“I have decided to follow Jesus…no turning back, I’ll follow him…” so goes a well known Christian hymn sung in churches around America. For many self-proclaimed Christians this following of Jesus amounts to what they believe about Jesus from a doctrinal stand point, such as that he is “God’s only son,” “was crucified and rose the third day,” and that salvation only comes through believing in him and “accepting Jesus” as savior. For some Christians it means publicly denouncing those one finds immoral or sinful and then condemning those sinners to hell, despite the fact that He said we should avoid doing so. And for others, it means that because of their beliefs, they are “in” and all others are “out” when it comes to the heavenly afterlife. For me, all of these things miss a great deal of the point of Yeshua’s(1) teachings. He himself told us what was most important for human beings to do while alive to live a truly godly life in the exchange with the lawyer found in Luke 10:25-37. He also said that in order to truly follow him that one must “deny themselves and take up their cross, and follow me.” (Matt. 16-24-25) These two things are a great deal more difficult than having a belief in certain ideals, pointing out others “flaws” and judging them, or engaging in self congratulatory building of heavenly castles in the air. Following Yeshua is H-A-R-D.
Why is truly being a Christian so much harder than the views of Christianity, espoused by millions of Christians, outlined above? Because to do so means to go against the grain of culture, of empire, and even our families, as well as refraining from violent retribution even in the face of brutality. To take the latter idea even further we are to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt. 5:44)
To put this into the modern American context, let us first look at American culture. Our culture is heavily influenced by consumer capitalism and the rapacious consumption of resources, the accumulation of massive amounts of “stuff,” and the love of money. Following our culture entails mindless consumerism which hurts our global neighbors because the “love of money is the root of all evil” as is evidenced by the abuses of global capitalism such as slave labor (do an internet search for slavery and chocolate or shrimp for example), sweat shops, environmental degradation, and companies selling poisonous products among much else. Yet we are bombarded with advertising, societal expectations, and cultural norms which expect us to fall into line (likely a line at the mall) rather than to follow Yeshua by living simply, advocating for the marginalized, and renouncing systems of oppression.
America is an empire built upon a foundation of systemic racism, chattel slavery, land theft, and the genocide of millions of indigenous peoples. For some this is a hard series of facts to swallow yet the historical evidence for the veracity of these facts is readily available for people in a wide variety of reputable, scholarly sources both online and in books. Yeshua was executed as an enemy of the Roman state. He knew he would be. He knew it would be brutal. He proceeded with his course of action anyway. As Americans however, we are expected to acquiesce and give sanction to the nefarious actions of the American empire. We are expected to be patriotic, to “support the troops,” and to “pledge allegiance to the flag,” all of which are contrary to the teachings of Yeshua as recorded in the Gospels. For example, in my late teens, I joined the Marines, in some measure to have a ticket out of town and away from an abusive upbringing and also to have a steady paycheck. While in the Marines, I learned that my duty as a Marine was “to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy,” and I also heard the mantra, “kill the rag-heads, bury them in the sand.” Now contrast that with the teachings of Christ in the Beatitudes (Matt. 5) and with the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and its easy to see that one of these things is not like the other. Yeshua the Galilean was a pacifist who practiced non-violent resistance as the Gospels make plain. The American Empire uses force, coercion, economic sanctions, and other evil practices to maintain its place as a global power. This is not the way of Yeshua and Christians are called to resist it even unto death. That is difficult to do.
Some people claim that Yeshua was not a non-violent person pointing to the verse about bringing the sword rather than peace (Matt. 10:34). Reading this verse in isolation however is problematic (as is the isolation of almost any verse). The context of this verse as I understand it is this, in the culture of Yeshua, the family dynamic was of paramount importance, but he said that his teachings had the potential to rip families apart if they were unwilling to follow his message of agape’ love, forgiveness, and even loving one’s enemies-such as the Roman soldiers, tax collectors, and others who made life miserable for the poor of first century Palestine. I have experienced this myself, when calling out the evils of empire and capitalism, members of my own family asked me to leave the country and I have almost no relationship with most of my biological family.
The events in Charlottesville, VA recently brought to the fore the teaching about loving our enemies and praying for them. The temptation to violent retribution in response to such hatred as espoused by Neo-Nazis and others who maintain ignorant notions of “white supremacy” is tremendously strong, yet it is also completely contrary to the Christian call to be peacemakers (Matt.5:9). In church last Sunday I prayed aloud for forgiveness because in my anger, I wanted to yell vile things at the white supremacists, and to go violently oppose them, meeting hate with hate, violence with violence. As I prayed, I cried because I knew that what I was feeling was nothing compared to what marginalized people feel and because I knew that those violent thoughts were not like Yeshua at all. And I knew that I have personally espoused racist things and used racist language in my life and that my feelings of anger and intellectual superiority were judgmental. (2) I know that there are those who feel they would be justified by meeting white supremacists head on and feel like violent retaliation is the only option. This is not the case. Yeshua’s path is the only way to break the cycle– do not retaliate, show love in the face of enmity, take up the cross.
A friend of mine from Connecticut evinced this yesterday in Boston and came to national prominence as a result of her choice to meet those who would curse her with love. Imani Williams, of Branford, CT, escorted Neo-Nazi’s through a crowd of angry counter-protesters and protected them from harm, this despite the fact that she is a black woman. She proved that non-violent acts of loving our enemies works. I can only imagine that her act of radical kindness will have a much more positive impact on those white supremacists that she helped than a punch in the mouth ever would.
Others have shown how to respond creatively and non-violently to hatred and violence. A German town once tricked a Neo-Nazi group into raising money for an anti-extremist charity. (3) Some counter protesters dressed as clowns at a “white power rally” where they shouted “white flour” and threw flour into the air whenever some white supremacists shouted “white power,” thus using humor to show the ignorance of white supremacists. On Facebook, someone suggested bringing containers of glitter to racist rallies and covering the KKK and Neo-Nazis with glitter when they walk past shouting their hate filled rhetoric. How could anyone take a Klansmember seriously if they’re covered in glitter? Even more powerful and evocative of Christ is the path of Christ like love followed by Daryl Davis who has been successful in getting white supremacists to disavow their views by befriending them. Davis, who is black, asks them “how can you hate me, when you don’t even know me,” thus proving that with relationship comes grace. (4)
Being a Christian is tough. Doing the things that Yeshua taught are hard because of our desire for retribution, for “being right,” and for not rocking the boat. It goes against our nature to do so as well as against our culture, our nation, and sometimes our families. When Yeshua enacted his teachings, it got him killed, and yet he himself said that in order to truly follow him, we have to be willing to die. Imagine how different the world would be if American Christians took up their crosses…
Dillon Naber Cruz
(1) In his lifetime, the man known in English as Jesus was called Yeshua. I choose to use his actual name rather than to Anglicize it, which to some Christian scholars amounts to cultural appropriation.