Thursday, August 8, 2013

No Ordinary Rebel

I’ve not yet had a chance to read Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Reza Aslan’s bestselling book, but I have seen and read numerous interviews in which he talks about his book and his conclusions about the historical Jesus.  As a result I am going to reserve comment on his book for now and simply react to what I’ve heard him say.
Aslan is spot-on in his assertion that Jesus’ crucifixion by the Romans tells us a lot about who Jesus was.  Crucifixion was a punishment reserved for the enemies of Rome—for traitors, revolutionaries, and those who claimed to be king over against Caesar’s assertion of sovereignty.  The two “thieves” crucified with Jesus were actually called “bandits,” a term reserved for those who revolted against Rome.  Aslan isn’t breaking any new ground here; many New Testament scholars have been saying this for years, though it has taken some time for this message to reach a popular audience.  Both the Romans and the Temple cult correctly assessed that Jesus was a threat to their positions of power.  Jesus was indeed a revolutionary.
Aslan is also accurate in noting that Jesus’ revolution was against the rich and powerful on behalf of the poor, the powerless, and the disenfranchised.  In this respect Jesus was self-consciously carrying on the tradition of the prophets, especially Isaiah, who condemned the ruling elite of Israel for their mistreatment of the poor.
Aslan seems to believe, however, that to be a revolutionary in 1st century Judea meant that you were part of the Zealot movement that advocated the violent overthrow of Rome.  For the most part that was true, but that would have made Jesus no different than any of the other rebels who rose up and claimed to be—or were proclaimed by others to be—the messiah.  It would have made Jesus no different than the other two rebels who were crucified beside him.  It wouldn’t even have singled him out as a martyr along the lines of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Gandhi; he would have been just one more failed messiah in a long line of failed messiahs before and after his death.
Aslan believes that it was Jesus’ disciples who turned him into a larger-than-life figure, and they did so by neutering his rebel identity, making him a gentle teacher about love rather than a fiery preacher of revolution.  In this Aslan is so close to the truth of Jesus’ identity, yet so far.   He makes the common mistake of thinking that Jesus could be either a revolutionary or a teacher of loving one’s enemies, but not both, but that is precisely Jesus’ genius as well as his distinctiveness.  His was a revolution of love, not the warm and fuzzy kum-ba-yah kind of love that avoids confronting injustice, but the hard, courageous, and dangerous kind of love that confronts the principalities and powers of Rome and Temple but eschews violence as a means of achieving justice.  The issue wasn’t revolution vs. love, but violent revolution vs. a non-violent revolution of sacrifice, service, and self-giving.
There were many Jewish martyrs who bravely picked up a sword and fought a losing battle against a superior foe.  What makes Jesus different is that he refused to pick up a sword, yet went up against the religious and imperial powers anyway.  He ended up just as dead as those with a sword, but there’s a difference.  When you pick up a sword and die, you’ve just proven to be a weaker version of that which you’ve rebelled against.  But you really aren’t any different.  Jesus was different, and his willingness to confront injustice without a sword proved that he was different from Rome, the Temple cult, and the violent Zealots.  He wasn’t your ordinary rebel.
Jesus without a sword proved to be more powerful than any Zealot with a sword—or cross-wielding Caesar, for that matter.  The resurrection vindicated Jesus’ way and showed that a revolution of hard, courageous love is more powerful than any army.  It is in fact the most powerful force in God’s creation.

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