While driving home to Illinois this past weekend, I started listening to "Sermon on the Mount," a recording by the Franciscan brother and writer/speaker Richard Rohr. I became aware of him when he appeared on the comedian Pete Holmes' podcast, You Made It Weird, but hadn't dug into much of his work until now. "Sermon on the Mount" is a series of lectures recorded in the summer of 1992, all focusing on the gospel of Matthew and on the social and political environment in which Jesus lived and preached.
I was enthralled, as I listened to Rohr speak, with the idea of Jesus as a subversive figure who defied the norms of his time. This wasn't a new idea to me — Jesus' habits are well-documented in the stories I grew up hearing: spending time with social undesirables like tax collectors and lepers, respecting the lives and interests of sex workers and other women, and irritating religious authorities by disregarding traditional laws. But Rohr gives context and immediacy to those old stories. He shows that this reading of Jesus is rooted in the text of Matthew's gospel (it's not just an opportunistic interpretation by liberal types like me).
Early in the recording, Rohr details how Jesus, according to the gospels, simply didn't care about social structures. He had no time for distinctions between those considered important by society and those seen as expendable. Rohr refers to what was then the upcoming 1992 presidential election, saying that a Jesus-like attitude would be to shrug and laugh at the prospect of real change through electoral politics. Our human-made systems, he says, have no hope of actually being transformational.
An hour or so into the Rohr recording, I paused it and switched over to music: Doomtree's No Kings, a favorite album that I hadn't listened to in a while. On the first track, "No Way," rapper P.O.S. starts his verse with "What's up? / No kings / No love for your made-up things."
To some extent, P.O.S.' rejection of "your made-up things" is the same as Jesus': money, politics, people who declare themselves rulers over others, sexism, racism, superficial comparisons — they're all a screen hiding what's real.
On the other hand, P.O.S. would probably add religion and Christianity to that list of made-up things. After all, Jesus is a king, too. He's referred to as such a couple of times in the Bible; many churches are called "Christ the King" or "King of Kings"; there's even a "Christ the King" holiday in the Catholic calendar. The idea that "every knee shall bow" to God appears multiple times in the Bible. References are made up and down in Christianity to "the kingdom of God," usually associated with heaven: Someday we'll be in that kingdom, bowing down. It's not exactly a stirring idea — especially if, like the members of Doomtree, you lived through the years when the U.S. president was promoting wars and conservative policies in the name of Jesus.
But listening to Richard Rohr is reminding me that Jesus rebelled against hierarchies — and that his executioners mocked him with the title "king of the Jews." Rohr emphasizes that to see faith as a game of being good until you get rewarded with living in a perfect kingdom is totally wrong-headed. The kingdom of God is now. The kingdom of God is within you. It's our job to create a new social order, not play along with this one until we die. No love for your made-up things.
I haven't finished listening to "Sermon on the Mount," but the segment I just heard focused on the significance of food, how sharing a meal with someone is so meaningful. It matters that Jesus dined at home with both the disapproving elites (the "scribes and Pharisees") and the social outcasts. Rohr makes a key distinction: Eating a meal with someone is not the same as charity. Giving money to "the poor," he says, is our way of easing our consciences so that we don't have to share a table with society's undesirables. But charity isn't enough. The trust and mutual understanding that come when you eat a meal with someone are what allow us to truly build community and tear down the distinctions that keep us apart.
Back to that whole "1992 election" thing from "Sermon on the Mount": I write this as most of my peers watch the presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, biting their nails into nubs over the prospect of a racist, vindictive demagogue becoming our country's leader. When I first heard Rohr chuckle that a president couldn't possibly bring about real transformation, I winced. Maybe not, but elections still have consequences here and now.
But coupled with the idea that we can create "the kingdom of God" on earth, it makes more sense to me. Money, elections, political leaders — these things aren't "made up" because we're all just waiting to die and go to heaven. They're made up because we don't have to buy into them. We can chart our own paths, reach across the divides we're taught to keep rigid, build new ways of living that aren't based on discrimination and violence. To quote another song from No Kings, "All this is ours. It's gonna be what we make it."