Jesus and governmental Injustice

Nov 24, 2022 | INSIGHTS

When we consider just how many around the world are the butt of cruelties of so many kinds and the victims of grave injustice, how can we not grieve and pray for these myriad hurting souls? The Lord has different responses for different situations, but this article by Tom Hawksley provides an excellent starting point for considering something that some of us have perhaps not devoted much attention to Jesus’ ‘rough’ response to Governmental injustice. Thank you, Tom, for these important principles and reflections.

My wife and I have a kneeling chair that once belonged to my mother’s cousin, Anthony Stubbs. Anthony was an Anglican monk who served in South Africa for many years, and whose fervent spirituality influenced a generation of ordinands, as well being friend to many who fought against the injustice of apartheid.

One such activist was Steve Biko. He was the first president of the South Africa Students’ Organisation, and a pioneer of the Black Consciousness movement. For his outspoken criticism of the racist minority government, Biko paid a heavy price. In August 1977 he was arrested, and less than a month later was beaten to death in prison. He was just thirty years old.

All around the world the blood of men and women like Steven Biko, murdered by their own governments, cry out for justice: a cry that is heard and reflected in Heaven itself. (Rev. 6:9-11)

How do we answer the cry?

The Church responds to the cry for justice in a variety of ways:

“We should just pray and fast.”
“No, we must show our support more actively than that: we must join with others and march and chant.”
“We must cause some (hopefully non-violent) disruption”.
“We must write letters to influential people and politicians.”
“We must open avenues for peaceful dialogue.”

The first thing to realise is that the world that Jesus lived in was just as full of rank injustice as our own. For example,

  • In the Roman Empire there were sixty million slaves.
  • There was discrimination between those who were Roman citizens, and those who were not.
  • For the Jews, things were even worse.
    • Their taxes were high
    • Any Roman could ask a Jew to take carry his luggage for two miles.
    • Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, was notorious for ruling the province of Palestine with great cruelty.

This was the world that Jesus entered – and many Jews had very strong views about how they ought to counter these and many other injustices. By implication, they expected Jesus to respond in such ways too, and to come up with some plan for bringing down the hated Roman occupying power.

For the Zealots, for instance, violence was the only possible response: armed uprisings to bring about regime change. Very different was the attitude of the Qumran Community, who lived in caves in the desert, concerned above all to separate themselves as completely as possible from all contaminating contact with Rome, and to devote themselves to praying intensely for the Messiah to come. For the Pharisees, it was to command the people to observe the law of Moses ever more rigorously. For the Sadducees, however, a high degree of collaboration with the Romans appeared the pragmatic and most profitable way forward.

As Christians in our generation ponder how to respond to governmental injustice we will find it valuable to pause and consider how Jesus responded in the face of such things.

He was certainly aware of all these factions, but refused to identify Himself with any of them, let alone to join them. To outsiders, this might give the impression that He was doing nothing about it, and that He was therefore far less concerned about all the injustices that were happening than He should have been. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was responding – but not in ways that they would have predicted or demanded.

Jesus’ challenges were rough for everyone: for those suffering because of injustice; more severe still for those responsible for the injustice – and roughest of all for Himself. Let’s look at these step by step.

Jesus’s response to injustice: rough for the victims

Multitudes of Jews who were looking to Jesus to deal with the blatant injustices that they were regularly facing must have felt disappointed. It was not often that He said what they wanted to hear – and what He did say, stung.

Take the rule that any Roman could ask a Jew to carry his luggage for him for two miles. Some of the Jews hoped that Jesus would denounce this injustice and hear him say that it was the duty of every Jew to refuse the demand of the bullying Romans, and to mount a campaign to get this oppressive law repealed.

But what did He actually say? That ‘If anyone forces you to go with him one mile, go two miles.’ (Matthew 5:41).

Or consider the occasion when a Roman centurion came to him pleading for the life of his servant. The Jews hated the Romans. They were the enemy. The Zealots would have killed the centurion and his servant; the Pharisees would have shaken their heads and ignored him. But Jesus healed the Roman’s servant.

