Fr. Peláez Sanz is a priest of Diocese of Valladolid (Spain) and a member of the Movimiento Cultural Cristiano.
Symbolic actions are a common patrimony of nonviolent movements. For example, the refusal of Gandhi to buy salt and his march to the sea with thousands of people and his boycott of English weaving while he made his own clothes, spinning thread on a spinning wheel, directly touches the colonial system that had changed the people of India into producers of raw materials and consumers of British manufactured goods. Cesar Chavez acted in the same way in his marches and with the grape boycott in California with the goal of winning labor rights for Latin immigrants. Today all over the world these methods of struggle are multiplied, many in solidarity with immigrants and against the laws that persecute them: the Eucharist of the United States and Mexico at the border, the Circles of Silence in the European plazas, the beaches full of crosses to remember those who die on the way.
Behind all of these is the love of the New Command-ment which places the poor in first place, and the Beatitudes that praise the meek and those who work for peace.
Jesus continually used actions loaded with symbolism with which to break with the established order in his time and culture, to unveil a hidden injustice, and make present the radical newness of the Reign of God.
He does it when he chooses the group of twelve. Jesus means with this the people of Israel as those who want to reunite the twelve tribes again and reconcile opposing groups – Jews and Galileans, Zealots and publicans, counting all of them in the composition of the apostolic college. The Twelve will be the foundation of the new People (Mark 3,13ff., Acts 1,15, Eph. 2, 14.20).
And when he sends them out two by two without sandals or staff or money, he also makes them a sign of what they announce: a provident Father and some of his sons who have opted for poverty, fraternity (two); with a kiss of Peace and meekness as a response to violence (without a staff to defend themselves, no sandals in which to flee). He even asks of them a prophetic gesture if they are rejected: shake the dust from their feet (Mt 10).
Jesus Transforms Environments
In order to make way for the Gospel, Jesus must break open the false convictions which support the mar-ginalization of the poor, the sick, the stranger, the foreigner, and that are the reigning way of thinking in the environments. Then, as today, those environments are marked by the forms of thought and action that are considered “normal” in a society. An environment is not built only on the sum of the personal attitudes of individuals, but rather sustained by the institutions that frame the social structures (laws, market, education…) and by the roles that each one is expected to play in a particular situation.
The environments are principally managed by this primary form in customs, which are almost hidden from the law. In this way, social injustices are sustained by a mentality that legitimizes them as it is interiorized in the consciences of the people as unwritten norms.
The force of the environments is very important as much to support a culture as to succeed in transforming it. For this reason Jesus confronts them decisively and many of his symbolic actions are about the environments. His actions seek to break open the environment and announce the reign of God. He succeeds, doing something unexpected that leaves everyone speechless and touched by emotion. That which had seemed “normal” is shown up by the appearance of a greater truth that is at once the condem-nation of injustice, hidden until then by the established mentality as “good,” and a sign that it is possible to do things in a new way, radically new in its simplicity and because it responds to the truth of the plan of God.
In the time of Jesus ritual purity, initially thought of by the priests, had been converted into an attempt to regulate the life of a people. With this ritual Phariseeism stressed the social dis-tinctions between the faithful and the more pluralistic environment of the Greco-Roman cities. This pre-supposed concern with fulfilling ritual purity norms and taking scrupulous care to avoid contact with the impure: cadavers, lepers, public sinners, menstruating women, or those who had recently given birth.
It framed a system of marginalization of the impure – for example, of the sick, of whom it was thought that they had contracted an illness because of their sins (John 9, 2), especially the lepers who had to live outside the cities (Luke 17:12l, Lev 14). Because of this, the healings of Jesus manifest publicly the forgiveness of sins (Mark 2:10) and the reintegration into the society sanctioned by authority (Luke 5:14; 17:14). They affirm the dignity of every person without distinc-tion. For example, the woman with the hemorrhage, who upon being healed recovers dignity within the community which her continuous men-struations had denied her as it made her impure (Lev 15:19; Mark 5:25-34).
Eating With Sinners
Meals are a privileged environment with which to emphasize social differences. Because of this, among the most committed of the environmental actions of Jesus is sitting to eat with sinners. In all cultures meals, from the most ordinary and simple (having a coffee) to the most sophisticated (a wedding banquet) have been a privileged place of socialization. Trust is expressed if you can arrive at a house at mealtime, and closeness to someone is expressed in saying, “I have eaten with this person more than four times.” Even more significantly, for Judaism, each meal had a sacred character with blessing rituals, and by communion at table one shared the purity or impurity of the rest of the diners to such a degree that the pious insisted on knowing the rest of the invited guests before coming.
