Following Jesus as an Activist Contemplative
July 19, 2015 (Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time), by Paul Knitter
JESUS THE ACTIVIST CONTEMPLATIVE (OR PROPHETIC MYSTIC) (Mark6:30-34, 53-56)
Today’s gospel selection from Mark brings out a quality of Jesus that is often forgotten or neglected.
- If you would ask an assemblage of Scripture scholars the question: “How might you best describe who this Jesus of Nazareth was or what he probably thought of himself?”, the majority would probably tell us that he was, and probably thought of himself as, a prophet, in the long line of Jewish prophets, whose message about the Reign of God encouraged the downtrodden and threatened the ruling elites.
Today’s gospel, I suggest, reminds us that that reply is only half true: besides being a prophet and activist, Jesus of Nazareth was also a mystic and a contemplative.
- Today’s reading makes the activist part of Jesus’ life very clear: The apostles are freshly returned from a very busy mission trip into the Galilean countryside preaching the Reign of God. One verse summarizes their activist lives in a way that many of us, I suspect, can relate to: “Many were coming and going .. they had no leisure even to eat.”
- And in the midst of all this, Jesus invites them to “come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” The Greek for the way Jesus addresses them—hymeis autoi – can be translated “you yourselves” or “now you,” implying that what Jesus did, they now must also do – withdraw to a deserted place to rest and pray.
- Indeed, throughout the Gospels we see Jesus withdrawing, retreating, in order to find silence and solitude for prayer. The Gospel selection in today’s lectionary omits the feeding of the 5000, after which we read: “After saying farewell to the crowd, he went up on the mountain to pray.” (Mark 4:46)
- Before he began his public ministry, Jesus spent a long apprenticeship with his cousin John the Baptizer in the desert, certainly with long hours of solitude and prayer. And before he actually took up his own preaching, there was the 30-day retreat in the desert in which he connected with the Holy Spirit – and confronted the not so holy spirit.
So I believe that Marcus Borg gives us a full and properly balanced picture of Jesus when he describes him as not only a prophet who led a socialmovement, but also as a spirit person and mystic who was a wisdom teacher. (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, 30)
- Jesus was both a prophet and a mystic—both an activist and a contemplative.
But I’d like to suggest to you that in this balance of prophet and mystic, there’s a certain priority. It is more accurate, I think, to describe Jesus as an “active contemplative” rather than as a “contemplative activist”– not as an activist who also spends time in contemplative prayer, but as a contemplative whose action and social engagement flow out of, and are grounded in and guided by, his contemplation.
- By “contemplation” or contemplative prayer I mean practices that enable us to realize that God and ourselves, God and the world, are inseparable. God is a Presence that is always accessible.
- This is what Jesus experienced profoundly. And this experience of his oneness with the God he called Abba determined how he went about his prophetic work of transforming society.
- If we try to follow his example, our contemplation, our union with God, will determine how we go about our activism, how we try to transform our world.
- The other two readings for today help me explain what I mean.
ACTIVISTS WHO CHALLENGE THE “RULERS” (SHEPHERDS) OF SOCIETY (Jeremiah 23: 1-6)
The first reading from Jeremiah, as well as last week’s readings from Amos and Wayne Sigelko’s homily, make clear what happens to anyone who enters into a mystical connection and experiences the God of the Jews, the God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.
- To experience this God, and to grow into contemplative union with this Spiritual Presence, is to feel animated by an energy that calls for not just love of all but justice for all. What is distinctive of the God of Jews, Christians, and Muslims is that this God not only calls us to love our neighbors, as do the Gods or Ultimate Reality in other religions; this God of Jesus and Jeremiah adds that in order to love our neighbor we will also have to work for justice.
- And as Jeremiah, and so many other Jewish prophets including Jesus, realized, this means that they had to confront “the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture.”
- These shepherds were the designated – or in our case today elected – political leaders, who were scattering and harming the people, who were not, as the reading puts it, “executing justice and righteousness in the land.” In Jesus’ case, these were the Romans and their Jewish collaborators.
For a Jewish mystic like Jesus or Jeremiah, therefore, there is no neat or absolute separation between religion and politics, or church and state.
- To work for justice will call for some kind of political involvement in which we challenge the rulers who scatter and destroy God’s people through their economic policies or legal actions that deny health care to all, or that incarcerate rather than rehabilitate, or that restrict the right and opportunity to vote, or that allow corporations a louder political voice than people.
- The silence that mystics practice in the desert leads to loud political voices on the streets or in front of the capitol.
CONTEMPLATIVES FOR WHOM “ALL DIVIDING WALLS ARE BROKEN DOWN” (Eph. 2: 11-22)
And yet, those loud, protesting, confronting voices will never be voices of hatred or violence.
- This, I believe, is the message of our second reading from the letter to the Ephesians. The author, not Paul himself but a member of Paul’s communities, describes not political but theological divisions and confrontations in the early church – between the “circumcised” or Jewish Jesus-followers who practiced kosher and went to the Temple, and “uncircumcised” or Greek-Roman Jesus followers who did not. There were real differences in what each group thought was necessary to follow Jesus.
- But as Brigitte Kahl, professor of NT at Union Theological Seminary, has clearly pointed out in her recent book Galatians Reimagined, when the text states that “God has made both groups into one,” that didn’t mean that the differences between the two groups were removed. The Jews remained Jews and stayed faithful to their Jewish practices; the Gentiles remained Gentiles. The “dividing wall of hostility between them was broken down,” but the dividing line of their differences, and sometimes disagreements, remained. They were one community of love despite their differences.
- So Paul taught that in Christ, there will be differences, differences on which we have to confront each other. But there will be no enemies, no hostility toward those we have to confront. Even when we confront each other, we will be connected in love.
This is a further way in which contemplation, or union with God in Christ, determines how we go about our prophetic, political action.
- The God whom Jesus experienced, and whom we experience through Jesus, is the Abba God of Love that embraces and interconnects everyone. Yes, this God is a God who demands justice and therefore calls us to confront the rulers who are scattering and harming the people. But this demand for justice arises out of a fundamental, unbreakable love for all – a love that embraces both the scattered sheep and the unfaithful, unjust shepherds.
- So prophets and activists who are also contemplatives and who act out of union with a Love they call God will speak up fiercely against the rulers and politicians who they think are oppressing the people. But the fierceness will come forth not just from a demand for justice but also, and primarily, from the power of love and compassion – love for both the suffering sheep and also love for the oppressive rulers. As my Buddhist teacher puts it, such activists will be animated by a fierce compassion as they speak truth to power – but a compassion that loves the oppressor as much as the oppressed.
- I think that people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Bishop Tutu, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama (and I think Pope Francis), embody this message of Jesus the activist contemplative. They realized that only when the fierceness of their opposition to injustice is motivated and animated by a compassion for both the oppressed and the oppressors – only then can we “break down the dividing walls of hostility between us” and come closer to what the author of Ephesians envisions as “one new humanity.” Justice, lasting justice, has to be rooted in the soil of love.
But that’s a tall order – to carry on our prophetic efforts to confront and transform unjust structures and policies, but to do so out of equal love for both the oppressed and oppressors.
- That’s why activists need to be grounded in contemplation, why we have to regularly “come away to a deserted place by ourselves.”
- That can be done in a variety of ways. One of them is what we are doing here, right now, and every Sunday, at our Spiritual Assembly. These are contemplative moments when we reconnect with the Christ-Spirit, living within each of us and among all of us.
- In the rest of this liturgy may we help each other to feel the presence of this Christ with whom and in whom we can carry on our efforts to live lives of fierce compassion for all.