I. Subversive Art and Jesus as Artist
Carol Becker, writing on the subversive potential of art:
At its best, art serves a different master than capitalism, one whose values are not so readily discerned. Although its place in the order of things is not always clearly articulated, no one would publicly advocate a society that did not, at least in theory, encourage creative expression as manifested in art. A society without art seems unimaginably impoverished. The necessary tension between the longing embedded in the people’s desire for a fuller life, a more complete self, and the world in which they live would have one fewer outlet. What is almost unspeakable, what cannot be contained is allowed to live through the form of art. This is why at times art is perceived as subversive, not simply because it presents a world that appears immoral or licentious, as is frequently thought, but because it reminds people of what has been buried – desires their deepest selves dream but cannot manifest within the existing system.
Contemporary artist, John Sheridan, is one of many who think that Leonardo Da Vinci was a subversive artist. Sheridan believes Da Vinci’s greatest painting, which was a fresco, was “The Last Supper,” and it like all other masterpieces of his is a subversive piece. Sheridan describes its very placement, painted on the original fresh concrete of a chapel wall, as intended to give the impression that Jesus and his disciples are sitting in an extension of a larger room. Leonardo, hardly enamored with institutional Christianity, still wanted to stress that Jesus was one of us–seated as it were in the next room. As Sheridan described it,
It was a sophisticated egalitarianization of what had by then become an inordinately hierarchical and politicized conception of Jesus’ relationship to the average person. The bureaucracy of the Church had created a maze of religious and conceptual red tape in order to commune with the spirit of God. Its middlemen had to be dealt with first. Leonardo flattered them and simultaneously subverted them by including them in the same [conflicted] space as their [would be] Messiah.
Sheridan calls Da Vinci “utterly pagan,” with tremendous regard for Leonardo and his brand of paganism. “There is no record of him expressing contempt for religion, but his actions, his bearing, his art, and his whole way of life contradict what the church and state publicly decreed were the proper ways to behave.”
Da Vinci’s art was for sale to the highest bidder even though the paying customer had values that contradicted Da Vinci’s(or the only bidder, whichever was the case). He had personal morals, but he still had to earn a living; this could only be done by appearing to work through the publicized principles of the power institutions of his time. “Everything that he was had to be couched behind an apparition of conventional modes of presentation [in his artistic compositions] so that he could remain free.”
“The Last Supper” takes that frozen moment in time when Jesus tells his closest male followers that one of them, only 12 possible culprits, will betray him.
The wave of reactions running through the apostles anchors them in the physical world. Their well-realized faces and expressive gestures radiating out from the central figure of Jesus is an enduring legacy of a time when humans were felt to be capable of great things, in great ways, and that, even with inevitable human failing, people were felt to be worthy of our attention and our passion.
“The Last Supper,” who knew?
Jesus may have had some artistic skills. Have you noticed or heard? This is a story about Jesus’ ministry included in John’s Gospel:
Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.
That word translated “wrote” in the New Revised Version of the Bible from which I have just read can just as correctly be translated “drew.” In dealing with this potentially explosive situation, Jesus knelt twice and DREW something in the sand. Sand art. Subversive sand art.
The woman’s accusers were status quo types, and they were entirely correct about the woman’s moral failures and the established legal response. Enacted laws, in any country including our own, may be immoral from beginning to end.
Jesus had nothing to say to those who wanted a killing that day. If you remember from last week, he was subtly subversive. So, he drew a couple of figures in the sand. We have no idea what the figures were that Jesus drew in the sand, somehow they subverted the prevailing standards. As a result, a woman lived, in spite of the clear cut status quo.
II. Oops! We’ve Just Passed the Two-Mile Marker!
This teaching from Jesus about going the extra mile has made its way into popular maxims as one of the ways of saying that a good person does more than is required of her or him. If we are going to be good people we don’t just do the minimum especially when we are asked by somebody for help. As a matter of fact, Jesus’ admonition to Jews to carry the backpack or a heavy piece of armor for a Roman soldier one mile and then a second mile–a mile more than required by Roman law–have absolutely nothing to do with a standard more akin to the Golden Rule.
I am sure you noticed that the pack-carrying principle did not apply across the board but only to oppressed Jews required to obey the demands of Roman soldiers. This isn’t just someone. Roman military types were allowed by Roman law to grab oppressed persons anywhere they found them and force them to carry their military gear for a mile. A mile, one mile.
Jesus’ teaching to his sister/brother Jews was to keep going. At the one mile marker, start singing, “These sandals are made for schlepping, and that’s just what they’ll do. One of these days these sandals are gonna schlep all over you!”
The weary soldier is torn. He knows he get into hot water with his superiors, but it was tough for him to argue whole-heartedly with a seemingly eager-beaver Jew who understood his plight. Some soldiers let it go and hoped no one would know; bad call. No Jews following the teachings of Jesus let the matter go unreported to military authorities. This was how Jesus taught his sister/brother Jews not to participate in their own oppression and subjugation.
There must have been scenes when an oppressed Jew ran passed the mile marker with the Roman soldier running after her or him trying to get his pack back. Imagine the soldier and the oppressed Jew fighting over the pack. Rather than be humiliated, stopping at the one mile marker, the Jewish person influenced by Jesus kept going, subverting Roman oppression one demanding soldier at a time.
