Jesus, Obama and de Certeau: Redemptive Tactics in the Security State

Some opening thoughts on John 7. 1-36.

It’s a good thing that the whole Jesus thing didn’t happen in the 21st century.

I mean, we keep reading about people wanting to kill him, but can’t quite find a good time and place to do the deed. He seems so often to be keeping a step ahead of the authorities. Slipping off to the wilderness every now and then to pray, but also maybe to keep a low profile.

And while in John’s gospel he goes to Jerusalem numerous times, it is clear that he knows full well of the danger of these forays into the belly of the beast. So he slips into the city secretly.

Now if this was the 21st century, the story would have to be considerably different.

In a world of the NSA and CSIS keeping tabs on pretty much everyone who might possibly be a subversive, you gotta know that Jesus would be high on their surveillance list. The guy sure couldn’t use email, social media or a cellphone. And blogging? Forget it.

If they wanted to get him, and if Barak Obama was in the place of the High Priest, or Pilate or Herod, well, really a drone would simply show up when he was feeding the five thousand, or having dinner with some friends, or in quiet prayer, and BANG!, that would be the end of it. Who needs to go through the bother of arresting people and making them stand trial when the technology of death makes it all quick and simple?

Yep, it’s a good thing that Jesus lived before all this state sponsored surveillance and extra-judicial murder.

But of course, Jesus was also out of step with pretty much everything in his own day as well.

John tells the story of his biological brothers who figure that going to Jerusalem during the Festival of Booths would be a great idea. Go make a splash! Let’s take this campaign to another level. The time is ripe to really launch this whole enterprise.

Inexorably, Jesus rejects this strategy.

I don’t know, maybe he’s rejecting ‘strategy’ altogether.

Lots of folks who think about how folks at the margins deal with the power structures at the centre have been drawn to Michel de Certeau’s distinction between ‘strategy’ and ‘tactic’. Strategies are the planning machinations of the powerful, those who are in control and have the luxury to strategically plan the expansion and maintenance of their control. Tactics, however, are the purview of those without power. They are the opportunistic and surprising actions of the oppressed. Tactics ‘poach’ on the strategically structured world of the status quo precisely to undermine it.

Maybe Jesus’ brothers are thinking strategically about heading down to the Festival of Booths, and Jesus rejects the strategy only to then grasp a tactical opportunity. Maybe he is poaching on the Festival.

However you look at it this story is full of drama and intrigue. Whatever you might think of St. John, the dude could sure write a good story. And stories, especially when they are told orally, are all about timing. Both in performance and in the narrative itself, much depends on timing.

Timing is also at the heart of this story in John 7. What time is it? The brothers think it is ‘show time’. Jesus isn’t so sure. The authorities know that this whole story must come to an end. Jesus must die. But is the timing right for that yet?

And what time is it for us as we enter into this story? What time is it personally, communally, historically and liturgically?

We enter a story  preoccupied with time, and we do so at the beginning of a New Year. Advent marks the beginning of the Christian year. Curious, isn’t it. That we don’t begin the New Year with arrival, but with longing and waiting. For the secular calendar, New Year is a day when the waiting is over. The New Year has arrived. But the Christian calendar begins with biding time, begins with waiting.

And so we enter Advent with Jesus coming to the Festival of Booths.

We enter Advent as a time of waiting and longing,
as Jesus comes to a festival that remembers the waiting and longing in the wilderness.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

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