Holy Week: Breaking the silence

The secret is out. The silence is broken. The kingdom of God is here.

By Bill Leonard

“The Kingdom of God is here. And by the way, don’t tell anybody.” That’s what Jesus said to those he gathered up around the Sea of Galilee, at the start of things.

His message, John Dominic Crossan says, went something like this: “The kingdom of God is a joint project.” “It is not that we are waiting for God, but that God is waiting for us.”

Crossan writes about that in a wonderful book entitled God and Empire. I bought it when Crossan lectured at Wake Forest years ago. I wanted something for him to sign, and it was the cheapest book available. It changed the way I think about Jesus in first century Palestine.

Crossan writes, wonderfully, “John [the Baptizer] had a monopoly, but Jesus had a franchise.” He gathered a group around him, taught them, lived with them and sent them out, but not until it was time. They had to keep the kingdom of God a secret.

When necessary, Jesus used code. Mark’s gospel says: “With many such parables he would give them his message, so far as they were able to receive it. He never spoke to them except in parables; but privately to his disciples he explained everything.” (Mark 4:33-34) The word got out in Galilee, true enough, but still Mark warns, “He gave them strict orders to let no one hear about it.” (Mark 5:43)

Why the secret? Because of the Romans. After watching what happened to the Baptizer, Jesus knew that if you go around talking about some new kingdom and people start listening, sooner or later the Romans will kill you. If you “franchise” your message, however, others can tell the story, live the life and bring in God’s new era.

Yet Jesus knew that ultimately he was going to have to “go up to Jerusalem,” confront the religious and political establishments and break the silence -- which brings us to Holy Week.

Crossan says, “Jesus went to Jerusalem that one (or last) time because it was a capital city where religion and violence -- conservative religion and imperial oppression -- had become serenely complicit.”

Crossan insists that Jesus’ protests again religion/state collusion “was not against Judaism ... Jerusalem ... the Temple and not against the high priesthood as such.” “It was a protest from the legal and prophetic heart of Judaism against Jewish religious cooperation with Roman imperial control.”

Palm Sunday broke the silence. Jesus rides into Jerusalem and “the whole company of his disciples” shouted, “Blessings on him who comes as king in the name of the Lord! Hosanna!”

Scandalized, some religious folk urged him to “reprimand his disciples” for their politically dangerous public display. Says Jesus: “If they keep silence the stones will shout aloud.” (Luke 19:40)

Sometimes the injustice is so devastating, the complicity of piety and principalities so “serene,” that the silence must be broken one way or another. If human voices are silent, the very stones will cry out. Yet some people do cry out, even now.

A March 2 New York Times op-ed quotes John Franklin Stephens, “a ‘global messenger’ for the Special Olympics” who has Down syndrome. He writes: “The hardest thing about having an intellectual disability is the loneliness.”

Noting that many ignore the presence of persons with special needs -- implicitly or explicitly asking, “So, what’s wrong with the ‘retard’?” Stephens answers: “I can only tell you what it means to me and people like me when we hear [that word]. It means that the rest of you are excluding us from your group. We are something that is not like you and something that none of you would ever want to be. We are something outside the ‘in’ group. We are ... not your kind.” He concludes: “No one overcomes more than we do, and still loves life so much.”

Sometimes the “retards” break the silence, reminding us to see them, hear them, learn from them and stop using “that word” and its accompanying caricatures to define them.

Sometimes actions break the silence. My 90-something African-American friend and sister church member Wilhelmena Lash broke the silence as a 12-year-old in Winston-Salem, N.C., the day she drank from a “whites only” water fountains in a local business establishment. They called the cops on that 12-year-old, and the cops escorted her off the premises. For one brief shining moment, that prophetic act broke the silence of segregation in Winston-Salem.

Our pastor recounted the story the same week that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia opined that the Voting Rights Bill, aimed at correcting the injustices of Ms. Lash’s era, represents “the perpetuation of a racial entitlement.”

Let’s break the silence in response to that remark right now. American slavery was the perpetuation of a racial entitlement; separate-but-equal was the perpetuation of a racial entitlement; Jim Crow was the perpetuation of a racial entitlement; “whites only” water was the perpetuation of a racial entitlement.

Wilhelmena Lash’s childhood act of courage seems a long way away, but if Supreme Court justices can’t remember those years appropriately, then the danger remains.

We’d better not hold our peace about race, disability and other postmodern injustices. Rather, we should ask: Where are we “serenely complicit” in the prejudicial practices of our times? What in today’s church and society is so spiritually and ethically unbearable that the stones can barely hold their tongues?

As Holy Week turns to Easter, let’s hoist the cross and carry it into the world where it really belongs. For the secret is out; the silence is broken; the kingdom of God is right here, right now. For once in our lives, let’s not be quiet about it.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.