Among church-going Christians in the United States, there are a good number who insist that a proper Christian response to social and political unrest is to stay above the fray, to stay cold and distant, let alone take a side. Rev. Jason Chesnut of the Slate Project and ANKOS Films, however, has a very different take – that political activism, even militancy, is not only appropriate in tumultuous days such as ours, is clearly represented in Scripture and is just as biblical as “turning the other cheek” Read, comment, and share, friends!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
“Get up,” the crowd tells the very same blind beggar they had politely or not-so-politely told to shut up and stop embarrassing them just a few minutes before. Turns out, Jesus was calling…him. Telling him to rise up. (Mark 10:46-52) Last year, Baltimore erupted – just a few miles from my house, our sisters and brothers in the Sandtown neighborhood marched in support of Freddie Gray, who had died while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department.
The subsequent marches were peaceful by every measure, and lasted for days. Many of our city’s clergy were right there.
You may know the rest of the story. Riot gear was disseminated. The powerful and mighty were on high alert. Transportation was shut down to and from Mondawin Mall – one of the main symbols of our city recovering from the unrest after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in 1968.
And in the early evening on that Monday, a CVS pharmacy burned.
You may have noticed me not saying a particular word – a word repeated endlessly by every major news network that covered our city 24/7 during that week: riot.
And yet, since the only death to happen in connection with our city’s unrest was Freddie Gray himself – social justice activists and others around the country were calling what was happening in Baltimore something else:
One of the highest-grossing movies in recent memory has been the wildly-successful Hunger Games – the story of impoverished and oppressed Districts rising up in defiance of a powerful elite who raped the land and murdered the people to keep a tenuous hold on their power.
Once every three years, ELCA Lutheran youth gather in a city – to pray, to connect, to worship, to serve. Our most recent National Youth Gathering took place a few months after the #BaltimoreUprising. The city was Detroit. The theme was Rise Up. And 30,000 youth showed up.
Words matter. To rise up, especially in an American city synonymous with bankruptcy, violence, and poverty, is not an accidental theme. It means something.
And it’s a deeply biblical concept.
One of the most foundational events in the history of God’s people is the Exodus, the movement spurred on by God “hearing the cries of oppression and injustice” in Egypt. We know the clarion call of that particular uprising: Let my people go.
The biblical prophets routinely sided with the economically oppressed and called for their own theological kind of uprising: to return to God and take up God’s mantle, shrouding themselves with the Divine mandate to love the orphan and the widow, to walk with the powerless and marginalized. Esther engages in an uprising against the king himself, asking, for – even demanding – life for her people. The Gospel of Mark begins with words that pierce the first-century skies, and echo through the ages: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
These aren’t just nice adjectives for the carpenter’s son. These are radical, subversive words. Since it was only the Caesar, the Roman Emperor, who was given titles like “Son of God” after decisive military victories, and had monuments engraved that named this Roman imperial peace as none other than “gospel” or “good news,” to use those very words reserved for Caesar to describe Jesus was treasonous.
In that first verse, Mark declares his loyalties, and calls for an uprising within the mighty Roman Empire. “You say Caesar is the Son of God? Think again…”
Some ten chapters later, Mark again tells a story of a subversive Jesus who encourages others to rise up. When he calls the blind beggar – a person shunned by society and the very crowd walking with Jesus – the Word of God tells us that throwing off his cloak, the son of Timaeus sprang up and came to Jesus.
The Greek verb translated as sprang up is only used one other time in Mark’s Gospel: when Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to the tomb, and were told by a young man dressed in white the stunning news: Jesus of Nazareth has been raised. This resurrection – this ultimate uprising in the face of the powers of evil and death – is what largely defines who Jesus is for those who consider themselves Christian.Bar-Timaeus rises up and comes to Jesus, previewing Jesus’ own act of rising up and leaving that empty tomb.
This Jesus doesn’t just resurrect: he’s the cause of resurrection in others.
As a society, we tend to have a much more positive view when an uprising happens in the fictional world of The Hunger Games, but not so much when it happens in our own backyard. But we might be divorcing what has happened in our city with what is embedded into the very fabric of the Bible we profess to adore. All four of our Gospel accounts mention the moment when Jesus disturbs the public order and destroys property in the Temple. Jesus was no stranger to what our mainstream media might call a riot.
Jesus often confronted the powerful and privileged in his day – loving them, like the rich young ruler from Mark, in the same chapter as Bartimaeus, while also challenging them to give up some of that privilege in order to follow him – what some media outlets might report as class warfare. And Jesus was executed like a common criminal – or, as some TV talking heads might say, a thug.
Uprisings throughout the biblical narrative often centered on changing the normal, “business-as-usual” status quo. For Bar-timaeus, the son of Timaeus, this not only meant to be seen in a lifetime of being ignored, but to be restored…and have the opportunity to follow Jesus on the Way (that ancient name for Christians: followers of the Way). For Jesus, this meant that there would be no more sin-accounting, guilt-inducing, violence-worshiping business-as-usual anymore.
Uprisings today in places like Baltimore ask us to not just “go back to normal,” the normal that people like our own mayor asked for. Rising up says: No more business-as-usual.
When people rise up today, they do so in strategically and systematically forgotten and de-funded neighborhoods like those in west Baltimore. Jesus and his disciples came to the intersection of North & Penn in Baltimore. There was a blind beggar there, sitting by the roadside. And Jesus called to him – and he sprang up. He resurrected. It’s the same kind of forgotten and despised outcasts that Jesus embraced as his kind of people.
When people rise up today, they do so as inheritors of a long line of biblical uprisings.
When people rise up today, they do so with that ancient and Divine truth on their lips: I matter in the eyes of God, even if I don’t matter in the eyes of the State. This is the genesis of the claim that #BlackLivesMatter.
When people rise up today, you can hear their chanting: No more business-as-usual. It may seem removed from some of us in this city. But make no mistake: the apostle Paul wasn’t kidding when he talked about the body of Christ. We are nothing without each other. When one part suffers, we all suffer. The uprisings that stretch from ancient Egypt to west Baltimore are not chaotic riots. They are holy, divine work.
I believe it to be high time for us to join that work as we follow Jesus on the Way.
It’s time to rise up as the Church.
Originally hailing from Texas, Rev. Jason Chesnut is, in the words of his Twitter bio at @CrazyPastor, a Jesus-follower, anti-racist, feminist, aspiring theologian, ordained in the @ELCA, works at@TheSlateProject, is a graduate of LSTC and is the Chief Creative Officer at ANKOSfilms. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.