14Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!”
The Tank Man of Tiananmen Square June 5, 1989 held up 4 powerful Chinese army tanks by simply standing in the way. Nothing extraordinary about what he did at one level, at another it was extraordinary.
Extraordinary because he defied the culture and the custom of the autocratic society in which he lived. Extraordinary because from the beginning of the student uprisings 14th April 1989, somewhere between 4,000 and 10, 000 people died and some 30,000 injured. He stood out by standing up – it wasn’t anything he said, just what he did. He confronted death, and became a symbol for life.
While it received international focus, most Chinese students didn’t and still don’t know about it. It is suggested that both the Tank Man and the Tank Driver were executed the former for his defiance, the second for failing to drive over the Tank man, but their feate is unsure.
Here we were faced with the type of non-violent response to violence, both rare and desperately needed in our society.
Readings: (1 Kings 17:8-24, Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-24)
In our readings we are reminded of the intricate relationship between death and life and how that is played out in the lives of those who have little in the way of resources and resistance to the forces responsible for death – poverty. In these readings Elijah and Jesus exemplify the power of non-violence to overcome the violence of death and those who promote death as a way of life for others.
Elijah obeys God and is confronted by the inevitability of poverty (the widow only has enough for her son and herself). Despite sharing her last meal with the prophet she faces the inevitability of death connected to a life of poverty – it is stark and real. Despite doing the right things in God’s name, both the widow and her son, and Elijah cannot avoid the reality of life.
Jesus re-enacts this scene, although in a slightly different environment, not one of drought and famine, but of the colonial (Romans in power) and cultural (the religious law) oppression that continued to impact on the poorest of the poor – widows and their families.
“The stories of Elisha and Elijah and Jesus suggest that radical change requires (non-violent) passion and compassion for our political and personal and religious enemies. (This type of) compassion isn’t formulaic or predictable or tidy or even rational—yet it is perhaps the only thing that can save us.” Debbie Blue
Jesus crossed path with a funeral procession and this very ordinary event touched Jesus. It seems Jesus was deeply affected by death. In a violent society he had not become inured to it and felt it deeply. He confronted it in others and was aware of the consequences he himself would face as a result of the style of life he was living and exemplifying. –
He touched the bier. “In the midst of the complexity of human need is hope and the possibility of renewal and life.” William Loader
Jesus’ act fulfils Loaders call in three ways:
• It was a non-violent protest that was powerful.
Jesus reached out almost casually but with purpose and love. Almost immediately, the procession stopped, stopped in its tracks. All present turned their focus on this teacher who had dared to touch the funeral bier.
And the procession buzzed with:
‘What is about to happen?’
‘Why would a religious teacher purposefully make himself unclean?”
“What is he going to do now!”
His act, so innocuous and ordinary, was anything but. He made himself ritually unclean by the every act of touching. He placed himself outside the religious respectable and became an outsider, as poor and as broken as the widow herself. He broke the religious rules to show that love gives life.
He was not interested in the myth of an anaemic popular form of love prevalent in our society, but a deep compassionate love that stops a funeral bier at great personal cost and sends a clear and undeniable message to the political and religious powers within his society.
• It was an act where the ordinary met the extraordinary
Death is the prevalent image in our society as it was in Jesus’ time. Fo those in Jesus time colonial and religious oppression brought with it death by separating those who were righteous from those who were not and, for those who were placed on the outside, this hastened death
In our culture we only have to look at:
Murder and murder investigation shows
Reality shows which are little more than a profitable way to publicly humiliate and destroy others in the name of entertainment (and money)
TV news and documentaries
Government policies on issues such as indigenous, refugee, gender or environmental issues which focus on political expediency as against justice and compassion. Death is our dominant fear and preoccupation.
Jesus confronts the fear of death by touching the bier. By doing so he is saying death is not to be feared, death is in fact just another face of life and, if embraced as part of life, leads to renewal. Luke is also saying boldly that Jesus is more than just a prophet by placing him in the tradition of Elisha and Elijah as one who has life giving power over death, a fact that is confirmed by his death and resurrection.
• It was an act that asks us to get our hands dirty.
Compassion speaks of being at one with another, having a love which sees the other as yourself and by doing so being prepared to meet the other in their pain and poverty. It is the whole meaning of the good news of Jesus – God became man to know what it means to be human. Jesus acts and indentifies fully by becoming ritually unclean, overcoming death through compassion.
‘He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. 13When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her’
Compassion for the widow who was now all alone – outcast – destined to a life of poverty. Compassion included the son, but not as the initiator of the compassion. That was the identification with the one who was now poorer than poor.
For a religious teacher who had a reputation for being confronting, this ups the ante. It was no longer simply good enough to be good, you can’t hide behind it at all. Like the Good Samaritan story Jesus acts foolishly with his compassion, risking his life and his reputation, and asks us to do the same.
Unfortunately like most of Jesus’ teaching this is not formulaic – it isn’t a clear and precise set of actions we can know and follow. How and where we show this non-violent form of love, compassion, is not spelt out for us, except that it is to be how we live our ordinary life within the ordinary events of human life.
Like the Tank Man of Tiannamen Square, Elijah in the famine and Jesus on the road, it will be seen how we respond to others in everything we do. For Jesus Compassion, love, is the hardest commandment, to love God yourself and others is all that matters.