054: JESUS THE SUBVERSIVE

“Welcome to Zingcreed, the totally unique Christian/Atheist blog where anything goes. Feel free to ‘eavesdrop’ as I muse aloud about religion and the world: I hope you get something from it.” Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.

To subvert: to overthrow, to overturn, to pervert  (Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary)

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These are some notes I made from Ched Myers’  “Binding the Strong Man. A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.”  Twentieth Anniversary Edition  Orbis books (2011) (see Zingcreed Post: ‘Myers Mission Statement‘).  Myers does not try to relate this exegesis to life in the 20th/21st century – this is done in his follow-up book “Who will roll away the stone. Discipleship queries for first world Christians” Orbis books. (More on that when I read it.)

Five hundred pages! Who would have imagined so much could be written about one gospel! And that so much is hidden between the lines until an expert exegesist like Myers comes along and winkles it all out. (c.f. page 130 “throughout the gospel we must have ‘eyes to see’ the true political theatre of Markan symbolic action.”)   Yoder’s famous book on the Politics of Jesus is based just on Luke. Imagine what a scholar could do if they covered all the gospels!

Basically, Myers points to all the occasions on which JC got up the noses of the Temple guys (Pharisees, Saducees, Scribes and what have you). They acted on behalf of the Roman imperialists – it was their job to keep the rabble in line as well as to administer the country’s principle religion, Judaism. They were guided both by the Romans’ dictates and by the incredibly strict and all pervasive Purity Laws spelled out to their ancestors in the second millennium  BCE,  predominantly  in the Book of Leviticus which they believed was dictated to Moses on Mt Sinai by God himself.  Jesus wasn’t one for dogma and doctrine: he wanted to get back to the spirit behind the Law. He probably thought the public were mature enough to handle such an authentic approach to God. Judging by some of the reactions he got, even from his own disciples, he was clearly a bit optimistic – their lack of comprehension is vividly portrayed at every step of the way!

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(1) The very word “Gospel” itself was contentious as it was a term previously used by the Emperor alone. By using it to describe his account of Jesus’ life, Mark is taking aim at the very political culture of the Empire itself. (p.124, 426)

(2) In contrast to other Jews, Jesus was baptised into rather than in the River Jordan. This, according to Myers declares Jesus to be an “outlaw, so to speak”. His mission will be to challenge the oppressive structures of law and order around him. A modern analogy to baptism-as-declaration-of-resistance might be the public acts of of draft card burning, which symbolised induction into the US anti-war movement in the 1970s. (p. 130) (I wonder what a British equivalent of this might be?)

(3) The very first public act of Jesus and the disciples is to break the law. (Mark 2:23)

(4) Jesus  establishes a social practice of inclusivity by his contact with the poor and the outcasts of society, thus defying established group boundaries. (Mk 14:3-9)

  •  He eats with “sinners” and the socially marginalised (2:15 and 7:24) as well as the “ritually unclean” (1:45 & 5:25)  So there was a dispute with the Pharisees over the social boundaries of table fellowship (p.118) Myers claims that Jesus used loaves  to overcome enmity between Jews and gentiles.(p.118)
  • He subverts the Jewish purity restrictions by having contact with lepers (1:45; 5:25) and the disabled (2:1; 10:45) (See also 2:10,28;  1:41) Jesus repudiates caste and class barriers (7:14)
  • He subverts the Sabbath norms (2:23) p.436 and generally delights in breaking one taboo after another.
  • He challenges the authorities (i.e. the Pharisees and their cohorts) to choose justice and compassion over domination, especially with reference to women and children (3:4; 10:1)

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(5) This in turn provokes conflict with the local civic leadership- “every identifiable ruling faction in Jewish society will oppose Jesus.” (p.436)

  • The Scribes (1:22; 2:6)
  • The Priests (1:43)
  • The Pharisees (2:15, etc.)

