We might think of a strategy as a plan of action designed to move a situation from point A to point B. When used in the context of social reform, “strategy” is most often planned exclusively by “what is possible at point B”.
I’m talking, of course, about the Church. Let me say right off, moving an institution of glacial inertia like the Roman Church to any significant degree is near-impossible. Those that attempt “reform” are naturally confronted with what “reality on the ground” will allow. In this context, “point B,” the change projected, becomes restricted — limited by the willingness (or ability) of the institution to respond. You have to take the institution into account as the primary factor. Certainly, the common opinion says, any other way of looking at things is a formula for disaster. To project as a goal what the institution is incapable of accepting means the attempt will necessarily fail, and, we are warned, the failure may negatively impact the possibility of future attempts.
That is the “accepted wisdom” of what “working within” an organization requires. It makes the “reform” of any large institution always a conservative endeavor. Usually no one questions the process. If there is any discussion, it is limited to content: i.e., what is it exactly that the situation will allow. The control is entirely in the hands of the institution.
This formula is applicable to all institutions, even small ones like the family, and it is based on the “reality” of structured authority, whether it be autocratic or collegial and regardless of the preference of the constituency base.
How did Jesus do it
But I would like to propose another way of looking at strategy. I would ask: How did our Teacher approach this problem? What was his “action plan” as recorded in the stories and sayings of the early communities? It is relevant to our times because Jesus’ strategy was conceived in the context of an oppressive political superstructure (Roman conquest and domination) with the local hieratic (religious) authority incorporated into its system. I would characterize his “way” by calling it “direct.” It confronts the authorities with the need for reform by doing the reform directly, rather than indirectly going through the authorities.
Jesus respected authority. He always requested their acknowledgement and acquiescence for the needed change, but he never asked them for permission. Please notice: in presenting his message he spoke to the people; he did not address himself to the priests and scribes with suggestions for reform. This approach involved two major differences from the conventional, both of which he made quite explicit. He had (1) a different concept of authority; and (2) he had a different concept of obedience.
So, what is the “direct” way?
Jesus invited recognition and collaboration and he presented that invitation in a concrete finished form — a living symbol of “point B” — in the style of the prophets.
The Hebrew prophets, we remember, were noted for using concrete symbols to make their point. Often it was their very lives and actions that bore the message. In one case, the prophet Hosea (Osee) was directed by his vision to marry a prostitute in order to put on dramatic display the fact that the Nation had betrayed its intimate relationship with Yahweh. In the case of Jesus, our Teacher, the community of his followers has always maintained, from the very beginning, that it was his crucifixion by the Roman authorities for subversion that carried the prophet’s declaration. That was the “statement” that bore his message. What could he possibly have meant? This is essential to understanding his “strategy for change.” He did the change and accepted the consequences. Somehow being taken as a subversive by the imperial authorities was the change he was trying to achieve. Jesus said very clearly, according to the memory of the early communities, that accepting death in those circumstances was an act of obedience to God. Both “authority” and “obedience” are involved here. How should we understand this?
There were earlier incidents that foreshadowed this defining “statement.” On one occasion, walking through planted fields on the sabbath, Jesus and his friends grabbed handfuls of grain off the ripening sheaths and ate them. It was apparently well known that the religious authorities considered such an act a violation of the command against work on the sabbath. There was a discussion with his institutional critics after the action, in which he explicitly subordinated the scriptural commandment to the needs of people. “The sabbath exists for people, not people for the sabbath.” But please notice something very important: the discussion followed the action. The action went first. He did the change. His insightful followers remembered that dramatic moment and wrote it down. And we today are exposed to the “spirit” of his strategy by reliving the narration. We are inspirited not only by his “reform” of the law, but also by his way of doing it.
On another occasion he publicly, and wordlessly, refused to comply with authority’s demand, based on unambiguous commands clearly stated in the Books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, that an adulteress must be stoned for her crime. He did not obey. And in his subsequent conversation with those representing the officialist interpretation, his refusal opened their eyes to the way the “Law” needed to be understood … effectively abrogating it. Jesus produced change by doing first and then talking.
Jesus had a new concept of obedience. He opened his listeners to their own hearts and minds … to their own compassion, sense of justice, generosity … often against and despite the words of the law and the demands of its official proponents. It’s almost like he was concretizing the words of the prophets, that the day would come when the law would be written in their hearts of flesh, not on tablets of stone. His parables repeat the same message: … “by their fruits you will know them” … “let those with ears, hear what I am saying,” it was their own ears not some words of divine permission that would guide them how to obey … the permission, the law and the response all came from within the human being. The heretical Samaritan was following no external law … he was obeying his own compassion and generosity. The sinner was justified by remorse not by the ascetic and ritual practices that supposedly “rectified” the balance sheet … the quisling tax-collector became Jesus intimate friend because his heart responded to invitation … a hated Roman military, concerned for his servant, became an example of justice, humility and trust … a penniless widow who responded to something other than her own need was far more important to the community than the rich and powerful donor. These people were all obeying their humanity. That’s the message Jesus’ life was about: obeying your humanity, not institutional authority or even some “law” guaranteed to be “God’s” authentic word written on a tablet of stone.
