Monday, March 07, 2011

When Liberation Movements Go Viral

One of the interesting scholarly and blog conversations that never ends is how much if any of the gospel accounts of Jesus life are based on things Jesus actually did or said. How much can we really know? There is one kind of this conversation that takes place on a level that debates whether Jesus even existed. You can read some of that conversation here and here if you are interested. I enjoy reading the posts but confess that even as a very liberal pastor who cares about historical accuracy I am hopelessly biased on this issue.

Recently, though, I have been reading Richard Horsley's book Jesus and the Powers: Conflict, Covenant, and the Hope of the Poor. and have been interested to see Horsley address Jesus' "fame". Our earliest gospel Mark states in the very first chapter that Jesus "fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee." Is this true? Is it possible? How popular was Jesus? How much of a "scene" did he make? How much of a movement did he have?

Here is Horsley:
Toward the beginning of Mark's story, Jesus' mission appears to be "headquartered" in the village of Capernaum, at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee, along the frontier with Herod Philip's territory from the east. From this base, the mission and communication spread into surrounding villages. Mark's Gospel thus paints a picture different from the normally limited communication from village to village in agrarian societies: the interaction among Jesus, the disciples, and the responsive people generated an expanding network of communication around the countryside.

...In these early accounts of the mission, Jesus delegates disciples to spread the proclamation and manifestation of the kingdom into other villages, where they are to work closely and stay with the people. Jesus' mission thus involved an intentional orchestration of communication across village lines. Though exaggerated, Mark's representations of rapidly expanding communication at least partly what was happening in Jesus' mission itself.
Horsley cites a book I haven't read, Domination and the Arts of Resistance by James C. Scott, as evidence of how "rumor" spreads among disparate communities and inflames hope and emboldens beaten down peasants to take action as they hear news of resistance and victory from other communities.

Horsley thinks that this is what was happening with the Jesus movement in peasant villages around Galilee. His kingdom movement reminded the people that the were (or could choose to live) under the direct rule of God not Rome or the temple aristocracy. It inspired hope and action in the form of sharing of goods and healing both physical and spiritual. The news about Jesus was going out through intentional mission and through the peasant rumor mill. The Jesus movement, Horsley suggests, was real; it was spreading; and hence it was quickly and correctly perceived to be a genuine threat by the religious and political authorities.

I find Horsley's explanation plausible. It could have happened this way. I certainly resonate with his description of Jesus' movement as being centered around spiritual/political/economic liberation.

I also can't help but make the connection between Horsley's description of the surprising and almost explosive spread of the Jesus movement and events in the middle east right now. If you wanted to see evidence of how a liberation movement can spread rapidly and seem to come out of nowhere we are watching it happen before our eyes. I keep asking 'why now'? What has changed between one year ago or five years ago and today? Certainly the technology that has fueled the spread of "rumor" has penetrated these societies enough to make it possible to keep the news flowing and to make it nearly impossible to suppress from above. But there also has to be an element of frustration and anger and hope reaching a certain critical mass where it just needs to find an outlet. The good news about this movement is that it has been mostly peaceful, making a mockery of those who equate Islam with violence. Even better some of the government response has been peaceful. Alas this is not true everywhere.

Still, to watch a movement go 'viral' in this manner is a reminder that it really does happen this way. It very well could have happened this way with Jesus.

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