastation through their witless direction.
The Gospel records the witness of Jesus, who offered a different way and a different power. A way which threatened even mighty Rome. The Good News Jesus came to preach offered a security beyond the forces of national pride and military might, a hope to transform this hopeless world, a peace beyond Rome’s vaunted “Pax Romana” – which was actually just a well-crafted marketing program. The “Peace of Rome” was a narrative that ruled the Western world for several centuries and it sought to appease the masses by manipulating their fears and offering peace through strength.
Ironically, just three centuries after Rome used its power and military might to crush Jesus, to stamp out his heresy, and to quell his dangerous sedition, the troops of Roman emperor Constantine marched into battle with banners of war emblazoned with the Christian symbol of the cross. Rome had effectively co-opted the sacred symbol of early Christians to use as a totem to provide divine protection for the swords of military might. Rome effectively transformed Jesus’ death into a dominant theology of strength and right.
To be sure, The Gospel tells us that the Cross is the world’s greatest power. But only when we learn to die for one another just as Jesus died for us. When we learn to side with the poor as Jesus did. When we learn to resist empire as Jesus did. Emperor Constantine subverted the power of the cross, and to this day, we have made it an almost omnipotent symbol of national and military might.
You can hear this in the militaristic way too many Christians speak of their faith, using military imagery to speak of battles and victories of all kinds. And to bring it closer to home, maybe uncomfortably so, you can hear it in American partisan politics and the assumptions people make of manifest destiny and the American dream.
Today, if we are willing to hear the challenge of the Gospel, we will have to acknowledge that we have extended Constantine’s subversion of that cross.
The good news of The Gospel of Jesus Christ, a message about sacrifice in living, which gives priority to the poor and voice to the voiceless, has been co-opted. Instead of the Pax Romana, we Americans have our own myths. Call them what you will, “American Exceptionalism,” the “American Dream,” but our myths are no less based on a narrative of dominance and power.
How ironic that we have so badly missed the point Mark wanted to make so clear: dominance and power are not the ways of Jesus. This is not what the good news of The Gospel is all about.
In the end, is the Good News we speak of today still the Good News described in the gospels? Does our message even sound like good news to those in our community suffering from deprivation and marginalization? When so many of us live in affluence and comfort, while others live hand to mouth and day to day, what is the Good News there?
Should we all pay closer attention to the message of Pope Francis?
Maybe in our community, the good news needs to “afflict the comfortable” more than to “comfort the afflicted.” And maybe we need to be reminded of the subversive message of The Gospel, which will always do that.
So, is Jesus still challenging us, or have we just turned our faith into a set of religious beliefs? And if we claim it to be good news, are there signs to confirm that assertion? Are we still offering a challenge to empire, to the dominant narrative of our culture – or have we subverted the subversive message, using it to justify our way of life, the rightness of our assumptions, a dominant, dominating system that still oppresses the poor and silences the minority voice?
In his powerful commentary, Ched Meyers speaks of Jesus’ call, which “comes to us too as a specific challenge to turn from our privilege and restore justice…”. Too much of the Christian church today has turned into its privilege, not away from it. And if that is the case, we cannot begin to restore justice.
Meyers says the restoration of justice comes by beginning where Mark begins: with repentance, and then by learning to resist the dominant narrative. Repentance of sin, Meyers continues to say, “Must be understood not in our modern sense, as strictly personal angst or guilt, but in the Hebrew sense, as the admission of our solidarity with historical injustice.”
Our solidarity with historical injustice. Wow…