Is Jesus Remaking Society?

This essay is actually an email and was part of an intense exchange between myself and three other friends during the election debates, just days before the vote. The heatedness began, I suppose, when I told them I would not be voting. I had some support in this choice from at least one of my friends, but there was an equal or greater measure of questioning and challenges from the other two. Without bringing their arguments and questions into the mix, I thought it might be helpful to consider my response to them.

[John] is probably right about me in terms of at least one thing. I do not think Jesus was aiming for a remaking of society. If so, his program must have failed. The centurions continued with their brute might. Caesar and Herod continued with their ruling power. The peasants continued with their revolts and oppressed lives. What did change, however, was a relatively small band of followers who were able to live according to a different order (like yeast in dough or wheat in tares). And, of course, it was a political order. This political order gave them food to eat, security (sheep amidst wolves), and justice in this life (proof texts not needed, right?). The difference as far as I can tell was origin and size. They believed God gave them those gifts (for free), whereas Caesar (and by proxy, the Jewish elite) promised them the Pax Romana and, it could be argued, also restoration of past political and cultural strength. Their power came with an expensive price tag, as does ours, especially in terms of requiring complicity with their imperial domination and sin.That being said, why didn’t they (Jesus and his followers) set up societal systems of justice? Probably because they were taught to expect persecution by the world, not real justice. The societal structure was opposed to Jesus’ Kingdom. And the amount of people willing to live Jesus’ way, again, was (and continues to be) relatively few. On the other hand, there was (and is) no shortage of people willing to make war, kill, lie, use force, etc., usually for some kind of desirable or good end. But these aren’t necessarily the most ethical people. A lot of the time, they happen to be the strongest or the ones who get the most frustrated. For them (us?), it’s a matter of doing what is necessary to insure the boundaries of security that most need defending. Would it be dangerous for followers of Jesus and others if some or all were to live without power or force? Yes and no. The yes part has to do with personal contact with injustice and the use of ruling power (nearly a guarantee, right?), be it societal or interpersonal. It is not “safe” in that sense to be a Christian or a weak member of civilization. As long as the world behaves like it does, there will always be a real risk. So, following Jesus, in and of itself, does not really “work” to prevent the crumbling of big societal mechanisms or to make others behave lovingly. But I do think God can use individuals who are generally opposed to Him, including Empire itself, to accomplish his purposes (even against their will) for the good of creation and those who trust his ways.

On the other hand, what if all people decided to follow Jesus in this way, would it be dangerous? No. Or probably not. In that case, none of the justice system or current politics would be necessary (no vengeance, pride, lust for power, etc). People would act generously, lovingly, forgiving each other and self-sacrificing their needs on others behalf. This seems to be “the end” (or completion) that most Christians already believe will come to pass, even though most probably think it is impossible to live like that now. And in a way, they are right. It is not possible (with human power) and it probably doesn’t “work.” But it’s still the best way to live. And it’s what Jesus called his followers to practice right away.

As far as the different situations you [Chris] mentioned [where coercion might be necessary and good], I think I covered the basic orientation I try to take with what I said above. Maybe I should clarify, though, that I recognize how difficult it is to live this way and perhaps also my own inadequacy. There can be many ways to respond creatively and nonviolently to danger or injustice, but they may not work in a reliable way (e.g., to stop violence or create justice). So, I’ll just have to figure that part out as I go, given the situation and what I’m willing to risk or put my faith in. Also, you make a good point about children and parents. Of course I’d like to think I’m not coercive toward Santiago, but good Lord if he’s running into a road I’m going to grab him. We can talk about it with him afterward. But this power-over relationship is somewhat unique and also temporary. Still, us parents need to be very careful with how we treat our children, precisely because coercion seems to be a part of parenting (though as an exception maybe). The true kind of authority I’ve known comes from one’s skill, gifting, and experience. In that regard, I like the master and journeyman relationship, assuming it is voluntary and free.


