What would Christ do in a “contemporary” society? How would he act if his nation’s institutions were threatened by alien forces and sapped by corruption from within? To find an answer, let’s look back to ancient Palestine, where 2,000 years ago people were torn by demonstrations, political assassinations, rioting, lawlessness, and “police” brutality.
In Palestine, much trouble arose from the confrontation of two establishments. One, the political, was dominated by foreigners: Romans, or worse yet, partisans of Herod. Allied with these were the nationals who were willing to accommodate aliens: publicans who profited as tax collectors, and Sadducees who cooperated in return for posts in the temple.
The second establishment, the religious and cultural, commanded the allegiance of nationals concerned for “God and country.” In addition to a host of commoners, this included Pharisees, who practiced “separation” from those who were ritually impure. It included Essenes, men who scorned aliens to practice communal living with compatible nationals. And it included Zealots, fiery patriots who carried daggers and plotted assassinations. Committed to defend his nation, a zealot would kill a Jew guilty of sexual contact with a Gentile, or, if need be, slay his own children to prevent their enslavement by foreigners.
Given such an alignment, incidents proved unavoidable. At times the religious-cultural establishment decried heavy taxation or brutalities in law enforcement. Yet more often protest reflected religious concerns, as when Romans desecrated the temple, or introduced nudity through the gymnasium, or brought images into Jerusalem.
To these varied provocations a creative people responded with versatility. Some preferred the peaceful “sit-in,” as when demonstrators prostrated themselves for five days and nights before Pilate in Caesarea. Others chose a more violent form of protest: armed insurrection, clashing with Roman and Herodian forces in open warfare. Between these extremes, demonstrators refused to plant crops, disrupted public assemblies, conducted dirges for patriots killed by the Romans, burned government buildings, stoned soldiers, and engaged in extensive rioting and looting. Jerusalem, seat of the temple, was a focal point for trouble; yet no territory was more torn with revolt than Galilee, the homeland of Jesus.
Galilee had been a haven for nationalists since the coronation of Herod the Great. Resentful of the foreigners, patriots flocked to the caves and fortresses of Galilee, and Sepphoris, a close neighbor of Nazareth, was a citadel for insurrection. Here resistance crystallized as insurgent armies clashed with mercenaries of Herod, and guerrillas slew Ptolemy, a Herodian general.
This, then, was the culture to which Jesus came. He had a mission, spiritual redemption through the cross, but even a cross can be approached in more than one way. Jesus might have gone to his fate as a “blood-brother” to the patriots, warning his nation of a Roman conspiracy that threatened to subvert morals and institutions. Or, disillusioned with Pharisees-Essenes-Zealots and despairing of reform, he might have become a rebel, breaking with his establishment, renouncing his Jewishness, perhaps to burn as an incendiary in the hope that something better might arise from the ashes. Jesus, however, rejected the roles of patriot and rebel, and in that age of anxiety chose an interesting and socially redemptive course.
Jesus did two things. First, he identified with his own group, the religious-cultural establishment. He was establishment in affirming the authority of scriptural law down to the last jot and tittle. He was establishment when he worshipped in the synagogues, participated in festivals at Jerusalem, concentrated his ministries in Jewish areas, and restricted membership in his inner circle (the twelve disciples) to those of his own nationality. As such he was authentic, daring to be what he was, a Jew.
Identification, however, was only a first step. The second proved crucial: he created within the establishment men who were sensitive to the needs of those on the outside. This proved socially redemptive when by a strange teaching he produced a surprising result.
That teaching was something old, yet something rarely grasped. He told his listeners, men of his own establishment, to love their “enemies.” Subversive? It didn’t seem so, for as just noted, his establishment credentials were impeccable. Unrealistic? Perhaps, yet behind him walked two innately hostile men: Simon the Zealot, and Matthew the publican, a “traitor” whom Simon formerly might have killed. There they walked, Simon and Matthew, each now committed to love the other.
Love your “enemies”? The patriot couldn’t agree: he would assault traitors, ambush Romans, or burn a Samaritan village, then lament only his own dead. The rebel didn’t agree: he struck back at men guilty of gross hypocrisies, inconsistencies, and injustices, or simply withdrew, often to be assimilated into the Roman world. But Jesus, placing his body where his words were, mingled with “sinners” whether Pharisee or prostitute, and broke racial barriers when he entered the Samaritan “ghetto” to interact with a resident in such a way that ethnic differences were forgotten: she told her friends of a “man,” not a Jew, but a “man” who understood her.
Rebels, patriots, and Jesus: each produced results. For the rebel it was alienation from his own establishment. He settled into a self-righteous parochialism or lost his identity through absorption into the Gentile world. The patriot, on the other hand, bred increasing hostilities and violence and in the end brought on a holocaust: Jerusalem destroyed, the temple dismantled, and a mass suicide at Masada. In this way the religious-cultural establishment died, executed by its enemies (Romans) and its most zealous friends.
But Jesus, who appeared impractical or subversive—what did he produce? Working within a threatened and defensive establishment, he created a new kind of men. Those men, loving their “enemies,” began to reach out, and soon the halfbreed Samaritan was accepted as a brother. Then another man, a Pharisee, caught the vision; from the establishment stepped Saul of Tarsus, and through Paul the Gentile found full acceptance. Impractical? Subversive? Jesus produced men who conquered the Roman world!
Two thousand years have passed, and now we’re more sophisticated. We still have patriots, and we have rebels. But what of the third way, that of Jesus? Love the Viet Cong? That sounds subversive! Love the establishment? That’s to tolerate racists and a military-industrial complex. Anyone who advocates such things should be jailed—or better yet, nailed to a cross.
John W. Oliver is assistant professor of history at Malone College. Canton. Ohio. He holds the A.B. from Geneva College and the M.A. from the University of Pittsburgh.
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