Proper 18 (September 4-10)
Texts: Matthew 18:15-20;
JESUS’ POLITICS, PART 3:
HOW IS A POLITICS OF SUFFERING ‘GOOD NEWS’?
How Can That Be “Good News”?
This week I want to begin with the question you might have left with last week: How is a politics of suffering violence “Good News”?!
In answering this question, I won’t be focusing on one of today’s readings but the Gospel Readings and Epistles from the past three weeks. This is the final week in a three-part series on the politics of Jesus. Week 1 we worked to see that Jesus does in fact have a politics — that much of the language about Jesus was politically charged in the 1st Century but muted to us twenty centuries later. Week 2 we saw that Jesus put forward a shocking politics centered on suffering violence. He challenged the entrenched human belief that the only way to stop violence is to resort to violence yourself.
This week we ask how this could possible be “Good News.” Think about our situation right now. There is so much to fear. We face our mortality with this terrible pandemic and the disruption it is causing to our lives. One of the most threatening of those disruptions is economic security: can our family survive this economic downturn? And many are most frightened by the civil unrest in the wake of seeing George Floyd murdered. And now, close to home in Kenosha, Jacob Blake is shot in the back seven times, with his children watching in the car.
Let’s face it. One of the things we are most frightened of is violence. How could suffering violence ever be considered a message of “Good News”?
The “Good News” of Being on the Right Side of History
The first sense in which I believe suffering violence is Good News is that it’s on the right side of history. We need to go back to the first week and remember where the term “Good News” comes from: the Greek word euangelion (from which we get our word evangelism) was a term used in the 1st Century for an imperial proclamation — usually to announce how the vaunted Roman army had won yet another great and decisive victory.
The euangelion was also meant to intimidate any upstarts, to make it clear that Rome was on the right side of history. Caesar thought he and the Roman Empire were the be-all and end-all of history, the empire with the mightiest army who would be able to maintain power for a thousand years. Sound familiar? Hitler thought that, too, as well as many empires throughout history. There are Americans, too, who think we have an imperial destiny because we currently hold the mightiest military power in the world.
But Jesus and the early Christians challenged that euangelion, that “Good News.” And how strange was that challenge! They actually seemed to think that their imperial proclamation of being on the right side of history took precedence through their Lord and Savior who — get this! — had been humiliated and horribly executed on a Roman cross! How could such a loser be proclaimed to be on the right side of history?
Brothers and sisters, we follow this executed loser precisely because his way of nonviolence — his entire way of being human as grounded in God’s love — we believe this Way to be on the right side of history. The end of history is not promised to the most powerful military. It is promised, as we read several weeks ago in Romans 8, to the whole creation being freed from its subjectivity to such endless madness as human war. It is promised to all of humankind that we come together as a family in peace, finally fulfilling our calling as stewards of one another and of the earth. At its best, America is striving to realize its founding idea, that all human beings are created equal. At our best, we are living into the promise that all will have the basics of life, the pursuit of happiness.
I think that John Lewis was a follower of Jesus who truly lived this sense of Good News and put the matter in terms of being in line with the “Spirit of History,” the spirit of Jesus that led him to suffer violence many times for the sake of Justice:
I have long believed — I have long preached — that our nation’s moral compass comes from God, it is of God, and it is seen through God. And God so loved the world that he gave us the countless men and women who lost their homes and their jobs for the right to vote. God gave us the children of freedom who lost their lives in a bombing in Birmingham and the three young men who were killed in Mississippi. But above all else God gave us courage — the power to believe that what I call the Spirit of History behind us is stronger than the terror of hatred in front of us. That is what I believed then. And I believe it now.1
The “Good News” of God’s Solidarity with the Most Vulnerable
The second sense in which a politics of suffering violence is Good News is also what makes for it being on the right side of history. Recall the chart we had last week about the vast difference between human thinking and God’s thinking. Crucial is that our thinking about who God is is flat out wrong. There’s a theology, a thinking about God, that goes with the two main brands of politics. The usual human politics has a false theology of God favoring the rich and powerful, that God blesses them to be rich and powerful. Caesar thought himself a son of God. Billionaires today (of all political stripes) often think they are the ones who can supposedly save us from our problems.
Jesus gives us the opposite theology and a politics to go with it. God actually is in solidarity with the most vulnerable among us, calling us to stand with them, even if it means suffering their vulnerability to the violence of poverty — Gandhi calling poverty the worst form of violence. With folks like Martin Luther King, Jr. or John Lewis, we might place our bodies at risk by standing with those whose lives are valued less. But it’s only when we also take care of the most vulnerable that everyone becomes cared for. It’s like Martin Luther King used to say, “I’m not free until everyone is free. I don’t have enough until everyone has enough.”
