Jesus spent most of his time with those on the edge of society but not exclusively so. In this article Keith Hebden looks at how Jesus was both an agitator for change and a community organiser working across the spectrum of society to bring people in line with his vision of God's peace and justice. Does this provide a model for social engagement?
In the gospels we have a Jesus who, working for a more just system for all, engaged with a whole continuum of people in different ways. At one end of the spectrum are the disciples and crowds of ordinary people; then there are the professional classes who have much more invested in the present system then poorer people; finally the client rulers: who have the most vested in however the current systems work.
Reality is always more complicated and fluid than any continuum can handle. Ordering things as above helps us understand that different people have different needs and start from different places. In order to effect real change it is necessary both to engage people (including ourselves) wherever they are in the spectrum and help them move to larger and more irresistible alliances for change.
The Disciples and Crowds
We begin with Jesus’ natural allies: the crowds and disciples. The disciples have made a serious commitment in relation to Jesus personally and to his vision as they see it worked out. Jesus’ work with a core group of activists focused around creating an intentional community sharing some form of common purse as well as common ideals. Many of them experienced what it was like to be at the sharp end of an unjust system and so his talk of day labouring, debt, and violence painted a picture of a world they knew.
One of the most radical forms of intervention Jesus used was to heal people on the Sabbath: the holy day of rest. In order for a political elite to maintain social control over the crowds, there must be a class of people who are outcasts. These are the people that the crowds fear to associate with and dread as signs of their own future if they don’t work hard, pay their taxes, and keep their noses clean. By touching and healing the outcasts Jesus reintroduces them to the crowd, removing fear of them with love.
The Professional Classes
Turning to the professional classes, this category of people is divided into two: those who were sympathetic to Jesus’ vision and values and those who were suspicion or antagonistic to the cause. Many of these would have seen themselves as ‘of the people’ as they were certainly not ‘rulers’ nonetheless they held particular skills or privileges which set them apart. With the antagonistic group, public debate and confrontation were the two methods initiated by both Jesus and by his enemies. But for the sympathetic professionals, private conversations were necessary.
Among those who were the sympathetic elite, one would count a Roman centurion with a sick servant, at least three Pharisees called Simon, Nicodemus and Joseph, and a synagogue leader whose daughter had died and a rich young ruler. With the professional classes Jesus needed to draw a balance between challenging them in confidence while not colluding with them in private and by creating social situations where the elite were brought face-to-face with those they would never normally associate he gave the poor their own platform.
We come to a final social grouping: the client rulers. These are represented by kings’ stewards, tax collectors, temple priests, client kings of national descent but imperial loyalty, and of course Pontius Pilate the Roman procurator of Jerusalem. These people are the social network represented by palace and temple as the physical centres of a domination system.
So it is to the temple that Jesus must eventually go, in order to expose and confront the powers at their spiritual heart. There are many accounts of Jesus challenging the powers but this event – which is the climax of Jesus’ ministry, or its inauguration depending on which version you read – stands out in its explicit and aggressive challenge to power.
Mark (Mark 11:16–19) frames this event in prayer-warfare. Before they go to the temple Jesus and his disciples curse the fig tree, a symbol of national wellbeing, for not producing fruit. On returning from the direct action they discover that the tree has indeed withered.
The way the protest event is sandwiched between this cursing and denouncing of the spirit of the temple, that is the fig tree, shows how integral prayer and action are to one another in speaking out against injustice. But what it also shows is that Jesus and his disciples are willing to expose their political convictions so publicly as to threaten the existence of their movement in order to bring about a more universal change of perception and put pressure on the elite.
Systems under Pressure
In any challenge to the powers a key task is identifying ‘who’s who’. There are those with the least power who need to come alive to the way the powers rule their lives; those with some power and the beginnings of awareness but no tools or organization with which to resist. Finally there are the powerful, some of whom will have uneasiness about the roles they find themselves in and may be open to change. Identify these people – as much as possible by name – and find together the best way to work with them in order to put pressure on them to shift to the place of ally or to stand down from their position of facilitating injustices.
There is always fluidity and complexity in this but creating a simple matrix from which to begin to act is helpful to any program for change. This was Jesus’ approach and it is why he used parables that described real-life people and their power relationships in order to get everyone to work this out for him or herself.
Keith Hebden is a parish priest and Seeking Justice deanery adviser in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire where he chairs the Diocesan Greener Churches Group. He teaches and writes on practical theology and spirituality. His latest book, Seeking Justice: The radical compassion of Jesus plots experiments in faith based community organising and direct action. Some of his workshop material and other resources can be found at Compassionistas. He’s married to Sophie Hebden, a freelance science writer and they have two daughters.