Yes, of course, Jesus was “a social revolutionary” but that description is as accurate as it is inadequate—like saying Mozart played the violin.
First, that adjective (social) has a minor and a major problem. The minor one is how it is often used—in Roman Catholicism, for example—only in reference to the world outside the church. Social revolution and social justice are about programs and policies outside but never—as it were—inside the church. They are social as distinct from ecclesiastical, and criticism looks only outward rather than both inward and outward (in that order). Discrimination against women, for instance, is bad out there but good in here.
The major problem is, however, much more important. Jesus, like all those other magnificent Jewish prophets before him, did not live and die for social justice but for divine justice—which is simply the transcendental radicalization of everything we might imagine within social justice. Divine justice warns us in Psalm 82:5, for example, that human injustice shakes the foundations of the earth.
Jesus’ vision came from the heart of Jewish tradition, straight from the core of covenant and law, prophecy and eschatology, psalm and wisdom. He did not start from democratic, political, or even human rights as we might do. He started from the metaphor of God “as Father,” from the world as the household of God, and from all human beings as children of that divine home. That, to be sure, was a quite patriarchal metaphor but the criterion of patriarchal success was not the householder’s ability to boss women around but his ability to insure that all members of the house were adequately fed, clothed, sheltered, and protected. If you walked into the house, would you praise the name, that is, extol the reputation of the one who administered it so well? Did everyone, you might ask, have enough? Or some too much and some too little?
That is why the first three petitions of the Our Father are about God and the last three about us in relationship to God. It does not start with us, it starts with God—as Father, Householder, Administrator of the Earth. And that is why the first three units all say the same thing in different ways in Matthew 6:9-10: “Our Father in heaven, (1) hallowed be your name. (2) Your kingdom come. (3) Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” God’s name will be hallowed, that is, praised as holy, only when—and only if—God’s kingdom is come, and God’s will is spread over the earth. If you look, those three units ask, at the world and believe it belongs to God, would you extol the reputation of such a God? Is the world a well-run Home for all God’s Children? Does each and do all have enough?
Second, that noun (revolutionary) also has a very profound problem. As a revolutionary was Jesus violent or non-violent? Jesus was absolutely and programmatically non-violent because, as he said in Matthew 5:48 = Luke 6:36, that’s the way God is. I remind you of two points from my earlier more detailed response in December 2006.
One is that, quite apart from Jesus, Jewish responses to Roman imperial oppression involved both violent rebellion and non-violent resistance—backed by a willingness to die as martyrs—in the Jewish homeland of that terrible first century. Just think of that non-violent demonstration when Pharisees removed the great golden eagle of Rome from above the western entrance to Herod’s temple and died without any mention of armed resistance. Jesus, in other words, did not invent non-violent resistance.
The other point is that the most important commentator on Jesus’ program is Pilate. Like Antipas with John the Baptist, so Pilate with Jesus. In dealing with violent resistance Rome killed or arrested both leader and followers. In dealing with non-violence resistance Rome executed only the leader as a warning and a deterrent to the followers. And even with non-violent resistance, by the way, they did not crucify philosophers but they did execute activists, demonstrators, witnesses for the Kingdom of God against the Empire of Rome.
Jesus—at least for myself as a Christian—exemplified the justice of God over against the injustice of imperial power. He incarnated the radicality of God’s non-violence over against the normalcy of civilization’ violence.
Finally, in a New York Times article entitled “As Pope Heads to Brazil, a Rival Theology Persists” (May 7) Larry Rohter quoted this papal assertion: “As John Paul II put it early in his papacy: “This conception of Christ as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive of Nazareth, does not tally with the church’s catechism.’”
If that is true, the problem may be with Rome’s catechism and not with Brazil’s theology.