✊🏽Jesus Against Empire
Greetings Friends,I trust your week is going well. I have some good news to share with you all: I started back up to work at Guilford College this past Monday after being furloughed since April 1. As you can imagine, it is a relief to me and my family.This past Sunday, I had the opportunity to preach at Berkeley Friends Church on the subject of Jesus Against Empire. I would have preferred to be in Berkeley for this, but it was great worshipping with Berkeley Friends nonetheless. Jesus Against Empire is a new project I'm working on and I'm excited to tell you more about it down below. As always, there's lots of interesting supplemental content for you this week, including a really great performance of God Bless the Grass from friend and newsletter reader Bethany Lee: Check it out here.
This Week's Query:
"What does Jesus have to say about empire? Does he offer us any guidance or resources for resisting it?"
I'd love to hear your thoughts, feedback, or additional ideas as I work on this question. Feel free to reply to this email, give a thumbs up below, or jump into the chat room using this link.
✊🏽 Reflection: Jesus Against Empire
"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." -Jesus (Matt 10:34)
As many of you know, I have for some time been working on what the book of Revelation says about resisting empire. If that is of interest to you and you're new here you can check out my book on the subject here. I like how Friend Ron Hogan describes this approach to Revelation as a "Rules for Radicals."
This has led me to work my way back in the New Testament and see if Jesus has anything to say about empire, and if so does he offer us any resources and practices for resistance?
This is the start of a new project I'm calling "Jesus Against Empire," which you will be hearing more about over the coming months.
Below I want to share with you just the beginning on some of these ideas.
Jesus' Mission - To Announce Good News to the Poor
We find the beginning of a response when we turn to Luke's Gospel chapter 4. Remember that Jesus just renounced political power and other temptations from Satan earlier in this chapter, and now "filled with the power of the Spirit, he returned to Galilee," his home where he heads to the Synagogue on Sabbath.
During the gathering Jesus walks to the front and opens up the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah and reads these words:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he says:
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
These are the words that Jesus uses to announce his ministry. To proclaim the work of the Spirit of God through his own life. The speech is short, and it is connected to his the Jewish prophetic tradition. He is in a sense saying, "that thing Isaiah is talking about is that," leveraging the power of the Jewish faith of prophetic resistance and drawing on it as his own.
In the same way that when we in the Poor People's Campaign today claims the power of Rev. Dr. Martin King Jr's teachings, or the leadership and power of Civil Rights leaders like C. T. Vivian and John Lewis, we are drawing on and standing with this tradition of resistance.
What I like about Jesus' reading of this text from Isaiah is that it tells us who Jesus believes God is, who Jesus believes God prioritizes, and what he believes the Spirit has anointed him to do.
This is a first insight I see in the question of understanding Jesus's teachings against empire.
This text from Isaiah quite literally becomes Jesus' mission. If you are to follow out these statements in Luke 4 through the rest of the Gospel of Luke you will find that Jesus wasn't just sloganeering with these words but he actually meant to do and embody these words in his ministry. He literally goes about enacting this mission.
Jesus' practices of resistance to empire
Below are three ways Jesus' not only embodied Isaiah's words but stood against empire in his time. There are more, so this is not meant to be an exhaustive list by any means.
1. Jesus Resisted Empire with his body
Consider that Baby Jesus was born homeless and on the run, his very body was devalued by empire. Jesus lived in a body that would have been brown-skinned. He was of Palestinian decent. His people were Jewish and had been occupied by the Roman Empire in his time and by Babylon, Assyria, and Persian empires before that.
His body, full of the promise of God liberating the people who looked like him, put his life in grave danger from the moment he was born. His birth may have been a miracle, but to remain alive was an act of resistance.
Consider then those whose bodies are devalued today. Who - just by the way they look - are seen as a threat to neutralize. Who empire wishes to kill and refuses to protect. Those who are killed without any justice in their name.
To understand that Jesus resisted empire with his body and was killed because of it is to see one of the main lessons who sought to teach us: Those scapegoated by empire are not just precious in God's sight but are the ones who God actually identifies with. Jesus' identification with the innocent victims of empire links together all those crushed by empire throughout time.
This is surely part of what it means to release captives. The captives of systems that do not even see certain humans as valuable.
2. Jesus organized the poor
Jesus organized poor people by announcing God's preferential option for the poor. You could say he was a missionary to the poor, not to convert them or tell them their culture is wrong, but to announce God's favor and God's love. Here in Luke, Jesus proclaims that his work is to "announce the good news to the poor." He has a message. Friends would say, he carries a concern. And that good news is directed at and for the poor.
Jesus' organized a movement of the poor with this message. He worked the way any good teacher, rabbi, and community organizer works. He went about from town to town meeting people, teaching, telling stories and eating with the poor, tax collectors, sex workers, fisherman, and more. He talked to people who have wealth and debates layers and religious figures, but he organized the poor with his message. He gave them new theological language and tools to understand a God who does now bow and concede to empire's luxuries the way religious leaders in every generation are tempted to do, but one who stands with those who are exploited and crushed.
Jesus feeds hungry people on the hillside with fish and loaves. He casts out demons that keep people homeless, hungry, and without relationship. He calls uneducated and poor fishermen to be he co-organizers, men of the people who are themselves poor. This band of people gather in his name, repeat his teachings with one another, and share their resources, as Acts 2 tells us, as an act of survival. These are the people who become the earliest church.
Jesus brings the poor together as the new movement of God. A movement that still to this day gathers the poor, proclaims God's liberation and love for the downtrodden.
3. Jesus subverted distorted moral theology
As a rabbi, Jesus taught counter lessons and used storytelling to subvert the empire's distorted moral theology.
