Have you ever watched the show What Would You Do? The show where a controversial situation (like bullying, theft, or abusive parenting) is staged in a public place to see what everyday, average people would do — to see if they would not respond and just sit and watch? To see if they would respond? If they responded, how would they respond?
I’m probably just an odd duck of a person, but I’ve always been that person that gets lost in my head and wonders what I would do in certain situations — especially controversial situations. But, I think there is some value to this kind of practice in our lives. It causes us to evaluate our principles. It causes us to consider our ethics, and what those ethics would look like in concrete practice.
In a sense this practice was lived-out by Daniel in the Old Testament. Daily, he spoke and prayed about the Lordship of Yahweh and the commandments that the Lord gave, Praying through the Shema: a prayer beginning with “Hear O Israel: The Lord Our God. The Lord is One.” And continuing with a focus on loving the Lord your God with all your heart and soul. And, concluding with a meditation on the commands given by the Lord who delivered Israel out of Egypt (click here for a podcast describing this way of praying that the Israelites and Jesus practiced). Daniel, having daily made these principles and ethics a part of his processing of life, when conscripted by the foreign powers to violate those principles and ethics — did not. And I suggest, he did not because he had role-played those principles and ethics daily — to the point that they were a part of him, and were second nature to how he would respond when told to think and be otherwise. What would you have done if you were Daniel?
What would you have done if you were the religious leaders of Jesus day (the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes of the law of Moses)? To some degree of another, these various factions of Judaism made some sort of peace — or alliance — with the nation state of their day. While very much cloaked in Jewish liturgy (religious practice), their position of authority and power became dependent on their relationship to the nation state — to the Roman empire and it’s governance system. Over the course of their existence, these religious factions — through the Sanhedrin (Jewish court) were able to maintain their positions of authority and power by becoming a sanctioned body to oversee governance in Judea. In the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, we see this state-church relationship (if you will) play out when the religious leaders seek maintenance of their power, by seeking the death of Jesus, the antagonizer of their teachings and rulings. And, in the gospels, we see that there was a limit to their governance under the Roman empire, as evidenced by this group’s inability to put Jesus to death on their own. Instead, they had to appeal to the Jewish puppet king, Herod, and eventually to Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect over Israel (under the emperor Tiberias). Having their hands in the pockets of the Roman empire, gave them the authority and societal movement that they needed to ensure that their principles and judgments about life in Israel were maintained. But, in so doing, they became blinded to what they were sacrificing, in order to maintain their status and power. In their pursuit of power-over authority, they put Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah — to death, the one that Israel had been yearning for to deliver it’s long-standing promise of blessing (i.e. Promises made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and king David). Through their daily habits, the religious leaders had made-up their minds what they would do if their positions of power were threatened — they would sacrifice anyone who stood in their way.
What would you have done if your were the religious leaders? What would you have done if you could have your Christian principles and way of life bolstered and upheld by the most powerful human authority on earth? Would you get in bed with them as well?
This next paragraph may be difficult to process (so, I give you fair warning). But, have many of us Christians in the U.S. done exactly what the religious leaders did in their day? Have we been co-opted by the imperial powers (Liberal, Conservative, or Libertarian) of our day to bolster and uphold our Christian ways of life? How have we put our hands in the pockets of the governing authorities of our day to maintain a say-so (teaching and judgments) about life in the U.S.?
Now, before you start trying to peg me for one political party over the other, or accusing one political party of doing this over another, I ask you to consider how Christians have put their hands in the pockets of the political parties of the U.S. This is not an attack on political parties, but a call to consider how Christians have possibly let themselves become like the religious leaders of Jesus day. Is it possible that Christians have become so enamored with having a hierarchical position of say-so, that we have sacrificed Jesus (and his way of life) in the process? Have we allowed ourselves to become enamored with a prominent place in society, at the expense of living the self-sacrificial, servant-hearted, forgiveness-oriented way of life that Jesus pursued? In our pursuit of having human governing authorities that are sympathetic to Christian values, has that caused us to violate our principles of mercy and compassion in order to get our hands in those powerful positions? It seems like we need only look back a few weeks to see how these values were sacrificed on either side of the political spectrum (i.e. “Basket of deplorables” or the variety of name-calling and sexist comments made on the other end of the spectrum). What did you do? And, the bigger question, what happened to Jesus in the midst of whatever you did?
Maybe we all didn’t quite sacrifice Jesus to the point that the religious leaders did in the New Testament. But, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in The Cost of Discipleship,
He [Jesus] died on the cross alone, abandoned by his disciples. With him were crucified, not two of his followers, but two murderers. But they all stood beneath the cross, enemies and believers, doubters and cowards, revilers and devoted followers.
In our reading through the book of Acts, we see multiple times in the opening pages where Luke captures the religious leaders being confronted with their choice to kill Jesus in order to maintain their status and positions of power. Now, maybe we haven’t directly crucified Jesus but, have we like those at the foot of the cross — allowed Jesus to be the sacrifice for our sins, while remaining unwilling to join him on the cross? After all, Jesus was the one who said that to be his disciple means that we too must take up our crosses. Yet, none of his original followers followed his lead.
Last I checked, positions of power are very difficult to live-out a self-sacrificial way of life (as Jesus lived: love, mercy, compassion). It is interesting that Jesus did not come to earth to usurp the imperial throne. Rather, he came to earth to lead a rag-tag movement of outsiders — that did everything backwards and upside down from any other political or social movement of his day — in order to overthrow a larger governing force: the law of sin and death (see Romans 8). This subversive movement was so upside-down and backwards that it got Jesus killed. If that is the way of Jesus, then it seems like we are beckoned to ask the question, “Then, what kind of movement are we to be behind?” Are we to pursue a way of compromise with the powers of our day? Or, are we called to pursue the church and be a distinctive body of people (the body of Christ) — a radical movement and way of life, different from those of the world?
I think we all know the answer, but the temptation to have our hands in the pockets of power is so enticing. And, there are temptations all around us to practice seeking positions of power. Which way will we choose? What will we do? What will you do? As the classic ‘90s saying goes: What would Jesus do? And, as followers of Jesus, will we do what Jesus does — and follow his self-sacrificial example?