A Quiet Refusal

Action and Contemplation: Part One

A Quiet Refusal
Thursday, January 16, 2020

Because Jesus did not directly attack the religious and institutional systems of his time until his final action against the money changers in the temple [1], his primary social justice critique and action are a disappointment to most radicals and social activists. Jesus’ social program, as far as I can see, was a quiet refusal to participate in almost all external power structures or domination systems. Once we have been told this, we see it everywhere in the four Gospels. Jesus chose a very simple lifestyle which kept him from being constantly co-opted by those very structures, which we can call the sin system. (Note that the word “sin” is often used to describe individual wrongdoing, but I’m using it in a much more corporate way, as I believe Jesus and Paul did.) Here are a few examples:

The city of Sepphoris was the Roman regional capital of Galilee and the center for most money, jobs, and power in the region where Jesus lived. It was just nine miles from Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. Yet there is no record that Jesus ever went there, nor is it mentioned once in the New Testament, even though he and his father, Joseph, were carpenters or “workmen” and Jesus traveled through many other cities much farther away. He also seems to have avoided the money system as much as possible by using “a common purse” (John 12:6, 13:29)—voluntary “communism,” we might say. Go ahead and hate me!

Jesus healed the poor woman whose doctors made her spend all she had “while she only grew worse” (Mark 5:26). His three-year ministry was, in effect, offering free healing and healthcare for any who wanted it (Jew and non-Jew, worthy and unworthy). He consistently treated women with a dignity and equality that was almost unknown in a patriarchal culture. He never married, which could be interpreted as a critique of the idealized family consisting of father, mother, and children (which became the justification for both Catholic priests’ celibacy and the vocation of single life). He clearly respected eunuchs, which would have been the generic term for nonbinary or trans- genders (see Matthew 19:12), probably inspired by the universalism of Isaiah 56:4-5. Then, at the end of his life, he surrendered to the punitive systems of both empire and religion by letting them judge, torture, and murder him. Jesus was finally a full victim of the systems that he refused to worship. Is this not a much more coherent explanation of why Jesus died?

What can we learn from Jesus’ life about how we might address the systems of inequity and oppression in our own cultures? One lesson seems to me that we have to “start local.” Jesus doesn’t begin in Jerusalem or head off to Rome to take on empire. Rather he starts in his own hometown, among his own people, helping those who are hurting and naming those who are responsible without a hint of self-righteousness. He simply goes around doing what he knows to be right, which he surely discovered during his long periods of solitude and silence (a form of contemplation) on the outskirts of town, and others begin to join him.

References:
[1] Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46; John 2:13-16.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, What Do We Do with Evil? (CAC Publishing: December 2019), 71-72.

Image credit: Algerian Woman Preparing Couscous (detail), Vincent Manago (1880–1936).
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: By contemplation, we mean the deliberate seeking of God through a willingness to detach from the passing self, the tyranny of emotions, the addiction to self-image, and the false promises of the world. Action, as we are using the word, means a decisive commitment toward involvement and engagement in the social order. —Richard Rohr
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