What would Jesus do? Civil disobedience. Public demonstrations. Resisting authority. For this special Christmas episode, we take a look at Jesus Christ through the lens of activism… and there’s a lot to see. Listen to this soulful, biblical interview with Pastor Ron Buford, who is the founder of Racist Anonymous, and Pastor at the Congregational Church of Sunnyvale.
Jeff: Pastor Ron Buford, you're back.
Ron: Well, it's good to be here. Great to see you again.
Jeff: Great to see you. Thank you for coming back. We just loved that first episode. We couldn't get enough of you. So, it's Christmas.
Jeff: Yes, it's the fabulous time of year. I think it's a time of year that hopefully inspires us to step back, to take a breath, and to appreciate life and be grateful for what we have, and examine some of the bigger issues.
Jeff: Today, I'd ask you to start with, in your mind was Jesus a political activist?
Ron: I believe Jesus was absolutely political. There is some interesting new work that looks at Jesus that's by Reza Aslan, who's an interesting scholar, that looks at Jesus' upbringing, childhood, and his community as they've done some archeological research work on Nazareth and what was happening in that community. There's no question, even though we focus more on the Pharisees and the Sadducees that there was a third group and that third group was a bit more radical. I believe Jesus had some affiliation with that group and in some ways, it explains what happens to Jesus at the end.
I'd always wondered why they hung Jesus between two thieves. Latest research shows that thieves was probably a bad translation. Jesus was really hung between two bandits who were political operators and Jesus was seen as a political threat and execution is execution. We call it crucifixion, which sanitizes it, but his execution, if Jesus was being crucified today would have been in an electric chair or by lethal injection. Jesus' execution was at the hands of the state because his action was very political.
Jeff: Mm-hmm. Can you draw from specific stories that can help us understand why you would think of him as political?
Ron: Well, first of all, we see Jesus in the light of the books that are written about him. One of the questions we have to ask ourselves is who do the writers of the gospel think they are portraying and what are they saying about Jesus in the way they characterize it. So often people will just pick up the Bible without considering its context, its historical and cultural context, but in truth, in the gospel of Luke, Luke is trying to tell a compelling story about Jesus. It is no accident that at Jesus' birth, when Mary breaks into this thing we call The Magnificat, if you look at it closely, it sounds almost like a Communist manifesto. That God is going to do something, God is going to break into human history. He's going to bring down the rich, he's going to lift up the poor.
If we said that in some of our churches today, people would say, "Stop being political." I say, "We're not being political, we're talking about Jesus. This is what Mary said when the angel announced to her that Jesus was about to be born." She didn't say we're going to have this new, spiritual thing and we're going to be enlightened. She said, "No, the rich are going to be brought down. The poor are going to be raised up." That sounds political to me.
Jeff: Yeah. He was addressing issues that are salient to our time now ...
Ron: Oh, very much.
Jeff: ...about social justice and economic inequity.
Ron: Absolutely. In fact, let's take Luke as an example.
One of the things that we now know is that the writer of the book of Luke and the writer of the book of Acts are the same writer. What's interesting about that in the past year or so, and I'm not the first person to read the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, and ask the question, was the Luke writer possibly a woman? Why do we ask that question? We ask that question because so often in the Bible, women are unnamed, but not in the gospel of Luke, nor in the book of Acts. Women are present, they are named, and there are more of them, and they have roles that are very critical to Jesus' message. He had made a point of including women, rather than excluding women.
Jeff: Jesus could be considered revolutionary just in the company that he kept.
Jeff: He was reaching out to lepers, you know, groups that were castigated ...
Jeff: ...and bringing them in under God.
I want to mine a little bit the topic of civil disobedience and the Bible because, and I'm no scripture expert, but from what I do know, there are some conflicting messages within the Bible around the topic of civil disobedience. There are many examples of stories that exemplify essentially people acting against the state because they believe in what is right or what is Godly.
