Was Jesus an "atheist" because he taught that God is insurgent?
Hespeler, 12 June, 2016 © Scott McAndless
Luke 6:20-31, Matthew 5:1-16, Isaiah 1:10-18
If you were given the chance to invent a god – a god that everyone else would have to acknowledge, worship and obey – what would your god look like? What would be important to your god? Well, that would probably depend, wouldn’t it? It would depend on you and what your priorities were.
If you were a committed vegetarian, for example, the god you would invent would probably be very likely to get judgy about people killing animals for food. If your greatest passion this summer was for your country to win more Olympic medals, then you might invent a god who closely followed the games and cared about the outcomes. If you were poor, you might invent a god who called for the rich to give away some of their wealth to the poor but if you were rich – oh, if you were rich – you can be very sure that the god that you would invent would be very keen on making sure that rich folks got to keep whatever was theirs.
Now you might say that it is a little bit silly to talk like that about a god that someone invents because you don’t
to invent God. God just is and it is up to us to come to terms with the God
that we discover in the scriptures and in other places. And of course that is
But you are kidding yourself if you think that human beings have not had a role in shaping the ways in which God has been pictured, imagined and talked about down through the ages. Humanity may have been created in God’s image, but the reality is that humanity then turned around and imagined God according to their creation. This was inevitable because we had no language and no concepts that could possibly grasp the true nature of God. We had to define him in terms we could relate to.
But while, to a certain degree, every human who has ever thought about God has engaged in this project of imagining God in their own image, some have had certain advantages. Men, for example, have historically had a much bigger hand in creating the imagery and stories about God which is probably why people have traditionally been far more likely to think of God as male and interested in keeping men in charge of things.
Wealthy and powerful people in general have also always had ways of making sure that their particular images of God get the most attention. They have done it by being patrons of the temples and religious institutions, by being patrons of the arts, by sponsoring prophets and other preachers. I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing. This way of doing things has brought with it some of the most beautiful architecture, art, music and words ever created in the history of the world under the patronage of wealthy folks for the sake of religion.
But another result of this is also that the dominant image of God in our society is of a God who tends to share the priorities and interests of the wealthy and powerful. For example, back in the Middle Ages, it was the accepted doctrine and teaching of the Catholic Church that God had assigned to every member of society a place. God had made some to be kings, others to be lords and masters and priests, some to be merchants. But the vast majority of the people, God had made to be peasants and serfs and to live in poverty as they served the needs of everyone else.
“The great chain of being,” they called it, and taught that its links wound all the way from highest heaven to the lowest beast on earth. Everyone had a place and everyone had better stay in that place or else! When the church preached that such a picture of society was God’s will, that made people who questioned the way that society worked or who demanded change not only dangerous rebels but also even more dangerous heretics.
Now, things have, I will admit, improved a great deal since the Middle Ages. We now believe in things like social mobility and reject the idea of a class system. But I’m not sure that, for most people, the overall picture of God’s priorities has changed all that much. So, while people no longer believe that God ordained a great chain of being as an unchangeable order for society, they tend to still believe that God is totally invested in the present order of things. God, we seem to assume, wants people just to be happy with how things are and not to ask for a great deal in terms of change. The rich get to keep all their stuff – after all, doesn’t God say, “thou shalt not steal” – and the poor should just keep their heads down and work hard and maybe eventually they’ll get rich too.
God, we assume, is a conservative God, not necessarily a capital C political party Conservative God (though there are some who assume that) – but at least conservative in the sense that he wants to conserve the present social order of things – doesn’t want troublemakers to rock the boat or seek to change things. This idea is so taken for granted that anytime anyone does anything that challenges the present social order of things our very first reaction is often to think that there is something amoral or even atheistic about that person.
But that God (the God invested in the status quo) was not the God that Jesus believed in. The God that Jesus proclaimed was a God who was not invested in the present social order of things but was rather committed to upsetting that order. One of Jesus’ favourite sayings, one that he seems to have repeated on many occasions was, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” You simply could not find a way to call for a complete reversal of the order of society in fewer words than that. Jesus proclaimed something that he called the kingdom of God which was, if you listen closely to what he actually said, mostly about transforming society into a place where, well, the first were last and the last were first.
