As I sat in church this morning, I found myself singing U2 in my head.
“Early evening April 4, shot rings out in the Memphis sky… Free at last they took your life but they could not take your pride… In the name of love, one more in the name of love…”
I was contemplating an interesting coincidence – Easter falling on the same day as the 42nd anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking King was walking in Jesus’ footsteps. He too was assassinated while opposing imperialism. And because of the non-violent nature of his movement, I think we fail to consider a simple idea that even the occasional military history magazine can express quite clearly — that King’s movement should be thought of as an insurgency.
And maybe Jesus’s movement was, too.
Woody Guthrie once theorized that if Jesus walked the earth and preached what he did in Galilee in the modern era, the powerful would still lay him down in his grave. Martin Luther King Jr. may just have been one of the best test cases for that theory.
Around this time of year, you sometimes hear talk about how Jesus’ peers “mistakenly” thought he was leading a political revolution. But is that really so crazy?
The story told in the gospels actually depicts an insurgency against sin that has a lot more to do with political oppression than many would care to admit.
As one pastor at my church put it this morning, when Jesus is arrested by the authorities, he’s only half sarcastic when he asks “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me?” Because the truth is that he was leading a sort of rebellion. A spiritual, non-violent one.
We’re so used to chopping up little pieces of the Bible that sometimes we miss the forest for the trees. If you ever get the chance to read the whole Gospel of Mark or Luke sometime and consider the timeline within its political context, it isn’t hard to see Jesus as a more revolutionary figure than many of us take him for.
But his was a special kind of revolution — one where you sacrifice yourself instead of killing your enemies. And as the gospels tell it — Jesus wins.
Most churches celebrate Jesus’ victory over death, but there is something of a political consequence to that, too. When you win against death, it follows that you also win against anyone who uses violence to intimidate the oppressed — anyone threatening you with death.
What’s this look like in a modern context? I hope to talk to the Rev. Martin Luther King about it when I cross the river Jordan one day. He used those methods to fight what he called “the triple evils of racism, war and poverty.” And being “crucified by a gun” didn’t stop his movement, either.
He knew all about how the promise of sharing in Christ’s resurrection empowers an insurgency. You can say “Go ahead — call the police, call the National Guard, call the friggin’ Marines. You can’t scare us. Am I saying we can dodge bullets? No. I’m saying that when we’re ready, we won’t have to.”
We’ve seen it at freedom rides and marches and sit-ins. When those insurgents of the ’60s stood against the bombs and the guns and the dogs and the fire-hoses and the nooses, when they looked into the face of murderous oppression and sang:
“…I’m gonna lay down my burdens/ down by the river side… I ain’t gonna study that war no more…”
“…What a blessedness, what a peace is mine/ Leaning on the everlasting arms…”
“…Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus, going on before…”
Liberation theology can be complicated sometimes. But this much is simple — it’s harder to threaten people with violence when they believe they’ll rise from dead. Love it or hate it, it’s a cultural reality.
I see it as one of the the weapons a risen Christ won for us.
Those of us who fight against injustice should pause for a moment and consider the political utility resurrection. Victory over the grave can mean victory over anybody threatening to put you in one.
And those of us who embrace the promise of resurrection should pause for a moment and consider whether we act like it. Whether we fight for justice like people who don’t fear anything — not even death. Greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world.
Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.”