(6) A political coalition was formed of Pharisees and “Herodians” (Galilee’s political elite) to plot Jesus’ murder. (3:1-6)

healing

(7) Next comes Jesus’ “second campaign” (p.119) which is a series of running debates

  • a theatrical procession (11:1)
  • a symbolic gesture (11:12-14, 20-26)
  • direct action in the Temple (11:15-20)

rifle

(8) Jesus throws down the gauntlet by stepping up the rhetoric: full opposition to the Temple State:  it’s War!  One by one he engages in debate with the stewards of that State:

  • the Chief Priests, Scribes and Elders (11:27)
  • the provincial representatives of the colonial apparatus (Pharisees and Herodians) (12:13)
  • the Sadducees (12:18)
  • the Scribal authority (12:28)

Jesus prevails- he silences his antagonists and decidedly repudiates the Temple State (12:34, 43) The story is not ended yet however, a lot happens in the next few months. The authorities bide their time, just waiting for the right moment to pounce on this uppity preacher. After all, being intrinsically legalistic they did everything “by the book” and they wanted to give this cheeky upstart enough rope to hang himself with so they could present the magistrates with a water-tight case.

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(9) On the Mount of Olives the boys have an extended discourse on apocalyptic patience. (13:5)

(10)The symbolic polarity of the “Holy Land” is Jerusalem (the big metropolis at the centre of power, where the Temple is situated) and the Wilderness on the fringes of the fertile farmland around the Sea of Galilee. Jesus staged a revival in the latter (p.126), an area he must have known well as he withdrew there to pray.

poor

(11) “Conversion” was a major plank in Jesus’ platform and it was a political platform because his idea of conversion involved not just assent of the heart but a fundamental reordering of social relationships. The “discipleship adventure” was uncompromisingly disruptive.

(12) In Mark’s symbolic discourse on the destruction of historic power, we see the Romans represented by a man called -of all things- “Legion” (geddit?) who is possessed by evil demons which Jesus casts out (5:3, 9-13). The Temple Mount is represented by the “Mountain” (11:23-24) which can be cast into the sea if you have faith enough! (p. 418)

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(13) Jesus confronts this very problem of ordinary peoples’ impotence in the face of authoritarian power. He may symbolically trounce the Romans or invoke a fantasy about destroying the Temple, but is it or is it not futile to try and alter the ordering of power and privilege in this world? (p. 170)

  • Jesus preaches revolutionary patience with the similitude of the growing seed. (Just wait and you will see) (4:26-29)
  • Despite the odds, cling on to the revolutionary vision and hope (4:30-32)
  • Listen to the parable of the lamp (etc.) (4:21, 24)

(14)  “Mark’s narrative clearly presents the practice of Jesus as socio-politically revolutionary without recourse to an organised strategy of violence.”  (p.47)  His revolutionary inclination (as opposed to a reformist one) is clearly shown in “the hardest and most revolutionary words in the gospel”  the parable of the vineyard. (12:9, 40) (p. 425-6)

blackjesus

(15) At his trial, Jesus shows his disdain for the legal game by his refusal to plea-bargain or argue in his own defence. “Thus he indicates his defiance of Roman power right to the very end.” (12:17; 14:61; 15:4-5) (p.379)

(16) To sum up this unexpected catalogue of  subversive activism that I for one had never realised was there, Myers points to 3 elements of Jesus’ “ideology of resistance” and “civil disobedience”.

  • His proclamation of the Kingdom of God (Jesus’ main message)
  • His healing and exorcism (which Myers perceives in a largely symbolic manner)
  • His non-violent confrontation with the oppressors of his day (3:13; 6:7) (p.436)

Related Zingcreed Posts:
Jesus and wealthy people
No way Jose! (Jose Porfirio Miranda)
The Christian roots of communism
Images #2: Revolutionary Jesus
Jesus’ dark side
Jesus and non-violence
The Kingdom of God, a kingdom of nuisances and nobodies
Naked Jesus
Jesus’s real political message
Parables are subversive
The parable of the vineyard labourers

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