What Was Jesus' Response To The Domination System
The Journey Inward
Last updated 9/9/2020 at 5:04pm
A dispute arose among (the disciples) as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But (Jesus) said to them, “The Kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am as one among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:24-27).
This column is the third in a series on the work of biblical scholar Walter Wink. In the previous two columns as well as this column I have essentially followed the ideas of Wink and tried to update them from my perspective. His book, “The Powers That Be,” was especially relevant for this column; I am indebted to him for his comprehensive understanding of Jesus’ response to the domination system.
We previously reviewed the meaning of the New Testament “Principalities and Powers,” which refers not only to the outward form of an institution but also its inner spirit. The most notable power during that era was the Roman Empire, experienced most visibly by its legions of conquest. Rome’s less recognizable spirit was the domination system held together by the myth of redemptive violence. Every aspect of culture in the occupied territories was dictated by Roman authority.
In the above passage from Luke, Jesus upends the scaffolding that holds the domination system together. The first shall be last, the last first. In other passages, it is the merciful not the mighty, the peacemakers not the warriors, the persecuted not the aristocrats who will enter the joy of God. Unlike anything that went before him, Jesus is advocating a domination-free order-the “communion of God.”
A bulwark of the domination system is economic inequity. Accumulated wealth is the basis of economic and political power. A society with an unfair distribution of wealth requires violence to maintain established order.
There needs to be a balance between careful observance of the law (“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars and to God the things that are Gods,” (i.e. pay taxes) Mark 12:14) and respect for those who without power seek a non-violent redress of inequities.
Paul, an ardent follower of Jesus, wrote in the Book of Romans (7:12) that law is “holy and just and good” because it is able to curb forms of violence such as lawlessness, destruction of property and safeguards values that enable communities to survive.
But as Paul also implies in Romans (7:7-13) law (religious or legislative) can become captive to violence in its enforcement. Commenting on Paul’s message Wink writes: “Law is sucked into the contest for power; it becomes both an instrument of violence and a generator of violence, thus limiting its utility as a means of reducing violence.”
Various laws that hold society together, like every power, are necessary and good but are fallen and need redemption. For instance, the cry “law and order,” heard for the umpteenth time since Richard Nixon used it as a ploy for his election may become a thinly disguised effort to instill fear (of chaos) for political purposes or suppress challenges to those in authority.
But Jesus rejects violence, either from oppressors or oppressed. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Jesus discovered a way of opposing evil through non-violence without becoming evil in the process. Modern day examples include John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. Each employed non-violent means to counter oppression.
A domination-free order is participatory. No one is excluded. In his inner circle, Jesus included women who traditionally had been marginalized by patriarchy. Wink writes: “Indeed, his (Jesus) approach to women had no parallel in ‘civilized’ societies since the rise of patriarchy over three thousand years before his birth.” In the Fourth Gospel Jesus speaks to a Samaritan woman but also takes a drink from her “unclean” hand. The disciples are “astonished that he was speaking with a woman” (John 4:27).
Jesus debunked holiness and challenged a purity ethic. His challenge placed him in the path of Sadducees who counted on outward behavior as the measure of their place in culture. Domination depends on ranking; that is, who is the cleanest and most pious. Without such distinctions, how can one know whom to dominate?
In “The Powers That Be” Wink writes: “Rules of ritual purity are what keep various parts of society in their ‘proper’ place. Without purity regulations, there would be a crisis of distinctions in which everyone, everything, was the same: women equal to men, outsiders equal to insiders, the sacred no different from the profane.”
As a child I heard from adults: “If they don’t like this country, they (blacks) can go back to Africa.” We hear the same sentiment today about people from Mexico and Central America particularly. The purity ethic is alive and well. The domination mentality must be preserved, even if children are placed in cages.
Marriage and family are the foundation of care and nurture, social control, cultural adaptation, and religious training. Yet Jesus, consistent with his abhorrence of domination, had almost nothing good to say about the family. Family life can become the first place a child learns about classism, racism and the preservation of patriarchy. Parents are inculcated by cultural precepts often without even knowing the power of that influence. They pass that on to their children. This is one way the domination system is perpetuated.
As a psychotherapist, I am aware that the first person to squelch an act of courage is often another family member. This occurs through subtle coercion or outright prohibition. It is exceedingly difficult for people to move beyond the dysfunction of their family, especially if it is a mini-domination system.
Although the family, like other institutions, is part of God’s creative design, nonetheless, Jesus pointed to a community based on fidelity to God. “Whoever does the will of God are my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35). In other words, family is not to be abolished but influenced by a spirit of participation where voices are heard from mutual love and respect.
Wink points out in “Engaging the Powers:” “When anyone steps out of the system (domination system) and tells the truth, lives the truth, that person enables ‘everyone else’ to peer behind the curtain too.” Jesus exposed the truth about the domination system and for that he was crucified. But his truth endures.
Wink again: “What Jesus envisioned was a world transformed, where both people and powers are in harmony with the ultimate and committed to the general welfare…” This can be called the blessed “Communion of God.”
One of the most insightful scripts from Wink in “The Powers That Be” is this sentence: “If Jesus had never lived, we would not have been able to invent him.”
However long it takes to see Jesus’ vision become a reality, we know his truths will be the centerpiece of a domination-free blessed community.
(Dr. John Campbell is a psychotherapist and clergyperson living in Brevard.)