They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. Mark 1:21-28
Christian Churches in America have gotten used to being number one. We have a term for this: Christendom. Christendom is another way of saying “Christian territory” or “Christian Empire” -- the areas of the world where Christianity prevail. In the year 313, the Roman Emperor Constantine signed a document called the Edict of Milan. Before the Edict of Milan, Christianity was an illegal religion in the Roman Empire. After the Edict of Milan, Christianity changed from an illegal and often persecuted minority to the authorized religion of the Roman Empire. Christianity moved from the margins to the center of society and that movement re-engineered the church’s DNA. Christendom developed ideas like: the creation of a Christian culture; the assumption that most were Christian by birth; the idea that political power was divinely authorized; and the definition of “orthodoxy” which was determined by powerful church leaders with state support. Christianity’s presence in the halls of political power insured increased wealth for the church and called for the use of political and military force to impose Christian practices.
As Christianity aligned itself with political power, religious leaders taught it was against God’s will to question the authority of the government. The church denounced protest as an act of assertiveness that was incompatible with discipleship. However peaceable one's protest might be, however passive the demonstration, however humble the approach to those in authority, protest was wrong. No matter whether they are good or evil, political rulers are appointed by God. This attitude still exists in some churches today. Some preach that resistance to government is rebellion against God and those who resist God must be punished. Some teach that Christians are called to live quiet, tranquil, peaceful lives with a submissive attitude toward those who lead us, acquiescing to rulers as we pray for their salvation.
Carefully constructed, establishment theology kept Christianity as a harmless religion. It ensured that we could stay on top of the religious dogpile by offering theological justification for the government. The church benefited, too. We assumed that our God of power, the last word in sheer might, authority, and supremacy backed our cause. The church could impose Christ on others with the backing of the government’s might. And governments could increase their control with the church’s blessing.
Here’s a thought. What if we were wrong? What if the church was never supposed to be wed with government? What if we betrayed our mission? What if the church has an opportunity to be the prophetic, counter-cultural, truth-speaking, spiritual activist force that Jesus envisioned us to be? What if we were never meant to be subjects of the Meek and Mild Messiah?
Jesus, the Subdued Savior, is a Victorian creation. Consider the words of Rev. John Todd in 1851. He writes, “There was never a being who, in words so few, so simple, so childlike, bowed, subdued, and controlled as many hearts as Jesus Christ.” The Subdued Savior is sympathetic and gentle, a friend and helper. Victorian Jesus Victorian Jesus sands at the door of the heart and knocks, politely waiting for an invitation. Jesus the Meek-and-Mild Messiah always turns the other cheek and then sits us on his lap and asks for child-like obedience from his followers.
Let’s consider another face of Jesus. I think we get a glimpse of him in today’s reading from Mark. A demon-possessed man confronts Jesus. The man is an unwilling participant in a social and religious system that labels and excludes certain classes of people. Jesus chooses to heal this man, and in doing so provokes conflict. In Mark’s gospel, when Jesus heals it is an act of public protest. Jesus protests against a religious system that excludes and dominates other people. With all eyes on him, Jesus engages in subversive public action -- he restores the demonized man to wholeness. In fact, whenever Jesus heals the sick, conflict escalates between Jesus and the authorities. When Jesus heals people, he challenges the authority of the religious establishment. Every time he heals, he symbolically calls for an end to a corrupted religious system that segregates, stigmatizes, and oppresses people. Jesus calls his community to a pure understanding of the love, mercy, and justice.
Healing is an act of protest. And protest is a form of healing. Prayerful action moves us from despair to empowerment, from the restrictions of the self to a wider vision, from the individual to the collective.
We live in revolutionary times. All over the globe, people are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression. New systems of justice and equality are being born. In our own country, we see a revolution of values. People are coming to an understanding that the purpose of government is not to gain capital through the wholesale disenfranchisement of peoples. Religion is growing in an understanding that its role is not to exclude, dominate or threaten those who go against systems of oppressive purity. Our fight for marriage equality in Maryland is a great example. Our congregation has taken a public stand in support of equal marriage rights for all consenting adult couples. We think it is a civil rights issue -- a human rights issues. We envision a country where no one is sanctioned or excluded for being gay, and some of us are willing to take public stands to let the world know that there are loving, thinking, faith-filled Christians who believe that the church should be preaching love, compassion, inclusion and tolerance; not bigotry, cowardice, fear, and revulsion.