On the other hand, you also have scripture that very much reveres the power of authority. I wonder how you see civil disobedience within the context of the Bible and does the Bible or religious scripture support the notion of civil disobedience?
Ron: Absolutely. In the Old Testament, in one of the biblical texts that Jesus seems to refer to very much are stories from, like the Daniel in the lion den story. The fact that Daniel was disobedient to the authorities and honored God was very important and revered. The stories of the three brothers, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego you've got these three guys who were standing against the king and they refused to bow down. They said, "No, we won't do that. We will only bow to God." That sort of civil disobedience is something that's important and Jesus goes back and references that kind of civil disobedience when he's asked, for example, about paying taxes and he says, "Whose face is on this coin?"
Ron: They said, "The emperor's." He said, "Well, then it's the emperor's money. Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, but give to God that which belongs to God." That raises a very important question about humanity. Whose image is this person and if it is the image of God, then you should give to them that which belongs to God. I think in that sense, we're called to stand against the state and in support of people.
For example, to look at the treatment of immigrants coming into this country. Whose image is on those people, those boys, those girls, those men, those women? We must find some ways to recognize the fact that they are in the image of God and therefore, they are the children of God and we must do right by them.
Jeff: Jesus also seemed to have personality characteristics of an activist. I hesitate to use the word showmanship but he performed miracles.
Jeff: Now, he performed miracles not for his own aggrandizement, for his own enrichment, he did so on the behalf of others, which is a key differentiation. Still, he knew how to market change.
Ron: Absolutely. Often, I'm going to say this, the people of light are not as shrewd, effective, as good as the people of darkness, as we see in our current administration who is manipulating people and is very good at it. Sometimes I look at that and I think, "Well, I wish the people who are advocating for justice and for rights were as shrewd and as good at it as he is." Jesus said, "We should be as wise as serpents and gentle as lambs." I believe when Jesus says this, he really means for us to be effective.
Jesus says, "Would that the children of light would be as shrewd in doing good as the children of darkness are in doing evil."
Martin Luther King says in his letter from the Birmingham jail that people will remember, not so much the people who did evil, but will remember the good people who remained silent. I sort of put as a corollary, the good people who not only remained silent, but the good people who didn't stay up night and day tweeting at 3:00 AM in the morning about the wrongs that are happening. We must be as single-minded and focused to do good.
Jeff: Yeah. Bringing this into modern day, and this is something I'm struggling to understand, that we have people of God in this country, Evangelicals particularly, that believe deeply in the Gospel of Jesus and in his message, which was very much about uplifting the poor and the meek. At the same time, this group disproportionately supports policies that are in direct opposition to the Gospel of Jesus. How do we square that?
Ron: Well, I believe that many of our religious teachers and leaders have over-spiritualized the gospel. They have taken certain concepts and ideals and said, "Well, these aren't to be followed literally."
Jesus said, "If a man has two coats and he doesn't need them both, he should give one away."
People say, "Oh, no. Jesus couldn't have meant that because that requires that I do something."
Well, that's right. I mean, Jesus' teachings are next to, in some ways, impossible to follow if you want to say what is the absolute best thing to do. Was it Jesus' point to say that because you can't do something better, you shouldn't do it? I think no. I think the point was that we should all be doing more than we're doing and the people who over-spiritualize the gospel and don't hear in it a call to action I think are missing the point.
Jeff: Yeah. Do you think that Jesus' acceptance of his own sentencing, of his own crucifixion in some ways was his way of saying that now you are responsible for bringing fairness and truth and equality forward? Do you think that Jesus was challenging us to assume our own personal responsibility to carry forth action and truth?
Ron: Absolutely. In my tradition, we say, "God is still speaking," it means many things, but among the things it means is that creation is still ongoing. It also says that if creation is still ongoing, that our human role in creation is to move creation forward.
To think of these ideas and put them to work, I believe, that from the beginning the metaphor of the garden of good and evil, where there are these choices and decisions to make, that God has put us into the world as God's garden to be fruitful and multiply, to find solutions to problems.
