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An Alternative to the Oppressive System
Unlike many would-be messiahs who took up arms to evict the Romans, only to be crucified for their efforts, Jesus proposed and lived a path of peace and love. Key to that alternative was his gathering of what I call his family of friends, a community of about twenty-five women and men who lived and travelled together in the immediate area. [See my article in www.progressingspirit.com about the women disciples]. There were other disciples whose lives were impacted by Jesus, but moved on, such as the Q community. But those who stayed- how did they support themselves? I googled this question and found a most creative answer. Jesus, this person argued, lived off the box of gold that one of the wise men brought to him at Christmas. We’ll have to look for another answer!
Given the family of friends, the main social and economic concept is caring and sharing. Patronage means that you are subservient to and dependent upon the one above you in the economic/social ladder. And it also means that you feel free to oppress those who are below, as indeed the rich and powerful felt free to do. Caring and sharing offer a completely different understanding of life, one founded on love and justice. Given this context, I can easily see some of the wealthy women disciples sharing what they had with the family of friends. [Luke 8] I can see Peter, along with his wife and mother-in-law sharing their house with the friends. [Luke 4] Some farming and fishing, perhaps gifts from individuals, day jobs. By refusing to operate within the current economic system, new opportunities presented themselves. The family of friends gathered by Jesus was a microcosm of a new economy.
Essential to that new economy were the women in the family of friends. The accepted role for women in Jesus’ time, indeed in most every time, is to raise children and maintain the household. Jesus, by gathering women into his community, was shattering the basis of the patronage/patriarchal system of domination, founded as it was on the free labor of women. I realize that this sounds a bit radical, but think about it. Just as the system could not survive without slave labor and without sharecroppers, so too it could not survive if women moved outside the system and into the new microcosm set up by Jesus. [See my article on The Story of Jesus.] Jesus was not a political revolutionary, but he did have some ideas about how to create a more loving and just society, and they focused on cooperation as an alternative to the domination system. The rich and powerful knew what was happening, and had him crucified. But that was only the beginning.
How the Rich and Powerful Conspired Against Jesus
I have spoken about this elsewhere [see my article on the “The Story of Jesus”, www.progressivechristianity.org], and will simply summarize here. If one compares the radical nature of Jesus’ life and teaching, as found in Luke, for example, with some of the later New Testament writing, one discovers an almost unbelievable change. Whether in the First Letter of Timothy, or parts of Titus, Ephesians, Colossians, or 1 Peter, it becomes clear that in certain definite areas of the fledgling church, the rich and powerful had taken over the institution. Jesus gathered a family of friends. The church of the later first century was an organization, with a bishop as head, and priests in the local congregations. It was they who read and interpreted the stories about Jesus, thereby establishing positions of great authority for themselves. It was they who had to live up the strict moral code imposed by the aristocratic society, rather than the life of freedom and integrity proposed by Jesus.
But even more insidious was the success the rich and powerful had in transforming the thinking of the young movement, focusing on the death and resurrection of Jesus. The crucifixion of Jesus was the penalty he paid for denouncing greed and the oppression of the poor. Rome killed Jesus because he threatened the whole domination system. What wealth did was to transform that murder into a sacrifice, a suffering ordained by God to atone for the sins of the human race. Jesus did not die because the rich and powerful crucified a troublemaker. He died because it was the essential piece in God’s plan of salvation.
And the resurrection? The family of friends gathered by Jesus were convinced that their Lord was yet alive, even though crucified, and leading the community onward. The risen Lord was integral to the revolutionary movement, alive in a way that the human mind cannot comprehend, but alive. And how did the wealthy respond? Why, Jesus was not the experienced heart of the family, leading the community on. He was one who walked out of an empty tomb and rose into heaven, to return at some future day. A transforming social movement led by the Spirit of a risen Lord, was turned into a quietist non-rebellion, seeking not the transformation of society, but encouraging complacence with the existing system.
As a consequence we find warnings to obey the authorities [emperor, kings, priests] because they are ordained by God. Slaves are to obey their masters, no matter how cruel. Wives are to be subject to their husbands, be quiet in the church and the public square, and tend to raising children and keeping the house. The advice would seem ludicrous were it not literal. And behind it all is the hand of the wealthy, who need the slaves and the women at home, and who require subservience to the system and obedience to the rulers.
There is no doubt that inequality is destructive, and, if unchecked, will ultimately erode American democracy. There is no doubt that wealth creates wealth. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. There is no doubt that the vast majority of the wealthy do not choose to share. And there is no doubt that Jesus chooses to support the poor who are oppressed by the greedy rich and powerful.
And where do modern day Christians fit into this scenario? That’s an enormous question with no obvious answer. But one dimension, and please correct me if I am wrong, seems at least somewhat clear. Fundamentalism is incapable of rejecting anything biblical, and so is forced to accept the later first century writings about obeying authority, slavemasters and husbands. But further, they seem to have forgotten all the verses that we quoted from Luke, wherein Jesus appears as one who opposes domination and oppression of the poor. And this neglect has political consequences inasmuch as without the evangelical support the authoritarian Republican party of today could not survive. If these evangelicals- fundamentalists by another name- could admit to what the gospels have to say about the rich and powerful, equality in America would be that much closer.
Dr. Carl Krieg received his BA from Dartmouth College, MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in NYC, and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of What to Believe? the Questions of Christian Faith, The Void and the Vision and The New Matrix: How the World We Live In Impacts Our Thinking About Self and God. As professor and pastor, Dr. Krieg has taught innumerable classes and led many discussion groups. He lives with his wife Margaret in Norwich, VT.