In the last week a convicted fraudster, Nakoula, created a cheap, inaccurate, and defamatory depiction of the prophet Muhammad. Nakoula’s intention was to insult and inflame the Muslim world. Thankfully most Muslim’s, though offended, turned the other cheek and refused to respond in kind. The fundamentalist fringe predictably did not. People died. Property was destroyed.
Professor Ali of Auckland University writes: “The tradition of Islam represents a spectrum of views, and there is a centre made up of those who welcome intellectual honesty, equality, secularism and pluralism. The problem is not that Islam lacks a centre, but that mainstream Muslims are being out-maneuvered by the violent and irrational fringe.”
Christianity suffers from a similar problem. Though reverting to physical violence is rare in New Zealand and other Western democracies, violent language is frequently used by our fundamentalists. This fringe implicitly supported by many traditional power-holders who do not wish to see and often fear any change, dominate the public perception of our Christian faith. Christianity as a ‘brand’ unfortunately is not perceived as cooperative, tolerant, and promoting a culture of diversity and intellectual robustness, but instead as conservative, exclusive, and sustaining a culture of disengagement and rarefied thinking. Like with Islam the fringe dominates the public perception of the brand.
Fundamentalists, whether Christian or Muslim, seem to think of themselves as God’s soldiers, defending the faith from being diluted by revisionists, and needing to attack those who doubt or challenge. Belief, their belief, so they believe, is unchanging. Their opinions are stated as divinely dictated truths.
The Gospel reading today presents Jesus, ‘the challenge parable’ as Clay called him last week [using Dom Crossan’s words], sharing his vision in words and actions. It is a very powerful passage.
Jesus addresses an internal dispute among his close followers. They want to know who is the greatest. Is it the one who is the most faithful, who believes the most earnestly, or is it the most compassionate, who cares and shares the most extravagantly, or is it the most hard-working, who labours relentlessly in selfless service? Who is the greatest? Tell us Jesus.
It is a timeless question, one that religious groups also ask in the hope that will be affirmed, and others put in their place. Are we the best? Better than all the rest? Is our church the favoured one? Jesus’ answer will determine the one who is right, and by inference the many that aren’t. It is the finishing line in the game where winning is what matters.
Psychologically and sociologically such a question reveals our deep need for acceptance and affirmation. Like Christians who harp on about being sinners, we doubt that God loves us, and has [in the old language] already saved, redeemed, and reconciled humanity.
Jesus doesn’t play along with his disciples’ question. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and slave of all,” he says. He subverts the game. How possibly can the first, the winners in life, be last, be the biggest losers? How can those born, bred, and baptized to rule, be slaves or servants? It doesn’t make sense. How can the talented and obviously superior be last??
The history of the Church in a sense is a history of failing to understand these words of Jesus. Time and again, espousing phrases like ‘servant leadership’, church authorities have adopted a humble demeanour while continuing to have significant power and resources. ‘Servanthood’ became a cloak to wear on public occasions. ‘Servanthood’ became part of the game. Those who wanted or had power needed to dress up their actions in the guise of ‘care’ and ‘humility’.
My step-grandmother was a servant. She worked in a ‘big house’, from before dawn until after dusk, and occasionally, very occasionally, had a day off. The memories were not good. The divide between masters and servants, between the greatest and the least, was considerable. The word ‘servant’ for her could never be anything else than a description of a class-orientated society that in her journey to New Zealand she’d hoped she’d left behind.
‘Servant leadership’ is an oxymoron. You can’t be a servant in the house and at the same time the leader of the house. You can’t have power and not have power. You are either one or the other. So what did Jesus mean by this riddle?
‘The first shall be last’ quote points to the radical egalitarianism that was at the core of the Jesus vision. Socially radical egalitarianism is about recognizing that we are all royalty, all blessed sons and daughters of God, and thus should treat each other as equals. We are all great, and none are least. Materially the vision is about all being fed, all being employed, all being housed, all involved in decisions of resource allocation, and all participating in the selection of leadership and holding such leadership to account. [In the early Church leadership selection seemed to be done by casting lots]. Spiritually the Jesus vision was about God being among us all, rather than being a lord over us. It was about God being incarnated in the poorest, smallest, and most vulnerable, rather than being worshipped as the Almighty King in the heavens. As later church leaders would privately lament, it was a very impractical vision.
However although it was a vision about pulling the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, it was not about creating a new underclass of those who used to be first, or a new lowly class of those who used to sit on thrones. In this vision no one got left behind. There was room for all. And Jesus lived this vision: dining with sinners like tax collectors - but also with pious Pharisees, healing the marginalized like the Syro-Phoenician’s daughter - but also the Centurion’s, the oppressor’s, servant. There was room in Jesus’ vision for all manner of people regardless of class or power or privilege.
Mark’s Gospel illustrates this vision by Jesus welcoming children, who were considered in that day as the least, and given our appalling NZ child poverty statistics, as the least in our day too. “[Jesus] took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”” It will be a wonderful day when children’s health, education, and well-being comes before adults’ health, entertainment needs, and bank balances.
The political world of first century Palestine was a world of violence. Revolutionaries like Barabbas and his followers operated within the rules of that world. There were winners and losers. Violence was the way power was administered and the way how power could be overthrown. Violence was the dominant culture. It created and sustained inequity and privilege.
And the myth Barabbas and other violent revolutionaries have operated within was that violence could also be redemptive. By resolute courage and the intervention of their God the oppressed could vanquish the oppressor. There would be winners and losers, a divinely inspired reversal. The powerful would be beaten, and descend to the dungeons of torment. This myth continues to operate today, and most action movies perpetuate the motif.
In time the so-called ‘impractical’ vision of Jesus was subverted by that of the dominant myth of winners and losers, and the need for violence to maintain that myth. The challenge parable that Jesus was and lived was dressed up to become an attack parable. So the values of an egalitarianism with room for everyone – values of community and connectivity, compassion and gentleness, challenge and critique, were pushed aside by the need to label some as great and some not, some as deserving of praise and some as deserving of punishment, and a few as winners and many as losers. Power over others became more important than empowering others. Winning became more important than embracing all. Powerful adults became more important than vulnerable children. The violence of poverty, of language, of enforcing the boundaries of privilege became normative.
Can we dream the impossible Jesus dream of a world where there are no haves and have-nots, no firsts and lasts, no violence and no violated? And, more tellingly, would we want to dwell there? Jesus, lead us into this dream, imagining beyond what we know, risking the vulnerability and complexity it will bring. Amen.