Hard Questions (Q#5): Radicalism, Family, and Following Jesus


What is a young family to do with a desire to follow Jesus more radically? This series of email exchanges I had with Paul Munn over a year ago (starting in April of 2009) attempts to explore some of that. To get caught up with the series, read question #1 and response #1, question #2/response #2 (which are one post), question #3 and response #3, and question #4 and response #4.

Question #5

From: Jason
To: Paul
Sent: Wednesday, May 13, 2009 7:16:20 PM
Subject: RE: work, gift, prayer


We’re back, finally. It was a great trip, with it’s ups and downs as would one might expect. But a really good trip. I am always reminded when in a place like Lima of how our American wealth and extreme reliance on money is easily exposed and put to shame by ordinary folks just doing life. I’m tempted to re-consider many ordinary-for-them-but-radical-for-me alternatives (like showering with cold water and using about 1/8 of the amount of water we would normally use here), although I have also tended to think that these economic/cultural measures are mostly drastic and unrealistic–odd “choices” and uncreative for an American like me. It would be in my best interest, however–don’t you think?–to begin to employ their gracefully-but-odd-imaginations, even while I’m absorbed (willingly or not) in the mind and heart of our “beloved” Beast.

I started my new job this Monday. This may in fact be a job I would do whether I was paid or not (a good feeling, if that’s the case), however it still has within it the external criteria of the “bottom line,” “efficiency,” and “productivity” (the last two words are direct quotes and were used several times during my orientation to describe their philosophy of work). Nevertheless, I think I will truly enjoy working with the kids and families as their therapist. My loyalties, though, will always be mixed, not single-minded. The values of Jesus will, at times, be in conflict with the values I am assigned to deliver. Assuming my faith does not change as I write this (so that I quit taking a salary and sharing in their benefits), I hope to truly value and care for the families I am assisting, as best as I am able within the limits of my duality.

Surprise, surprise…I’ve got a few more questions about how one enters into this “gift economy” we’ve been discussing. Like you said, Jesus had 12 disciples who he took responsibility for and who were dependent on him. Do you recommend for us, as disciples, to follow a “master”, like the disciples did with Jesus? Should we depend on the faith and sustenance of someone else who is already living faithfully in this way? What kind of alternative options for food, shelter, medical care, travel, fun, etc. do you suggest for a family learning to live accordingly? Are you accepting any followers? :)

You wrote: “But in recent years I’ve shifted more to simply living the reality of it (and learning more and more through experience as we go) and letting that reality be the demonstration of the truth of it. When it’s real, when it’s right there in front of people, they can’t say it’s not possible.” Could you sketch out some of the details related to living that kind of faith (I recognize you have already done this in many of your short stories, essays, and journals. I’m not done reading those yet. So feel free to simply direct me over there, if you prefer)? I am curious as to how you have experienced God’s abundance (or gifts) in the midst of long-term need. Can it be something as formal as the missionaries who fundraise to live and work? I realize modern day missionaries are probably not the best model to use, but they are some of the only examples I can think of for Christians who mostly (if not wholly) rely on gifts to sustain themselves and their mission.

By the way, speaking of faith (a few paragraphs back!)…have you ever heard of the theory that the rich young ruler eventually came back, that he was in fact Barnabas (like Paul and Barnabas), “who sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:36-37)? Wouldn’t it be great if the rich young ruler was able to follow Jesus afterall, even if it happened much later?

Thank you for taking time to respond to my questions, thoughts, and concerns. Your words have enriched me, Paul, truly. Sounds like a cliche, right? Even so, everyday I feel less burdened and distracted (though I’m not always sure what the next step is going to be), and it’s mostly because I’ve wrestled with the conversations we’ve been having. Thank you!

Last thing. My dad told me something quite unexpected but really encouraging this afternoon. He said that if I were to come to him and tell him that I had heard from God and, according to my desire to follow Jesus’ path, I had decided to sell everything and follow Him wherever it takes me, he would support that decision. He distinguished this support from full agreement, but it was support nonetheless. He is the first family member to encourage me to take the “next step,” whatever that may be. If you knew my dad, and how we have tended to interact, you would be so pleasantly surprised to overhear our talk this afternoon. Wow!