The Privilege of Neutrality
“The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of [Jesus] appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed. That it became, through the intervening years, a religion of the powerful and the dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression, must not tempt us into believing that it was thus in the mind and life of Jesus. Wherever his spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced the good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them!”
JESUS ALWAYS TOOK SIDES
I believe Jesus took sides.
The most obvious time he did so was in the temple at the time of Passover when money changers were jacking up the exchange rate and those who sold sacrificial animals inflated their prices because everybody needed to buy a sacrifice. Jesus took great exception with the people of Israel exploiting their own just to make a few extra bucks, especially at such a sacred celebration. So he fashioned a whip and attacked the people getting rich off those who had come to worship. Then, once they were gone, he invited in all the blind, deaf, and crippled people who would have been excluded from the worship celebration and healed them right there in the Temple.
But Jesus also took sides when he told the story of the Good Samaritan. It was the despised Samaritan who was upheld as the model of mercy over the pious religious leaders.
He took sides when he honored the sinful woman who anointed his feet over the wealthy hosts of a party he attended.
He took sides when he said in Luke’s gospel, “Blessed are you who are poor,” and “woe to you who are rich.”
He took sides when he defended tax collectors and prostitutes - who had become his friends - after being questioned by religious authorities.
He took sides when he defended the woman caught in adultery over the religious rightness of those who used her as a prop.
He took sides when he rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey while being worshipped by the poor Israelites who followed him. It was a mockery of Roman parades celebrating the arrival of powerful men.
PRIVILEGE ALLOWS NEUTRALITY
We read our own cultural lens and biases into scripture. And perhaps that’s exactly what I’m doing here. But it’s difficult for me to read the gospels and then read or listen to my modern day Christian brothers and sisters claim neutrality in issues of justice. We avoid hard conversations by saying things like, “Jesus loves everybody,” or “Jesus wouldn’t pick sides.” He absolutely would, and he absolutely did.
It’s the prerogative of the privileged to remain neutral. Jesus was a poor Jew living under the oppression of the powerful Roman empire. He was not afforded the privilege of neutrality because he himself was born squarely into one side of the equation. He was not born into power but into a manger. He was not born into wealth but into poverty. He was not born into privilege but into servitude. Jesus knew the poor and marginalized by name. He knew what it was like to be an outcast because he was one. He understood how it felt to be forced to the seat of lowest honor because he had metaphorically been sitting in it his entire life.
So when he said things like, “the Good News is being preached to the poor,” he didn’t mean that everybody’s going to heaven when they die. He meant that being poor was no longer a reason to believe oneself unworthy. He meant that the boot of the Empire - of the rich, powerful, and privileged - no longer choked the life out of them spiritually even if it continued to do so physically. He meant that there was a way to belong to the Kingdom of God without selling out to the empire like many of the religious and political leaders had, and that, in fact, the Kingdom of God was already among, around, and within them.
YOU’RE ALREADY ON A SIDE
You may think that you’ve chosen to be neutral. But in fact you’re on a side whether you know it or not. What you believe about Jesus has landed you on the side of the poor and powerless or the rich and powerful. If you claim to remain neutral, or if you believe you ought not take sides, then you’ve already made your choice.
Jesus took sides. And so should we.