The dissonance of “progress”
The world is a terrible place. I mean it. I’ve traveled pretty extensively and what I’ve discovered is that there is no corner of the earth that is untouched by some kind of darkness. We have really done a poor job stewarding the earth and those with whom we share it.
People are messed up. The brokenness of abuse, trauma, loss, rejection, oppression, injustice, addiction, and bondage is almost too overwhelming to recount. If you disagree or somehow think I am overreacting, I will assume that your ivory tower has isolated you from the reality of what is really going on.
Experts suggest that our technological, medical, agricultural, and societal advances make today the best era of human history. Common illnesses are no longer wiping out entire people groups, aid is reaching more remote places more quickly than ever before, philosophy is evolving, science is giving us deeper insight, and for the first time in history we are starting to think globally.
What is disturbing, therefore, are the thoughts and practices that remain stubbornly barbaric amidst all the sophistication. People living in huts in Africa have cell phones but no clean water (I have seen this with my own eyes). Bullying and prejudice are still widely prevalent in an age of understanding, empathy, and tolerance. War is still a modern day reality even with thousands of years of history at our disposal to predict the devastating aftermath.
The practice of power
When Jesus Christ appeared on the scene of history, it was no less barbaric. Corporal punishment, riots, even stoning offenders was commonplace. The Romans were perfecting the art of torture adding in elements of humiliation to accompany the slow painful death (crucifixion being the crown jewel in their arsenal). Consequences in the Ancient Near Eastern world, whether they be from the synagogue or the government, were physical, public, and terrifying. Even the sophistication of thought present in that age was not enough to consider alternatives to mutilation, dismemberment, castration, or even death.
Pain was the currency of the moral marketplace. Physical pain for sure, but emotional, social, relational, and mental anguish were believed to purge the soul of its darkness. The incredible fear that accompanied such a culture did its job: it coerced the people into submission and compliance. People were animals to be trained through reward and punishment. Skeptical and suspicious leaders knew to remove loud voices lest the people band together against them in uprising.
Our views on power have progressed very little since then. Those that have it tend to use it. Those without attempt to take it. What has become more sophisticated is our discovery that mental and emotional pain requires no formal hierarchy. Power has become less about the swords at your command externally and more about the confidence and entitlement you possess internally.
When we cannot formally force someone to comply with our wishes we have learned to rely on informal methods. Passive aggressiveness, manipulation, hostility, and using love as a bargaining chip are but a few ways we have learned to get people to submit and behave.
I think this is what makes Jesus such an enigma.
The epistles of Peter and Paul still have hints of this old mindset as they suggest methods of treating those who rebel or disobey with hostility, rejection, and social condemnation. But you never see Jesus behave that way. His most emotional outbursts were directed at the powerful and the arbiters of truth and morality. His words spent more time attacking barbaric, cold, self-righteousness (even when they argued back that their actions were in the name of justice). The people that should have been the recipient of such thunderous accusation were instead looked at, touched, loved, and welcomed.
Jesus says very little about the sin of Zacchaeus, the woman caught in the act of adultery, or distracted Martha. And yet all of them respond to his compassion. Jesus gives up incredible opportunities to explain his actions (ie. “I love this person but I hate their sin…”) and misses out on teaching captive audiences about justice and even mercy. He was always loving, always merciful, always forgave, and never shied away from close, personal encounters with people.
All of a sudden civility, dignity, and honor become a stark contrast to the barbaric, merciless justice common to the day. It was a beautiful shift from fear-based compliance to relationship-motivated Godliness. Jesus understood the heart as only God can.
Our vaunted wisdom
Fast forward to today. With all the sophistication in our thought, theology, social awareness, and ability to think long term, has our life of grace, forgiveness, love, and mercy become equally sophisticated? I fear that our sense of justice, correction, and coerced compliance have remained barbaric and without the implementation of the example set by Christ we cannot expect any result other than the current one.
Make no mistake; the current results are dismal. The church is on the decline and moving to minority status. Its reputation to those they want to reach (consider the homosexual community) is one of rejection, anger, hate, and disgust. Justice might be served but the hearts will be lost. I ask you: is this what Jesus had in mind?
Mercy is a lost art. We must relearn it. The simplest definition I have heard is this: mercy is not getting something you deserve. If your moral indignation demands the head of the person in front of you, a decision must be made. When you have the choice, choose mercy. That is when we begin a road back to wholeness.
Jimmy is a missionary, a sojourner, a follower of Christ and an explorer of truth. He works to better the lives of people who exist in unacceptable realities. He works for Kingdom Inc. Ministries based in Atlanta, GA working to mobilize the mission minded into kingdom work.