Even as I write this article, I’m watching the very actions I was going to describe being played out in Baltimore. Tuesday night, the community, the protestors, and law enforcement came together to squelch the impeding violence. But that’s just the beginning.
The Roman Centurion
I find it interesting when we read current events through the paradigm of Jesus. After all, I’m a follower of Jesus, and I want my life to represent the teachings and principles he stood for. Fortunately for us, the Bible isn’t just a book written 2000 years ago. There’s a way of reading the stories from the Bible directly into what humanity is dealing with today, and I find Baltimore and the Roman Centurion very close in application. After all, we’re all human. And the human condition hasn’t changed that much in 2000 years.
The story is found in Matthew 8, the first gospel in the New Testament. A Roman Centurion came to where Jesus was staying in Capernaum.
I was actually in Capernaum about a month ago, and found this sleepy little Jewish village on the North Shore of the Sea of Galilee to be much like my sleepy little town in Colorado. Serene, Peaceful, and full of History, Capernaum was home to about 200 Jewish people at the time of Jesus.
At the time, the Romans were the power force of the day, and when the Roman Centurion rode into the town presumably followed by his 100 armed men, the Jewish village would have feared for their lives. The Romans were known for burning down the towns where the dissidents lived, and I can imagine the social tensions were high. The Jews were ready to defend their community at all costs.
When the Roman General spoke to Jesus, He started with “Lord…”
To you and me that may be just a word, but when you actually go back and see the translation, the word “Lord” the Roman used is the same term used for Caesar’s label for his own Diety. The Roman guard, with the power to crush the village, addressed this no-name Jewish Rabbi (Jesus) as “Lord.” I find this deeply interesting.
As the story goes, the Roman asked Jesus a favor. He had a servant that was ill, and he asked if Jesus would be willing to heal him. There was a deep pain in the Roman’s life and he was so moved he was willing to talk with Jesus. After all, Jesus had been healing, and the word was out there was a Jewish Rabbi with the gift of healing every disease (Read Matthew 4).
Now imagine. The powerful army of the day (the Romans), humbled itself before the minority of the day (the Jews), to ask a favor. The Jews must have been appalled. Their community was filled with fear by the history of pain caused when Romans came through to torture, kidnap, or cause mayhem in like-minded towns. So when the Roman asks Jesus to heal, Jesus had a decision to make.
He didn’t have to.
He could have rallied the Jewish Zealots and started a war with the Roman vulnerability.
And the Roman didn’t have to humble himself before Jesus.
By all means, he could have just kidnapped Jesus, took him to the servant’s house, forced him to heal or be killed.
That’s the powerful way.
But instead, the Roman chose to humble himself before the minority, and elevate the perceived minority to a position of Caesar.
This would have certainly cost the Roman Centurion his job, and maybe even his life.
When Jesus said, “Shall I come and heal him?” The Roman Centurion explains, ““Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
Do you see what happened there?
The Powerful came to the Power-less and humbled himself.
Then the power-less had an opportunity to either galvanize the community to violence, or humble Himself to unite with “the enemy.”
So many times I’ve heard this passage exposited by elevating the idea of faith. The Roman had faith, and Jesus healed. Therefore; if we have enough faith, Jesus will heal. And, surely there is something there. But when you take time to think about the political situation of the day, it’s not that different from today.
Why does this matter?
I know our world is full of all kinds of faith positions, and I don’t mean to impose Jesus on Baltimore. However; I think this particular example of humility in the face of power is a compelling lesson.
When those with power come to those without power in a spirit of humility instead of approaching with force, magical things happen. Words like “trust” and “forgiveness” are given the environment to take root and ultimately healing has a chance. It may be a spiritual ‘faith’ type of lesson, but what if the faith was illustrated by the Roman Guards humility?
I can hear the rumblings already emerging in your mind as you read this.
“But what if we humble ourselves, and the other side takes advantage of us? Aren’t we risking our lives?”
And the short answer is…Yes.
The entire story of Jesus is blanketed with the notion that God came to earth. God humbled himself. That’s what Emmanuel means. God with us.
For sure God has the power to destroy and Judge, so why would He spend time risking His authority by sending Jesus in the form of a man? If God calculated that decision based on current political science, it was a bad move, right?
But when the powerful recognize their power, and choose the attitude of humility, that’s what Jesus calls meekness. And in Matthew 5 Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek. For they will inherit the earth.”
Paul writes in Philippians 2,
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
I wonder what would happen if more people took on the mindset of Jesus, and began a conversation of humility in our current conversation about racism in America? What would happen if the powerful humbled themselves and listened to the powerless, thereby taking the opportunity to see what is actually the genesis of these violent acts? Why are so many African-Americans venting frustration through protest or violence. (By the way, this is not intended to condone the violence we saw on Monday night.) Instead of asking “WHAT” maybe we could change the conversation to “WHY?”
Sure, they may risk being taken advantage of. Of course, they may find road blocks if indignation. But what if there was a chance the conversation might turn a different way?
And what if the perceived powerless took the steps to humble themselves and listen to the concerns of the powerful? Of course, standing in front of a police line pushing back on protestors is a risky thing. The powerful may take advantage of the situation and continue to push back. But, one thing is for sure: Violence only begets more Violence. We’ve seen this play out in our lifetime.
If we think we can simply squash evil and thereby be rid of all the violent acts in Baltimore, we deceive ourselves. This issue we’re watching in our country is only going to continue rumbling under the surface, and the problem will spread from city to city until violence is the norm. Even Congressman Rand Paul said this morning, “We’re closer to the tipping point in our country than most realize.” That should be a wake up call for us to think a different way. The current way isn’t working.
So What’s the Answer?
I don’t presume I’m a racial reconciler. But when looking at the story of Jesus in the pages of the Bible, it seems to me, the answer is:
Powerful – Listen to the concerns of the people you’ve been given authority to rule over. Don’t patronize and justify. Listen and allow yourself to be more self-ware of the consequences the decisions you are making impose on a community.
Powerless – listen to the concerns of the powerful and hear – truly hear – the concerns over safety and civility they are trying to wrestle with. These situations are full of fear and insecurities.
The bottom line – the scenes we see in Baltimore are going to continue to permeate America until we see some true leadership, void of fear, step up to the situation without calculating the political pros and cons. It may be the Pastor inviting youth to his church to educated, risking his position at the church. It may be a Law-Enforcement official willing to risk the safety and security of his own. It may be a Gang Member wiling to recognize the importance of keeping the peace, and risking his political capital among fellow gang members. Or it may be a political leader who recognizes the political capital they could spend to LEAD!
No matter who it is – We need true leadership for someone to step in and do the right thing.
Please: Stop calculating your own self interests, and let’s come together and do the right thing. “All men are created equal,” If you don’t want to do it like Jesus, do it in the context of our own American documents.
I’m convinced there are those doing things to try to release some of the pressure in Baltimore, but they rarely make the news. As a people, we can ask our news media, our politicians, our local community workers to do the right thing, and then celebrate those who do. Let’s stop consuming the images of violence, and humble ourselves to hear the pain of the other. Then I think we walk with Jesus.