Jesus Passion Narrative to explain international development today


This being Holy Week, I will devote myself to explaining in a series of posts what the story of Jesus’s Arrival in Jerusalem can teach us about international development. Much of what I will say will challenge and offend others, but I do it with good intentions. I want to inspire others to imagine a world that isn’t. A world where “aid” flows from within. Where relationships are among people who believe in each other, rather than the formalisms that arise from institutions that live on slips of paper. Where our daily activities incarnate our spiritual dreams. Hopefully invoking many parallels with the story of Jesus will give me cover to say what the powerful struggle to acknowledge.

Four new concepts you’ll learn about: The Gratitudes (Day 2), Powerty (Day 4), Social Prosperity (Day 5), and the God Mechanism (Day 7).

DAY 1 – Palm Sunday

After three years poking about in the hinterlands, preaching a subversive message to crowds and healing the sick (but always asking them to keep it a secret), Jesus finally entered Jerusalem. He traded secrecy for a glorious procession. He had taught all that he needed to teach and recognized that the final step was to illustrate that those in power were the root cause of suffering and inequity. It was a lesson that he knew would bring about his own death, which is why he kept a low profile until the right moment.

Something you should know about the elites. In AD 33 Rome had conquered all the lands from the Strait of Gibraltar to the edge of Persia. Rome installed a governor, who appointed locals to manage the government. Many of the educated and well-to-do grew in stature and influence, as did the priestly caste (the Pharises). Rome relied on these two groups to maintain order. One to carry out orders and collect taxes, the other to promote the promise of a bright future conditional on following a strict code of behavior. Meanwhile Roman Legions – peacekeepers from abroad – enforced the law.

Local harvests and economic prosperity ensured that the citizens of Rome enjoyed a stable and comfortable life the likes of which no other culture experienced. It was a system of inequity, yes, but Jesus never focused his attention on it. Instead, he focused on the evil in the hearts of men – local leaders – who complicitly allowed it to exist by their apathy and unwillingness to challenge it. Corrupt systems of power have always relied on one mechanism to prevent their implosion: So long as the individuals with power prosper, they will not work to destroy the system.

But instead of fighting these people, or attacking the machinery of the system, Jesus took a better approach. He launched an assault on apathy – he spread an idea that would fill the hearts of those in power with a hunger for more than just immediate prosperity. As the idea of “love your enemies” took hold and transformed cold communities into trusting selfless ones, people (even powerful ones) began to question the wisdom of the hierarchy. “Injustice” could finally be seen to exist because people were living as a demonstration of just what a “Just community” looked like.

Jesus’s teachings were rendering the existing system obsolete. Poor were sharing with the poor outside of the piety management system owned by the Pharises. Jews and Gentiles were beginning to unite around common goals. Waning was the influence of the government mouthpieces to drive the masses like cattle. Blessed were the Poor in Spirit, for they derived wealth from the strength of their relationships now. This idea was shrinking the tax base. If people embraced peace and poverty and had nothing from which the Romans could tax or take, the great citizens of Rome would suffer. A showdown was inevitable.

On Palm Sunday we commemorate Jesus’s flashy entry into Jerusalem, where crowds erupted in chants of joy and paved his road with palm fronds. Beside Jesus stood Lazurus, a man he’d raised from the dead. Seeing His Good Deeds walking beside Him, speaking for himself, so to speak, they fell into awe.

Jesus wasted no time indicting the powers that be. He led the crowds to the great temple. There He stood frozen, shocked at the rabble of priests, influence peddlers, and money changers. You see back in that time the temple was the seat of power and people were getting rich by standing in between God and good people wishing to pray and serve Him. Today’s lobbyists would be right at home in the temple, as today some of our “temples” continue to peddle influence for leaders. Religion can bind us together or blind us to the plight of our neighbors; it is up to each of us to recognize the false prophets among God’s humble servants.

“He entered the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold [sacrificial] pidgeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.”

Context: My church’s preacher showed a picture of this temple within Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. There was a wall dividing East and West and to block “anyone carrying anything through the temple” was to obstruct all economic activity in the capitol. Today we would brand Jesus a socialist and an economic terrorist.

“Is it not written,” Jesus said, “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’ but you’ve made it a den of robbers.” You’ve divided the people by race, wealth, and sex.
“And by whose authority do you challenge us?” The high priest asked.

Jesus used a rhetorical ploy to avoid the question, but elsewhere he continued his treasonous sermon, for he believed that what remains in the hearts of men supercedes the laws of any government of men:

“In the future, many will come in my name promising everything but they will lead you astray. Let their deeds speak for themselves.”
“For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.”
“Lawlessness will lead the love of many to grow cold.”

All this is inevitable when people start imagining themselves in control of their world, and realize they aren’t.

“Is it like today? Kings, Empire, and revolution”

Fast forward 2000 years and you’ll see that today’s global empires more closely resemble Rome and it’s provinces than Jefferson and Locke’s vision of a free self-governing society. Unless you happen to be a citizen of Rome, that is. But to the more than 6 billion people who struggle to make ends meet under governments that only partly consider them to be their constituents, this story resonates. The masses feel like Citizens of Jerusalem, not Rome. Most governments are accountable to the empires first and the needs of their people second. They finance debts in Dollars or Euros, and heed the advice of those who sit atop a web of influence and economic interdependence that continues to keep the “Citizens of Rome” much better off than anyone else.

Governments do this because capitalism has a good track record for growth and prosperity, but are they getting true capitalism? Or is it mercanitilism? Earth remains colonized, and a modern class of educated, moneyed elites and religious pharises maintain local order without pushing too hard to invert the power structure.

The World Bank refuses to utter phrases like “democracy,” even when talking about the Arab Spring. Everywhere, the rich have grown richer since 1980 while the middle class remain the same. For the moment we have more peace yet the stockpile of weapons grows ever larger. 100 million poor will be underwater (literally) by the end of this century as a direct consequence of the system that no one dare question.

It reminds me of lyrics from an old song of mine:

Children play with angels and devils
dreaming up a world of make believe.
But in their heads there is rhyme and reason
Good and evil, a real thing.

We put our faith in power and might
And set forth armies to set things right
Believing in evil that never once worked,
Who’s imagining?

Bill Easterly had the guts to publish a book showing that economic prosperity has not happened outside of the empire despite all our best efforts in the last century. Might that be because the system itself loves “poverty reduction” (an inherently beneficial economic activity for foreign empires) but would never accept “powerty reduction?”

Later this week I explain “powerty” much more. In short, it is my term for the idea that lack of real power and lack of permission for “self-rule” from the power elites is what keeps prosperity just out of reach for billions of people.

“No, we didn’t give you permission to run your own economy…” I can hear a voice saying from behind the screen.

But there is a roadmap towards social prosperity. It begins tomorrow with The Gratitudes and the continuing story of what Jesus did next in Jerusalem.

(Video: What empires offer most people)

Passion Week Blog Series:

  1. Empire – and the hierarchy of aid power
  2. NEXT: The Gratitudes – a blueprint for social prosperity
  3. The Clarity of Powerlessness
  4. Only the servant of all can end powerty
  5. Abandoning organizations on a quest for impact
  6. Faith in institutions and Jesus on trial
  7. the path to resurrection is paved in failure
  8. epilogue: why the poor don’t speak up

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