Any ten year old American kid could tell you what a superhero looks like. Although they all have distinguishing characteristics, every superhero from Batman to Spiderman to Wonderwoman, bear one thing in common: the ability to save the day and beat the bad guys. They exist solely because oppression exists.
Although Marvel comics didn’t exist in Jesus’ day, I can only assume that this is what the disciples thought He had come to do – beat the bad guys. The Jewish people had been expectantly waiting for a Messiah, a hero, to come and rescue them from the evils of this world and for good reason too! Throughout Israel’s history, they had been oppressed and marginalized by nations who were stronger and had more savvy military might. Lest we forget, they experienced slavery, had their land taken away from them, and seemed to always be under the constant threat of being overthrown and taken advantage of. During Jesus’ time, they – like much of the Mediterranean world – had come under Roman rule, an empire that was as oppressive as it was idolatrous. For these reasons and more, they hoped that Jesus would liberate them from the empire’s oppressive rule which taxed them heavily, limited their access to economic opportunity (sound familiar?) and demanded their worship.
Hopeful and perhaps a little anxiety ridden, the disciples questioned Jesus – wanting to get the low down on how He was going to assume authority and when He was going to do it. They, like every other human being who has ever had to deal with the daily realities of being oppressed, wanted some very real answers to the dilemma they faced. If Jesus was who He said He was, the Christ or long awaited Messiah, then He would surely set things straight. He would subdue all of the wickedness and evil that surrounded them. He would go toe to toe with Herod and overthrow him immediately, assuming all power and authority as the Son of God. He would undo the system of taxation which drove people into poverty, and create an economic system that ensured no one would be left behind.
2,000 years later, I find myself hoping for the same things. I find myself expectant, even demanding Jesus to come to my rescue and save the day. That He would free me from all of the isms – sexism, racism, classism – that box me in, forcing me to call out, “Jesus, Son of David, Have mercy on me!” I dream of the day when Jesus will come down and unseat all of the racists, knock out all of the sex traffickers and pimps, and subdue all of the crooked politicians, special interest groups, and others who get rich by exploiting the poor.
Wouldn’t that be nice?
By now, I think I am beginning to understand that Jesus just doesn’t work that way. He doesn’t subdue wickedness with force and tackling it the way that we think He should. He defeats it by laying His life down to the point that He Himself is exploited by it. Do we get that? Jesus submits Himself to the very evil that has been a source of pain for the Jewish people. To a greater extent, He allows Himself to be subjected by sin and death – the greatest oppressive force in the world. But in doing so, He defeats it! In taking the sins of the world upon Himself and even allowing Himself to die, He cripples its power!
So maybe Jesus isn’t the Superhero that the world has always hoped for. Maybe He doesn’t bring down wicked regimes with one wave of His hand or stamp out racism with one blink of His eye. While He holds all power, and could easily do so, I believe that Jesus understands that this is not the way oppression is defeated. It’s more about a quiet, peaceful resistance that requires a radical love, self-sacrifice and a humble spirit. This is the only way the power of oppression is actually broken. This is the only way that systems and institutions that have held people in bondage actually begin to change.
As His disciples, I believe that Christians are called to live out of this model more than anything else. If Jesus is the one that we claim to worship and commit to following wholeheartedly, than we must follow Him in giving up ourselves on behalf of others. So often, I find that as believers – especially those with more resources and privilege – we use our theism to secure power so that we can theoretically make the world a better place (well, some do it for other reasons but let’s not go there today). We want to be the superheros, the ones who come in a save the day, which is good – in theory.
But for the last 1700 years since Constantine, we’ve been using this model. We’ve used our position as the most prestigious faith expression on the face of this earth, the one that has the most political and social power, to do ‘right.’ Arguably, much of the right that Christian communities have sought has led to further oppression, further exploitation and suffering, causing the disinvestment of communities around the world, mostly of color. Under the aim of seeking to evangelize the world, we have in fact, oppressed the world – forcing our ideology and way of being on people who have no other choice but to submit.
Evangelism is a worthy goal – a necessary goal and is the only way that people will know that Jesus is who He said He was. Justice is also necessary, and with that, advocacy on behalf of those who poor and vulnerable. But if the way that we do that mirrors what we have done in the past, how is this different? How will this lead to different outcomes? How will this lead to people placing their faith in the true Jesus Christ, not a caricature of him based on Western theology? But if we do this, if we pursue peace and reconciliation and justice and preach the whole gospel, in the way that Jesus did rejecting the temptation to become a superhero and embracing sacrifice, denial, and love, I believe we really will subdue oppression in a way that has not been done in a very long time.
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