A Gospel for Liberals
Considering the historical     Jesus in light of today’s most controversial social Issues

Jesus Was Civilly Disobedient

It has already been pointed out, for instance, that Jesus gave a radical reinterpretation of the Sabbath Law when he and his disciples were criticized for gathering food on the “State” mandated day of rest. “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath,” he responded.  The Markan Gospel goes on to indicate he was later questioned by the authorities for healing a man on the Sabbath. “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, he responded, to save a life or to kill?” This particular story says Jesus became so angry with the authorities that he boldly defied the law right in front of them, asking the man to “Stretch out your hand,” so he could perform the healing in their very presence. Such defiance is, naturally, the very meaning of Civil Disobedience.  As Henry David Thoreau wrote in his pamphlet by that same title, “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” Jesus, like Thoreau, was a man who understood that rules and authorities exist to benefit people.  But when they interfere with that purpose and create hardship and injustice, it becomes necessary to violate the rules and disobey the authorities.  Again, as Thoreau put it, “Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.”

Tragically, it was his penchant for superseding the law, for civil disobedience, that also got him killed.  In his book, Jesus, Justice and the Reign of God, William R. Herzog explains that in agrarian societies like Jesus’, “Ancient temples served a crucial function in making… economic exploitation possible.” This is so, he continues, because, “In the ancient world, there was no separation of church and state.  Temples reflected the interests of the rulers and articulated their ideologies.  Indeed, temples were embedded in the political systems of which they were a part.” Hence, the ruling elite were able to exploit the larger population, acquiring their surplus produce through taxation and tithing by convincing the peasant class (70 percent of the population) its compliance was a religious duty.  Given his radical, non-compliant character, Jesus would have seen through this ruse and, because of his passionate and compassionate nature, would have been motivated to do something about it.  That “something” came in the form of a prophetic demonstration during which he symbolically “cleansed” the Temple by turning over the tables of a few “moneychangers,” emblematic of the exploitative temple system in general.  Shortly thereafter he was arrested and executed for this act of civil disobedience.