Our Teacher’s “strategy” also implied a different concept of authority. He was most explicit and emphatic about this. If there is anything in our tradition that even came close to a direct commandment of Jesus, it has to do with authority. “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, whoever would be first must be slave of all … let the greatest among you be as the youngest …” On another occasion to make the same point he took a little child and set it in their midst “you must become like this child,” he said. Not exactly designed to limit “point B” to what the “institution” would like to allow.
In this regard how can we explain the fact that Jesus issued a direct order, “call no man ‘father,'” according to Matthew, and that the Roman Church has “disobeyed” it for 1600 years? Could it possibly have to do with the culture of the Roman world that was quintessentially paternalistic, constructed on patron-client relationships, where even the generals of the Roman Legions were called “father” by their troops, Augustus and future Caesars called themselves “father,” and the Popes have been known since time immemorial as “Papa”? But why would Jesus’ direct order not be respected by this organization unless, in fact, it was answering more to Roman imperatives than his?
Jesus’ “obedience” unto death
But let’s cut to the chase: the earliest communities understood that Jesus’ crucifixion was the core of his message and strategy — that it recapitulated everything he said and tried to communicate. They claimed that Jesus personally saw it as an act of “obedience.” By dying, they said, he was “obeying God.” Given how he seemed to avoid the pronouncements of authority and rather opened people to their own inner vision, how can we understand this? Was there suddenly something unique for him that made things entirely different from what he had been telling people all the time he was teaching? After counselling others to listen to their own hearts, was there some external voice that he alone was constrained to “obey”?
I don’t think so. I believe the earliest communities used the word “obedience” because they had no word that would describe this ultimate example of Jesus’ strategy … this prophetic way of embodying in his own person the message he was trying to convey. “Obedience” meant “response.” I believe he faced the same challenge we do. He had to transcend his own fear-filled and self-serving ego and “obey” his deepest self, the “divine self” that throbbed in his human blood and bones, as it does in ours. He was a frightened human being who refused to be dehumanized. The Romans knew it; he would never obey them, and if left alive would spread his contagion everywhere. He had to die. It wasn’t God’s will, it was theirs.
There was no “Father-Person” demanding that he die. The only “God” there is, is immanent in our evolving humanity, as it was in his. The perennial perplexity of the Christian world which has tried, unsuccessfully through the centuries, to understand these claims to “obedience” in Roman literal and legal terms, has rightly turned to rejection and ridicule in our times, because we know that no “father” would ever demand such an outrage as the death of his son. Our humanity tells us so in no uncertain terms. We know exactly what we are talking about, because we have finally begun to stop being the slaves to the groveling mindset promoted by the Roman Empire. 1600 years of theological rubbish claiming that an emperor “God” was enraged at us for insulting “him” with original sin are swept away in an instant when we realize that what Jesus was obeying was his deepest self. It’s exactly what he had been talking about all through his ministry. Obey your humanity, not the authorities. Would he have asked anything less, or anything other, of himself than he asked of those he taught?
Understanding things in these terms reveals the incredible ideological reversal achieved by the Roman architects of western christianity. It was nothing less than a brilliant coup that totally inverted Jesus’ mission and message, morphing it from a threat to established power into the primary hieratic prop of Roman authority. It took a man and a message that was seen as so subversive of Roman control in the 1st century as to require his extermination, and by the 4th turned him into the foundation stone of imperial world domination. And the ultimate most brilliant and diabolical of all reversals was the one that changed Jesus’ “Loving Father” into an enraged tyrant, a mega-monster, all too familiar to the Romans, so dominated by his own bruised and boundless ego that he remorselessly sends unbaptized babies to hell. It seems utterly incomprehensible that anyone could not have seen through what was happening here. And yet, we know we ourselves were all there, and not that many years ago. God forgive us. What could we have been thinking?
This situation has to change. How to do that? It’s the same issue — how to get from point A to point B. The “accepted wisdom” tells us to use the “indirect method”: ask the authorities to allow us to change things. It is the “Roman way” and I contend it will never get us anywhere. We will never get beyond the kind of institution that the “indirect strategy” is designed to produce — simply new versions of itself, new forms and shapes of imperial authority, new and approved ways of begging for permission, new symptoms of personal alienation and imperial exploitation … and new methods of crucifixion. We have had the way blocked for us. They have muddied the waters. We can no longer look clearly at Jesus’ actions, or hear the soft cadences of his words.
We think we are following him but in fact we are afraid to do it “his way” — the direct way — looking inward, reading the law written in our humanity and obeying the immanent “God” who dwells there, indistinguishable from our awesome and fragile flesh.