Culture wars are nothing new. The feud between the farming culture and the ranching culture drives the storyline of the musical Oklahoma. That clash echoes a much earlier one between farmer Cain and rancher Abel (Genesis 4). Cultures clash frequently and often violently throughout the Old Testament.
In the world into which Jesus was born, culture wars were raging. In Israel the Roman occupiers had given the Jews semi-autonomy. There, the culturally-dominant Pharisees longed to break the yoke of Roman oppression, but their core mission was to impose their moral vision on the nation of Israel.
Actually, the Pharisees’ moral teachings were mostly right. “Practice and observe what they tell you,” Jesus said, then added, “but not what they do” (Matt. 23:3, ESV). The Pharisees waged their culture war mainly through wagging fingers at “publicans and sinners,” but sometimes through using the force of government against those who challenged their agenda. Remember Stephen’s stoning?
In the clash between Pharisees and Romans, which side did Jesus take? Neither. He warned, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod” (Mark 8:23, ESV).
In the war between the Pharisees and “sinners,” which side did he take? He championed the woman caught in adultery. He sided with the “sick who need a physician.” He advocated for those who needed healing, even on the Sabbath. When the Pharisees scolded sinners, Jesus always—always—sided with the “sinners.”
In contrast to the quest for dominance, Jesus called his followers to servanthood: “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them…. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Matt. 20:25, ESV). Huh? Is that any way to win a culture war?
Rather than domination by force, Jesus proposes subversion through love. The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like a mustard seed that starts tiny and grows. It’s like leaven that gradually transforms dough. We are to be a city on a hill, a community that models a kingdom way of living that all can see and be drawn to.
It’s not that Jesus was above public scolding. It’s that he reserved his public scoldings for the culture warriors, the religious leaders trying to impose their moral vision on others through finger wagging and, occasionally, the force of law.
Standing on a mountain overlooking all the kingdoms of the world, Jesus too wrestled with the temptation to domination with its lure of power and quick wins (Matt. 4:8-10). He said no. Following Jesus means rejecting the quest for cultural domination and trusting the subversive power of self-sacrificing love.
- Which way of engaging culture do you trust more—forceful domination or loving subversion?
- Whom do you more often criticize—“sinners” or religious leaders who seek to use political influence or even the force of law to impose their religious vision on the culture?
- For you, what would engaging the culture with subversive love look like?