The Reverend Mary McKinnon Ganz preached:
Jesus paid great attention to the law of tradition his people were heir to, and to the law of violence that ruled their lives under the Roman occupation. He also paid great attention to his people’s spirit; to helping them find ways to stay safe within the law, but also to reclaim their dignity. By carrying the pack an extra mile, they reclaim their capacity to choose. They force a startled reaction from the oppressor [about to be dressed down by a superior officer], and in that shock the oppressor just might recognize a human being.
Why do I bring up the possibility or the reality that Jesus was subversive? Why, to a greater degree, would I devote a whole sermon series to the notion that Jesus was subversive?
Well, I do that because I think the radicality of Jesus’ message, which was without a doubt centered on challenging the power structures of his day, has been overlooked often on purpose and in many cases softened and polished up to make it acceptable to the status quo of those who buy into structures and patterns of behavior that specifically violate the basic humanitarian standards for which Jesus stood. A second reason I bring it up is that one or all of us may be called upon to be subversives specifically because we have embraced the teachings of Jesus.
When I speak of a subversive, I’m not talking about a dangerous traitor who puts the country in danger by selling state secrets to enemies or would-be enemies of our nation; that is very careless and not to be admired in any respect. Subversives, as I speak of them, are those who want to better an institution such as a nation or a religious hierarchy by battling some established aspect–a law for example–of what they perceive as injustice. So even Jesus who did disapproved of oppression of any kind certainly did not affirm the fact that he and his people were oppressed by Rome. Still, he did not by his acts of subversion wish to try to bring down Rome with any kind of violence if at all.
III. When Cultures Need to Be Countered
George Johnson is a retired Lutheran pastor and biblical scholar. He believes the subversive elements in the teachings as well as in the actions of Jesus were manifested in challenges to both the religious hierarchy and the political structures–those maintained by the Roman Empire as well as those maintained by some of the Jews given tidbits of authority by Rome. Pastor Johnson wrote a few years ago in a journal called, of all things, The Lutheran, these two brief but highly significant and on-target paragraphs.
Regarding the corruption within institutional religion that tore Jesus’ apart inside:
The temple [by the time of Jesus] had become a cover for greed and exploitation. Jesus well knew the important role the temple played in the life of the Jewish community, [his community], yet he deliberately violated this sacred space [when he turned over the tables of the Temple money changers] to expose corruption in religion. That was subversion, to some. And [in their eyes] he had to be stopped.
Regarding the political structures with which Jesus had to contend:
The Jesus movement was, and is, countercultural. The proclamation of the gospel includes a declaration of God’s justice: God’s action to bring about an alternative to violence, greed, hunger and domination.
Now having established I think pretty much irrefutably that Jesus was subversive, where does that leave us? So what? Well, the subversive Jesus wasn’t a namby-pamby, milquetoasty, doormat or fatalist. Jesus believed not because he was divine but specifically because he was human that injustice could not be tolerated any place it reared its ugly head. This did not mean he wanted to overthrow Rome as I mentioned earlier.
He was more powerfully concerned about injustice that others experienced than about what came to him as a result of his trying to stand up for others. He took his own advice, though, and would not let anyone force him to endorse his own oppression.
If subversion were clearly necessary in an occupied land in a situation where Jesus and all of his sister/brother Jews were oppressed by Rome, that is one thing. But what about in a democracy? Why would there be a need for subversion in a democracy? Sad to say, democracy isn’t always a democracy. There are individuals and groups within democracies whose rights are not guaranteed or upheld. And the oppressed along with their advocates must speak against the established laws and perhaps the lawmakers in order to try to effect the necessary changes. City Hall, the Justice Department, the Pentagon, and the Oval Office may have to be challenged.
It is not an option for people who have embraced the teachings of Jesus fully passively to sit and wait before ecclesiastical power structures and government entities as if they’re all going somehow magically to give up the graft and corruption that institutions with power invariably embrace. It was kind of scary to read the other day that Attorney General Holder said the huge financial institutions that have wreaked havoc on Wall Street and from there throughout the land are probably too big to prosecute.
Subversive actions–meaning rebellious but not destructive– are often called for even in a democracy. Chief Standing Bear was a subversive. Harriet Beecher Stowe was a subversive. Rosa Parks was a subversive. Harvey Milk was a subversive. Joe Biden, unquestioned patriot, is a subversive.
An obvious example of a subversive movement would be women’s suffrage, the fight to get women in this nation voting rights. Had women along with the men who supported them not spoken out against the laws that prevented women from being fully equal citizens in this democracy perhaps they would still have no vote.
The initial press for women’s voting rights began when our nation was a little more than 44 years old, and a hundred years later, in 1920, women went to the polls to vote for the very first time. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was unquestionably one of the most effective advocates for women’s suffrage. She never lived to cast a vote having died in 1902. She left her influence as a powerful legacy, however. A few gems from subversive Cady Stanton:
The prolonged slavery of women is the darkest page in human history.
Nothing strengthens the judgment and quickens the conscience like individual responsibility.
The Bible and the Church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of women’s emancipation.
The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls.
That only a few, under any circumstances, protest against the injustice of long- established laws and customs does not disprove the fact of the oppressions, while the satisfaction of the many, if real, only proves their apathy and deeper degradation.
Having to challenge a government entity that is rightly unconnected to anyone’s view of divinity is perhaps understandable, but having to take a stand, blatant or subtle, against a religious structure that claims to exist for the express purpose of living out divine love–that is a responsibility, which should never have to be exercised.