It’s a rainy, graciously lazy Saturday in Portland. A perfect time to dive into the Gospel of Mark and to cultivate my inner anarchist for the betterment of God’s Kingdom.
This week, I got a list of possible tasks to take on during this month of My Jesus Project, in which I’m exploring “Jesus the Radical.” My mentor this month, self-confessed Christian Anarchist Mark Van Steenwyk, has mercifully offered me opportunities to live out a more radical experience with varying degrees of challenge and discomfort.
The first, easiest opportunity is to seek out breaking bread with the “other.” His suggestion is to walk around in town where there are a higher number of people living on the streets. And if they ask for money, don’t just offer to feed them instead; offer to go to lunch with them. While there, if they accept, try to learn more about their story. If they ask, share your own, all in an effort to dissolve the other-ness between you, and to create a common bond over shared human experience.
Of course, it’s time consuming, potentially embarrassing, and can introduce you to a host of new smells. but even in the embarrassment, try to imagine the dehumanizing experiences someone living on the street goes through daily, simply to survive. All of this offers fertile soil for the fragile but essential seeds of compassion.
Next, while working intentionally at strengthening relationships with those on the social margins, my mentor also has encouraged me to explore the economics of our mainstream culture, and more specifically our relationship with money. At first his suggestion rattled me and seemed a little crazy.
But then in considering why I felt that way, I realized how important it might be.
“Gather a couple friends,” he wrote, “read the Sermon on the Mount together, paying close attention to Matthew 6:24, and then burn some money as a symbolic gesture of fidelity to the one who gives life. After a time of silent meditation, have a candid conversation about how you can organize your lives to be less constrained by the rule of Mammon in your life and, instead, live lives of generous, bold, simplicity.”
Wait…go back to the part where I burn my money.
I got really hung up on that for a minute. It seemed so wasteful, so insane, not to mention illegal. But consider the disparity between these two tasks. We sleep soundly in our beds most every night while others’ lives are utterly destroyed by the systems of consumption on which we depend, but someone mentions burning a $20 as an act religious ritual and we’re suddenly nuts.
I’m thinking I have to do this. Doesn’t have to be a lot, but it needs to represent the fact that we can’t venerate what money represents in our lives and culture, while also serving a God of liberation, infinite compassion and grace for all.
Then Mark’s suggested tasks really started making me itchy when he got to the whole table-turning thing.
He offered three options, of varying difficulty and discomfort. One is to perform some sort of liturgical service or spiritually inspired demonstration in a “subversive’ location. for example, he held a peace rally/service at the gates of a prominent defense contractor. Another time, he and his cohorts smeared fake blood on the walls of a federal justice building in protest of drone strikes (they were arrested). I want to do this, but I need it to be something that compels me, and not just trying to get put in jail or to replicate what someone else did. And I’m coming to realize why Jesus had disciples; I’m gonna need some help with all this stuff.
Next, he proposed that I interrupt a worship service, particularly one in which the pastor is preaching some sort of message that normalizes or even celebrates western socio-political values that stand in opposition to the life and teaching of Jesus. For starters, I work on Sundays, which makes it hard to find a time to do this. Second, I’m not sure how to do it in a way that actually teaches anyone anything, rather than just drawing negative attention to myself. Maybe if it was planned with a “friendly” pastor to actually be a part of the service, in which we process and discuss with some intention afterward. That could really be interesting.
Finally, he suggested I find a local mega-church (not easy in Portland) in which the bookstore sells books about Prosperity Gospel, and perform an act of temple cleansing, including turning over a few tables. Even he admitted that he probably wouldn’t have the nerve to do this himself, but thought it would be cool if I could pull it off.
Don’t hold your breath Mark.
On the the Gospel study this month, which is coincidentally also the Gospel of Mark (no connection as far as I know). So far, I’m only three chapters in, but in considering it with the lens of Christian anarchism, I’m most certainly seeing things in a fresh way. Although there are general accounts of Jesus healing lots of people, the ones specifically elaborated on in the beginning of Mark are unequivocally, intentionally political in nature.
First, Jesus performs an exorcism within the inner walls of the temple, and does so with temple Scribes witnessing. And as if that wasn’t enough of a repudiation to their authority, it says he taught with real authority, unlike their tendency simply to spout memorized scripture. And then the spirit he’s casting out names him as “The Holy One of God.” Talk about the ultimate act of defiance against temple authority.
Then he heals a leper, and instead of ordering him to tell others, he tells him to go straight to the temple, to offer the ritual cleansing and defy them to turn him away: one who previously was unworthy. Not long after, he heals a paralytic as scribes witness again. But before that, he performs what he knows they will claim is blasphemy by forgiving the man’s sins. It’s not the obvious choice, given the man’s ailments. Instead it’s a repudiation of their power as temple officials to dole out forgiveness as some favor over which they have no authority.
He’s challenged twice about violations of the Sabbath too, to which he responds that the Law they hold over people was meant to serve people, and not the other way around. But the Law he’s challenging is the source of the Temple officials’ power. He’s using miracles not simply as an act of love, or to demonstrate his divinity; he’s directly confronting the authority they have wielded over the people they were supposed to serve for too long.
So here we are, with Jesus leading me down an anarchist path, and me, wondering how in the hell to try and follow such a lead. The good news, in some ways at least, is that I’m not Jesus, and I don’t have to be. But we all know there are systems and structures of power all around us that wreak violence on us, our sisters and brothers.
So the lingering question we’re all afraid to ask is: what the hell are we going to do about it?