People say, "Well, why is there sin and death if there's a God and God is good?" I say, "Because our work is not done and our work in creation is to end sickness and death and hunger and despair." We're making some progress on those things. Absolutely. My message is not one of doom and gloom because I believe this is the best time in human history to be alive. Does that mean that there isn't still lots more to do?
There is tons to do. Feels like an infinite amount of things to do, but the message of Jesus and I think the prophets in the Old and New Testament is to keep pushing forward, to redeem, to save, to heal as many people as possible and not to find ways to excuse ourselves for not healing them, which I think many times we do in our religion in our society.
We say, "We don't have to worry about those people down by the border because if they had followed the rules..."
What Jesus often said in those circumstances, "Well, what if you had followed all the rules? You didn't follow every rule, did you?" Well, one by one, people walk away if they can answer that question honestly. At the center of Jesus' work was Jesus' compassion and I think it is what propelled Jesus toward activism and Jesus' followers.
Jeff: Mm-hmm. The United Church of Christ, of which you are a member, has been an activist church for a long time. It's part of the tradition. It's been active in the Civil Rights Movement, and you carrying that torch forward, working on very, very important issues as it connects with race and social injustice. I'm wondering about you personally, in what way do you take inspiration from Jesus generally and on a daily basis?
Well, the first thing for me is to personally, is when I look at who Jesus is, and I do mean is because I'm a person who believes in the resurrection, I believe Jesus is alive and present with us, that the example of Jesus is one that can have two impacts. You could look at Jesus and say, "Oh, Jesus is just too good, I'll never be that good." On the other hand, you could look at Jesus and say, "Jesus is so good, I want to be like him," and strive to do that. I think the latter way is the way that Jesus would have us be.
Jesus didn't really condemn people for not being as good as he is or was or wanted them to be. I think Jesus condemned us for our lack of compassion for others.
When we do communion at my church, and I stand before my people and I open the table, I say, "Our table is open to everyone, Saint, sinner, a little bit of both. The only thing you need to be to come to this table is hungry."
Some people look at us, they just think, "He doesn't really mean that." I say, "Do you think Jesus would invite you to his house and not feed you?" I say, "Answer me," and the people answer, they say, "No, no. I don't think Jesus would have me over and not feed me." I said, "Neither do we feel that way. Everybody's welcome at this table." There is not just the activist piece, the mental organizational piece, there is also the spiritual piece of transformation where we believe that in the encounter with the holy, we become transformed. Our ability to become better, to do more things increases by our being present with each other and with God in the world.
Jeff: Yeah. Byron Katie, who's a wonderful writer and a friend and a helper of a lot of people, she talks about enlightenment in a very interesting way because I think enlightenment can seem just so unreachable for most people be like, "I'm never going to be like Jesus."
She describes enlightenment as just ... in much simpler, attainable terms. It's just feeling a little bit lighter.
Then, she asks "Jeff, what makes you feel lighter?"
"Oh, well, when I give, when I forgive, when I'm compassionate." She's like, "Okay, well, what makes you feel heavy?"
I said, "Well, when I'm carrying around anger or jealousy or if there's things that I'm just constantly feeling that I want and I'm chasing that all the time."
She's like, "Oh, well, it's just so easy then. Let go of the things that make you feel heavy and just focus on the things that make you feel light." That's the way to achieve enlightenment.
Ron: Absolutely. I would agree with that a thousand percent.
Jeff: Wayne Dyer, who's another one of my teachers, he said, "The angels you seek in your life will appear when they recognize themselves in you." I think whether that means being more like Jesus every day, looking at what made him God-like, so special, and essentially trying to embody those characteristics and actions in our life every single day, that for me is what feels like enlightenment. Do you feel that way?
