Liberation Descending in the Form of a Dove

The Liberation dove and the difference between nonviolence and peace.

By Herb Montgomerywoodendove

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9–11) 

This week I’d like to invite you to step back into a world that revolved around Jerusalem within the first century, and to draw your attention to a few significant details in Mark’s retelling of Jesus’ baptism.

Especially focus on the spirit’s descent in the form of a dove; Jesus’s declaration of Sonship; and “the Voice’s” declaration of love for Jesus, with whom he is “well pleased.”

Some Observations

Let’s first tackle this declaration of Sonship.

Jesus’ favorite title for himself was the Son of Man. He uses this title for himself more than any other within the four canonical gospels. The roots of this title, and its apocryphal usage, go back to Daniel chapter 7. In Daniel 7:13–14 we find,

As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

Jesus took this text, held dear by an oppressed people who themselves dreamed one day of world domination,[1] and announced that he was this Son of Man finally come. However, the world he was bringing was going to look a little different to what the Jews had expected (more on this in a moment).

This is the cultural significance to a first century bestowal of the title “Son of God” within a Jewish context. The one declared to be “Son of God” would be the new king of Israel just like David of old. This was the “Son of Man” who would be declared the king (“Son of God”) of an everlasting kingdom. (Jesus, though, would even turn the notion of human hierarchies, including “kings” and “kingdoms,” on their heads.[2])

Notice the use of “Son of God” for the world-dominating King of Israel:

Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed [David], saying, “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill. I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me [David], “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” (Psalms 2:1–7, emphasis added)

The title of “God’s Son” was a deeply politically charged title within the culture of oppression for first century Jews.

Mark knows the political significance of what he is retelling. He pushes the point home even further by mentioning the phrase “with you I am well pleased.” This, too, was a politically charged phrase within an apocryphal context. Notice the book of Daniel’s point, which the foreign kings, through uncomfortable means, came to know:

And they shall drive thee from men, and thy dwelling shall be with the wild beasts of the field, and they shall feed thee with grass as an ox: and seven times shall pass over thee, until thou know that the Most High is Lord of the kingdom of men, and he will give it to whomsoever he shall please. (Daniel 4:29, LXX, emphasis added)

And he was driven forth from men; and his heart was given him after the nature of wild beasts, and his dwelling was with the wild ox, and his body was bathed with the dew of heaven; until he knew that the most high God is Lord of the kingdom of men, and will give it to whomsoever he shall please. (Daniel 5:21, LXX, emphasis added)

Mark is ensuring that his audience does not miss the point when he calls Jesus the son of God. This is the return of the long-awaited king of Israel, the son of God, the one in whom God is pleased to give the kingdom.

Now comes the first twist in Mark. The spirit of the Lord descends on Jesus just as it did on the Judges of old who, according to the ancient stories, repeatedly delivered the Hebrew people from foreign oppressors.[3] But rather than a violent portrayal, such as in the book of Judges, this delivering spirit of the Lord descends on this new “judge/deliverer” in the form of a nonviolent dove.

A DOVE!

The Jesus narrative announces the arrival of a new world where humans are no longer going to practice dominance over other humans (much to the dismay of those who longed for the day when Jerusalem would rule the world[4]), a world that will be birthed through the nonviolence of a dove.

I do not mean that this world will be born peacefully. No, this new world will not come in peace to the status quo. It will discomfort the status quo. It will challenge the status quo. It will even shame the status quo.[5] This is a world that will turn the present world upside down.[6] This is a world where those who are last in the present order of the world will be first, and those who have been privileged as first in the present order will be treated equally with the last.[7] It will provoke the present order to pick up a sword to defend itself.[8] Yet it will remain resolute. It will triumph over raised swords with dovelike nonviolence that will set the present order of things on fire.[9]

And what hope does this deliverance, this liberation that comes in the form of a dove, bring?

A new order. A new world. A new humanity where the presently marginalized, excluded, and oppressed are blessed while the insiders, the privileged, the powerful, and the advantaged are invited into an existence that is, at bare minimum, problematic for their current status quo (see Luke 6:20–26). This is a world where radical transformation is offered to oppressors, while radical liberation is offered to the oppressed. (Although it looks different to both, it genuinely is liberation for both those who are on top as well as those who are at the bottom.) This is a new world where privilege is not simply offered to those to whom it was previously denied, this is the arrival of a world no longer founded on the very principles of privilege and subordination. This is a humanity where, regardless of race, gender (male or female; cis or trans), wealth, education, or orientation, we see and embrace one another as part of ourselves. Each a beautiful reflection of the divine in a human kaleidoscope of wonder. No more us and them. We begin to discern how we are all siblings, all children of the same Creator, destined to sit around that same family table once again.

Mark’s Gospel does not begin with a Jesus who settles metaphysical, ontological, and cosmological debates. This is a Jesus who appears by a river along side of an announcement of the arrival of a new world where everyone is welcome, where everyone will be treated with equity and justice, which will bring beautiful liberation descending in the form of a dove.

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week I want you to contemplate the difference between peace and nonviolence. Yes, peace is the end goal. Yet, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is reported to have said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” We must not mistake the disruption of the current order of things as somehow being a negative. The dove is nonviolent. Yet it does not come in peace to the present order. It seeks to subversively undo the present order. True, it would rather have its own blood shed than stain its hands with the blood of another, yet blood is shed—its own. Conflict between the present order and the new is where this path begins. And although the present order may place martyrs on crosses, the narrative doesn’t end there. The present order will melt in the fire of the radically (and sometimes counterintuitively) different ethic of the liberated new world proclaimed in the Jesus narrative.
  2. Journal what you discover as you contemplate the difference between peace and nonviolence.
  3. Share what you discover with your upcoming HeartGroup.

Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns. Keep living in love, loving like Jesus.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

  1. “At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the LORD, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the LORD in Jerusalem, and they shall no longer stubbornly follow their own evil will” (Jeremiah 3:17). “In days to come the mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it” (Isaiah 2:2).
  2. “But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves’” (Luke 22:25–26).
  3. “The spirit of the LORD came upon him, and he judged Israel; he went out to war, and the LORD gave King Cushan-rishathaim of Aram into his hand; and his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim” (Judges 3:1). “But the spirit of the LORD took possession of Gideon; and he sounded the trumpet, and the Abiezrites were called out to follow him” (6:34). “Then the spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites” (11:29). “The spirit of the LORD began to stir him in Mahaneh-dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol” (13:25). “The spirit of the LORD rushed on him, and he tore the lion apart barehanded as one might tear apart a kid. But he did not tell his father or his mother what he had done” (14:6). “Then the spirit of the LORD rushed on him, and he went down to Ashkelon. He killed thirty men of the town, took their spoil, and gave the festal garments to those who had explained the riddle. In hot anger he went back to his father’s house” (14:19). “When he came to Lehi, the Philistines came shouting to meet him; and the spirit of the LORD rushed on him, and the ropes that were on his arms became like flax that has caught fire, and his bonds melted off his hands” (15:14).
  4. “But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves’” (Luke 22:25–26).
  5. “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well” (Matthew 5:40).
  6. “When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also’” (Acts 17:6).
  7. “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:8–15).
  8. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:34–38).
  9. “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10). “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11–12). “For everyone will be salted with fire” (Mark 9:49). “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled” (Luke 12:49)!