What lies behind these two responses? Radical love for the enemy as an individual. The centurion may have been a Roman (through no fault of his own), and belonged to a system that was oppressing their people, but right now he needed help and compassion, not politics.

Other, ‘rougher’ examples of Jesus’ response for the victims of injustice must have caused many to do a double take.

Many Jewish firebrands would have been hoping that Jesus would condemn the heavy burden of paying heavy taxes to Rome: a cruel and pagan power. Jesus refused to denounce these taxes but instead instructed people to ‘Pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.’ The message is clear. Taxes must be paid, and paid to Caesar. This too must have been disappointing, not just because the people didn’t want to part with their money, but because it seemed that Jesus was quite prepared to let the Roman government and Emperor Tiberius, who was notorious for executing those suspected of treason, continue to get away with his cruel and cynical impositions on his subjects.

Perhaps the most scandalous response for the victims of injustice is found at the beginning of Luke 13. This was the occasion when Jesus was told about a terrible atrocity: Pilate had mixed the blood of some Galileans with the blood of the temple sacrifices. For this outrage the Jews were surely expecting Jesus to denounce Pilate, perhaps even start a campaign to take to the streets or to the hills to launch a guerrilla campaign in a bid to remove this monster from office. Jesus’s answer must have shocked them to the core of their being:

‘Do you think those Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.’ Rather than dwell on Pilate’s sins, Jesus turns things right round by, asking his listeners to consider their own shortcomings: sins which will most certainly be punished unless there is corresponding repentance. We know from elsewhere that the cardinal sin of all in His sight is unbelief. (Heb. 11:6, John 16:9, cf Rev. 21:8) This was not at all the answer those listeners were looking for – any more than most people today would welcome it.

Jesus’ rough response for victims included his own family. When his cousin, John the Baptist, sent him a message from prison, Jesus’ answer was very hard. In his message John asks if Jesus is the Messiah, because, if so, why is he unjustly in prison? At the heart of this message was a desperate need to be reassured that Jesus really was the Lamb of God as he had once proclaimed so confidently, now that He appeared to be doing nothing to challenge Herod’s many injustices or to rid the country of the whole rotten Roman system.

Once again Jesus’s answer takes his hearers by surprise: ‘John, you are in prison and I am not going to get you out. That is not my mission. My mission is to heal the sick and to preach the good news to the poor.’ At the same time, however, He sets out the encouraging fruit of His mission in such a way as to enable his faithful forerunner to piece together the pieces and realise that He really is who he thought he was, for only the Messiah could open the eyes and of the blind and cause the lame to walk.

When Jesus heard that Herod had executed his cousin John, He did not assemble an angry mob or instigate a Regime Change Committee bent on ousting this evil ruler. Rather we read that Jesus wanted to go to a desolate place (Matthew 14:13) to grieve and pray. When Herod later demanded to see Jesus, He sent a message via the Pharisees, saying, ‘Go and tell that fox . . .’ That is as near as He comes to using bad language against him. It was hardly going to provoke a riot. In other words, when it came to facing injustice head on, Christ did not invest His energy in seeking to tear something down: He put all His energy into building something up: something that was of eternal value. May that be the model that we follow and the motif of our hearts.

Of course it is natural for victims of any form of injustice (personal or governmental) to want immediate action and rapid vindication – preferably with compensation – but this is precisely what Jesus refused to give it. Instead He demanded that his followers practise radical love for their enemies, give sensible support to the political system they are living under, and be wary of assuming that their own spiritual situation would be automatically improved with a change of leadership.

If this were Jesus’ only response one might be tempted to think that He supported government injustice. Not at all. His response for the victims of injustice is rough. His warnings concerning the fate of those responsible for injustice is rougher. Woe to those who put any obstacle before people – whether at a personal or a governmental level. (Matt. 18:6)

