What would Jesus do? The art of public action.

By Nick Coke

In our pamphlet, Marching Towards Justice, we outline a methodology for justice-seeking. We highlight four key elements required for bringing about lasting change: visitation, power analysis, training and development, and public action. Of the four, public action is the most contentious. Why? Because it involves struggle and agitation. In our section on ‘public action’ you will find the following words and phrases: ‘actions are targeted and personal’, ‘they should involve confrontation’, ‘the appropriate action is the one that will provoke the action one is looking for’. Provoke, target, confront – words that might make us uncomfortable as followers of Jesus. After all, isn’t the Christian life all about love, mercy and grace? Yes of course it is, but if we ask the question ‘what would Jesus do?’, we might soon realise that he would not have been too squeamish about the kind of public action we write about. In fact, not only was he a remarkable practitioner of agitation and confrontation (turning over the tables in the temple courts, healing on the sabbath, telling stories about good Samaritans, reclining at the table of ‘sinners’ and ‘outcasts’), he also taught his followers exactly how to do it in some of the most revolutionary political statements you’ll ever find. In Walter Wink’s wonderful short book, ‘Jesus and Non-violence: A Third Way’, there is brief exposition of Matthew 5:38-41. You will know the passage well:

‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.’

What Wink does so brilliantly is to reframe the usual way in which these teachings are applied. non-violenceInstead of them being mere principles of generosity and submission in an attempt to avoid violence, he illustrates that in fact Jesus is teaching his listeners (people who understood what it was like to live under real oppression) how to stand up to injustice, subvert the misuse of power over them and expose the injustice in the system, without mirroring the behaviour of their oppressors. If you’ve got five minutes you can read Wink’s exposition here. It’s worth every second! Here’s a quote to whet your appetite:

‘Jesus is not telling us to submit to evil, but to refuse to oppose it on its own terms. We are not to let the opponent dictate the methods of our opposition. He is urging us to transcend both passivity and violence by finding a third way, one that is at once assertive and yet nonviolent.’

When we understand Jesus’ teaching in this way, it gives nourishment and Biblical support to struggles for justice in our own contexts. As we said in our report, all the other elements essential to bringing about social and political change ‘become neutralised for the purpose of justice-seeking without public action.’ If we want to fight for justice (and yes it is a fight), then provocation, confrontation and targeting of individuals who misuse power are the kind of tactics that need to be deployed. It seems that Jesus did it, taught his followers how to do it and therefore we should not be afraid to follow suit. Of course it would be lovely if gentle persuasion, sending a well-worded email or a Twitter campaign would do the job. It would be nice if everyone thought we were wonderful for the good works we do and we never needed to cross anyone. But we are called to do more than that. ‘Storming the forts of darkness’ has always required more than that.

2 thoughts on “What would Jesus do? The art of public action.”

  1. I love Walter Wink. I wish more churches understood that Jesus was all about confrontation, but he just taught a better way of going about it.

    1. You’re right. Much of the confrontation that I observe in the church is of the polemical, argumentative kind. I see Jesus being far more creative than that.

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