Last Sunday was the 493rd anniversay of the founding of the Swiss Anabaptist movement, and one year since the Women’s March that was organised for the first full day of Donald Trump’s presidency. These were radical acts which challenged the religious culture and the political climate of their times. Jesus too was unafraid to subvert expectations and speak truth to power, so what does it mean for us to live radical lives in the footsteps of the one who turned the world upside down?
In Matthew 23, we see Jesus challenging the religious culture, a radical act in a society dominated by that religion. It’s important to say that I don’t believe that Jesus was opposed to religion itself. I think at its most fundamental, religion is about creating a community of faith, and that was certainly something Jesus did. Bringing together the disciples, giving the Lord’s Prayer, instituting the Lord’s Supper…that’s all religion. What he is criticising here is religion that is hypocritical and burdensome, religion that is used to give power and status.
I think that criticism comes from two directions. Firstly, that kind of religion damages people on a very personal level. It weighs them down with guilt and fear, and it can place demands on their time and energy that they just can’t bear. And secondly, it damages people on a spiritual level. If religion is about the community of faith, then spirituality is about our walk with God, and when the community becomes oppressive, it can become a stumbling block on the walk.
Despite his best efforts, that kind of toxic religion didn’t end with Jesus, and it is for those same reasons that we need to be willing to challenge our own religious culture. The banner photo for the Cafe Theologique Facebook page is an image of a woman wearing a t-shirt saying ‘Bad Theology Kills’. And at its worst, it’s true. Last year there was a Twitter hashtag which I followed with interest, #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear. The most disturbing tweets came from women who had been told by their pastors to stay in abusive relationships because the man is the head of woman and it is up to her to obey and to please him. Women die because they stay in those relationships. That is bad theology and it does kill and so it has to be challenged.
That’s an extreme example to push the point, but there are plenty of other examples that may feel closer to home, whether it’s the prosperity gospel that blesses materialism and curses suffering, or a view of mental health that sees it as purely spiritual and so denies proper care, or an understanding of sexuality that leads to abusive treatments in the name of correction, there is bad theology that needs to be countered. And I want to be clear that these are the kinds of things I’m talking about. I’m not talking about criticising the church down the road because they use a different translation of the Bible or swing some incense about every now and then. I truly believe that the church reflects the glorious kaleidoscopic beauty of God, and the diversity of styles and spiritualities is something to be celebrated. I’m talking about challenging the kind of damaging and deficient religion that Jesus saw in the scribes and the pharisees.
But of course, however right and necessary that challenge is, it is difficult for a number of reasons. There can be a fear that challenge opens us up to doubt, and that doubt is a bad thing because it is the opposite of faith, but I don’t believe that to be true on either count. On the first point, challenging the religious culture is not the same as doubting God. The church is not yet made perfect as the Body of Christ, and so we can ask questions of one without asking those same questions of the other. The Anabaptists saw challenging the Catholic Church as an expression of belief, not doubt. The truth is that confronting religious tradition does not lessen our faith, in fact it is not confronting it that is more likely to do that, as we become increasingly disheartened with its flaws, and begin to project the wrong we see in the church on to God. And the truth is that many people who reject God do so because of what they see in the church, and so rather than maintaining the status quo to avoid doubt, we have a duty to keep challenging in order to encourage faith.
On that second point, even if asking questions of the church does lead us to ask questions of God, the Bible is full of people who challenged and doubted and wrestled with God, quite literally in the case of Jacob, and in those instances, doubt was part of the process which led to greater faith, because it brought them closer to God, even if it didn’t bring them answers. We see that really clearly with Job. He questioned the religious wisdom of the day as presented to him by his friends, and they added that to his list of transgressions, but God responded by painting a vivid picture of his might, so that Job was left unable to do anything but declare his power, to which God replied that he had spoken well as his friends had not. God’s declaration to Job at first reads like a reprimand, but it becomes an affirmation that he was right to question the theology espoused by his friends because it did not speak truthfully, and that it was okay for him to doubt because it led to a deeper expression of faith.
