How Jesus challenged oppressors and broke down barriers

As economic conditions worsen, we are seeing a turn to right wing nationalistic politics around the world, as crafty politicians are able to sway public opinion by appealing to their baser instincts.

Feb 20, 2021

By Anil Netto
As economic conditions worsen, we are seeing a turn to right wing nationalistic politics around the world, as crafty politicians are able to sway public opinion by appealing to their baser instincts.

These unscrupulous politicians manipulate public sentiment and divert their attention from critical issues by focusing on chauvinistic issues of race and religion while creating imaginary enemies.

When the time is ripe, they impose their political power to seize control of resources and levers of patronage.

Others take advantage of the pandemic lockdown to strengthen their grip on power, and this may lead to tyranny if checks and balances in the system are removed.

Authoritarian leaders may even go after opposition politicians, activists, journalists and even independent artists. Just look at what is happening in Myanmar.

This is happening at a time of rising unemployment and mounting hardship. Long lines of people queue up for welfare aid or at soup kitchens. Hospitals are overcrowded, frontline health workers exhausted.

In even more oppressive First Century Palestine, Jesus responded by working the ground and creating a new movement of justice, peace, compassion and solidarity. These were the hallmarks of the kingdom of God that he proclaimed.

This new movement was inclusive, as Jesus reached out to the excluded, the marginalised and the oppressed. He turned the tables on the domination systems of the time, leaving many observers aghast or outraged.

Despite his own Jewish background, Jesus was not content with reaching out to only the Jews. Nor did he talk only to the oppressed and the excluded.

Jesus also cast his eyes on those inflicting much suffering on the people or burdening  them. If they were not directly responsible, they were at least a part of groups that were oppressing the people.

Jesus reached out to them, challenging them to look anew at their own role in perpetuating the oppressive structures of his time.

Now, the Roman army, a killing machine, would have legions of 6,000 soldiers each, divided into 10 cohorts of 600 each. Each cohort would have six centurions, each in charge of about 80 to 100 soldiers. Battle-hardened men, centurions would have risen up the ranks after about 10-15 years of service. They would have been on the front lines of battle, leading their troops and enforcing discipline.

Many ordinary people would have resented this oppressive occupying force, which quashed local rebellions, imposed harsh punishments (including crucifixions) on rebels, and enforced tax collections.

And yet, Jesus healed a centurion’s servant. With his faith and gratitude, the Roman centurion must have searched his conscience long and hard after that, perhaps reflecting on his own role in inflicting misery on the people.

The Lord also reached out to Nicodemus, who was part of the religious power structure that was placing a heavy burden on the people. Nicodemus himself was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, his colleagues being the chief priests and other Pharisees. Probably afraid of being spotted, he approached Jesus in the dead of night after the cleansing of the Temple.

Jesus engaged Nicodemus on the real meaning of religion and deeper spirituality, telling  him he must be reborn in water and the Spirit.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus also encountered the scribes and Pharisees and strongly challenged their rigid, narrow perspective of religion, which was almost devoid of deeper spirituality and compassion. This was a worldview that had strong notions of what was pure and impure, while ignoring the burdens they placed on ordinary people who were sincerely seeking the Lord. Worse, they were part of a corrupt religious system (with the Temple at the heart) that was in collaboration with military occupiers. Together, they were extracting enormous wealth from farmers, fisherfolk and other peasants in the countryside, enriching a small elite group in the major towns and cities.

Jesus probably knew that, in the socioeconomic setting of the time, if someone was extremely wealthy, chances were, somewhere along the way, he must have profited from the misery of others. In that era, a minority got rich through unscrupulous trading practices or they may have profited through toll or tax syndicates. Others might have exploited workers or confiscated land from peasant farmers who were in debt.

No wonder Jesus told the rich young man who had followed all the commandments that he still lacked something crucial: that he must sell all he had and give to the poor.

The Lord also engaged in fellowship with tax collectors, especially Zacchaeus, a chief collector, and Matthew, who was sitting at his toll or tax booth in Capernaum. Jesus knew how instrumental they were in propping up the oppressive situation of the time.

To create a more inclusive movement, Jesus knew he had to break down the social, gender, interreligious, xenophobic and territorial barriers of his time. That is why he made it a point to speak to the Samaritan woman by the well about real worship, in Spirit and in truth – worship that went beyond the rituals and sacrifices of the temples in Jerusalem (for the Jews) and Mount Gerizim (for the Samaritans).

The risen Jesus also encountered Saul, who was persecuting the early Christians, whom Saul must have regarded as threatening the ideological stranglehold of the religious-political elite of the time.

Through all these encounters, Jesus challenged individuals behind the oppressive social, political and religious structures of the time to look anew at their own oppressive, exploitative roles.

If we are serious about the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed, we need to reflect on our own role in society. Who or what are we propping up? Are we building social and other barriers or breaking them down? Are we building the kingdom or undermining it?

We cannot escape from social politics, which is larger than party politics. Almost everything that matters in this world is linked to politics. In its broadest sense, politics is about the activities associated with decision-making in groups or about forms of power relations in society.

This includes policies and decisions on the distribution of resources in society and this has led to huge disparities between the rich and the poor.

As Christians, we are called to take part in such broad politics and infuse them with the human compassion and social love that the Bishop of Rome set out in his social encyclical Fratelli Tutti.

Upon such values will the new kingdom transform our world, which is now poised for a reset — but only if enough people are convinced and committed to the cause of the kingdom.

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