The time is up! Change your whole way of thinking and reshape your life, for the kingdom of God is confronting you! (Mark 1:15)
Jesus set out to transform the world. He believed that the way things are is not the way life was meant to be.
creation and fall
The biblical parable of creation tells us that God crafted the vast universe from the dark and formless void of space. When the earth was ready to support life, God called it “good.” In the mythical Garden of Eden, human beings, represented by the figure of Adam (Hebrew for “Earthling”) and his partner Eve (Hebrew for “Life-Bearer’), lived by gathering food from plants and trees.
Perhaps this story in Genesis hearkens back to the earliest human cultures. Pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer societies find their food in the wild. They are usually small tightly knit communities characterized by egalitarian partnerships and cooperative living. They depend on one another for day-to-day survival. The weakest members are cared for. If one goes hungry, all go hungry. Life is not easy. It is primitive and simple, but the social relationships are often what we might call “good.”
Then, according to this ancient parable, comes the fall of humanity. After centuries of hunting and gathering, Earthling and Life-Bearer leave the garden, the jungle and forest, to take up a life of primitive agriculture, working the soil with sticks and hoes. In a simple horticultural society, food sources are more dependable than hunting and gathering. The population of the earth increases as Earthling and Life-Bearer produce countless generations of children. Small villages and towns are formed. With the invention of the plow, farmers are able to produce more than they need. The creation of a surplus in agrarian societies changes human life dramatically. Cities are born.
the normalcy of civilization
Wealth begins to be accumulated and, instead of being distributed for mutual benefit, it is unfairly divided. The desire for wealth leads to all forms of evil, including violence and social divisions. Civilizations arise. But so do wars. Military leaders carve out kingdoms and empires, slaves are taken, social hierarchies are formed, and the world is soon divided into strong and weak, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, haves and have-nots. Those at the top use the sweat, strength and labor of those at the bottom to keep them in luxury. Religion props up the system of social inequality and armed violence protects and maintains it. The created world has fallen into sin. It is no longer “good.” This is what John Dominic Crossan refers to as “the normalcy of civilization.”
a contrast society
In this context, the Hebrew people describe their story in the Hebrew Bible. According to their centuries-old mythology, God rescued them from slavery in Egypt and led them to a land of their own. A covenant or bargain was then struck between God and the Hebrew people. God promised that the land would theirs if they would create a just society that would become a model for the world—a contrast society. The land and its wealth were to be equally distributed to everyone. There would be no social divisions.
It was understood that as the years pass, some people would prosper and others would not. But every fifty years economic grace would be declared and an equal playing field would be reestablished. Debts would be forgiven and land would be restored.
a fallen society
Over time this society fails and falls from goodness. The Hebrew people abandon the bargain. They turn their backs on the God of distributive justice and embrace Baal, a god of prosperity. They desire to be just like the rest of the world. A king is anointed, hierarchies form, and the society fractures into rich and poor, oppressor and oppressed. For a brief moment they become a great nation under David and Solomon. But quickly their fortunes turn and they become a conquered people living under the boot heel of one empire after another. Once again the system is in need of redemption.
Things take a dramatic turn for the worse during the days of the Roman Empire. The booming Roman economy and Rome’s incredible wealth are based on an economic system called a commercialized agrarian empire. This system depends on vast estates to produce agricultural products for sale and export. It represents a major shift from small family farms to large agribusiness enterprises. A small number of wealthy families accumulate huge estates through peasant indebtedness, predatory lending practices, and foreclosure. Peasant farmers are thrown off their land. Some are able to find work as tenant farmers for their new masters. Others become day laborers. All are just one step away from destitution and starvation.
This was the situation in first-century Roman Palestine. On a global scale, it is still the situation in the world today. This is clearly not what God intended. It is not the way things were meant to be.
the domination system
Walter Wink calls the fallen social, political and economic structure of the world the domination system. To one degree or another, this system pervades nearly every human society, whether ancient or modern, dictatorship or democracy, socialist or capitalist. All share similar underlying characteristics. Power and wealth are concentrated in the hands of an elite minority so that a privileged few benefit at the expense of the many. Cooperative legal and religious institutions condone, legitimize, support and perpetuate the system. Violence is employed to protect and maintain the status quo.
At the heart of the domination system is a set of shared values—the pursuit of power and wealth; the pursuit of prestige, status, and honor; exclusive and hierarchical social relationships; and male domination over women. Most people believe that the domination system is the way things are, have been, and will always be.
an alternative vision for humanity
Jesus offered a powerful and compelling vision of the way things could and should be. He captured the ancient hopes and dreams of humanity, and articulated a way of life that offered hope to those who suffer at the hands of the domination system. He called his vision the reign of God. It described the way the world would be if God ran the world the way it was intended to be.
Walter Wink says that if one reads the four gospels with this understanding it becomes clear that the teachings of Jesus are prescriptive remedies for the redemption and transformation of the domination system. They provide new ways of thinking and acting, and offer hope for transformation of individuals, institutions and systems.
The words liberation, redemption and salvation all apply to the vision of Jesus. Life under the reign of God liberates us from the mindset of domination, greed, violence and power. It saves us from slavish devotion to the prevailing values of the domination system. It redeems that system by transforming it from domination and greed to equality, partnership, and sharing. It transforms a life of suffering into a life of hope and joy. It is a way of life that can be called “good” again.
Unlike other visionaries, Jesus was not only convinced that his vision was the way things could be or should be, he declared that this is the way things would be. It will happen, Jesus said. And the transformation of the world is starting now.
There was urgency in his message. Jesus was calling for a profound revolution, and he knew that revolutionaries don’t live very long. So Jesus called on people to change. He created a movement of changed people.
personal and social transformations
If Jesus was concerned more than anything else about the quality of human life, and the relationship of men and women with God and with each other, then the reign of God must be found in these new relationships.
The reign of God is Jesus’ vision of a community of people whose lives are changed dramatically to a new way of living and relating to one another. It involves both a personal transformation and a social transformation. It reinforces the worldview which believes that God is loving and compassionate and cares for our welfare, by creating a community of people who are loving and compassionate and who care for each other’s welfare. It demonstrates that we are not alone in an indifferent universe, that we are part of a community of people who are bound to one another through every part of life and death.
In the gospel accounts Jesus describes seven elements necessary for following Jesus. Although they are not organized in a systematized way in the teachings of Jesus, they are mentioned frequently enough to be seen as a whole. We can imagine them as the seven steps of discipleship:
- transform your mind
- deny your self
- give up everything
- seek God’s reign
- count the cost
- take up your cross
- follow Jesus