One of the hardest things in life that people regularly underestimate is the amount of work it takes to overcome trauma. Trauma has a pervasive impact on people’s lives, such that it can takes years upon years to finally moved beyond a traumatic event. This is especially the case when trauma pertains to social realities. While other people expect victims to get over it and stop ‘playing the victim,’ for people who experience social trauma, it is something that is unrelenting. While there are people who keep in a victim mindset such that they never allow themselves to be free by imagining different possibilities for their life and thereby never move from the victim to survivor, for victims of pervasive trauma their imagination of something better doesn’t make it better. In some ways, it can make it worse as their imagination leads them to compensate for the deep pain that exists within them, but if their dreams do not come true, then they have struggle to overcome the pains that lives within them. Meanwhile, the way people can treat victims skeptically, particularly if their struggle lingers over time, makes it hard for them to get the help they need.
This is where the Gospel of Jesus Christ comes in, however. It comes to liberate the victims of an unjust world, that has left people impoverished in spirit, trapped as meek people who are surrounded by those who put barriers around them (cf. Psalm 36.9-11), and made to live in a life that mourns and depressed (Isaiah 61.1-3). It doesn’t leave them there, however. Through imagining and craving a better, more just world than the one of injustice they have been submitted to, Jesus leads them to become people of mercy, resisting the vengeance that so readily fuels injustice, and guides them to have a steady, long-lasting purity of intentions to seek God’s will, which makes them active seekers of brining about peace/shalom in the world, leading them to cease to live as victims but as survivors who now have a purpose in life to bring about the very good and righteousness that they themselves were deprived of. This is at the heart of the liberation that Jesus’ brings, but it is this liberation that has been so muted in much of Christian teaching. The main emphasis has been going from sinner to saint, to unholy to holy. While this moral transformation does play a role in the New Testament letters as the Gospel spread into the Gentile world, Jesus’ ministry was primarily focused on reversing the order of the Pharisees, chief priests, etc. and the various despised and untouchable people in Judea. Jesus came to be the Great Shepherd to a people who had no shepherd to lead and guide them. Jesus comes to show the people the way of God that has been lost over time and replaced with mounting injustice.
When this emphasis get lost or muted in the prevailing forms of Christianity, and instead replacing Jesus’ emphasis as being on sinners getting right with God before it is about the oppressed being set free, we often see Christians take the side of the oppressors and abusers, because it is oppressors and abusers who often justify their destructive, harmful actions by the moral unworthiness of those they target. An overemphasis on morality leads to a susceptibility to the manipulations by those who have societal power who appeal to the deep, abiding swell of moral zeal and anger to go after the targets of their derision, disgust, and hatred. Counterintuitively, moral zeal perpetuates victimization, as the readily triggered, exaggerated emotions of moral outrage lead to harsher response for smaller, or even imagined, offenses. It leads to greater judgment of people’s specks.
However, the Gospel of Jesus Christ does not forget righteousness and justice, but it is built upon the foundation of showing and receiving mercy, upon the foundation seeking God’s kingdom first and foremost, upon seeking to be an agent of well-being to others. What is different, though, is the route that those who bring justice are the recipients of injustice. The ones who bring mercy are those who have been treated mercilessly. The ones who bring truth are those who have been lied about. This isn’t to suggest victims are something morally innocent, but that it is these people that Jesus calls and leads to serve as the beachhead of God’s expanding kingdom in the world. These are the people who know what injustice tastes like and, instead of wanting to get vengeance for it, want to go as far from it as possible so that they can bring something better.
The problem is for Protestants, primarily white Protestants, is that we have read Jesus too much through the lens of the moral emphases of Paul, rather than reading Paul through the lens of the liberating Jesus. Jesus is known to be our Savior, but Paul is taken to be the one who explains what Jesus was all about. This explains the strong response against liberation theology by many conservative Protestants, viewing it as replacing the “gospel” of Jesus Christ as they thought was taught by Paul. While Jesus was not leading a social movement of liberation, but rather calling forth individual people and leading people who would be agents of God’s transformation of the unrighteousness, concerns about injustice take center stage for Jesus. But when fit through the lens of Paul, this liberation that overcomes injustice is muted, instead of being replaced with a Jesus who simply loves sinners and makes sinners better people. But no, Jesus came to liberate the sinners from power of the harsh judgments the Pharisees would levy against the people based upon flimsy pretexts, such as what they did to the blind man that Jesus healed, so that they would experience a freedom to live according to God’s will and purposes.
This is why Jesus of the Gospels does not neatly fit into the presentation of Jesus by many evangelicals. Jesus wasn’t a moral crusader, even as He sought to bring about disciples who would be agents of God’s kingdom and peace in the world. However, this doesn’t make Jesus progressive either, as Jesus retained a full commitment to His Father in Heaven who was spoken of in the Scriptures. Jesus was not trying to make progress, but like a faithful prophet, return people back to their true foundations that had been lost and forgotten. He wasn’t experimenting with new methods to reach some utopian future based upon perpetual grievances and everlasting sense of victimization, but He was calling people back to hear God Word afresh through His Words as the Words from His Father. Jesus sought righteousness and justice, but he employed neither the methods of American evangelicalism of the past few decades nor does he act the way progressives think justice is to be pursued. Jesus transformed the lowly outsiders who were the recipient of moral judgment and contempt to be empowered by God’s Spirit to tear down the bastions of human (un)righteousness and repair the spiritual ruins to bring about shalom.
If evangelicals want to counter the tide of progressivism they see, they need to go beyond moral condemnation of critical theory or the other favorite tactics they employ to cast judgment upon them. They must rightly restore the true, Spiritual liberation of the Gospel as central to the message and purpose of Jesus’ ministry, and only then once they understand this purpose, can they then fit in Paul’s moralizing emphases into the cast of God’s righteousness as revealed in Jesus Christ. Without this, though, the evangelicals I so want to see spiritually thrive will be like a fish flopping around outside of water while thinking its movement is leading it to some promised goal. They must come back to the waters of life of the Gospel for them to be able to participate in the purposes that God has for the Church in the world. Jesus, on the other hand, would perhaps see many progressives much like He saw Simon the Zealot, as misguided and yet able to be lead to the truth path of bring God’s justice and righteousness in the world. If a segment of the Church can restore the proclamation of the Liberator Jesus without trying to fit this image with specific social-political frames, then the Church would perhaps be able to bring about an awakening to the people of God’s righteousness.
So, did Jesus come to control people through our surrender or did Jesus come to liberate people through our learning in submission to His Word?