Jesus, Bersih and Malaysian Politics

Two processions enter Jerusalem at the beginning of Passover week two thousand years ago.

From the West, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governer, rides in at the centre of a huge imperial army. Every year, he leaves his residence in Caesarea Maritima and comes to Jerusalem to maintain order. He represents Caesar, the son of God, Saviour of the world and bringer of peace to mankind – a peace that comes at a price – those who oppose him are silenced and crucified. Rome cannot risk a rebellion when visitors from all over the world flock to Jerusalem to witness this yearly festival. Rome also knows, that Passover is a celebration of the deliverance of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Revolution is on everyone’s minds. Pilate’s army, while meant as a deterrent through a show of force, only succeeds in reminding the Jews of their current state of oppression.

The young, Jewish peasant could not have picked a more critical time. Jerusalem is a time-bomb waiting to explode. All it needs is someone to push the trigger. Yet there he is, riding into Jerusalem through the East gate on a donkey, surrounded by cheering crowds waving palm leaves and laying down cloaks as ‘red carpets’. There is no doubt as to which procession is the more popular among the Jewish commoners. This whole episode not only makes a mockery of Pilate’s unwelcome entry, but provokes the ire of the Jewish authorities. Ancient Scriptures spoke of God coming to Jerusalem through the East gate on the day of reckoning; another passage spoke of the Messiah King riding into the city on a humble donkey. Did this troublemaker think he was acting on behalf of God? If Jesus had simply walked into Jerusalem, through any other gate – no one would have noticed him. It was a deliberate act of open defiance. Jesus represents the oppressed and the poor. The crowd call him ‘Son of David’ – the true heir to the throne of Jerusalem, the Son of Yahweh. Here is the Messiah, the Saviour of Israel, the one who will usher in the kingdom of God and oust their Roman oppressors. He of course, had other ideas. Salvation and peace will come, but at a price – the Messiah King himself, as the ‘Suffering Servant’, must be silenced and crucified.

Of course, he had his critics. Most of his contemporaries disagreed with him.

For the Zealots, the only viable option was violence. The only reason God had not delivered them from the Romans was because everyone was sitting around doing nothing! God would give Israel victory if only they would draw swords and fight! They coordinated guerrilla attacks and slit Roman throats in the dark.

These Zealots were secretly backed by the Pharisees, who not only hated their Roman conquerers, but directed their resentment inward. If only Israel would stop sinning, God would deliver us from the Romans! Their solution was to become a moral police within society, becoming obssessed with the letter of the Law. They verbally abused those they considered to be a part of the problem, mainly the sinners (which also included the lame, the blind and the sick, their condition perceived as a form of divine punishment) and the Roman collaborators, but also the ignorant and unlearned commoners, the Am ha-aretz.

There were those that long ago had fled to form isolated communities in the desert where they could stay pure and worship God untainted by the corruption and injustice in Jerusalem. They wanted nothing to do with its politics. They had given up all hope. These were the Essenes.

Other groups, like the aristocratic Herodians and Sadduccees, played the game of compromise. If only everyone else would play along, submit to the authorities, keep things safe, and stop creating unrest, Israel would be a better place. If you can’t beat the Romans, why not join them?

So where does Jesus stand in the midst of this socio-political melting-pot that was first-century Jerusalem?

As Jesus drew near to the city of Jerusalem he wept over it saying “If you had known, even you,especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace!! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side and level you and your children to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

His warning against violent revolt was dire. Fight, and the Romans will raze you to the ground, which was exactly what happened after a Jewish uprising in AD70. He knew that fighting evil with more evil meant that evil would eventually win. Jesus provided an alternative; a more subversive way. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. If a Roman soldier slaps you on your right cheek using the back of his hand, as a master would do to a slave, turn to him your left cheek. Challenge him to do it again, but this time as an equal, using the palm of his hand. If Roman soldiers command you to carry their equipment for one mile (the maximum allowable by Roman law), why not willingly carry it two miles? If a Roman soldier commands you to strip off your outer clothes, why not remove your underwear also? Only then, will evil and injustice be exposed for what it is. This had nothing to do with being someone else’s doormat.