Jesus’s ‘rough’ answer with regard to government injustice+: The Kingdom of God

Here is a radical challenge to ponder. Does it not strike you that large parts of the modern church are so soaked in a sentimentalised version of Christianity that if you were to ask the average church goer what Jesus’ main message was, they would almost certainly say something like, ‘God loves sinners.’ True, He most certainly does, and John 3:16 makes this plain. But that is by no means the be all and the end-all of the gospel. We would look in vain to find anything about God’s love for sinners in His first sermon or His last, and not much in all His preaching and parables in between. The glorious truth of God’s love for sinners sits beneath, above and surrounds the yet greater truth which is the main emphasis of Jesus’ preaching, and a message that only He could bring: the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom of God is mentioned 53 times in Matthew, 17 in Mark, and 29 times in Luke. In all that makes very nearly one hundred references in the Gospels. As Jesus stepped into national ministry He raised his voice and declared, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the Gospel’. Later we are told that this Gospel is not about God’s love for sinners, but the Gospel of the Kingdom (Matthew 4:23, 9:35, 24:14; Luke 4:43, 8:1).

In his preaching Jesus kept on explaining what the Kingdom of God was going to be like (see especially Matthew 13, 21, 25; Mark 4, 10, Luke 9, 13, 17,18). He told his disciples to pray, ‘Thy Kingdom come,’ He sent them out to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom, and He gave Peter the keys of the Kingdom. On his last night, Jesus took the cup of wine and proclaimed that He would not drink from the fruit of the vine again, ‘until the day I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’ A few hours later when the Jewish Council asked Him outright if He was indeed the Messiah, the king, Jesus’ answer was unequivocal: ‘Yes, I am the King, and you will see Me coming on clouds of glory.’

From start to finish it was the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed. He did not just preach it: He also acted in three ways. Firstly, He demonstrated the authority of the Kingdom by the miracles that He performed; secondly by the organisation He set up, and thirdly by His deliberately confronting the powers-that-be by marching right into the presence of His enemies on Palm Sunday.

It was both to bless needy people, and to underline the authority of the Kingdom of God that Jesus worked miracles of healing and deliverance. They were nothing less than an open declaration of the reality of his Father’s Kingdom, People listened to Jesus talking about the Kingdom, because he demonstrated He had the power of a king. He underlines this in his answer to John the Baptist. ‘Yes, John, you are in prison, but I am working miracles, I am proving to Herod and Pilate and all the people who rule unjustly that God’s authority is real, and one day they will have to give an account to God’s authority.’

To ensure the ongoing witness of the Kingdom of God, Jesus established the church. Like another Moses, He had come down from a mountain accompanied by His twelve apostles, one each to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus’ answer to injustice was not to chant slogans full of hate demanding the death of Caesar the dictator. His answer was to found the church, the oldest, largest, and most successful organisation in the world. Preaching salvation, strengthening Christians, helping the poor, and speaking up for justice, the church, for two thousand years, has outlived many Pilates and Herods, and will continue to do so, and regardless of where and in what conditions it meets, until Christ comes to claim His own.

Perhaps some protesters look back at the end of their lives and only have ripped and faded placards which might or might not have affected change. But Jesus looks back and sees His church as having brought about real change, and a measure of justice in countless millions of lives. To mention a few of her grander successes: winning the Roman Empire, establishing Christian Europe, taking the gospel to continents such as Africa Asia and the Americas, making the word of God available in people’s own tongue, abolishing slavery – as well as defeating apartheid in South Africa and dealing hefty blows to Communism in the former Soviet Union in our own generation.

In no way did Jesus shirk or fear confrontation the unjust rulers of His day, but was always entirely aware of the higher power that was with Him at all times. With regard to the peaceful march that Jesus led right into their territory, the crowd that accompanied Him as they entered into Jerusalem did not come with clenched fists and angry slogans: they came with raised hands, and filled the skies with praise for the Son of David, praise for their king coming to His capital.

So far from coming on a white charger at the head of His armies as He will do when He returns, (Rev. 19:11-16) this was a peaceful action, for He was riding on a donkey. Nevertheless this was anything but an insignificant action or some mere petition. It was at once a prophetic action and prophecy fulfilled. Jesus was proclaiming in deed the truth that is at once glorious and terrible that the King of righteousness was coming, a forerunner of the time when all unrighteousness will be wiped away.

