Beniamin Pascut | Ph.D.
If you had a magical ring that would make you invisible, would you resist its use for personal gain? Would you not sneak in your professor’s office to change your grades or take a peek at the next exam assignment? Wouldn’t you help yourself to chocolate from your roommate’s jar or to drinks from the bar? Before Frodo’s ring in The Lord of the Rings, there was the ring of Gyges in Plato’s Republic, which Glaucon used to make one important point: no person could be imagined of such incorruptible nature as to resist the use of an invisible ring, for no one is just on his or her own will, but only from constraint (Plato, The Republic 2.360b-360c). Gyges may be a fictional character, but he’s one of us. Or better said, he’s like all of us with an innate locus imperium – a place of empire within, an inborn nature inclined toward injustice.
“Learning that the ring made him invisible, he immediately contrived to be one of the messengers of the king. When he arrived, he committed adultery with the king’s wife and, along with her, set upon the king and killed him. And so he took over the rule” (The Republic 2.360a).
This old fable about the oppressive vices of sex, power and wealth invites us to situate ourselves in Gyges’ fictional shoes and come face to face with the reality of human depravity. It directs us to ask: If injustice finds its root in the heart of every human being, how can injustice be defeated? How can we do justice in a way that adequately addresses the inherent evil of every individual? Jesus thought of himself and his work as the agent of dealing with injustice right at its core and bringing justice to all humanity. He proclaimed the key of overcoming all injustice with the words: “Time’s up! God’s rule has arrived in history, repent and believe the gospel”(Mark 1:15).
“Time’s up! God’s rule has arrived in history …”
Imagine a time of imperial domination that extends over half of the known world. Add ethnic discrimination, economic control, heavy taxation and exploitation of the poor – all under foreign rule and assisted by conniving aristocracy. Imagine a repressive empire in all its glory and luxuriant growth sustained through slavery and exploitation. Imagine the worst of times for the marginalized groups (e.g. women, children, peasants, the poor, etc.), and you’ll get a clear picture of first century Jewish Palestinian society living at the edge of the Roman Empire. That’s the historical setting of Jesus’ justice work.
His “Time’s up!” announcement turns all the sad tunes into freedom music. The waiting for justice is over. True justice is no longer a dream. It’s finally here and it’s because of divine intervention. “God’s rule” has burst forth into human history, bringing the divine realm to bear on the human. With Jesus’ emergence on the way of justice (LXX Isaiah 40:3, 14; Mark 1:2-3), the Roman imperial rule with all its power is challenged and broken. Does this mean that the oppressive order of Caesar can no longer claim full control? That’s exactly what it means, but it goes beyond that. As “Time’s up!” doesn’t have in view a chronological reference (chronos), but a transhistorical one (kairos), Jesus’ justice program has far-reaching effects. It marks the beginning of the end not only of Caesar and his colonial rule, it brings freedom not only to his contemporaries, but to all humanity. How in the world is that possible?
Say the word justice today and fairness or equality comes to mind. “Repent”(metanoeo), on the other hand, often being reduced to religious talk, is dropped out of the justice vocabulary altogether. But don’t let the contemporary usage associated exclusively with feelings of guilt and remorse fool you. In Classical and Hellenistic Greek literature, and in the way Jesus used it, metanoeo means fundamentally “to turn,” “to readjust” and has in view a change of thinking, of purpose, of allegiance and of course (e.g. Plato, Euthydemus 279c; Plutarch, Demetrius 52). Simply put, to repent is to slam on the brakes from going in the wrong direction and make a U-turn towards the right one.
A U-turn where? If every individual hides within a locus imperium and is a source of injustice – and the marginalized and the oppressed are no exception – justice demands that every individual turn from self to a new reality other than the self. No matter how much our pop culture tries to make us believe, genuine justice is not about promoting the self into society. Isn’t that what feeds the cycle of injustice in the first place? Versed in identity theory or not, take the most brutal autocrats in history from Caesar to Castro and you’ll find out plenty of egotism at work. Look at the logic of suicide bombers for which there is no clear profile anymore. No invisibility ring needed in their case. They pledge their paramount allegiance to self-destruction publicly at the expense of everyone else. But we need not stop and stare at perpetrators. Let’s look at a social victim like Gyges once again. Here’s a poor shepherd who can’t buy himself out of a marginalized and subordinate position. He’s born to serve his king like a slave, perhaps all the way to his grave. He’s a victim of what most people today would call a biased social system where inequality and inferiority is a common curse. But what does he do after he gains complete liberty of action with his invisibility ring? He falls victim to a false ideology of freedom which promotes the interest of the self. He enacts the perfect crime and becomes a perpetrator himself.
So here’s the bad news: dictators, terrorists, alongside racists and rapists, all share something in common with exam cheaters, chocolate stealers and even with the marginalized – a slavish subjection to evil. This accounts for the sentiment expressed in Jesus’ own words: “I came not to call those who are just [for there is none], but evil doers [for that’s everyone] (Mark 2:17).”
There can be no real justice without repentance, and no repentance without a radical break with evil. A redirection, a change of course from the way of human depravity to the “way of the Lord” (Mark 1:2-3) is demanded.
“… and Believe …”
The second imperative is to “believe” (piesteuo), a verb denoting confidence to the extent of complete trust (e.g. Aristotle, Athenian Constitution 21). But believe? For many Millennials, believing sounds like a religious excuse to stay away from engaging in real justice work. But if Hume is correct in his Treatise on Human Nature about belief being the governing principle of all our actions, then justice without belief is a dead end. As rational beings, our choices, commitments and actions are dependent on the subject and content of our belief. Beliefs set boundaries, they open and close possibilities. Like an engine, they can bring us forward. Like brakes, they can slow us down or bring us to a stop. Like a steering wheel, they can switch our course. Without beliefs there would be no right or wrong, no conflict of interest, no victims of injustice, no movements of justice, and no need for justice whatsoever.
