Jesus didn’t get crucified for writing a strongly worded letter to the Sanhedrin

Jesus didn’t get crucified for writing a strongly worded letter to the Sanhedrin February 23, 2017

Painting by Bec Cranford-Smith
Painting by Bec Cranford-Smith

Mark Van Steenwyk had an interesting proposal in a recent Sojourners article: taking disruptive direct action to white nationalist churches during their worship services over Lent. I’ve contemplated this idea. I don’t think I would ever do it personally because I would lose my job very quickly that way. But I’m haunted by the reality of what Jesus modeled for us. The primary way that Jesus got the religious leaders mad enough to crucify him was by disrupting their sacred worship space. He tells us specifically to emulate him by taking up our crosses and following him.

There were two main ways that Jesus was disruptive. It started out with his Sabbath healings. We don’t often stop to think about what this would look like logistically. You know those people who take over the “joys and concerns” time during mainline Protestant worship services? The ones who have a new problem every week and make everybody in the room groan and roll their eyes because they don’t know how to be concise? What if every time one of these folks stood up to talk, Jesus walked over to them and started speaking in tongues over them to pray for their healing and the worship service became two hours long for that reason?

And even that wouldn’t be as disruptive as Jesus was. What if Jesus interrupted the choir while it was singing the anthem because somebody in the congregation had a withered hand? What if the reason Jesus couldn’t get through his sermon in the prescribed 12 minutes and 35 seconds was because he had to stop mid-sentence every few minutes to heal somebody? What if Jesus wasn’t even the lead pastor but just some homeless guy in the back who would stand up every few minutes to loudly cast demons out of people in the pews?

And these examples don’t even work as analogies because first century Jews were way more committed to the concept of laying a day entirely aside for God than 21 century Protestants are. Jesus didn’t just heal on the Sabbath. He healed on the Sabbath during the worship gathering. As the synagogue ruler says in Luke 13:14, Jesus had six other days to work with. None of his healings were for urgent, life-threatening conditions. But instead he took the focus off of God’s glory and put it on human infirmity (or rather he made God’s glory about God’s solidarity with human infirmity). If the Calvinists had been alive then, Jesus would have been crucified way sooner.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was Jesus’ temple cleansing. This wasn’t one of those “civil disobedience” photo ops where you arrange it all ahead of time with the police so that they use the plastic handcuffs and let you go in less than an hour. I remember doing one of those staged civil disobediences once in support of a labor union. It’s the only time I’ve been to jail. All I remember about the incident was the union rep standing with a wad of hundred dollar bills at the jail, slapping them down on the counter as each of us walked out.

What Jesus did involved breaking things in a rude, chaotic way without permission or prior notification. He didn’t gently take the objects off of the money changers’ tables and place them on the ground. He turned the tables over. There’s no way that physical damage wasn’t done. There’s no way that the animals he drove out of the temple courtyard filed out in orderly fashion. They probably shattered a few ceramic objects themselves on the way out.

It was after this act of insurrection that Jesus had to be crucified. Because 21st century white Protestantism has turned Jesus’ cross into an ahistorical mathematical formula, we don’t think very often about what he did to provoke his crucifixion and whether or not we’re supposed to emulate his disruptive behavior. When white Christians ask “What would Jesus do?” they’re not thinking about the brown-skinned anarchist who smashed tables in the narthex of the Jerusalem temple. They’re thinking about the dreamy, sweet, nice, white, blue-eyed Jesus in the portraits of their church hallways.

What if taking up our crosses to follow Jesus signifies our willingness to be impolite and disruptive in order to bear witness to the truth? I’ve become more and more convinced as I continue to study what both Jesus and Paul say about salvation that we are saved by being crucified and resurrected with Jesus rather than simply “believing” that Jesus died for our sins. Atonement is incorporation into Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. That sure seems like what Paul is saying in Galatians 2:20-21 and Romans 6:3-6. Crucifixion both physical and figurative is essential to Christian discipleship.

The American evangelical gospel has been unsurprisingly domesticated into a self-validation of white middle-class culture. If we are basically nice, agreeable people who know the right doctrinal catchphrases, give ten percent of our income to the church, don’t pose a burden on others, keep our sex inside of a heterosexual marriage, and give up 2-3 Saturdays a year to church service projects, that’s fruit enough to confirm that we’ve been officially “born again.”

I’m starting to wonder if we are actually born again as we are crucified with Jesus, not as a change of forensic status but as an awakening to the spirit who lives within us (1 Cor 3:16). Maybe one of the ways to experience rebirth is to start yelling like a Hebrew prophet in the middle of a church worship service. I don’t think I could ever do that. As feisty as my words are online, I’m a very diminutive, nervous person in real life.

I’m also ambivalent about the effectiveness of a disruptive direct action. Anything that makes white nationalist Christians feel persecuted seems like glucose to feed their cancerous ideology. Still I am wary of the way that white middle-class Christians like me conflate social propriety and morality because Jesus never did that. And I do think that evangelizing white nationalist Christianity is one of the most urgent tasks the church faces in our time. I’m unsure of the right way to go about this, but I’m not presuming that disruption of their worship is off the table as a means of witness. Whatever is done should be done only after tremendous prayer.

Detoxify your Christianity this Lent! Check out my book How Jesus Saves the World From Us or follow our FB livestream #DetoxifyChristianity on Tuesday nights at 9:30 pm EST / 6:30 pm PST.

Please support our campus ministry NOLA Wesley in our efforts to rebuild flooded homes in western Louisiana this spring break.

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