There can also be a fear that challenge can lead to disunity in the church, and so we should keep from rocking the boat, but I believe there are ways to challenge within a greater unity. Jesus criticising the pharisees is perhaps not the best example here, because even though he had to hold them accountable as he did, they didn’t respond well and that relationship was so fractured it ultimately led to Jesus’ death. Sadly that is the path the church has often taken, and challenge has lead to division and violence. Many of the first Anabaptists were killed, drowned in the river they baptised one another in, as some kind of twisted poetic justice. This fear is not unfounded, but I remain hopeful nonetheless. If Jesus could confront Nicodemus with his misunderstandings in such a way that it would lead the pharisee to defend Jesus in the Sanhedrin and help prepare his body for burial, then there must be a way for us to hold church authorities to account in a way that brings repentance and renewal. And if Jesus could have a zealot and a tax collector, two men with completely opposing political views, in his inner circle without all hell breaking loose, then there must be a way for us to disagree well within the church.
I think there is a great model for this in the conversation between Jesus and the women at the well in John 4. She was not a religious authority, but she did represent a different religious tradition. Their differences are acknowledged when she says “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” But Jesus moves past those differences when he says “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.” He challenges her with the claim that she does not know what she worships, but he keeps going to say that beyond the ritual of worship is the spirit and truth of worship, the implication being that this is something they may share, so that where they worship really doesn’t matter. In the same way, I believe we can challenge what we see as damaging or deficient in our own and other traditions, without the need to argue against every little difference, always looking beyond them to what we hold in common. That’s why associations and relationships within our own denomination, and ecumenical projects such as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which we are in at the moment, are so important.
We see something of that sense of pointing further on in the passage we started with. The subtext seems to be that the scribes and pharisees have got as far as understanding the word of the law, but have fallen short of understanding its spirit, and surely that is a fault that can be corrected. The woes to the pharisees that follow are pretty damning, not least when Jesus says that all the righteous blood shed upon the earth will fall upon them, but I don’t believe the religious leaders were entirely without hope of redemption. Jesus asks how they might be saved from Gehenna, and I think the answer is that they might look further on, past their rules and rituals to the God who they serve in name but have forgotten in spirit.
This brings me back to the original question. What does it mean to be radical in the footsteps of Jesus? To be radical is to keep asking questions and posing challenges, and so that has to be a part of it. But anyone can do those things, and so to be radical in the way of Jesus must be something more. It is to remember that our first commitment is to God as revealed in Christ, and all else comes after. Only that will tell us what questions we need to be asking. Only that will keep us anchored when those questions lead to doubts. And only that will keep us civil when we find ourselves challenging our brothers and sisters.
The Beatitudes in Matthew 5 are perhaps the best example of Jesus speaking a different word to that spoken by the world, and that is also radical. On the face of things, those who mourn are supposed to be miserable, but Jesus promises that they will be comforted, which says that our pain will be made bearable. When we play by the rules of this world, those who are meek are bound to be taken advantage of, but Jesus promises that they will inherit the earth, which to me suggests that authority will be given to the ones who know how to use it wisely. Righteousness seems to be in such short supply that those who hunger and thirst for it seem sure to be disappointed, but Jesus says that they will be satisfied, which can only mean that righteousness will flow as Amos prophesied. It seems obvious that those who are persecuted must suffer, but Jesus says they will be rewarded in heaven, which tells us that there is beauty beyond all ugliness.
The beatitudes give us a world turned upside down, and they start and end by speaking of the kingdom, so they must surely be breaking through just as the kingdom is breaking through. These aren’t just promises to be fulfilled in some distant future, they are promises which can begin to find their fulfilment now, and as they show us the world as it can be, they are a challenge to the world as it is.
The world has changed in many ways since Jesus spoke those words, but in many other ways it has stayed very much the same. People still mourn without comfort, power still sits in the wrong hands so that the meek are exploited, righteousness still seems like a rare delicacy with not enough to go around, and thousands still suffer unspeakable pain and indignity at the hands of their persecutors. And of course there are still many who are poor in spirit, who must show mercy because they have suffered injury, who find their purity a matter for ridicule, who are forced to make peace because there is none.
