Jesus and the Inversion of Social Order

Fred Laceda

They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Mark 9:30-37 NIV

Christianity celebrates its five hundred years in the Philippines. Whether Catholics or Protestants, Christians play a significant role in nation building, through its embeddedness in our social structure and by shaping sensibilities – of course in all these there are also adverse effects. As a Filipino evangelical, I’m curious to situate our movement within this context. 

At first glance, it seems that Filipino evangelicals don’t have much role in our nation’s story so far. There are many reasons for this. But a few stands out: evangelicals draw our identity from the Reformation and uses its anti-Catholic rhetoric as a tool for evangelism. Thus, cooperation and dialogue are not its strong suit. Another is the way evangelicals read the Bible – through the lens of an anachronistic individualism. This hinders evangelicals to go beyond individual concerns. If it ever breaks out, however, it’s still framed in a revivalist rhetoric. Of course, there are a few who transcends the evangelical cloister that are socially and politically engaged. But they are exceptions that prove the rule.

In our country’s dark times evangelicals fail to rise to the occasion apart from a segment of its population. It’s no wonder why Filipino evangelicals did not develop their own political theology parallel to the theology of struggle of both mainline Protestants and Catholics. This failure to develop its own articulation of a theological vision of its social engagement is what makes the majority of evangelicals as fence sitters.

The cumulative effect of these evangelical traits is that we fail to analyze power structures, always stuck on the individual level. But what if we begin to look at the text consciously as part of a larger and more complex reality?
Our lectionary passage this Sunday is a good case study. Evangelicals would zero in on the inversion of values on who is the greatest in the kingdom without inquiring on what sustains the prevailing social structure of Jesus’ time. For us to ask these questions we have to broaden the horizon of our way of reading Scripture. My own reading, although respective to my evangelical tradition, is facilitated by my interaction with the works of French literary critic Rene Girard.

Girard proposes a theory of human cultural origin. He opines that human civilization was set in motion by what he calls as a founding murder. All human institutions are generated from this founding event. Ritual, myth, and prohibitions are the mechanisms that sustained ancient social order. The most potent among these is the scapegoat mechanism, that is, the killing of a certain individual or group of people to de-escalate violence and attain social cohesion.

This violent practice reminds us of Jesus’ words in this passage that the Son of Man will be delivered to the hands of men and will be killed. Another aspect of this social order is the significant role of rivalry or competition. For Girard, this is what fuels violence in society. Rivalry is a source of conflict when two or more would converge to vie for a single object, in our passage, this is the question of who is the first or greatest among Jesus’ disciples. 

This is the time when Jesus sits down with his disciples. What Jesus tells next to his followers is not just a moral exhortation to be good, humble or both. What Jesus is telling his followers is more profound and fundamental. He is calling into question the social order of his society sustained by the order to kill and violent rivalry. But this revolutionary impulse has been lost in our imagination because for the most part we still imitate the social order that Jesus exposed and inverted.