He sought to wake people up to empire and its effects. Luke 4 calls this, "recovery of sight to the blind." Yes, there are a instances of Jesus' performing physical miracles, but there are far more instances where Jesus performs the miracle of helping people wake up to the numbing effect and the lies of the distorted theology of empire.
His parables are short stories the subverted the typical story-telling of the time (and even in our own). Tales about how the strong and rich come out on top. Tales used to keep people under control and some in power.
Jesus' teachings and stories were far more subversive, they were about the powerless coming out on top. The first shall be last. They were about the ways in which God was on the side of the poor and the weak: like the prodigal, the Samaritan, the mustard seed. These are all people and images that were devalued by empire in that time. Jesus' stories are about how God shows favor on the disinherited.
This is certainly part of what it means to "proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Another example of Jesus challenging the distorted moral theology of empire in his time is when he addresses the question of "the poor always with you." Rev. Liz Theoharis, friend and the co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign writes on this text:
When Jesus says, “the poor will always be with you,” he is actually quoting Deuteronomy 15, which says that there will be no poor person among you if you follow God’s commandments — to forgive debts, release slaves, pay people fairly and lend money even knowing you won’t get paid back. Deuteronomy 15 continues that because people will not follow those commandments, the poor will never cease to be in the land.
Thus, in this passage and throughout the Bible, Jesus isn’t condoning poverty — he is reminding us that God hates poverty and has commanded us to end poverty by forgiving debts, raising wages, outlawing slavery, and restructuring society around the needs of the poor. He is reminding the disciples that charity and hypocrisy will not end poverty but keep poverty with us always. He is reminding his followers that he is going to be killed for bringing God’s reign here on earth, and it is their responsibility to continue the quest for justice.
This is our charge. Jesus came to bring good news to the poor. Will we?
As we are faced with the questions of what is empire, how does it use "distorted theology" to justify its actions, and what does Jesus offer us any way of thinking about and resisting empire in our time there is plenty more to be considered in understanding how Jesus practiced resistance to empire through his ministry and calling.
❓Query for Personal Reflection
What Does Jesus have to say about empire?
What are other ways you see Jesus resisting / teaching about / challenging empire in his time?
Where are we being challenged and called to follow Jesus in practicing resistance?
🗣 Join the Discussion
Want to discuss this week's newsletter? Our chat room is a place where readers of this newsletter can share feedback, ask questions, meet other really interesting folks, and share things you think would be of interest to this group.
🐦 Tweet Thread of the Week
This tweet thread is from the Moral Monday action for August 3 and some of the highlights from those who shared during that action.
🌱🌲 Nurselog Note of the Week
The Nurselog is my “digital garden,” a kind of personal wiki with notes and ideas of things that I am working on and/or find interesting.
This week’s note is: Reading the Bible with the Poor Methodology
🔗 Dress Down Friday Links
The White, European Jesus of Western imagination is fiction — www.washingtonpost.com Evangelical writer and radio host Eric Metaxas is one of those figures on the right who has been miniaturized by his association with President Trump.
James Cone’s ‘A Black Theology of Liberation’ and white liberal Quakerism — jollyquaker.com Every now and again I encounter a book that gives me such a jolt it demands to be talked about. I’ve just finished James Cone’s ‘A Black Theology of Liberation’, first published in 1970, and it has stirred me up.
This simple but powerful analog method will rocket your productivity — www.fastcompany.com Over the span of thirty years, Niklas Luhmann published more than 70 books and nearly 400 academic articles—a measure of productivity that would make Stephen King blush (and George R.R. Martin cringe).
Bethany Lee is a f/Friend and reader of this newsletter. She arranged God Bless the Grass by Pete Seeger on harp and shared it with me, knowing that I love this song. Thanks Bethany!
✨ From Gathering In Light
Western Friend Review of Resisting Empire — gatheringinlight.com There's a really great review of my book Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation as Resistance in this month's copy of the Western Friend by David Tucker. After reading resisting empire - or more accurately, while reading it - I found myself delving into the text of Revelation, the literature of apocalypse, and the sociology…
Quakerism 101: A Very Basic Introduction with Suggested Readings — gatheringinlight.com Here is a short reading list with some basic background to the Quaker tradition in hopes of helping those who are getting started out and/or want to know more about the history, beliefs, and practice of the Religious Society of Friends. I hope that this list can be of use as people seek understanding and…
Enneagram Journaling Exercises — gatheringinlight.com I am a big a big fan of the Enneagram and have been using it more and more lately in my work for my own personal growth and self-awareness, as with my work with students, and staff. As I was taking some time for reflection at the end of the semester I took some notes…
🗺 Opportunities to Work with Wess
I am very excited to offer new opportunities to work with you and your communities in the coming year. I am available for spiritual direction, speaking and pulpit supply, teaching online courses for your community, and working with faith communities around outreach and change and renewal.
Learn more by going to my webpage.
📆 Upcoming Events
Sunday Nights 6pm EST: Freedom Church of the Poor on Facebook
💚🧠 Final Thought
"The poor are the ones who constitute a despised and culturally marginalized race. At best, the poor are present in statistics, but they do not appear in society with proper names. We do not know the name of the poor. They are and remain anonymous. The poor ones are socially insignificant, but not so to God.” -Gustavo Gutiérrez (Liberation Theologies, Postmodernity, and the Americas, pg. 72)
Thank you for reading this week's newsletter,
Greensboro, NC (Haw River Watershed)
☕️ Thank You for Your Support
You support this newsletter by reading it, sharing it with friends, and/or by contributing financially to the making of this newsletter, and my other ministries. Thank you! -Wess 💚☕️