But perhaps there is no place where Jesus laid out his vision of a transformed society more clearly than in the passage we read this morning from the Gospel of Luke that I call the Blessings and Curses of Jesus of Nazareth. This is Luke’s version of the much more famous passage known as the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew. People often prefer Matthew’s presentation of these sayings because it is possible to read those sayings in a purely spiritual way. I mean, it can make a certain amount of sense to think of those who are “poor in spirit” or those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” as being blessed because those sound like spiritual conditions. They don’t need to have anything to do with real economic poverty or actual physical hunger.
But the version in Luke’s Gospel is not going to let us off the hook so easily. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus speaks far more plainly. Those who are blessed, he says, are the poor, the hungry and those who are weeping. And, just in case we miss the point, Jesus goes on from there to state even more starkly that those who are rich, well-fed and laughing are cursed. We can’t just write this off and say that Jesus was only talking about spiritual truths and realities here. He was talking about a God who was passionately committed to bring about serious social change.
That was the God that Jesus believed in and whose kingdom he proclaimed. And, make no mistake, it was not the same God that his enemies believed in. The Jewish rulers and priests did not believe in a God who was determined to bless the poor and curse the rich. They were pretty sure that God was committed to making sure that the rulers kept their wealth and the priests kept their power. And the Romans especially didn’t believe in the kind of God that Jesus did. Their gods were quite committed to making sure that Rome got richer while everyone else remained poorer.
It was the refusal of Jesus to acknowledge this God of Rome and the Jewish rulers, more than anything else, that got him arrested and killed. If Jesus had restricted himself to only teaching spiritual truths and speaking about a life after death with no real economic and social implications for here and now, they might have mocked him, marginalized him, even locked him up, but they wouldn’t have bothered to kill him. But to believe in a God who wants to bring about change in how things work, that is the most dangerous kind of belief there is.
I think it is very important for us to acknowledge how very radical the God that Jesus was talking about was: an insurgent God rather than the God we have always heard of – the one who is interested in keeping everything in good order. But there is a real question here about what it means to follow Jesus’ example and to serve the God that he proclaimed.
There is one thing that I am sure that it does not mean. It doesn’t mean that we support all movements that seek to bring about social change. There have been many movements throughout history that have set out to bring social change, and many of them have sought to use any and all means to create that change including violence.
Jesus could have created that kind of movement. He was living in a time when his nation of Israel was occupied by a brutal occupying Roman army. He could have called for armed revolt and revolution but he explicitly rejected any idea of bringing change through violence. “Bless those who curse you,” he taught, “pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” But just because he would not resort to violence did not mean that he didn’t expect things to change. It was just that he had no faith that violence could bring that change. It could only make things worse. Only God and the grace of God shown through us can transform society.
But actually it is because we believe in a God who is committed to a transformation of society that we are freed from the need to resort to violence to bring about change. Martin Luther King Jr. was a man who, in his day, achieved some enormous social change in American society and, inspired by the example of Jesus, he did it without resorting to violence. It wasn’t easy. There were many times when his followers wanted to give up on the nonviolent approach and fight back. One of the things that he said that gave people hope was this, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
What he was saying was that our faith in a God who is committed to justice – to the creation of a society where there is equality and opportunity for all – means that we don’t think we have to bring it about by ourselves. We don’t have to rush that change or make it to happen through violence. We can even take violence and persecution directed towards us with patience and endurance because we trust that, though it may take time (the arc of the universe is long), God will make sure it ends up with things being more just rather than less.
It is quite possible for people to grow up in the church, hear people talking about God all the time, and yet come away with the notion that God is only really interested in maintaining the status quo and making sure that nobody makes any waves by asking for change. A lot of people seem to think that such a God is the only God there is. But I am afraid that I cannot believe in such a God any more. I am not alone. There are too many people who are saying, I’m not going to believe in that God. What is the use of a God who is not going to let anything change? This is, as far as I can see, one of the reasons why atheism is a growing movement in the world today.
This is a dangerous trend, but not merely because people are abandoning God. It is dangerous because of where it may lead our society. When people no longer believe in a God who makes sure that the long arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, they start to feel like they are the ones who have to make sure that it bends that way. And when people start to feel that way, it is not long before they start to resort to things like violence to make sure it happens. We cannot afford that.
So, yes, I think it is vitally important that we proclaim today the God that Jesus knew – a God committed to social change towards justice. The consequences of any other approach are too dangerous to consider.
#TodaysTweetableTruth Jesus' God is committed to social change towards justice. That is why we have #hope & don't need 2 resort 2 #violence.