For The Kingdom of God is not only the most wonderful news in the world for those who recognise that they are sinners: it also represents a terrible warning of judgement ahead for those who refuse to bow the knee to His Lordship. Repentance is not an optional matter. Taking someone’s bag a couple of miles, paying some taxes, even enduring prison and martyrdom pales if not into insignificance then at least into an entirely different perspective when we realise what the coming of God’s Kingdom will actually mean for those who have been responsible for injustice. (2 Thess. 1:6-8, cf 1 Thess. 2:14-16)

In the immediate context Jesus’ response for those responsible for government injustice may not seem particularly rough. They still get their bags carried, the taxes come in, and they can deal with trouble makers however they like. However in the certainty of the future, Jesus’ response to them is indeed rougher. With almost every word and action Jesus is spelling out that the Kingdom of God is coming and that means all those guilty of wrongdoing will be justly punished. Just look, too, for example, at the very high percentage of the parables that Jesus taught which end on a note of eternal separation.

Concerning this eternal punishment, Jesus gives very clear pointers and some descriptive details. The unjust will find themselves in the ‘outer darkness’, where there is ‘an unquenchable fire’, and where ‘the worm does no die’. In this place of ‘eternal torment’ the wicked will ‘gnash their teeth’ in regret. There is no escape. This is the certain fate of those who are responsible for injustice. They will go to hell. That is not what Jesus told the victims of injustice. That is why it would be correct to say that Christ’s words for unjust rulers were far more severe than the comfort He lavished on the victims of injustice.

Jesus’ response to injustice was rough for the victims, rougher for the perpetuators – but it was roughest for Himself.

When dealing with injustice, Christ took the roughest road

When Jesus entered Jerusalem on that donkey he knew this action would cost him his life. And once in Jerusalem both the victims of injustice, the Jews, and the perpetuators of injustice, Caiaphas, Herod and Pilate, would unite together to crucify Christ.

For many Jews, Jesus had proved a great disappointment, because He had given them no immediate answers to the injustices that they were facing. Therefore, when they were asked en masse whether it was Jesus or Barabbas they wished to save from execution they unhesitatingly chose the violent terrorist.

Jesus’s constant preaching about the certainty of the coming Kingdom of God unnerved Caiaphas and the other rulers – so much so that they not only felt threatened themselves, but were terrified lest talk of such a kingdom came to the attention of the Romans as representing a rebellion – which would lead to the overthrow of all the privileges that they had amassed. Jesus’ ministry had to be stopped, therefore, at all costs.

Jesus knew full well the cost that would be involved for Him, that suffering and death awaited Him, just as it had done for so many authentic prophets in the past. Setting His face like flint, Jesus refused to run away, but entered Jerusalem, only to be almost immediately arrested, mocked, hauled before a biased court, then flogged with the full horrors of a Roman whipping, before finally being crucified in a blaze of suffering we can hardly bear to imagine.

There is always a price to pay for challenging injustice – especially where vested interests are involved. He understood that the only way to deal with injustice in the world was to become a victim of injustice Himself and that God would sovereignly use this terrible event to redeem the world. This had nothing to do with being eager to suffer. Jesus no more wanted to be hung on a cross than any of us would have done. Everything within Him shrank from such an ordeal but he knew that it was for this reason that He had come into this world and that it was an absolutely necessary chapter in His life for overcoming all the injustice in the world, and for launching the Kingdom of God in our midst.

The ‘prince of this world’ had seen and noted Jesus’s arrival in the world, and done all he possibly could to do away with Him. He had no idea now of how God would turn everything around, for this rough treatment was God’s own answer to all the injustice in the world. The cruellest death, the crushing wrath of God bearing down on Him from a silent and dark sky, the bleak separation from all goodness in hell. This was far far rougher than the suffering that John the Baptist endured; rougher even than the fate that awaited Caiaphas, Pilate, and Herod, for, unlike Jesus, they could still, for the time being, repent if they had the humility to do so and so avoid the terrors of hell.

It would be naïve and presumptuous to assume that any brief overview such as this can possibly cover all bases and lay down hard and fast rules for how we are to respond in the face of all governmental injustice. Nevertheless, there are signposts here that we can look up to that will help us to respond in a godly way. The following are the signposts in the order that they appear in this overview.

