• Jim Coppoc

Jesus, the Government, and *Christianity Today*

Yesterday, December 19, 2019, the influential evangelical publication Christianity Today published an op-ed simply titled, "Trump Should Be Removed From Office." They concluded, as their faith led them, that "unsavory dealings and immoral acts by the President and those close to him have rendered the administration morally unable to lead." This surprised a lot of people, for a lot of reasons, but it might not have surprised Christ. The government of Christ's day was a complex, tiered system of Roman rule carried out by local Jewish sects. The most familiar of these were Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Samaritans. Each of them had their own rigid ideas of which laws should be followed, and how the Jewish world should run. They were like a combination of today's Christian denominations and today's political parties. At one point or another, Jesus spoke out against nearly all of them. Sometimes Christ's protests were nonviolent, such as riding a donkey into Jerusalem as an act of prophetic resistance (Mt. 21:1-11; cf. Mk. 11:1-11, Lk. 19:29-44, Jn 12:12-19). Sometimes Christ's protests came in the form of whips and overturned tables (Jn. 2:13-16; cf. Mt. 21:12-13). But always they came, every time Christ saw "unsavory dealings and immoral acts" by those in power.

Growing up "fundamentalist" (the predecessors of those who call themselves "evangelical" now) I was taught to blindly accept the will of those in power. I remember hearing "Render unto Caesar" (Mt. 22:21) over and over again. But this was Christ's response to a specific question about whether or not we should pay the government taxes. When it comes to corrupt government, Christ commands a very different approach.

In his 1992 book, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, theologian and activist Walter Wink finds a roadmap for non violent resistance spelled out in Christ's famous Sermon on the Mount. The trick is that to read it, you have to first understand the laws of Jesus' time. In this sermon, Jesus said:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. (Mt. 5:38-42, NRSV).

Wink points out first that the kind of "resistance" Christ is talking about is antistenai, or specifically violent resistance. But rejecting violence is a far cry from encouraging passivity. In fact, in the examples Christ offers:

1) Left hands were unclean in Jesus' time, as they still are in many modern cultures. A slave owner or Roman soldier could only use his right hand to strike another person. To backhand someone inferior to you--which is the only ergonomic way to strike a right cheek with a right hand--is an insult. To "turn the other cheek" literally, physically denies those in power the opportunity to insult you the same way again. If your oppressor wants to strike you now, he can't do it with the back of his hand. He has to hit you like his equal, a man.

2) When first-century Jews went into the corrupt courts of their time, the only clothes they would likely be wearing would be a tunic and a cloak. Two layers, and nothing under. In this sermon, Jesus was addressing the poor and outcast. Sometimes their tunic was the last thing of value they had. If someone was low enough to sue another human and take that tunic--that last thing of value--Jesus' instruction was literally to give them everything and strip yourself naked in the middle of open court. Not only would this shame the plaintiff and the court according to Jewish taboo, but also it was illegal at the time to look upon a naked person. The judges and soldiers, by law, would have to arrest themselves and every witness, and there would be no one left but the debtor. Of course, this would never happen, but it would cause some pretty intense political discomfort.

3) Roman soldiers of the era were allowed to press the poor into service as pack animals--but only for one mile. Any further--as in a second mile--and the soldier himself would be breaking the law, and subject to arrest.

4) Capitalism is built on the hoarding of wealth. When Christ speaks of sharing freely, he is speaking of overturning the dominant economy the government is there to enforce.

In all four examples, Christ encourages the oppressed to use creative nonviolent resistance--with whatever means they have at their disposal--to shame or force the oppressor into meaningful action.

What Christianity Today has is a voice. A direct link to the homes and hearts of a quarter of a million evangelical voters. And yesterday, they used that voice to speak out against injustice in a way that--if you follow the headlines--has the whole world talking. Whatever other disagreements Christ might have had with this magazine, of this, I think He'd be proud.