Choosing Peace through Militarized Policing or Distributive Justice

Herb Montgomery | June 26, 2020

riot police

Photo by Spenser on Unsplash

This week we end our consideration of the final warnings in Luke’s version of the Jesus story and how they might relate to our society. In Luke 23, we read:

“Jesus turned and said to them, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then ‘they will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’ For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?’” (Luke 23:28–31)

In this passage, Jesus addresses women weeping for him as Roman soldiers march him toward Golgotha. Jesus is just moments away from being crucified here. Luke tells us that “a large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him” (Luke 23:27). Days earlier this same crowd had ushered Jesus into Jerusalem. White Christians today who still trust in militarized saviors in our current social climate miss a lot of the details in Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.

Luke’s gospel borrows imagery used by Rome itself, which referred to Caesar as the “son of God.” He was called “the savior of the world.” Through the victories of Rome (i.e., Caesar), the political propaganda of Jesus’ day proclaimed, “peace on earth” would come. They called that peace the Pax Romana, the “peace of Rome.” And when Caesar would approach a city in the Roman Empire, emissaries from the city would go out to meet the dignitary and escort him on his way into their city. They would welcome Caesar and the “peace” that Roman occupation brought to their lives.

The fact that Luke’s gospel used images of honor thought to be due only to the “Lord” Caesar would have deeply subverted Rome’s political gospel. As Luke’s Jesus approached Jerusalem, the crowd cries out, “Blessed is the KING who comes in the name of the Lord!” and “PEACE in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Yet there is a difference between Luke’s Jesus and Rome’s Caesar. Where Caesar would have ridden a warhorse in his triumphal entry, Jesus came riding on the foal of a colt, or a young donkey. At least two literary agendas are present here: a contrast to Rome’s militarized methods toward peace and Jesus’ path toward peace through distributive justice rather than policing, and the writer pointing readers/listeners to the words of the prophet Zechariah:

“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your KING comes to you, righteous and having salvation, lowly and riding on a DONKEY, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will TAKE AWAY the CHARIOTS from Ephraim and the WARHORSES from Jerusalem, and the BATTLE BOW will be broken. He will proclaim PEACE to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.” (Zechariah 9:9, emphasis added)

Attaching Jesus to Zechariah’s words put the violent imagery of Caesar riding a warhorse in direct confrontation with the nonviolent Jesus riding a donkey, calling for those on the margins to be centered and for the elites’ wealth to be redistributed to the poor. What we have here is two paths toward peace. One was enforced by militarized power and the other addressed the root causes of injustice that lead to the lack of peace.

One approach toward peace is imposed, and the other is a more organic approach to social causes and effects. When Jerusalem came into view, Jesus stopped and wept: “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you PEACE—but now it is hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42–44, emphasis added).

This calls to mind what we are seeing take place in our society presently. The protests are a call for justice that has long gone unheard. Yet Trump is responding, not by listening to the underlying systemic causes and working to address these injustices, but by simply threatening greater force. We have an overfunded, militarized police force and as a country, we spend twice as much on law and order as we do on social welfare.

It is in a context like this that Luke’s Jesus addresses those weeping for him on the way to his execution. Rome executes Jesus because of his economic protest in the temple and his growing number of followers among the disinherited, dispossessed, and disenfranchised.

“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children… For if they do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”’ (Luke 23:28–30)

Again, many scholars believe Luke’s gospel was written after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Luke connects Jesus’ economic teachings about distributive justice, the economic elites’ rejection of those teachings, and the Jewish poor people’s revolt in the late 60s. As I’ve shared in previous weeks, the poor people’s revolt grew into the Roman Jewish war (66-69 C.E.), which resulted in Rome’s violent leveling of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Luke’s gospel tries to make sense of the devastation of 70 C.E. Christianity has a long, anti-Semitic history of explaining Jerusalem’s destruction as God’s punishment of the city for rejecting Jesus. I don’t believe that. Instead, I see the gospel authors connecting rejection of Jesus’ economic teachings of wealth redistribution and resource-sharing with what later happened in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. They are making a more organic, intrinsic connection between a society that rejected economic distributive justice and restructuring their community to prioritize the poor on the one hand and the poor people’s uprising and revolt on the other. The results are not divinely imposed or arbitrary. They are the natural outcome of political, economic, and social causes and effects.

