If you've ever campaigned for political change you've probably had someone tell you to “live in the real world”. People say it to me all the time, meaning I should accept the world as it is and not try to change anything.
It is arrogant, as well as absurd, to look at society in our own place, time and culture and say that only this is “real”. Supporters of capitalism tell me I am unrealistic in wanting a different economic system. But the banking crisis of 2008 was caused by the unrealistic lending of bankers who seemed to live in a fantasy world of endless money. “Real world” enthusiasts say that nonviolence “doesn't work”. They then defend violence, which has been spectacularly not working for centuries.
As Christians, we are called to a vision of the Kingdom of God which is mindbendingly eternal and yet thoroughly grounded in the challenges of everyday life. Jesus' teachings are realistic. They are radical and – to put it mildly – not always easy to follow. But they are realistic.
Jesus has been a profound embarrassment to Christianity. The later portions of the New Testament reveal a gradual move away from the radicalism of a messiah who socialised with outcasts and denounced the powerful. Slavery and sexism are justified in Ephesians and 1st Timothy (which carry Paul's name, although most scholars believe he didn't write them). In the fourth century, the Roman Empire domesticated Christianity, beginning centuries of Christendom in which the church was allied with political and cultural power. Arguments appeared to excuse Christians from following the Sermon on the Mount – it was claimed that Jesus' ethical teachings apply only to priests, that they relate to private life but not politics or that Jesus deliberately gave instructions we could not live up to as a way of showing our sinfulness.
As Christendom fades in our multifaith society, we have a great opportunity to look again at Jesus, without being so compromised by wealth and power. This does not mean Jesus' teachings are straightforward or easy. We have to wrestle with them thoughtfully and prayerfully.
Take Jesus' teaching, “If anyone hits you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5,39).
Outrageously, victims of domestic abuse have been told to endure it on the grounds of this passage. Slaves were taught to accept beatings because of it. At the same time, Christian politicians have justified war by saying that Jesus was speaking about private relations, not political ones. These interpretations condone oppression while encouraging its victims to accept it.
If I thought that Jesus had taught such things, I would never follow him.
But who was Jesus speaking to? To hit someone on the right cheek (with the right hand) requires a backhanded slap. Backhanding in Jesus' time was the way people disciplined supposed inferiors. Slaves were backhanded by their “owners”, wives by husbands and Jewish civilians by Roman soldiers. When backhanded, these people could cower in submission, perhaps eventually hating themselves as well as their oppressors. Or they could resort to violence. Instead, Jesus encourages people to assert their dignity and equality by calmly facing the aggressor and making clear that the attempt to humiliate them has failed.
The message of Jesus does not conform to our society's expectations. We are used to a choice between violence and passivity, yet Jesus promotes a third option of nonviolent resistance. We are familiar with hero-worship, but Christ says that the greatest among us will be our servants. In a world that says we must be “successful”, Jesus calls us to leave behind the self that is defined in terms of a hierarchical system, so that we might find our real self fulfilled in God's kingdom.
Witnessing to truth involves acting in accordance with the realities our society denies. If we treat all people as our equals, we testify to the truth of human equality. When we manage to live nonviolently, we demonstrate the truth that nonviolence can work. Acts of repentance and forgiveness witness to the possibility of meaningful change, in people and in the world.
These truths are far more real than a reliance on violence, the worship of markets and the ephemeral moral preferences of our own culture. As Christians, we have no choice but to stand against society's priorities and seek God's help as we work for change. This is because the dominant values around are not only morally abhorrent but also contrary to the reality to which Jesus calls us. And I for one want to live in the real world.
© Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia. This article was orginally published in the autumn 2010 issue of Movement magazine, for which Symon writes a regular column. See http://www.movement.org.uk/movement-magazine.