I'm using a book called Watch for the Light as an Advent devotional reader this season, and it's a powerful collection of profound texts. Today's reading by John Howard Yoder explored the similarities between the original use of the word "evangelion" and our modern word "revolution." According to Yoder, the "good news" referenced by the word "evangelion" was not just any old welcome information, but tidings that shape "our common lives for the better." So the "gospel" is a fundamentally revolutionary word. This shouldn't come as any surprise; as Yoder discusses, even Mary's song of praise, the Magnificat, speaks of "dethroning the mighty and exalting the lowly, of filling the hungry and sending the rich away empty," a revolutionary cry if I've ever heard one.
Somehow, though, our gospel has become all smiles, platitudes, and moralisms. In many circles, any talk of social justice in religious contexts is immediately put down as a distraction from the "real" issues of faith and salvation. For so many Christians, revolution is politics, and because "Jesus didn't do politics," we, too, must avoid any tendencies in that direction.
This might sound like a weird thing for me to be saying in an election year, where Christians once again had a loud public voice. But I'm realizing that those Christians are just one group among many, and that for every Christian activist, there's a Christian who believes that God is only interested in the individual's immortal soul and its eternal life.
Last Friday, Eastern University screened the independent film, Son of Man, a re-telling of the life of Christ in a contemporary African setting. There's no doubt that the movie's Jesus was very political, far more likely to use the words "comrade," "solidarity," and "unity" and to stand up for his people's right to have a voice in the political process than to talk about "sin," "morality," or even a spiritualized salvation. Some of the audience members at the screening really had a problem with this. "He didn't even talk about God," one young woman said. "Jesus wasn't a political activist," protested another.
But what better news could come to a war-torn land, where the government's tyranny takes the form of brutal, deadly suppression of all opposition? Son of Man's Jesus refuses to be silenced and dares to speak openly about the evil he sees in the world's most powerful people and institutions. He also refuses to let his followers--many of whom had been born, raised, and trained in violence--to harm any other person, regardless of his or her deeds; in a society where enemies hack one another to death with machetes, this Jesus's call to love and forgive one's enemies is as radical as any I can imagine, and it transcends words like "spiritual," "political," or even "moral." It is true righteousness, and it takes the form of both word and deed simultaneously.
We live in such an extremely individualistic culture that everything we touch terms to egotism, and we can't even see it happening. But the most egregious example of all is when we turn the Gospel of Christ into the gospel of self-righteousness and personal salvation. For me, Son of Man was a gospel movie insofar as it reminded me of the revolutionary nature of the good news that Christ embodied. He came to fulfill a promise to save the downtrodden from the oppression of the wicked, not just to save you or me from our personal sin or our own individual predicaments. What will our Magnificat sound like this season, when we remember the coming of our Savior? Will it sound like all those praise songs that can't seem to get past what God means to me, me, me, me, me, and how much I, I, I, I, I, I love Jesus? Or will it sound like Mary's hymn that moves so deftly, gracefully, and powerfully--and quickly--from the first person singular pronouns of her personal joy to the first person plural pronouns of her joy for all those suffering injustice?
"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation,
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants forever." -Luke 1:46-55