This helps us understand the words, “if they do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” If Rome responds to Jesus’ minor protest and demonstration in the temple with such violence as a crucifixion, what will Rome do when it’s facing an entire poor people’s revolt and an all-out class war (i.e. the Jewish-Roman War, 66-69, and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.)?

Luke’s Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea, who centuries before had spoken those words about the way Israel would be destroyed by Assyria. “The high places of wickedness will be destroyed—it is the sin of Israel. Thorns and thistles will grow up and cover their altars. Then they will say to the mountains, ‘Cover us!’ and to the hills, ‘Fall on us!’ . . .” (Hosea 10.8-10) Luke applied Hosea’s words to how Jerusalem would be destroyed by Rome.

“As the legions charged in [the Temple], neither persuasion nor threat could check their impetuosity: passion alone was in command . . . Most of the victims were peaceful citizens, weak and unarmed, butchered wherever they were caught. Round the Altar, the heap of corpses grew higher and higher, while down the Sanctuary steps poured a river of blood and the bodies of those killed at the top slithered to the bottom . . . Next [the Romans] came to the last surviving colonnade of the outer court. On this women and children and a mixed crowd of citizens had found a refuge—6000 in all. Before Caesar could reach a decision about them or instruct his officers, the soldiers, carried away by their fury, fired the colonnade from below; as a result, some flung themselves out of the flames to their death, others perished in the blaze: of that vast number there escaped not one.” Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 359 (6.5.1; 271–76)

This is where the path of systemic injustice pressed down too long by militarized force ultimately ends. People finally have enough. When the dust settles, there is either change or massive destruction as social unrest is once again quelled, and social change is once again pushed further down the line for a future revolt.

Rome put down Jerusalem in 70 C.E. But just seventy years later, there was another revolt, the Bar Kokhba revolt, the third Jewish revolt in the new millennium that ended in Rome’s genocidal destruction of the Jewish people. There’s no way to tell how a revolt quelled by militarized force will ultimately turn out. Will change come at a later date, or will it be just greater destruction?

Peace through a militarized quelling of unrest is not peace, but a lull waiting for another future eruption. Jesus’ life teaches us that it doesn’t have to be this way. The path toward peace is not greater force. The path toward peace is addressing the underlying causes for unrest, the underlying systemic injustices, and inequities causing the revolt.

For Luke’s Jesus, the green tree and dry tree imagery echoes the warning given by Ezekiel in the days when Babylonian captivity loomed on the horizon:

“Hear the word of the LORD. This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am about to set fire to you, and it will consume all your trees, both green and dry. The blazing flame will not be quenched, and every face from south to north will be scorched by it. Everyone will see that I the LORD have kindled it; it will not be quenched.” (Ezekiel 20:47)

Luke’s Jesus is saying “If Rome will do this to me—a prophet of nonviolence—if Rome sees my temple protest (involving the damage of privileged property) and my growing number of followers as a threat, how much more will they do this to Jerusalem when the people have had enough and choose the path of violence and insurrection and war?” Jesus is proclaiming, “Do not weep for me. Weep for yourselves.”

What does this mean for us today?

We can go on quelling social unrest, or we can choose to listen.

I’ve been reading The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale. On the cover of the book it reads, “The problem is not police training, police diversity, or police methods. The problem is the dramatic and unprecedented expansion and intensity of policing in the last forty years, a fundamental shift in the role of police in society. The problem is policing itself.”

Rather than funding solutions to underlying causes of inequities, we have consistently funded a path of militarized responses to those responding to those inequities. Policing looks very different in other countries with a criminal justice system that is rehabilitative rather than punitive. In some of those countries, the police haven’t taken human life in years, and they have extremely low recidivism rates compared to ours.

It’s time to take the funding we’ve been using to respond to inequity with militarized policing and invest that funding on reshaping and restructuring our societies in more just, more compassionate, safer ways and with life-affirming institutions. Recently, Mark Van Steenwyk of The Center for Prophetic Imagination posted a list of resources for those who would like to learn more about what defunding the police means and what it doesn’t mean. I recommend this list as a good starting point.

As Michelle Alexander recently stated, “America, this is your chance.”

Another iteration of our world is possible if we will collectively choose it.

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. How many ways can you take care of each other while we are physically apart?

  1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.
  2. What are some changes to the underlying causes of inequities that you would like to see more funding for in your civic community? Discuss it with your group?
  3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of systemically shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to put into practice this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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