roman empire

The Gospel of Mark: Manifesto of Political and Religious Defiance

The revolutionary on a coin. Image courtesy R.S.Jegg/shutterstock.com

The revolutionary on a coin. Image courtesy R.S.Jegg/shutterstock.com

I’m starting to think that Che Guevara and the Jesus of the Gospel according to Mark have an awful lot in common.

I should explain, first, that I’m in the first month of My Jesus Project, a year-long effort to more deeply live into the life, teaching and example of Jesus through prayer, study, and action. Each month, I explore a new dimension of Jesus with a mentor. This month is 'Jesus the Radical' with Christian Anarchist Mark Van Steenwyk. So of course coming from this point of view is going to impact my month's reading of the Gospel according to Mark. It's supposed to.

But in my 43 years of being exposed to the Bible, never have I seen the Jesus of Mark in the way I’m starting to see him now.

There are two recurring themes throughout the first several chapters in Mark: crowds and healing. The crowds following Jesus represent his growing power and influence — a growing threat to the occupying authorities of the Roman Republic — and though there are many general accounts of healing, the ones explicitly detailed in Mark all point to some act of political or religious defiance in the midst of the miraculous act of compassionate healing.

He’s either claiming the authority to forgive sins in front of religious leaders, healing on the sabbath, coming in contact with “unclean” women (like the bleeding woman in chapter five) without undergoing a cleansing mikvah  ritual immediately afterward, or he’s touching dead bodies (also chapter five) without cleansing himself as well. So far, throughout the first half of Mark, every account of healing or forgiveness stands in direct defiance of some political or religious rule.

All human laws bow at the feet of the authority of God, which is not a rule of law, but rather a subversive, paradigm-shifting “from the bottom up” rule of love and compassion for others, first and foremost. Period.

The Subversive Peace of Christmas

Banksy stencil grafitti in San Francisco. Radoslaw Lecyk / Shutterstock.com

Banksy stencil grafitti in San Francisco. Radoslaw Lecyk / Shutterstock.com

Christmas is a time for celebration, joy, and family. But Christmas is much more than a sentimental holiday.

Christmas is subversive.

The Bible doesn’t tell us the specific date Jesus was born. Later Christians tradition gave us the date of December 25. It was chosen by Pope Julius around the year 350 and Christians have been celebrating Christ’s birth on that day ever since.

But Pope Julius didn’t just randomly pick December 25. He was deliberate. As Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan claim in their book The First Christmas, when Pope Julius declared December 25 as the date to celebrate Christ’s birth, he integrated “it with a Roman solstice festival celebrating the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.’ The Roman birthday of the sun became the Christian birthday of the Son.”

That last sentence isn’t just a cute turn of phrase. It symbolizes the subversive quality of Christmas.

Holy Week: Journeying from Empire to Resurrection

Three wooden crosses, mossolainen nikolai / Shutterstock.com

Three wooden crosses, mossolainen nikolai / Shutterstock.com

We love a good parade, don’t we? All that celebration, the noise, the crowds, the jubilation … It’s exciting and contagious and a little amazing how a good parade can impact us.

No one understood this like the Romans. These are the people of bread and circuses after all, and no one in the ancient world did empire better than the Romans. The Romans were incredibly good at subduing those people they had conquered. They celebrated the festivals of, raised up leadership from, and generally ingratiated themselves smoothly into the lives of those they ruled. But rule they did.

There certainly were people in Jesus’ time who thought Jesus’ work would be to overthrow the Roman oppressors — establish a political kingdom. Scholars surmise that Judas, the disciple who would betray Jesus to the empire, was one of these. Think of Judas as someone who saw the evils of the Roman Empire and desperately wanted Hebrew rule returned to the region. What we might today call a freedom fighter.

But throughout his ministry, Jesus talked explicitly about the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven that is not of this world but is omnipresent, always at hand, constantly among us. And God’s. Period. A very different image of kingship, of dominion.

Candida Moss Debunks the ‘Myth’ of Christian Persecution

Photo courtesy Brian McConkey Photography

Notre Dame theologian Candida Moss, who wrote a book on Christianity and persecution. Photo courtesy Brian McConkey Photography

Growing up Catholic in England, Candida Moss felt secure in life, yet was told in church that Christians have been persecuted since the dawn of Christianity. Now, as an adult and a theologian, she wants to set the record straight.

Too many modern Christians invoke, to lamentable effect, an ancient history of persecution that didn’t exist, Moss argues in her newly published book, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented A Story of Martyrdom.

Although anti-Christian prejudice was fairly widespread in the church’s first 300 years, she writes, “the prosecution of Christians was rare, and the persecution of Christians was limited to no more than a handful of years.”

We asked Moss, professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, to talk about the travails of early Christians, and how they are misappropriated in the public sphere today. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Just Jesus and an Unjust July 4: Why I Don't Celebrate Independence Day

My friends and I can be stupid. Add explosives to the equation and the idiocy quotient increases exponentially. Such was the case every 4th of July during high school. A group of about 20 of my friends and I would get together to barbecue and play with illegal fireworks. At any unsuspected moment while taking a bite out of a burger, an M-80 could be lit under your seat, a sparkler thrown at your chest like a dart, or a mortar could be shot like a bazooka, catching bushes on fire. These chaotically stupid memories simultaneously serve as some of the most fun I can recall experiencing. So for me, Independence Day equals fun.

However, there's a deeper reality to this holiday. Only about three years ago did I realize that in celebrating Independence Day, I'm also glorifying the roots on which this nation was founded: an unjust war. The "rockets red glare" and "the bombs bursting in air" remind us not of the day God liberated the colonies, but of the moment in history when our forefathers stole the rhetoric of God from authentic Christianity to justify killing fellow Christians. There's two reasons I'm convinced that celebrating Independence Day celebrates an unjust war.

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