We live in revolutionary times. If we've learned anything from world events over the past year it’s that strong and loud public protest helps protect those who are most vulnerable. America’s churches can well lead the way in a revolution of values. What is keeping us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of false purity? Martin Luther King Jr. preached this message decades ago. In a sermon against the Vietnam War King said: The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursue the self-defeating path of hate. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore our first hope must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.
We can’t have a revolution unless there are revolting conditions. Religion-sanctioned exclusion is revolting. At CCC, we support marriage equality and we stand with gay and lesbian couples want to get married, who want to make a civic commitment to the person they love and to protect their families. It is revolting when hospitals deny visitation rights to same-sex couples, like we recently heard about at Washington Adventist Hospital. We protest policies that don’t allow same-sex couples to obtain family health coverage, inheritance rights, and legal protections. It’s time to end this discrimination. Pastor Amy and I are attending a clergy support event on January 31st, in conjunction with state Senate hearings for the Civil Marriage Protection Act. Equality Maryland is also hosting a lobby day on Feb 13, at which anyone can sign up to meet with Maryland state house delegates and ask them to support this Act. This bill cannot pass without all of you raising your voices and demanding equality for our families
I am also in support of the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), a bill that would end a revolting policy that deports undocumented gay and lesbian partners who are not allowed to gain American citizenship because of the federal Marriage Protection Act. The Faith Coalition for the Uniting American Families Act is working on a lobby day to take place at the end of February on Capitol Hill. They plan on visiting the offices of members of the Maryland Congressional delegation, and speaking with them about the importance of ending the practice of deporting the immigrant partners of gay Americans.
How about the revolting condition of education? It is now almost certain that Congress will fail to act in 2012 to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the otherwise known as “No Child Left Behind.” Congressional discussion of the bill has broken down along partisan lines, but more disturbing is that neither party has chosen to address what test scores really reflect: inequality in schools and in children’s lives. The new “Declaration of Opportunity” demands that Congress will improve children’s lives and their accomplishments at school: publicly funded preschool, a stable staff of quality teachers in every school, fair revenue and spending formulas across the states including fair taxes on the wealthy, authentic parent engagement, respectful school discipline that builds character, and new student restoration plans to bring students who have fallen more than a year behind back up to grade level through intensive staff support. Let your voice be heard by endorsing the new “Declaration of Opportunity.
Spiritual Activists in our congregation have some questions for political candidates concerning the economy. Will you ease the suffering of families and workers by supporting legislation designed to create jobs? Will you support ongoing extensions in unemployment insurance benefits as long as unemployment remains unusually high? Will you maintain safety net programs and not attempt to reduce the deficit through cuts in programs for the poor? Do you believe that everyone who wants to work should have the right to work and earn a living wage?
There are spiritual activists among us who see climate change as a moral issue that determines our legacy for the future. We can now work together with a common cause: developing a national energy policy that moves us from fossil fuels and foreign energy sources to those that are domestic and sustainable. We can shift away from oil and coal to green technologies. Who will join protests that defend our earth, stop pollution and stop destroying the land, sea, and air by extracting resources from them. Where are the people of faith who will help our nation rebuild what we have destroyed. If corporations will not stop voluntarily, people must stop them. The very existence of life is at stake.
Spiritual Activists in our area have worked with the DREAM Act. This is an ongoing issue for Action in Montgomery, our county-wide community action group. Under the current immigration system, undocumented young adults who grew up in this country are not allowed to work, pay in-state tuition for higher education, join the military, or become eligible for eventual citizenship. How can we open the door for the gifts and talents of all who seek to contribute to their families and communities? Can we learn more about the root causes of immigration, the consequences of our broken immigration system and the human toll of our current policy? Perhaps most importantly we care called to bring a spirit of civility, compassion and deeper understanding to the conversation on immigration reform.
Spiritual activists are worried about our current system for funding elections. Elected officials and anyone running for office are under enormous pressure to support corporate interests. Corporations are not people and are not entitled to human rights. What good might happen if we amend the US Constitution so it is clear corporations are not people? We the people must cut them down to size and so that democracy can regulate their size, scope and actions.
Spiritual Activists take public protest seriously, and use non-violent protest as a means to confront unjust systems. As spiritual activists, we demand that human rights must be taken absolutely seriously. Every single person is entitled to dignity and human rights. This is our highest priority.
- Stephen J. Nichols, Jesus Made in America.
- "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence," by Martin Luther King, 4 April 1967, http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/058.html
- Avraham Weiss, Spiritual Activism: A Jewish Guide to Leadership and Repairing the World.