Jesus frequently eats with sinners and with that shows that God is with them: the prophet, the man of God, eats with them because they are his favorites – thus es-tablishing the forgiveness of the merciful Father as a most important pillar of the Kingdom (Mark 2:15). So there is a banquet as a celebration of the conversion of Levi, a publican (Mark 2: 15) or Jesus arrives in Jericho creating a confrontation with public opinion by inviting himself to eat at Zacchaeus’ house (Luke 17:5).
We can pay special attention to the meal at the house of a Pharisee, at first a meal with the pure. Here a sinner bursts into the environment and perfumes the feet of Jesus, washing them with her hair (Luke7:36-50). According to the way it was seen, by touching Jesus and by being at the table, she contaminated with her sin all those who were present. The fellow diners were frightened by the welcome of Jesus and even doubted his condition as a prophet. Jesus takes advantage of the occasion to proclaim forgiveness again as in other meals (41-43,50), and adds something that interests us from the point of view of nonviolence, un-masking the false justice of a host who believes he is good and thus justified in rejecting the woman.
The symbolism of the meal has a special significance as a messianic banquet as the prophets had proclaimed (Is 25:6). That is why the multiplication of the loaves appears six times in the Gospels (Mark 6: 34-44 and parallels) It is the family that shares the bread. The plan of God is fulfilled where all have what is necessary to live like a people that received the manna in the desert, like the flock reunited under one shepherd, like the banquet that reunites all the peoples.
The high point of these meals is the Last Supper, where the Church is born. More now than a symbol, a sacrament is inaugurated, the breaking of the bread as a perennial presence of Jesus among his own. Before eating, Jesus takes off his cloak, girds himself with a towel, and like a slave, washes the feet of his disciples, thus teaching them that the last are the first, breaking apart the “normal” environment in a banquet. He who presides at the supper is now he who serves (Luke 22:27). In this way, the Kingdom is inaugurated along with its change of positions – the last are the first (Luke 12:37).
With the Women and the Foreigners
Women did not have a juridical personality, but rather were subject to their father or their husband (woe to the widows!). They could not even be witnesses at a trial or study the Law (the Word of God), nor enter the Temple or the synagogue further than the reserved section. Jesus acts in such a way that shows them the dignity that was denied to them, breaking with traditional women’s roles.
He speaks with the Samaritan woman and argues with her questions regarding religion, which collides with the mentality of his own (John 4:27). And he justifies Mary being “at his feet” (an expression which means she is a student of a rabbi) before Martha who demands that Mary play the feminine role of serving the table (Luke 10:38-42). He carries this to the extreme when he admits women to the group of his disciples (Luke 8:2-3), making “his school” a sign of something new. He even makes the women of the group witnesses to the Resurrection before the men who didn’t want to believe them (Mark 16:14, Luke 24:23).
The foreigners, the gentiles and Samarians, were excluded from the people of the Covenant. Following that mentality, they were more or less tolerated in Israel. The sadducees and pharisees, closer to the Greek culture, were more tolerant and accepted the Roman occupation. In the light of this social situation, the welcome of Jesus of the centurion, an official of the invading army who is known to be unworthy of being received under his roof, is of great importance – with the healing of his servant and the praise of his faith, greater than that of the Jews (Luke 7:1). And the special attention deserved by the Samaritans, an impure ethnic group with a schismatic temple on Mount Gerizim. The disciples are in favor of the violence against them (Luke 9:51), but Jesus relates to them (John 4:9, 40), and holds them up as an example of the welcome of the Reign of God (Luke 17:16) and of the love of neighbor (Luke 10:33).
Jesus dies on the cross, but much earlier, the opposition to his message is unleashed by the incomprehensibility against him in the environments. His own family thinks of him as strange, an “abnormal person,” and go in search of him (Mark 3:20). His neighbors criticize him and even throw him out of the synagogue of the town (Mark 6:3, Luke 4:29). His enemies harass him with continuous trick questions about religion and politics (Mark 12:13-27). There is no lack of insults from those who accuse him of being a demon (Luke 11:15), of being a glutton and a drunkard (Luke 7:34), or of blaspheming (Mark 13:64).
Jesus Confronts Institutions
The confrontation becomes more serious when he confronts the institutions where established power has its true strength. In this theocratic system the institutions are of a religious character: the Law and the Temple, the Word of God and worship. But their political character is still in force in service of the true power of the moment: the Roman Empire that recognizes the authority of the Sanhedrin to govern Judea. In fact, when Jesus dies under the Jewish Law, he will be handed over to the Romans who reserve the condemnation to death as a sign of their power (John 18:31: 19:7-16). And his condemnation will be for a political crime against Cesar (John 18:33-37; 19:12), in spite of his previous conduct with the Romans in not opposing that they be paid taxes (Luke 20:25), and that Pilate seriously considers his innocence (John 19:6b).
