Jesus and Law and Order

law and order

Herb Montgomery | September 25, 2020

“Beware when you see those in power using law and order rhetoric used to maintain power, position, control, and political office. Jesus’ followers should be the first to recognize when ‘law and order’ is being used to serve and protect the elite and privileged rather than the marginalized and excluded.”

At the beginning of Luke’s version of the Jesus story, we read this summation of the character of what Jesus’ ministry will be in the gospel of Luke:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4.18-19)

Here Jesus is portrayed as taking a firm stand with those his society was pushing to the margins,. This solidarity comes into even sharper focus just two chapters later in Luke’s sermon on the plain:

“Looking at his disciples, he said:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets …

But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Luke 6.20-31)

Jesus here is announcing that God’s just future is decidedly for those the present system makes last. Jesus’ announcement is that the last will be first. What about those the present system is already making first? Jesus’ words are blunt. They’ve “already received” their comfort.

In his book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News? Peter Gomes explains how problematic Jesus’ solidarity with those who are presently marginalized is,

“When the gospel says, ‘The last will be first, and the first will be last,’ despite the fact it is counterintuitive to our cultural presuppositions, it is invariably good news to those who are last, and at least problematic news to those who see themselves as first… Good news to some will almost inevitably be bad news to others. In order that the gospel in the New Testament might be made as palatable as possible to as many people as possible, its rough edges have been shorn off and the radical edge of Jesus’ preaching has been replaced by a respectable middle, of which “niceness” is now God. When Jesus came preaching, it was to proclaim the ends of things as they are and the breaking in of things that are to be: the status quo is not to be criticized; it is to be destroyed.” (p. 42, 31)

Jesus’ solidarity with those on the margins of his society is not just a characteristic of Luke’s Jesus. Each of the Gospels begin on the margins. John the Baptist rejected his more central role of being a priest in the temple. He was a voice crying out in the wilderness. Jesus was from the marginalized region of Galilee and the majority of his story takes place here as well. This had deep, encouraging, political significance for the marginalized audiences of each of these gospels. “While the margin has a primarily negative political connotation as a place of disenfranchisement, Mark ascribes to it a primarily positive theological value. It is the place where the sovereignty of God is made manifest, where the story of liberation is renewed, where God’s intervention in history occurs.” (Ched Myers, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 12)

What does this mean for those Jesus followers whose present social location is not marginalized but more centered? The temptation is often to call for those at the center to make room at their table for those more marginalized. Miguel A. De La Torre offers a different option. This option does not invite those on the margins to a table at the center of an oppressive society where God is not. But to recognize that God is already present at the tables of those presently on the margins; God is already at work there. God is with them and we are only with God when we, too, are with them.

The question for those endeavoring to follow Jesus whose social location is more central and privileged is whether they will reject a status quo that privileges some over others on the basis simply of difference and begin supporting and working alongside those our society relegates to the margins. God is already there. The question is: are we?

“In reality, the gospel is thriving in the margins of society. The real question facing the center, accustomed to confusing its interpretations with the biblical text itself, is whether those at the center will also participate in the body of Christ that already exists in the margins of society.” (Miguel A. De La Torre, Reading the Bible from the Margins, Kindle location 1075)

Jesus’ solidarity with those on the margins reached a critical breaking point with Jesus’ protest in the courtyard of the temple. The temple was the political, economic, and religious symbol of the temple state of his own society. Don’t think of the temple as a modern Christian church. The temple was much more like a state’s capital building This was the center of power. Jesus’ protest in his flipping over the tables of the money changers was the decisive move in the synoptic gospels which marks the threat of Jesus’ teaching as having gone too far. His temple protest damaged temple property and threatened the income of those power-brokers who were at the center of a system that economically exploited the poor. The growing number of followers of Jesus each day meant to those in power that something must be done. This is where we see the machinery of Roman “law and order enter” the story. Before the week is over, Jesus is hanging on a Roman cross.

Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas gives us insight into how the rule of Roman law and order including Roman crucifixion functioned in Jesus’ society,

“In Jesus’’first-century world, crucifixion was the brutal tool of social-political power …. It indicated how much of a threat that a person was believed to pose. Crucifixion was reserved for those who threatened the ‘peace of the day. It was a torturous death that was also meant to send a message: disrupt the Roman order in any way, this too will happen to you ….The crucified class …. consisted of those who were castigated and demonized as well as those who defied the status quo. Crucifixion was a stand-your-ground type of punishment for the treasonous offense of violating the rule of Roman ‘law and order.’” (Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 170)

Law and order should be to protect the vulnerable, those whom the more powerful in society will take advantage of if given the opportunity. Too often law and order and the rhetoric that surrounds a law and order approach is nothing more than the powerful of society using law enforcement to silence the unrest and protest of the marginalized crying out for a more just and more equitable society. The question we must always ask about law and order is which sector of society is our law and order serving and protecting.

Jesus stood in solidarity with the marginalized over and against those who would exploit them. When ‘law and order’ is instead standing with the powerful and centered over and against the cries of those calling for justice we must recognize this not as life-giving to society but death-dealing, literally. We can have peace through establishing distributive justice or we can have peace through a heavy-handed use of law and order that silences protest. These are two paths toward peace. Rome used the latter. In America presently, we are seeing the use of the latter. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan comment on the error of using this method, “The terrible truth is that our world has never established peace through victory. Victory establishes not peace, but lull. Thereafter, violence returns once again, and always worse than before. And it is that escalator violence that then endangers our world.” (The First Christmas, What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth, p. 166).

Beware when you see those in power using law and order rhetoric used to maintain power, position, control, and political office. Jesus’ followers should be the first to recognize when law and order is being used to serve and protect the elite and privileged rather than the marginalized and excluded. America has a long history of law and order being used to systemically serve and protect only the elite or privileged. And Christians should be the first to recognize when this American tradition is being repeated. It’s what our story is all about.

The resurrection itself is God’s definitive, nonviolent victory over law and order being used to protect privileged positions of a society’s elite. The resurrection is God’s definitive, nonviolent victory over systemic death-dealing. This victory was not one where death is overcome by a more severe death-dealing. But one where the death dealt by an unjust system is overcome by life. Life and life-giving overcomes systemic death and death-dealing in the Jesus story.

Again, Rev Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas calls us to reorient our interpretations of what the Jesus story is actually saying to us in moments like this one we are presently witnessing in the U.S. “The resurrection is God’s definitive victory over crucifying powers of evil. Ironically, the power that attempts to destroy Jesus on the cross is actually itself destroyed by the cross. The cross represents the power that denigrates human bodies, destroys life, and preys on the most vulnerable in society. As the cross is defeated, so too is that power. The impressive factor is how it is defeated. It is defeated by life-giving rather than a life-negating force. God’s power, unlike human power, is not a ‘master race’ kind of power. That is, it is not a power that diminishes the life of another so that others might live. God’s’ power respects the integrity of all human bodies and the sanctity of all life. This is a resurrecting power. Therefore God’s power never expresses itself through the humiliation or denigration of another. It does not triumph over life. It conquers death by resurrecting life. The force of God is a death-negating, life-affirming force.” (Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 188)

Luke’s gospel climaxes, not with a Roman cross, but a reversal, undoing, and overcoming of the rule of Roman law and order used by the elite over and against the marginalized:

“On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright, the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!’” (Luke 24.1-6)

What resurrecting power against our societal injustice–both private and systemic–are you needing in your life today?

What resurrecting power are the gospels calling you to go forth and exercise in our own lives as members of our society?

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. How do you see law and order rhetoric being used today? What is the social location of those calling for law and order? What kind of violence is being critiqued? What kind of violence is being affirmed? Discuss with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week