The Powerful, Powerless Sedition of Jesus
|artwork by Jim Janknegt|
Last week we witnessed the unthinkable and yet entirely predictable violent overtaking of the United States Capitol while it was undertaking one of its central Constitutional duties: certifying the state’s reporting of their Electoral College votes. It was unthinkable because it has never happened before and it violates so much of the spirit of the democratic process we see as a core part of our identity. It was entirely predictable because five years of Donald Trump’s demagoguery and sociopathic, malignant narcissism made it clear that violence in the name of keeping him in power was always on the table, and he frequently called his followers to it.
What we saw and heard during the Trump rally before the march to the Capitol, and during the invasion of it immediately after, was sedition, which is defined as “conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch.” It was also insurrection, “a violent uprising against an authority or government.”
My claim today is that Jesus was a promoter of particular kind of sedition but not insurrection. Anyone who thinks violent uprising could be in the name and spirit of Jesus is simply and dangerously wrong. But anyone who thinks Jesus wasn’t about inspiring people to rebel against the authority of the state or empire is missing the subversive power of his life and ministry.
I’m going to be very careful and cautious here. I’m NOT saying Jesus would support what happened on January 6. People who caused and enacted such seditious insurrection were severely led astray by lies and cannot justify what they did in the name of Christ. They were motivated by white supremacist, nationalist power, which can never be in the name of God.
I’ll say it again: Insurrection is never an option for a faithful Christian witness (I will contemplate Nat Turner and slave revolts for liberation on another day...) Many around Jesus wanted insurrection. They wanted Jesus to lead them in a march up to Jerusalem and fight off the vassal King Herod appointed and controlled by Emperor Tiberius. They wanted Jesus installed as king and they wanted all the benefits that would bring to themselves. In short, they wanted Jesus to imitate the Roman Empire, and all human empires, but just do it better and for their advantage.
What Jesus did was something else entirely. Jesus lived a full and faithful witness to the peaceful empire of God that is always arriving in our midst. Jesus inaugurated and enacted that divine reign through words that confronted human corruption of power that harmed other people, and through words and acts of mercy, healing, and sharing God’s abundance with all. He taught his followers to pray: Your empire come, O God, your will be done, on earth today.
Jesus’ words and actions were never about violence and insurrection, but they were always about confronting any human systems of power that harm others, whether religious or political. His words and actions caused so much turmoil that they got him rejected and executed. His words of love and peace, forgiveness and mercy, sharing and trusting God’s generosity, were so challenging to the empire and the religious authorities that they utterly crushed him to stop it.
Jesus lived a powerful life of powerlessness in the face of corrupted human power. That was his sedition. Read this carefully: I don’t mean that Jesus’ words and actions of healing, peace, and prophetic truth-speaking were a means to cause sedition. I mean they were his sedition. Why? Because they were a complete rejection and confrontation of empires and temples of power and violence. Jesus’ powerlessness in the face of deadly power, leading inevitably to his crucifixion, is the most seditious thing he could do. After that, the empire and the wealthy powerful were complete exposed for what they really are: Corrupted human power that simply should not be given allegiance. While throwing it off with violent insurrection is never Jesus’ way, giving human empires and leaders the allegiance that is due only to God is never how people of faith are to live.
In one form or another, human governments, systems, institutions, and religions use dominating power to keep the powerful powerful, and the powerless powerless. What Jesus did is embrace powerlessness as God’s most powerful tool of sedition. Once again, why do I call this sedition? Because it has the power to expose the truth of human systems of power, and turn our allegiance, our deep abiding trust, to God alone. If Jesus had used dominating power over others, he would have been the most empire-affirming religious leader of his day. Instead, he overthrew the power of the empire through the powerlessness of love spoken and lived.
All Jesus did to get in trouble was speak words of blessing and judgment and do good deeds of healing and revelation of God’s love. He lived a fearless powerlessness that no human emperor or president could ever understand or undo. When Christians lift up the cross as the truth of Jesus and of God’s reign, they lift up a completely different way of being in this world. They lift up the seditious powerlessness of love, love of friend and enemy, love of God above empire and religion. They lift up trust in God alone, who works through their very own powerless love to do the most powerful thing: Bring about a new, alternative world of divine love for all.