But let me be very clear: this doesn’t mean that God simply plays favorites, favoring the poor instead of the rich, somehow leaving the rich out of things. It’s that God is in solidarity not just with the most vulnerable among us. Rather, God seeks to connect in solidarity with the most vulnerable part of each person, that is, with the brokenness in need of healing that we all bear — at base, with our finitude, our mortality. The problem for the rich and powerful comes when they believe in a false God of the powerful, and so they close off their vulnerability to the true God.
Now can you see why something like the vulnerability that comes with suffering violence is Good News? It enables the true God to be present with us in our vulnerability, able to strengthen us with God’s power of love and life. When we recognize our vulnerability, we celebrate God’s power of life for us and for the whole creation.
But solidarity by connecting through vulnerability is also the key to why suffering violence is the only true politics. The Spirit of History which John Lewis talked about is bending toward the arc of a Beloved Community that includes the whole human family — except those who choose to be left out because they believe in the power of being able to be in control. And what is the only way to invite everyone into the Beloved Community? By seeking to connect with their vulnerability, which can only truly happen when each of us has the vulnerability of being willing to suffer the violence of another. If we choose to return violence for violence, it only cements the way of being human that believes in having power over others. If we choose the way of being willing to suffer violence, there’s a chance it may connect with the vulnerable side of the other person so that it opens them to God. One of my current heroes, Rev. Dr. William Barber, who has revived Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign, says that, “A nonviolent struggle has two possible ends: winning the opposition as friends or giving up the battle.”2 Hear that again: the goal is to win the opposition as friends.
How does this work? I have two stories as examples. The first involves Civil Rights leader James Lawson leading sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville in the 1960’s.3 Lawson spoke to the African American students at the sit-in, with white patrons listening in, making it clear to them that they were not to retaliate under any circumstances. When he finished, a white man in motorcycle leathers walked up to Lawson and spit in his face. Before the man could realize what it meant, Lawson asked to borrow his handkerchief. The man quickly obliged without thinking, and Lawson used it to wipe the spit from his face. Then, Lawson asked if the motorcycle outside was his and, upon getting an affirmative response, engaged the man for several minutes about a common love for motorcycles. Now completely disarmed and with his humanity engaged, the man asked if there was anything he could do to help their cause. An opponent had been turned into a friend.
This, of course, was not the typical outcome. Civil Rights activists had to endure many beatings and jailings, and even death. But even when the outcomes were bad at the time, sometimes seeds of change were planted.
Which brings us to my second example: It’s a story about John Lewis when he was participating as a “Freedom Rider” in the 60’s, trying to integrate buses across the South.4 He received many beatings on those journeys, often from the Ku Klux Klan. Many years later one of those Klansmen from South Carolina came to Lewis’s congressional office in tears to ask his forgiveness. Lewis’s suffering his violence planted a seed in a place of vulnerability in this man’s heart that grew into a changed mind and repentance.
Brothers and sisters, yes, there is much to fear right now. But I think these multiple crises give us the opportunity to live the politics of Jesus in ways that can be transformational. The strange thing about a pandemic is that it makes every person in this world vulnerable to it. But that’s also a golden opportunity for us all to connect in terms of our vulnerability, then, and not our vying for the usual human political power. It brings the opportunity to care for each other as family, which so many across this nation are doing — the front line medical and emergency workers, the so-called “essential workers.” On this Labor Day, we truly celebrate all workers who do so in the spirit of caring for one another as family. And the economic crisis also brings a vulnerability that presents the opportunity to embrace faith in abundance rather than scarcity so that we turn to an economics which makes sure everyone makes it through this crisis. And, finally, the crisis of racial unrest brings the opportunity to address four hundred years of inequality and to better live into being one human family. On this Labor Day Weekend, let us pray, echoing the words of John Lewis, that above all else God gives us courage — the power to believe that the Spirit of History behind us is stronger than the terror in front of us. As Jesus proclaimed, “Repent, transform your thinking, and believe in the Good News!”
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer,
Racine, WI, September 6, 2020
1. John Lewis in his Afterword to Jon Meacham’s new book, His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope (Random House, 2020), 248.
2. William J. Barber, The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement (Beacon Press, 2016), 93.
3. I pass on this story from recently hearing historian Jon Meacham tell it on a cable news broadcast (MSNBC).
4. From an MSNBC episode, “Headliners: John Lewis / The Power of Nonviolence.”