Signpost One: Be Wary of following the Party Line

For Christians living in a democracy supporting a party is the oxygen of the whole system. To abstain would be irresponsible. However it is salutary to remember that Jesus never gave his support to one party. His faith was always beyond a party manifesto, and surely that should be the same as ours. If we feel called to draw close to a political party, then we should do so in the full awareness that all men have feet of clay and that there are severe limitations on what any human party can achieve. We are Christians first and foremost, and then socialists, conservatives, or whatever only secondarily.

When it comes to facing governmental injustice we should be especially wary of allying ourselves with a particular group that are setting out to oust one regime in order to usher in some humanly imagined paradise. Jesus knew too well what was in people’s hearts to encourage any such practice – and neither did He attempt to do so Himself.

The Church should be especially wary therefore of political groups that seek to curry her favour. Christ’s agenda for the Church is much greater than any party manifesto, and it is that other Kingdom agenda which we must constantly support, lest we inadvertently end up playing second fiddle to party politics.

Signpost Two: The Individual

Jesus refused to see people through the lens of politics or race. Rather He saw the individual and their needs (the man with too much luggage, the Centurion with the sick servant). If in our reaction to injustice we find ourselves talking in grim angry generalisations about whole swathes of people, it is time to look up and see that the Jesus signpost is pointing in a completely different direction, commanding us to love our enemies as individuals, to remember that they and their families have real needs – and perhaps to reach across the divide ourselves and offer whatever help and hope and prayer that we can.

Signpost Three: Support The Overall System

As we have seen, there is nothing in Jesus’ response to injustice that asks His followers to campaign for the downfall of governments. Unless the Lord direct us to do so unmistakably (and the example of Rees Howells as related by his biographer Norma Grubb would appear to provide some examples that this really can happen) Jesus expects His followers to support the system – which in Jesus’ day meant tolerating discriminatory laws, paying taxes, and not seeking revenge in the face of government atrocities.

If our reaction involves inciting others to pull down the government, look up and we will see the Jesus signpost pointing in another direction altogether. This signpost is not blind to injustice, but it is pragmatic – for if a particular regime comes crashing down pele-mele, then so will all the systems of transport, commerce, law and order and defence in that country. As normal life ceases, the chances of anarchy and civil war multiply exponentially, along with the shedding of much innocent blood.

Signpost Four: Remember That Anger Can Cover Up Sin

On hearing about a government atrocity, our natural response is to rise up in judgement against those responsible. This though implies that we are better people than those committing the atrocity. Jesus will have nothing to do with this slick vaunting of supposed moral superiority, telling everyone rather to make sure that they repent of their sins. Even for people chanting slogans against a government, Jesus is no sentimentalist, but warns bluntly that evil resides in every human heart (see Matthew 5:19-20).

Alexander Solzhenitsyn had every reason to protest against the evil of the people who had sent him and thousands of others to the prison camps of Siberia. But Solzhenitsyn concurs with Jesus when he wrote in the ‘Gulag Archipelago,’ “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

To spell this out: we are not made righteous simply by latching on to an atrocity to protest about. The lesson is to make repentance our default response, and not fall in with the crowds who, as history warns us, so often turn out to be more murderous than the unjust kings they overthrew. As in France – and Russia – and China – and Iran and . . .

Signpost Five: The Kingdom Of God

In all things we are to be followers of Jesus. Surrounded by a toxic political environment from start to finish, Jesus’ one passion was the Kingdom of God. That too must therefore be our passion. Here then is a largest signpost of all for the Christian. Indeed we can say with certainty that proclaiming the Kingdom of God is itself a form of Christian protest and response when faced by governmental injustice.

From our overview, then, we have seen that this Christian protest has five characteristics:

1) Christian protest is a proclamation that the days of injustice are limited, and that evil doers and perpetuators will soon face their day in God’s court. Rather than protest, therefore, this is in fact an invitation for unjust rulers, along with their hosts of cruel interrogators and torturers and prison wardens to repent and prepare for coming face to face with the King of the Kingdom of God.