The mission of Jesus takes place within the framework of Israel, whose life was shaped by the Mosaic Law, complemented by the commentaries and norms of the rabbis (Mark 7:1-4). In his teaching Jesus appear to be above the Law in his attitude, he taught with authority and not like the scribes (Mt 7:29) and because he explicitly changes it, taking it to its fullness in the sense of greater radicality, according to its spirit and beyond the letter: You have heard that it was said to those of old, but I say unto you (Mt 5:21-22). He openly criticizes the legal traditions on divorce (Mt 19:1-9) or exchanging caring for one’s parents for offerings to the Temple (Mark 7:10).
In his actions Jesus practices something that today we could call civil disobedience to unjust laws. He cures on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23; Luke 13:10; Mark 2:28), his disciples do not fast or wash their hands before eating, and they eat grain on the Sabbath (Mark 7:2, 2:18, 2:23). With all of this he shows his personal authority and the inaugura-tion of the Messianic times where the Son of Man (Daniel 7) is more than the Sabbath and the spousal covenant of God with his people has come.
When Jesus is presented with the woman surprised in adultery, it is at a trial. Jesus confronts this institutional act in a nonviolent way. With a gesture he breaks open the environment in order to bring about silence and reflection: he writes silently on the ground. What does he write? He causes those present to think, to stop the violence. Does he write their sins? He attacks the conscience of those present with the unique weapon of the truth. He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone. And with the same gentleness he reminds the victim of her responsibility: Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more (John 8: 1-12).
The incomprehensibility against him which started in Galilee worsens and will end with his death in Jerusalem, where the Temple was the center of political, cultural and religious, as well as economic power. It owned land, minted money, made deposits and loans like a bank, and controlled commerce for the sacrifices. Its architecture represented the social structure and divided with its atriums priests and lay people, men and women, Jews and foreigners. Jesus will make the Temple the place of his last sermons and of his criticism of the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees (Mt 23; 24:1-2, and of diverse confrontations with the Jewish leaders (John 8:2, 59; 9:28, 44-55).
Furthermore, in the testimony against Jesus at his trial, the testimony is given by those who have heard him say that he will destroy the Temple, even though the witnesses are not in agreement among themselves (Mt 26:61; 27:40 and par.).
The Messianic entry into Jerusalem with a lamb on his shoulders is a manifestation of the joy of the pilgrims who arrive in Galilee to fulfill the prophecy of Zachariah (9:9). He enters as the humble King-Messiah, seated on a donkey. The Galileans who accompany him acclaim him with palms, with their cloaks they make carpets, and they sing Psalms. It is a hymn of God that cannot be silenced (Mt 11:1-11 and parallels). For this reason there is a foundation for the accusation before Pilate that he is a rebellious politician whose reign competes with Caesar, and this will appear on the cross: INRI, the King of the Jews (John 19:12-20).
The following day, going up to Jerusalem after the night of rest in Bethany, Jesus goes to a fig tree to eat; an act that is not what anyone expects because there are no figs in the spring. Even so, Jesus curses the fig tree that does not give fruit. The next day, also going toward Jerusalem, he finds the fig tree dry at the root (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21). It is a symbolic action that brings to mind those of the prophets of the Old Testament and that anticipates the destruction of Jerusalem (the fig tree) for not giving fruit and for rejecting the Messiah. It is a prophecy that announces the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, with the same meaning as that of the parable of the workers and the vine that follows (Mark 12:1-15).
The most forceful action is the expulsion of the money changers from the Temple, always cited as a justification of violence in the name of Jesus (if there was a violent action, it would be the exception that proves the rule). All of the Evangelists recount it, associating it in different ways with the death on the cross. They also give it different interpretations with prophetic texts (John 2:13-25 and parallels).
The histories agree that it could not be an act of violence because there is no response from the Roman garrison of the Antonio Fortress in charge of putting down any disturbances. It is about another symbolic action of the purification of the Temple that had paralyzed worship by depriving it of the necessary animals and offerings. The priests were incapable of intervening with the guards because of the moral authority of Jesus after three years of preaching and signs that had penetrated the consciousness of the people (Mt 26:5.55, Luke 22:53; John 9:44-45).
Finally, by going to the institutional center of the system, Jesus announces the coming of the Reign of God with symbolic actions and blunt words that will trigger his death on the cross, in which his meekness and forgiveness of his enemies (Luke 23:34) will complete the plan of the Father (John 19:30). He dies as the lamb that takes away the sins of the world (John 1:36; 19:36) and thus breaks the spiral of violence, the veil that separates God and his people, the pure and the impure (Mt 27:51) and the wall of hatred that divides peoples in order to establish definitive peace (Eph. 2:14).
Following in his footsteps we, his disciples, continue confronting unjust environments and institutions through prophetic nonviolent actions.
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXV, No. 3, June-August 2014.