Ron: Very much. Jesus didn't come to show us some examples of things we could not be. Jesus came to show us how to be just as good as he was, and is. We often so magnify Jesus as the Son of God that we miss Jesus' teaching that said very clearly, "You are all sons and daughters of God and that what I am ..." He says, "Not only can you do that, but you can do lots more."
Jeff: Yeah, "You will accomplish everything that I have and more."
Ron: That's right. Why don't we talk about that? We don't talk about that, I believe, because we're afraid. If I tell you that that is the teaching of Jesus, you might expect more from me. Of course, if I tell myself that often enough, I might expect more from me.
Ron: Fortunately, we not only have the call, we also have the call to repentance and say that no, I'm not there yet ... yet, but I'm not called to some place that I can't get.
Ron: We can get there.
Jeff: Do you think Jesus was more concerned with us loving God or us loving each other?
Ron: Jesus said, "There's no difference."
Jeff: Yeah, so this is the underlying connection that we lose when we are attached to the ego. My path is disconnected from others, my path is disconnected from God. I know that I've heard people give different meaning to this, but when Jesus said, "My yoke is easy and my load is light."
To me that always felt like because he felt a deep sense of connection to others and to God, that his load was light. What does that mean to you?
Ron: For me, it opens up the idea that being connected to God enlarges our capacity to do good, to be good, to be effective in the world, that we shouldn't think about the outcome, we shouldn't think about failure, we shouldn't think about embarrassment, we should open ourselves to God.
It is in that place that Jesus enlarges our capacity to do the impossible. I think as more of us let go, more of that can happen. I believe.
Jeff: When we move into this time of year where we celebrate Christmas and also go into the new year, which is filled with resolutions and good intentions, what's your message to people as we renew?
Ron: I think, especially this year, it is to believe. It is to hope beyond what we can see. It is at the point that sometimes in the current environment, I felt and sometimes feel a sense of hopelessness. There are issues, there are things that are happening now that I thought we dealt with and wouldn't deal with anymore, but they are very present with us now. It would be easy to get discouraged, but that's only when you zoom in. When you zoom out and you realize that, as we used to say in my community, God's got us. It doesn't mean that my life is going to turn out and be perfect.
I think what it means is that if I am surrendered to God's purpose and will, I am confident that God will accomplish God's purpose in the world. Jesus, at some point, must have thought, you know, when Jesus says on the cross, "Father, why have you forsaken me?" That is not a high moment in Jesus' career and it's near the end. I mean, even Jesus is exasperating with the situation, but after the resurrection, when Jesus is with his disciples, he has pushed through and he says, "As I am, so you will be in the world."
That is the hope, but I make the same mistakes over and over again. I don't know about you. Maybe you reached this point of an enlightenment that, you know ... but, I don't. I get better at some things, I get worse at others it seems, but does it matter? I have given my life to God in the sense that the outcome belongs to God and is whatever I can do with God and if I can be more open and evolve to be a better person, to whatever extent that happens, I leave it to the will of God.
In our tradition, there was something called The Heidelberg Catechism, which has a lot of things in it that I don't believe anymore, but the first question in The Heidelberg Catechism is what is your only comfort in life and in death? The answer to that question is something like this. When I misquote it, I tell people it's the black version, but I say, what is my comfort in life and death? It is that I belong, body and soul, in life and in death, not to myself, but to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and I believe that because I belong to God, everything's going to be all right. Bob Marley said it best, "Everything's going to be all right." That doesn't mean that I don't have to work. I really have to be plugged into that energy. It isn't something I become by verbally saying that. I become, I belong, by virtue of putting my life into the energy that is God's and striving to do that every day.
Jeff: That's beautiful. Well, Pastor, you are humble and gentle, and you have a beautiful, serene confidence, and we're so grateful for all the work that you're doing, so God bless you and thank you for coming and visiting us again.
Ron: Well, bless you and thanks for having me. It's always great to see you and your team is a beautiful group of people.
Jeff: Thank you.
Ron: God bless you.
Jeff: Merry Christmas.
Ron: Merry Christmas.