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In Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels we read:
Luke 13:24-27: “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’”
Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
Matthew 7:22-23: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
Matthew 25:10-12: “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’”
In the above versions of this saying of Jesus, we encounter the imagery of the “strait and narrow.” Typically this saying is read in relation to a post-mortem, divinely-imposed reward or punishment. I’m going to ask you to read it instead in the more immediate cultural context of the destruction in 70 C.E. that Jesus saw looming on Jerusalem’s horizon. We’ve discussed this at length previously. As the elites rejected Jesus’ call for debt cancelation and wealth distribution, exploitation of the poor increased. The poor rejected Jesus’ nonviolent forms of resistance, and they eventually initiated an uprising against the Temple and Rome’s occupation. Their uprising became the Jewish-Roman war of 66-69 C.E. This eventually resulted in Rome’s violent backlash against Jerusalem.
When we recognize that context, our saying takes on a different taste. Jesus had witnessed many violent revolutions and revolutionaries come to destruction because of Rome’s backlash. History also tells us of many cultures where inequalities became so extreme through exploitation that they imploded and their societies were destroyed. This, we know, was how Rome’s empire eventually fell, too.
History teaches us:
Violent revolutions are typically embraced by the many and end in more costly consequences.
Exploitative societies, the way of domination and subjugation, have also been common—the way of the many. Such societies also have a self-created, expiration date: they will implode.
By contrast, there have been few revolutionaries throughout history, comparatively, who have chosen nonviolent forms of resistance and change.
Few societies have genuinely embraced egalitarianism or a distributive justice that produces life and peace. Few societies and communities have genuinely embraced the way of abundance and sharing, where each person contributes “according to their ability” (Acts 11:29), and the resources are “distributed to anyone according to their need” (Acts 4:35; cf. 2:45)
In the passages above, Jesus is speaking about the realities of life in this world. Once again he calls fellow impoverished Jews to the form of resistance that gave them the greatest chances of surviving attempted liberation. And he also called those at the helm of their economically oppressive society to a Torah style Jubilee where all debts would be canceled and the wealth of their society would be radically redistributed (cf. Luke 19:1-9, cf. Luke 12:33; 18:22; Mark 10:21).
Varying Failure Costs
In Walter Wink’s Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Wink compares the costs of failure for violent revolutions and nonviolent ones. Both kinds have histories of success, like the violent American Revolution that many American citizens celebrate each 4th of July. There are also successful nonviolent revolutions, and some of them are documented in the film A Force More Powerful. Our passages above are about the cost of failure for both forms of revolutionary resistance. Wink writes:
“Once we determine that Jesus’ Third Way is not a perfectionistic avoidance of violence but a creative struggle to restore the humanity of all parties in a dispute, the legalism that has surrounded this issue becomes unnecessary. We cannot sit in judgment over the responses of others to their oppression. Gandhi continually reiterated that if a person could not act nonviolently in a situation, violence was preferable to submission. ‘Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.’ But Gandhi believed that a third way can always be found, if one is deeply committed to nonviolence. [Jesus’ nonviolent form of resistance] means voluntarily taking on the violence of the Powers That Be, and that will mean casualties. But they will be nowhere near the scale that would result from violent revolution . . . We need to be very clear that it is in the interest of the Powers to make people believe that nonviolence doesn’t work. To that end they create a double standard. If a single case can be shown where nonviolence doesn’t work, nonviolence as a whole can then be discredited. No such rigorous standard is applied to violence, however, which regularly fails to achieve its goals. Close to two-thirds of all governments that assume power by means of coups d’etat are ousted by the same means; only 1 in 20 post-coup governments give way to a civil government. The issue, however, is not just which works better, but also which fails better. While a nonviolent strategy also does not always “work” in terms of preset goals- though in another sense it always ‘works’—at least the casualties and destruction are far less severe. I do not believe that the churches can adequately atone for their past inaction simply by baptizing revolutionary violence under the pretext of just war theory. No war today could be called just, given the inevitable level of casualties and atrocities. Nonviolent revolutions sometimes happen by accident. They are usually more effective, however, when they are carefully prepared by grassroots training, discipline, organizing, and hard work. Training, because we need to know how to deal with police riots, how to develop creative strategies, how to defuse potentially violent eruptions. Discipline, because all too often agents provocateurs are planted in peace groups, whose task is to try to stir up violence. So we need to know how to neutralize people we suspect, by their actions, to be such agents. Organize, so as to create affinity groups that can act in concert, be able to identify by name every person in their cluster, and develop esprit de corps. And all that is hard work. But also (and this is a heavily guarded secret), nonviolent action in concert can be one of the most rewarding-and sometimes fun-activities available able to human beings.” (Chapter 4)
I believe Jesus was trying to engage the work of survival and the work of liberation in creative nonviolent forms of resistance that provided the best chances for both.
