Reclaiming Christ the Reject, Part 1
I used to amuse myself at the names I might give to a radical church. “The Church of Jesus Christ the Rebel” was one such name I came up with, but lately I’ve wondered whether perhaps “Jesus Christ the Reject” would be a more accurate term to be using. Obviously this is all theoretical, no church is planned, but what does this term offer us in terms of identifying a Christ who isn’t part of the establishment.
Of all the things people claim Jesus to have been, a part of the establishment he certainly wasn’t. He may not have promoted open war on Rome. But his situation in society was very much as the outsider. But jump forwards 300 years, and already Christ is very much identifiable with the establishment.
To the dispassionate observer, this kind of shift is quite a normal flow of events; ideas start off small and then become accepted. But the difference here is that the idea itself had changed: where Jesus promoted some very innovative methods of annoying the Romans, and refusing to be dragged down by them, the empire now made him there own. Did the empire significantly improve? I would think not, though I’m no historian.
Ched Myers and his team, writing in “Say to this Mountain”, encourage the use of the centre-margins model, and characterise Jesus as being very much on the edge, with occasional forays into the middle. Its a very useful tool, and incredibly simple, but it is perhaps an uncomfortable picture for the Church in the West, perhaps also in the East, and most tragically of all, very often for the church in the Global South. If one drew two circles, one inside the other, and marked the centre of both, the inner circle marking the boundary between centre and margins, the outer representing the very edge of society, where would our churches be?
Shane Claiborne’s book, “Jesus for President” (which I’m only halfway through) also describes this Jesus; a Jesus who’s crucifixion is both politically and spiritually symbolic, being the death not of a thief, but of a subversive, an enemy of the roman state. I’m told that John Howard Yoder also writes of this Christ at length, though must confess to never having read his work.
But what has made us convinced that our state is suitably benign enough to integrate Jesus into it? And more to the point, is this a realistic view of the state, or one that needs to be shed in order to better serve the gospel? Perhaps the question here is “how can we make the Evangelical Jesus more biblical?”, not a question most people will want to hear asked!
As the church in the West seems to be coming to grips with the need to seek social justice and take social action, its easy to see this action in a post-political light. But Jesus wasn’t post-political, he didn’t act in ways which bypassed the political debates of his day, and he certainly wasn’t acting through a kind of moral consensus that society already held. Post-politics is dangerous, because it refuses space to debate, and allows “business as usual” to continue around us, rather than challenging the root systemic injustices.
I suppose for starters we must be clear about the sense in which Jesus is political. The fact is, for many people “politics” is simply electoral Politics, and in this light Jesus is definitely not political. His is not a politics of power and position, but instead a politics of the margins, of the minorities combined, rather than those holding the majority of the power. But Jesus is, nonetheless, political.
Throughout the gospel, Jesus is shown as a reject. From his birth in a stable in a small oft-forgotten town outside the capital by almost a day’s walk, to his death as one accused of insurrection, Jesus avoids being sucked in.
During his ministry, he avoids voiding many of the big cities built around the area, living with and healing the sick and broken of spirit, and only rarely encountering the rich and famous. And when those meetings take place, because they inevitably will, he approaches them with caution and harsh words, confronting the injustices the perpetrate in a way hard to conceive of someone who doesn’t share much time with those pushed to the margins.
And yet, his image has been dragged through the tar of empire and then modern government since the Romans internalised the Gospel into their conquest and rule. From the time the Romans adopted Jesus, Christianity didn’t so much sell-out as receive a complete rewriting. The last thing we should do is to place individual blame on those around in the church at the time; what could they, small in number, do against such a hegemonic influence?