It’s been a heavy week for the church. The original Occupy Wall Street site has been closed down in New York City and other Occupy sites around the country have been closed as well, including the site in Dallas. Our overnighters here in Fort Worth are being harassed by the police. There has been police violence and the show of force by law enforcement seems way out of proportion for a movement that is dedicated to non-violent demonstrations.
Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt commented on the Occupy Dallas removal on her Twitter feed saying the Dallas Police were “respectful and peaceful” during their shutdown of the site. I have to argue that there is no such thing as a respectful and peaceful denial of the first amendment. All suppression of the right of the people to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances does violence to the people. Let’s take a look at a photo from the Dallas police action:
And let’s take a look at another photo from another famous break up of another famous protest for a redress of grievances.
If Occupy shut downs were happening in other countries, for whatever reason, the United States would be among the first to call them the actions of an anti-democratic totalitarian police state. So what’s this have to do with the church? In a word – everything. Let’s start with Crucifixion.
Whatever you think of Jesus, whatever your theology and whatever your theology of the cross, let’s get something out of the way and up front – the Roman Empire didn’t execute just anyone by crucifixion. It was a punishment reserved for the poor and the other. The Romans didn’t execute Roman citizens or rich people by crucifixion because if it was perceived the rich and powerful can suffer and die just like everyone else, well then, more people might rise against the empire. Notice that no rich, white people are ever executed in America. Notice how homeless people receive obscene jail sentences for stealing things to feed their families but the criminals responsible for the current banking and financial crisis are not in jail? The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The Romans also tended to reserve crucifixion for those who were considered a threat to the empire. I personally don’t believe Jesus died for my sins or yours. It’s just not my theology. Any God that needs some guy to be tortured to death so I can be okay with that God is not any God I want any part of, but one thing is for certain – Jesus was crucified because the Empire didn’t want him causing any more trouble or rousing any more rabble.
And what about this empire? Let’s take a look at it, then and now. The New Testament writers report that Jesus spoke often of “The Kingdom of God.” Whether this is a phrase of Jesus or a phrase of the early Jesus movement put on Jesus’ lips matters little except to extreme Biblical fundamentalists. The important issue is the phrase itself and what it meant to the people who heard it. The phrase in Koine Greek is βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ or Basileia tou Theou. The translation, according to many contemporary New Testament scholars such as Funk and Scott – is “God’s imperial rule.” It’s a phrase that would have had a great impact on the hearers in its original context. The imperial rule at that time was Rome. The imperial ruler was the Roman Emperor. When Jesus says the Kingdom of God, this implies that the Roman Emperor is NOT the be all and end all and not in control; that there is something else, something more, something even greater and of more value that has more power than Rome. In its original context this made people twist their heads and raise an eyebrow, “What did that guy just say?” It is somewhat analogous to saying “We are the 99%!” The parables and sayings of Jesus ask us to imagine a more just, more equitable world, where there’s no such thing as a lesser person. That’s some good news.
This is the Good News. The term good news is not about getting into heaven, or being part of some holier than everyone else group God has set aside and favored so they won’t be punished in some eternal hell. Nope, not at all. The Greek term in the New Testament is εὐαγγέλιον or euangelion and scholars tell us it means “world transforming message.” It was the term used of the Roman Emperor or a Roman General when they won a military victory and conquered a new land and thus subjugated a new people. The Emperor has brought you a euangellion – the peace of Rome. Yes, this was the Pax Romana, the roman peace. There would be no more war, because Rome will crush you and all other opposition like a bug. You will enjoy all the benefits of Rome …and all its oppression. It is like being brought the world transforming message of America and McDonald’s and Exxon and IBM. Life’s never been better for you has it? Then there is a different euangelion, a new world transforming message. The writers of the Christian scriptures began telling a story of a wandering preacher who claimed everyone was okay with God, that the real empire was of God, and everyone should treat each other as brothers and sisters and forgive each other. He hung out with outcasts, tax collectors, prostitutes and other undesirables and so should you. This was the world transforming message. Is it any wonder most people didn’t get it? And still don’t? Even the religion that grew up in the name of this world transforming message just became part of new empires over time and now, today, followers of that old preacher’s world transforming message bring that good news to those left behind and left out of the empire of today. They operate at the margins, without institutional power or authority in many cases, and ask once again, what would the imperial rule of God look like? Perhaps it wouldn’t look anything like an empire? Perhaps it would be very democratic and very inclusive and provide health care and education and housing and food for the people? Perhaps. These people look like a, well, like a church.
The word for ‘church’ in the Greek New Testament is ekklesia, but this term did not originate with the early followers of Jesus. Long before the life of the historical Jesus, ekklesia was a Greco-Roman political term. Warren Carter, in his book Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, notes that in its original context, ekklesia, broadly understood, “denotes the ‘duly summoned’ civic and political assembly of citizens in the Greek cities which along with a council expressed the will of the assembled people.” (335). Therefore, just as calling Jesus “lord” was a political statement that, “Caesar is not lord,” calling a gathering of Christians a “church” or “congregation” or “ekklesia” intentionally implied that the way of Jesus was an alternative to the way of Rome.
The most intriguing manifestation of ekklesia in our time has been the Occupy movement. It is the most empowered, duly summoned, civic and political assembly of citizens in my adult lifetime. It’s also proclaiming a world transforming message and that’s some good news. Amen.