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.