Debt Forgiveness and Wealth Redistribution
At the heart of Jesus’s economic “path,” which few societies find, is the Jewish Torah’s and Hebrew prophets’ call to a distributive justice where inequality is seen as intrinsically, societally harmful. Debt forgiveness and support of the poor better societies, but few societies have practiced either. Yet there are a multitude of societies, much like America today, where wealth inequality became so extreme that it ultimately destroyed those societies from within. “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.”
Aristotle also saw this same truth:
“Poverty is the cause of the defects of democracy. That is the reason why measures should be taken to ensure a permanent level of prosperity. This is in the interest of all classes, including the prosperous themselves; and therefore the proper policy is to accumulate any surplus revenue in a fund, and then to distribute this fund in block grants to the poor.” (Aristotle’s Politics, Book VI, Chapter 5)
In his book, Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky comments on Aristotle’s call to redistribute the wealth of the elites.
“It’s of some interest that this debate [less democracy which protects the elite vs. less poverty that protects broad democracy] has a hoary tradition. It goes back to the first work on political democracy in classical Greece. The first major book on political systems is Aristotle’s Politics— a long study that investigates many different kinds of political systems. He concludes that of all of them, the best is democracy. But then he points out exactly the flaw that Madison pointed out. He wasn’t thinking of a country, he was thinking of the city-state of Athens, and remember, his democracy was for free men. But the same was true for Madison— it was free men, no women— and of course not slaves. Aristotle observed the same thing that Madison did much later. If Athens were a democracy for free men, the poor would get together and take away the property of the rich. Well, same dilemma, but they had opposite solutions. [James] Madison’s solution was to reduce democracy— that is, to organize the system so that power would be in the hands of the wealthy, and to fragment the population in many ways so that they couldn’t get together to organize to take away the power of the rich. Aristotle’s solution was the opposite— he proposed what we would nowadays call a welfare state. He said try to reduce inequality—reduce inequality by public meals and other measures appropriate to the city-state. Same problem—opposite solutions. One is: reduce inequality, and you won’t have this problem. The other is: reduce democracy. Well, in those conflicting aspirations you have the foundation of the [American] country.” Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power (Kindle Locations 152-163, emphasis added).
Nonviolence and Wealth Redistribution (including debt forgiveness) are the soil of distributive justice and equity from which the fruit of peace grows out of. This “narrow” path leads to life.
Why is the path narrow?
It’s narrow simply because it’s traversed by so few. Paths are broad or narrow determined by the number of those who travel them. In other words, we too often think of this saying as describing a path that few traverse because it’s arbitrarily kept narrow.
But actually, if more people traversed it, it would grow wider. The path is only narrow at first because so few presently traverse it.
“In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
Before It’s Too Late
There is also an element of “before it’s too late” in this week’s saying:
“When the householder has arisen‚ and locked the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying: Master, open for us, and he will answer you: I do not know you.”
There is a point of no return that violence and inequality reach in societies when those societies cannot recover. If Jesus could see his own society getting closer and closer to that point, it would make perfect sense that he would try to warn those who would listen. Many societies don’t accept what that means; even Jesus’ society did not heed the wisdom. How often throughout history have the wealthy voluntarily let go of their power and resources to share with those who have less?
Even so, Aristotle saw this vision for Athens. Some in his day decried the inequalities in Athens that Rome was facing its last days. We see Jesus, three decades before Jerusalem would be turned to Gehenna, trying to turn the tide within his society, too.
What does it mean to recognize these universal truths before it’s too late within our context today?