Born Against: The Way of Jesus as Protest

A.J. Swoboda recently wrote a very thoughtful piece on how the Christian faith relates to the occupy protest movement. I want to make sure at the outset that I acknowledge the article said many positive things about the movement including,

Protest isn’t new. The prophets protested endlessly against evil, injustice, and at times the institution in the Hebrew Scriptures…Jesus protested too. His entire existence was a protest against death, sin, and evil.

However, Swoboda also says, “We are not born against. We are born again. We are born for.” While this was written as a critique of protest movements, I think it fundamentally misunderstands this particular movement. In some ways it may also misunderstand something fundamental about the Christian narrative.

I previously wrote about why the Occupy movement’s position is not primarily (or only) against something (Occupy This Blog?!). Certainly there are some basic grievances that the movement has made clear. However, Douglas Rushkoff has said that the Occupy protests are a “beta test for a new way of living”, not just a way to be against something.

If we take seriously the idea that the Exodus narrative is at the very core of the biblical narrative, fundamental to the identity of the Israelites and paradigmatic for understanding the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus (the Last Supper was after all a Passover meal), then we must wrestle with the basic character of this narrative. The Exodus narrative does not begin with a vision for the future. It begins with a movement of protest.

First, comes the creative resistance of the Hebrew midwives rescuing the Hebrew babies that Pharaoh tried to kill. Moses is born and left to die, but his sister manipulates his rescue into the hands of the powerful. As a man torn between his position of power and Hebrew roots, he lashes out in violence at the injustice of oppression murdering an Egyptian. But this violent resistance will not be the way of YHWH. His own people condemn his actions and Pharaoh puts him on his watch list (there were no airplanes so he couldn’t yet be on the no-fly list). Then Moses disappears. As we know, he will be a reluctant leader. It is not his charisma that sparks this movement of liberation. It is the people crying out against.

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.” (Exodus 2: 23-25 ESV)

God acts on behalf of the Hebrews, not by giving them a vision of what they should be for, but because God is inherently against the injustice and oppression they suffer. The ensuing plagues ultimately demonstrate, not what God is for, but that God is fundamentally against, Pharaoh. Certainly the wilderness is a liminal space in which God begins to unfold God’s vision for an economy of gift, grace and abundance (think manna and quail). Yet, even then the people grumble about the circumstances and long for the “good life” they had under Pharaoh. Forgetting what they are against leads them to romanticize their own oppression, because after all liberation is hard work. A new way of living requires sacrifice and letting go of our previous life, even though there was some stability and certainty (even if false) in the old order of things.

So, perhaps the idea that the Edenic narratives in Genesis provide a blueprint for how God intended the world to be is less helpful than the very clear reality that God’s mission in the world begins fundamentally by being against certain things. This is true also in the patriarchal narratives, where God is against Cain and later the rest of humanity in the Noah story because of their propensity for violence (Genesis 6-9). There are certainly glimpses of what God is for, the Jubilee in Leviticus 25 is an idealistic vision that qualifies. The prophets sometimes hint at this other way of living, but more often than not they were first against the Pharaoh-like actions of Israel’s own rulers.

Clearly these are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, how can one be against something without some vision for the way the world should be? The prophets’ outcry against injustice was certainly motivated in some way by a vision for how God intended Israel to live. My point here is not to say that we should not discover what we are for and what God is for. The point is that God does not begin with the same starting point that Swoboda and others seem to require of ourselves. In many ways I think that we are uncomfortable being against things, because it is that prophetic stance that gets people killed and inspired the violence of Empires throughout history.

The way to be for a different order of life is to begin to live it out together, as Occupy Wall Street is attempting. What makes us squirm is the way that living out the way of Jesus inevitably forces us to be against some things and the actions of some people. As liberation theology points out, the God of justice is necessarily against the wealthy for their own liberation and salvation. God cannot be just without being against those causing the people to cry out for help. If we could be for the kingdom of God without having to be against the injustices ad systems of oppression, we could have liberation without any struggle or need to deal with the reality of the world we have created. It would be like the question Julie Clawson recently posed, “When does speaking of liberation actually enable oppression?” on her blog. Real liberation involves being against the order of this world and hopefully embodying what we are for in our churches and communities which inevitably makes the Powers (and often ourselves) nervous.

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