Jesus’ counter-cultural community

LindaLinda Gehman Peachey is a freelance writer living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She has a Master of Divinity degree from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and is currently a Doctor of Ministry student at Lancaster Theological Seminary. Previously, Linda worked for Mennonite Central Committee on women’s concerns and also served with her husband, Titus, as co-director of Peace and Justice Ministries. She and Titus have two adult daughters and enjoy visiting them in Chicago and Guatemala. She is a member of East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church and serves on the steering committee for the Women in Leadership Project of Mennonite Church USA.

“I can agree that women and men should work together,” he said cautiously. “But where are the models for how to do this? Can partnership and equality really work?”

We were discussing the example of Priscilla and Aquila, and how they functioned as co-leaders in the early church, working together to promote the gospel. But this idea that women and men could work as a team with true collaboration and equality appeared challenging.

The question reminded me of when my husband and I shared a job, and were often asked “Now tell us; who really is the boss?” The idea that we could share leadership and make decisions together was difficult to understand. People tended to think that, despite what we said, one of us had to be in charge.

But why it so hard to consider partnership and team work? Why do we in the West have such a penchant for pyramids and ladders, for thinking up and down, rather than relationally and horizontally? Why do we focus so much attention on lone individuals who climb to the top, rather than on the conduct and welfare of the group? Why is it so hard to think in terms of circles instead of triangles?

I wonder if we have been so influenced by the ideology of empire that we can’t imagine more egalitarian and collaborative systems. We even tend to think of Jesus as the greatest king or emperor. While there is some value to claiming that Jesus stands above all other loyalties and pretensions, I fear we have lost the radical understanding of Jesus’ practice of lordship. We no longer see how his life and teachings were a clear and overt challenge to the claims of the Roman Empire.

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza contends, in fact, that western male theology has accentuated an image of Jesus as a superman, an independent, individual hero, who was essentially self-made and fully formed right after birth.

And yet, if we believe that Jesus was fully human as well as divine, he could not have grown up as a lone, autonomous figure. Rather, he was embedded within and supported by a community, and relied on the wisdom, courage, fellowship and resources of those around him.

From the very start, Jesus was surrounded by those who welcomed and nurtured him: Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, Anna and Simeon. Surely, these people told him the stories of his people: how God had led them and cared for them, even when they were wanderers like Abraham and Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael. Even when they were slaves in Egypt. Even when they were exiles in Babylon.

And how often did Jesus’ mother Mary sing her song, the Magnificat, to him? Somehow I imagine she repeated those themes over and over again, always emphasizing how God had acted in the past and would continue working in the world to turn things upside down and set things right. Surely, she was not alone, but one of many who kept the stories alive and cultivated the community’s faith in the God of their ancestors, the God who loved and preserved them, even in the face of all the powerful forces which treated them as insignificant and exploitable.

2015 5 19 WLPLogoSwirlsAnd then there were those who traveled with Jesus and supported him with their resources: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, Mary, Salome and many others. And all those who hosted him in their homes: the family of Simon and Andrew, Simon the leper, Mary and Martha, and the Jerusalem homeowner who provided a room where Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Passover.

No doubt, this kind of support involved some risk, especially as tensions increased between Jesus and the political and religious authorities in Jerusalem. Quite early in his ministry, these leaders started looking for ways to destroy him, and actually picked up stones against him several times. (See John 5:16-18, 8:59, 10:31)

So it is helpful to see that Jesus was part of a larger movement of people seeking freedom and renewal. Of course, he became their primary leader and spokesperson, but he was not alone. Nor was he like Caesar, seeking to control everyone and everything beneath him. Rather, Jesus called his followers his friends and empowered them to love God, themselves and one another.

He cultivated circles of people who were inspired to live in the light of God’s love and resist the humiliation and suffering being imposed upon them by a ruthless empire.

I wonder what our leadership patterns would look like if we really emphasized Jesus’ example. What if we thought more about how he belonged to a community and led a movement of God’s people, rather than focusing on him primarily as an isolated figure? What if we gave more attention to all those who assisted and enabled his ministry? Would this help us embrace the wisdom of collaboration and the strength of shared leadership? Would this help us focus more on the work and health of the group rather than on the needs and skills of “exceptional” individuals?

Certainly, this would be counter-cultural, challenging the norms of our own empire and its assumptions about strength, power and leadership. But in embracing such a vision, we would be honoring what Jesus tried so hard to teach his followers. True greatness is found not in lording it over one another but in working with and learning from each other. True power lies in receiving from and enabling each other’s gifts.

True leadership is shared and strengthened in community.