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Peasant revolutionary

A paradoxical power is revealed in people the world despises, in people the world deems weak.
By Wendy Fitting
11.9.09

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beggar (Tobias Helbig/iStockphoto)

(Tobias Helbig/iStockphoto)

As a Unitarian Universalist I’m reluctant to ask Jesus for something he can’t give. For me, it isn’t enough to enjoy the traditional music and stories of Christmas and Easter, and, on that basis alone, call myself “Christian.”

Most self-described Christians base that designation on their acceptance of Jesus Christ as their Lord and personal savior, by whose sacrifice they are saved. As a Unitarian Universalist, salvation is a real current that tugs on every decision I make, and the teachings of Jesus are an invitation to explore the depth and force of that current. The words “Lord and personal savior” hold a world of complexity. Jesus is neither “Lord,” nor “King” to me, these words being the designations of an empire, the secular mantle used to justify him for disciples disillusioned by his failure to return. Brought before Pontius Pilate, Jesus was mocked and discredited by the titles and symbols of kingship: a crown of thorns, a purple robe, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (John 19:1-3). And for centuries that mocking imagery has obscured the truth, justified ecclesiastical corruption, and blunted the power of what he did and what he taught.

Because the resurrection, as an event, is central to the faith of Christians, a Unitarian Universalist conversation with Christianity must include it. It is not enough to say that I believe it is a metaphor. The resurrection represents the living presence of Jesus, an ongoing and unsealed revelation of God’s compelling love. He is risen indeed, not to a sedentary throne in heaven, but into my life and alive everywhere that evil is persistently resisted and everywhere that a revolution for goodness is thoughtfully engaged. According to biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan, Jesus was a peasant, a revolutionary whose message was one of radical inclusiveness.

This is powerful fuel for Unitarian Universalists committed to social justice. If Jesus is “Lord” to me in songs of grateful praise, it is as an instigator of courageous living, a messenger of irony and power, inspiring me, as Wendell Berry said, to “do something that won’t compute . . . practice resurrection.” In the longer ending of the Gospel of Mark, the risen Jesus appears to his confused disciples and warns them of “future afflictions.” Thus he advises them to prepare to maintain the force of the revolution.

Two thousand years later, the confusion of Jesus’ disciples is our confusion. And for lack of anything better to say, we say, “Show us your glory!” just as they did. This isn’t my demand as a Unitarian Universalist. For me, it is, “Please accompany me into that uncharted territory where no one is denied a place at the table.” Though others built a religious empire around the glorified and immobilized Christ, Jesus the Jewish peasant wants the best from his own tradition, an end to Roman imperialism and priestly abuses. “Though your life felt arduous, new, unmapped, and strange,” asks Adrienne Rich, “what would it mean to stand on the first page of the end of despair?”

The territory where exile is no more is, indeed, unmapped and strange. There, business is not as usual. There, the last are first, the outcast gets the place of honor, and all the birds of the air can nest in that great economy. There, it is a world as Peter Maurin describes, “where it is easier for people to be good.” The explicit sense of accepting Jesus as my personal Lord and savior does not apply to me. But I am compelled by his paradoxical power. Paradoxical because that power is revealed, now as in the first century, in people the world despises, in people the world deems weak. It is revealed to confound the wise. It is revealed in the possibility of loving people the world has taught us to fear. In that power exclusiveness is revealed as impoverishment. As a Unitarian Universalist I respond wholeheartedly to Jesus’ stated mission:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to preach release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free. (Luke 4:18)

What Jesus is offering is an invitation to a relationship. Far from worshipping a king trapped in untouchable heavenly glory, this relationship is present and challenging.

He needs you
that’s all there is to it
without you he’s left hanging
goes up in dachau’s smoke
is sugar and spice in the baker’s hand
gets revalued in the next stock market crash
he’s consumed and blown away
used up
without you
help him
that’s what faith is
he can’t bring it about
his kingdom
couldn’t then couldn’t later can’t now
not at any rate without you
and that is his irresistible appeal

—“When He Came” by Dorothee Sölle

For me, and for plenty of other Unitarian Universalists, the joy in failing to resist is abundant indeed.


Reprinted from "A Unitarian Universalist Perspective on Christianity," UUA Pamphlet Commission Publication, © 1995.

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