Instead of pointing fingers at the sick, the poor, the oppressed, he empowered them to be participants in the change that was coming. He roped in prostitutes, tax collectors working for the Romans, fishermen, peasants, the lame, the blind, the outcasts, even Zealots and Pharisees who were prepared to see things differently, challenging them to chart their own destiny and collective future.

Rather than falling into despair and abandoning society, he never gave up on them – he helped the people look beyond their present disillusionment to a new kingdom where justice reigns; where the meek, the poor, the ones who mourn are blessed. This is not a pie in the sky kingdom in a far away heaven, or in some afterlife. This is a kingdom that is ‘at hand’ – here, now. That was the scandal of Jesus’ good news. How could it be true when there was so much injustice and oppression in his time? Was Jesus self-deluded? This is a kingdom, he said, where every little good deed or initiative, like a tiny mustard seed, will grow into a large tree; like the insignificant bit of yeast that spreads through the entire loaf of bread. This is a kingdom that is within each of us. He never let them forget that this kingdom was already present, as he went around bringing healing to the broken, feasting and drinking, earning him the reputation of being a ‘party animal’. Don’t worry about tomorrow, he said.

Instead of taking the safe route of compromise – he was not afraid to rattle the cages. As if riding into Jerusalem on a donkey through the East gate was not provocative enough, the next day, he went into the Temple and made a huge scene. Decades of corruption by the priestly elite through manipulation of Temple taxes had turned the entire Temple system into a ‘den of thieves’. The priests got richer while the commoners became poorer. As if the Roman taxes were not enough of a burden to the Jews! His angry outburst in the Temple, overturning tables and vandalizing property, have been viewed by some scholars as a symbolic protest, a public demonstration of God’s judgement on the injustice that was plaguing the system. To rephrase N. T. Wright, Jesus’ actions were equivalent to burning the Malaysian flag in front of the Parliament/Putrajaya on Merdeka Day. In the tradition of Jeremiah, Isaiah and Micah, Jesus never shied away from confronting the powers that were. So much for submitting to authorities. No wonder he was considered such a threat.

And in an ultimate demonstration of what he meant by ‘turning the other cheek’, he placed himself at the mercy of the very corrupt system which he had openly condemned, in a rigged trial whose outcome had been predetermined – and took the cross upon himself. He was convicted of being a traitor to the Jewish religion, considered to be a threat to national security and was executed in a manner reserved for traitors of the Roman empire.

This was his call:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

And he paid for it with his life.

The situation in Jerusalem two thousand years ago is not unlike what we face in Malaysia today. There have been various responses to the proposed Bersih rally from various quarters, including those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus. It is not for me to link any of these present responses to the various socio-political groups in first century Palestine. I leave that to the imagination and discernment of the readers. My urge is that we all take a step back and reflect on our own responses, to see if it more closely resembles the way of Jesus, or that of the Essenes, the Pharisees, the Zealots or the Herodians, perhaps even of the Romans and the Priesthood.

We all have a role to play that extends beyond the rally this Saturday. One of the positives I see coming out of all this mess, is that many of us Christians have been forced to wrestle with our faith and convictions, to think really hard about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in Malaysia. Some of us have been compelled to speak and walk for justice. Others, see the need to help our fellow Malaysians look beyond our present situation to see the new dawn, to regain the hope that many of us have lost. Some of us wonder, if we’ll ever make a difference.

What gives me hope, is that the story of Jesus does not end on Good Friday. We are Easter people. And because of that, we can agree with the Apostle Paul: Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

The question is: Are we ready to follow in the way of Jesus? Many who chose to do so – Martin Luther King Jr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Mahatma Gandhi, paid with their lives. Closer to home, I can think of no one else whose actions remind me more of Jesus, than Dato’ Ambiga herself.

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Note: I do not claim originality for any of the interpretations on the life and message of Jesus presented here, as they are heavily influenced by the works of N. T. Wright, Marcus Borg, and John Dominic Crossan.

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