2) We have seen that the authority Jesus had to effect miracles is not only a demonstration of the Kingdom of God but also a form of protest. Just as Herod the Great was alarmed when he heard of the birth of a baby king, so too Herod Antipas like the Pharisees themselves, was concerned that Christ’s miracles would draw people away from the status quo that they had worked so hard to establish for themselves. So too are the ‘Herods’ in our generation alarmed when they hear the Church healing the sick, casting out demons and proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is in our midst, for it is a potent demonstration and reminder that there is an authority that far exceeds that of their government.

3) New Testament Christianity owns nothing along the lines of lone cowboys sounding out their protests, or putting all their emphasis into doctrines and theories that the gospels do not support. Without being suspicious or cynical, it is right to mistrust those who introduce heresy into our midst. (Always bearing in mind, of course, that whereas error is error, heresy often starts off by taking a genuine truth and pushing it too far thus turning it into a heresy).

Christian protest must be rooted in the authority of the institution that Jesus set up: the Church. Given that the Lord expects a much higher standards for His church than He does for politicians (elected or otherwise), when governments commit injustices, the first place a Christian must go to for action is not a political group, but rather the ekklésia and the church eldership or leadership team – the very thing true Christians must always ultimately be willing to submit to.

4) Christian protest will take the message of the Kingdom of God right into the offices of those causing the injustice. When Jesus entered Jerusalem in full view of his political enemies, it is important to note that the crowds around him were not angrily chanting murderous slogans against the government along the lines of ‘Death to Caiaphas,’ or ‘Lock him up!’ with regard to Pilate’. Rather what we find was a massive, irrepressible surge of praise and worship to the Son of David. So too must it be for the Church our own day. Yes, there is a time to peacefully march, but that march is not so much about pulling down, as about looking up to the skies with hearts full of praise for the coming King of Kings, and to plead His leading and intervention.

5) Finally, as we have made clear at every stage in this essay Christian protest cannot fail to be costly. Entering Jerusalem as He did cost Christ His life – just as it has done for countless Christians during the last two thousand years, who have bravely entered their own Jerusalem, and spoken out against injustice, and frequently paying a steep price in terms of opposition, imprisonment, and even death.

Just like Jesus, these Christians have chosen to believe that their suffering has happened with God’s permission, and that in time it will be clear that as God worked good from the evil of Calvary, so too will He work to bring much good from our sufferings. (1 Peter 4 and 1:3-9 are but two of many passages in the Scriptures that spell this out clearly).

This then can never be a conclusive guide as to how Christians should respond to government injustice, but what is does do is to provide us with a ‘check list’, based on Christ’s own example. When injustice hits us hard, and it makes us seek the Lord the more fervently in prayer as a result – that is good; but where it merely makes us impatient to do something decisive to lessen the strain, it is good to ponder this check list in order to make sure that our response carries the fragrance of Christ’s response.

Post Script

In case you were wondering what my mother’s cousin Anthony Stubbs did when Steve Biko was murdered in prison, the answer is that he found himself being expelled from South Africa on account of the support he had given Steve. At this point, he could have returned to the UK, but he chose instead to go to Lesotho, a country near South Africa, where he devoted all his time and energy to praying for God’s kingdom to come in that place.

Meanwhile, back in South Africa, a former student of Anthony Stubbs, Desmond Tutu, become a major leader of the anti-apartheid movement. Like Anthony, Tutu was a man of strict spiritual discipline and prayer, and after one night of prayer in September 1989, Tutu believed that God wanted him to organise a peaceful march. The time to enter Jerusalem had come.

When other Christians leaders asked him how many would come, Tutu said he did not know. In the event, 30,000 turned up. It is possible to date the unravelling of apartheid from that Christian march led by Desmond Tutu. Five months later Nelson Mandela was released from prison. The first house he went to was the home of Desmond Tutu, Anthony Stubbs’ student, who had so faithfully interceded for South Africa. Four years later Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

Steve Biko’s death was not in vain. Neither were Anthony Stubb’s prayers. All rather culminated rather in Desmond Tutu’s march, that opened the door to an entirely new freedoms in South Africa, that few would have dared to think or imagine before they came to pass, wonderfully illustrate Paul’s command not to be overcome by evil, but rather to overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:21 and 1 John 2:13-14)

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