The world still needs to hear the words of Jesus, and not just the Beatitudes but all of them, perhaps most particularly the call to love and the promise that we are loved. We still need to hear them too, no matter how many times we have heard them before. I think we can grow tired of hearing the gospel, or at least we can forget that it is radical and beautiful and countercultural. Of course it is right that it should become so familiar that it is simply a part of us. God spoke about putting his law within us and writing it on our hearts, and it is a wonderful thing when we take it into our very souls. But that should be about making us radical and beautiful and countercultural, rather than about making the gospel ordinary.
If that sounds like I think you should be heading out of the door to lead a revolution, hold tight because I think there are a couple of things we need to remember to keep things in balance. First, when we think about being countercultural, there can be tendency for us to feel like it is an us and them situation, the church against the world. But we’ve already seen that there are things that need to be challenged in the church, and there are equally things that should be celebrated in the world. This isn’t about challenging the culture for the sake of the challenge, but about challenging the things that are wrong with the culture for the sake of the culture itself. We are called to be a blessing, not merely an aggravation.
The psalmist declared that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, and so there is much that is true and noble and just and pure in the world, and we can get alongside that, whether it names God or not. People interested in mission will often talk about seeing where God is at work and joining in. It certainly felt like that at the Women’s March last year. For me my faith was part of what had driven me there, but it was good to stand with others of all faiths and none, sharing a common purpose. God’s love is expansive, and it should lead us to cross borders, not enforce them. It’s all too easy to live in a holy huddle, but that wasn’t the way of Jesus, and it’s not the way to empower real change in the world.
There can also be a tendency towards negative feelings like bitterness and cynicism. Things don’t go the way we want them to, and that disappointment turns inwards, so that we stop expecting change, and our speaking becomes little more than a raving. One of the things that I found so encouraging about the Women’s March was the humour and warmth that were on display, because the world needs those things to change it, and we need those things to sustain us as we try to make that change. I rather liked the poster which said “a woman’s place is in the resistance”, with a picture of Princess Leia. And perhaps the one that popped up the most was the declaration that “love trumps hate”.
It was clear that people were marching because they were angry and scared, and when we look around us it is clear that they are legitimate emotions. A couple of weeks ago I read a Twitter feed from a foodbank, telling stories of parents fainting at the school gates because they had gone hungry to feed their kids, and I cried tears of deep fury and sadness. And then last week I read that Russia is funding a Serb paramilitary group in Bosnia, and I cried out of sorrow and a terrible fear that history will repeat itself. But it also felt like people were marching because they thought they could be a part of changing things, because they really believed that if we can just keep smiling and keep being kind, we can make things better.
There should be that kind of positivity about the way we deal with the world, because no matter how bad things seem, our faith declares that nothing is beyond the love and redeeming power of God, and our history tells us that it only takes a handful of men and women to change the world. Of course they did not act in their own power but in the power of the Spirit, and that is why our own activism must be more than marches and petitions and a few hours of volunteering a week. Those things are all good and important, and I do not want to devalue them at all, but they must be underpinned by a deep commitment to prayer, and a constant calling on the Spirit to bring the life and light of Christ into the world.
When I first started thinking about what it means to be radical, I thought I was going to end up on my soapbox, and maybe I have a little bit at times, but as I have written this, I have increasingly felt that the most radical word is not a shout but a whisper. The Beatitudes speak of a gentle revolution, one that holds nothing back and is utterly transformative, but one which comes with comfort and mercy and peace, and so even if we are moved by anger and fear we must proceed with that same gentleness.
And so we return again to the question we began with. What does it mean to be radical in the footsteps of Jesus? To be radical is to speak a new word into the world, and so we must find ways to make our voices heard. But again anybody can do that, and so again to be radical in the way of Jesus must go further. I think for me it is all about hope. If our primary commitment is to God as revealed in Jesus, the one in whom the nations put their hope, we also have a commitment to that hope, and it must infuse all that we do. And this hope is not optimism or wishful thinking or naivety, as the world so often sees it, but the sure and certain knowledge that because of Christ things can and will be different, and that because we are in Christ we can be a part of making that difference. Hope will lead us on when the path is difficult. Hope will keep us as beautiful as we are countercultural. And hope will keep us radical in the way of Christ.