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In both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels we read a similar warning and encouragement:
“But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say.” (Matthew 10:19, cf Luke 12:11-12)
In Luke’s gospel, the word “synagogue” is used to describe locations before which Jesus-followers may be brought for trial. Rome referred to the synagogue as a Jewish “public school” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, book 16.6.2). The book of Acts describes the synagogues as places of religious worship and instruction. These were places within Jesus’ societal context for the local community to assemble for social, intellectual and spiritual reasons. Today, Jewish synagogues are overseen by rabbis. While 1st Century synagogues did have leadership, rabbinical leadership did not become universal until some time in the Middle Ages.
One of the ways Rome kept the peace in the territories it conquered was by working closely through the territories’ religious institutions. So the synagogues, though much more local than the temple in Jerusalem, would have played a part in the Roman occupation.
Also keep in mind that in 1st Century Jewish society, strict divisions between political/civil and religious life did not exist. These were intertwined as they are often in our time.
This above passage is an encouragement to followers of Jesus who got arrested for following him. In the U.S. today. Christians don’t get arrested for following Jesus. We’ll discuss a few possible reasons for this in a moment.
First, rather than pointing a finger at how the Jewish societal/political elites joined religious and civil authorities to oppose the threat of Jesus’ vision for Jewish societies in the Jesus stories, I’d like to consider our history: how most of Christianity has practiced this same opposition to Jesus’ societal vision.
Most scholars point to the conversion of Constantine as the period when Christianity began colluding with the empire. Feminist scholars point back to the patriarchal abuses of women, which have always plagued Christianity. (See Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, edited by Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn.) Christianity, embracing the violent use of the sword as justifiable in the face of Rome’s enemies, grew to become the political head of most of Europe. Christianity then became the empire itself. As the right arm of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant countries in Europe, imperial Christianity laid the foundation for the church’s endorsement and use of colonialism in the 15th Century during the so-called “age of discovery.” In my twenties, I visited Trinidad and Tobago as a young, naive Christian “preacher.” Much to my horror, I discovered history my Christian education had conveniently left out. I heard stories from the people there, of how, rather than condemning colonialism as the genocidal rape of indigenous lands and people, Christianity and the name of Jesus was part and parcel of colonialism. Colonialism was viewed as an acceptable and even preferable means of carrying the “gospel” around the globe, making “disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” with the Bible in one hand and a sword in the other (see Matthew 18:29).
Christian Colonialism took lands and resources from indigenous people viewing them as “modern Canaanites,” treating indigenous people themselves as capitalist resources that could be taken forcefully from their lands as slaves. (See Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, pp.123-142) Christians participated with clear consciences in the slave trade. (See Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness, pp. 66-68) After all, their sacred text had given them permission:
“However, you may purchase male and female slaves from among the nations around you. You may also purchase the children of temporary residents who live among you, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat them as slaves, but you must never treat your fellow Israelites this way.” (Leviticus 25:44-46)
This moral stain still rests with Christianity today. The end of slavery in the U.S. was brought about by secularists partnering with a minority of Christians derogatorily labeled “radical Christians.” (See Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism and Carol Faulkner’s Lucretia Mott’s Heresy: Abolition and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America.) Jim Crow, too, was ended by secular federal legislation opposed by the majority of white Christians in the southern states. (The Real Origins of the Religious Right)
In the 1960s and 1970s, in North and South America, a different Christian movement was born. Latin voices in South and Central America, and Black voices here in the U.S. developed differently focused theologies that would come to be known as liberation theologies:
“If theological speech is based on the traditions of the Old Testament, then it must heed their unanimous testimony to Yahweh’s commitment to justice for the poor and the weak. Accordingly it cannot avoid taking sides in politics, and the side that theology must take is disclosed in the side that Yahweh has already taken. Any other side, whether it be with the oppressors or the side of neutrality (which is nothing but a camouflaged identification with the rulers), is unbiblical. If theology does not side with the poor, then it cannot speak for Yahweh who is the God of the poor.” (James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, p. 65)
“Under these circumstances, can it honestly be said that the Church does not interfere in ’the temporal sphere’? Is the Church fulfilling a purely religious role when by its silence or friendly relationships it lends legitimacy to a dictatorial and oppressive government? We discover, then, that the policy of nonintervention in political affairs holds for certain actions which involve ecclesiastical authorities, but not for others. In other words, this principle is not applied when it is a question of maintaining the status quo, but it is wielded when, for example, a lay apostolic movement or a group of priests holds an attitude considered subversive to the established order.” (Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, 15th Anniversary Edition, p. 40)
Both statements reveal a challenge to Christianity’s historical complicity with and empowerment of the status quo. Christian liberation movements were born in solidarity with oppressed. This marked a significant shift in theology away from North American and European centered interpretations and toward theologies being done from within oppressed communities.
These theologies were labeled “radical” expressions of Christianity and they have yet to become popularly emphasized in status quo, White, patriarchal, heterosexist Christianity. These theologies have too often not gone beyond the halls of academia in order to reach the people in the pew listening to most of North America’s weekly evangelical preaching.
Today, U.S. society is markedly a secular society with a plurality of religious beliefs, and the religion with the most followers is Christianity. Too often, this kind of Christianity is simply concerned with spiritual and/or post-mortem matters that prove to leave systemic oppression unchallenged for those in positions of privilege. It also leaves those underprivileged in a state of pious passivity.
Yet, if liberation theologies rooted in the experience of the oppressed and informed by their sacred texts are a reflection of what early Christianity possibly was in the first century, they sound a clarion call for Christianity to wrest itself free of its historical failures, to make reparations for the damage it has done, and to begin charting a new course where the poor, women, people of color, indigenous people, and those of varied orientations and gender identities are no longer the victims of Christianity but the community Jesus would call us to stand in solidarity with instead. This is the gospel of Jesus: liberation for the oppressed. (Luke 4:18-19)
As I mentioned above, Christians are not getting arrested in the U.S. today. Is that because society has become just, safe, and compassionate for everyone so that Christianity has no opposition to a status quo to mount? Or is it because Christianity, as it has done historically, is being complicit in systemic injustices, exploitation, and harm being perpetrated out of societal fear of those who are different?
American Christians have a long way to go before they are being brought before “rulers and authorities” for standing up against injustice and a lack of compassion in our world today. It’s more likely that if someone is “arrested” and brought to trial today, it will be the Christians who are instead the prosecutors.