From my soon-to-be-published book, The Politics of Witness:
For Jesus, one of the biggest failings of his people was the decision not to reject violence but rather to utilize it as a tool in an attempt to bring in God's Kingdom. Time and time again, Jesus continued to insist that God's people could not be a light to the nations if they insisted on beating the nations over the head. On more than a few occasions, Jesus refused to be taken off and made king by the people in order to lead a revolt. For Jesus, the end did not justify the means; the true end of what God wanted for his people could not be achieved apart from a certain means. The world's ways of power and coercion were not to be the ways of the church. Tom Wright notes, "From [Jesus'] point of view, Israel at that time was making a pretty poor fist of being the light of the world. Many of Jesus' contemporaries were hot-headed, zealous would-be revolutionaries. Was that the way the kingdom would come? Was that how to be the light of the world?... Jesus' answer was an unequivocal No" (Wright, The Original Jesus, p. 49).
Thus, as Jesus seeks to remake the people of God through his followers, he is clear to them as to how they are to operate among themselves.
So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:42-45).
Jesus' words must be understood in their larger context. Jesus is offering more than a lesson on how the disciples should relate to one another within the operations of the church community. It also signifies the posture that the followers of Jesus must take as they fulfill the will of God in the world. Mark sets the context for this particular teaching of Jesus:
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory" (Mark 10:35-37).
James and John are asking Jesus to put them in the two most powerful positions in God's Kingdom—after Jesus, of course. In effect, the two brothers want Jesus to appoint one of them as the Secretary of State and the other as the Secretary of the Treasury. They are thinking of the exercise of power in terms of how all the other nations exercise power. They assume that God's Kingdom will operate accordingly as well. In other words, the Kingdom context of this particular teaching in Mark 10 means that Jesus is not only giving his disciples instructions on how to behave toward one another as they live as God's people, but the posture they are to take toward the world as they bear witness to God's Kingdom.
Jesus, of course, embodies the Kingdom mode of operation throughout his ministry, even refusing to employ the methods of the nations in order to save himself from the horror of the cross. Indeed, Jesus' cross and resurrection revealed the power of the politics of witness over the power politics of the nations. The late John Howard Yoder states, in what has become a classic passage in many Christian circles:
But the answer given to the question by the series of visions and their hymns [in the Book of Revelation] is not the standard answer. "The lamb that was slain is worthy to receive power!" John is here saying, not as an inscrutable paradox but as a meaningful affirmation, that the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history. The key to the obedience of God's people is not their effectiveness, but their patience (13:10). The triumph of the right is assured not by the might that comes to the aid of the right, which is of course the justification of the use of violence and other kinds of power in every human conflict; the triumph of the right, although it is assured, is sure because of the power of the resurrection and not because of any calculation of causes and effects, nor because of the inherently greater strength of the good guys. The relationship between the obedience of God's people and the triumph of God's cause is not a relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection. (John Howard Yoder: The Politics of Jesus, p. 238.)
So, if this reading of Jesus and his ministry is correct, what has happened to the church that its political posture in the world seems to look no different from the politics of the nations? Jesus' words of condemnation to the people of Israel seem just as relevant for the church in the twenty-first century West.
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