Every justice ideology and endeavor therefore presupposes a set of beliefs about morality (what is justice) and about method (how to bring justice). To name a few, Homer didn’t promote a justice program because he believed that the very need for justice is an expression of the tragic condition of humanity imposed by Zeus. Plato, like his student Aristotle, believed in a natural inequality among humans, and as a result argued that justice is accomplished when the state treats equals equally and unequals unequally. Specifically, philosophers would have to rule as kings, as “leading men who genuinely and adequately philosophize” (Plato, The Republic 375; Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics 7.1238b).
There is no justice ideology that offers a hard-line alternative to belief. Justice simply can’t be conceived without it. Which brings us to the conclusion: by calling people to believe, Jesus called them to the most supreme act of justice. But believe in what or in whom? It can’t be in the self, for the self is itself a locus imperium. It can’t be in society either, for it’s made up of imperialistic, oppressive selves.
“… the Gospel.”
The object of belief is the “gospel” or the “good news,” the evangelion (Mark 1:1, 14; 8:35; 10:29; 13:10; 14:9; cf. Homer, Odyssey 14.148; Euripides, Medea 941), a technical term coined by Roman emperors in their official proclamations about the glad tidings of their imperial rule. Caesar Augustus, for example, announced his own evangelion across his empire, promising the rise of a utopian society abundant with peace and progress for all. Speaking of Augustus’ rule, the poet Ovid described a time of justice: “When peace has been given to the lands, he will turn his mind to domestic justice and the most just leader will bring forward laws”(Metamorphoses 15:833-8334). Of course, anyone in the empire with the slightest acquaintance with imperial philosophy, citizens and slaves alike, knew that the retrieval of this so-called justice is predicated upon tyranny and bloodshed. But in spite of Augustus’ dreadful evangelion, they had to wave their right hand in consent and move on with the program.
As was the case with Augustus, evangelion on the lips of Jesus is as much a political claim as a personal one. The “good news” is about him and his reign (Mark 1:1). He is inaugurating a new way of life with him at its center. Justice is contingent on the reality of one word: Christ (1:1). But will Christ establish his rule in a Caesar-like fashion? The near synonymity of the titles in their respective traditions begs a comparison between the two figures. Will Christ bring justice via a typical military ascension? Will he establish a utopian society abundant in fairness and human rights for all?
In light of the story to follow (1:16-16:8), it becomes obvious that Jesus stands in stark opposition to Caesar and his evangelion. He rules not by being served, but by serving others (10:45):
- Provides social outcasts the means to reenter society (1:40-42; 5:30-34)
- Extends table fellowship to publicly acknowledged outlaws (2:13-17)
- Overrules legal regulations to protect human life and well-being (2:23-28; 3:1- 6)
- Secures food for impoverished masses (6:36-44; 8:1-13)
- Crosses ethnic and gender boundaries (5:1-20; 7:26-30)
- Opposes freedom ideologies that involve armed resistance (8:31-33)
- Articulates a radical critique of oppressive orders (10:42-45)
- Provides a ‘legal’ order to encourage distribution of wealth (10:17-22)
- Confronts institutions of economic power and control (11:12-19)
To suggest that Jesus’ social advocacy represents the essence of his justice work is to miss his mission entirely. So that’s it? That’s how Jesus brings justice to all? Just some venerable social deeds? Not really: he brings justice through different means. To suggest that his social advocacy represents the essence of his justice work is to miss his mission entirely. Mark’s narrative is often described as a passion with a long introduction for a very good reason: Jesus’ death on the cross represents the single most important event of his whole vocation. He predicted and pursued his death with sublime commitment (8:31; 9:12, 31; 10:32–34, 38–39, 45); not as a gesture of suicidal folly, but as a justice and judgment necessity:
Major Premise ~ Morality
Justice demands that every locus imperium face judgment
Minor Premise ~ Method
Through his death, Jesus takes upon himself the judgment deserved by all imperialist selves
Jesus’ substitutionary death brings restorative justice to those who believe Jesus’ exemplary death turns imperialist selves into self-giving servants
Clearly, Jesus is a nonconformist in this regard. Unlike other justice thinkers from Socrates to Sandel, he doesn’t embrace the ideals of a democratic polis and the finite promises of its social, economic and political programs. The narrative that begins with Jesus marching on the way of justice (LXX Isaiah 40:3, 14; Mark 1:2-3), doesn’t climax with him securing a royal throne via a military victory over oppressive Rome. That’s what his compatriots expected from a messianic liberator – to elevate their rights to new heights and put an end to the cruel imperial domination. Such human rights, which his Jewish contemporaries wanted, Jesus rejected (Mark 8:31-33; 11:1-11). Human righteousness, on the other hand, which humanity at large needed, he offered via his death on the cross (10:45; 14:22-25; 15:21-39). The former lacks the power to liberate imperialist selves from their innate depravity. It only elevates the interests of morally culpable individuals, sometimes to the extent of turning victims into perpetrators. The latter, on the other hand, executes justice in a once and for all historical enactment by paying the death penalty for all injustice and demanding cross-bearing disposition from all imperialist selves.
Jesus is therefore for the oppressed and for freedom. He sets free all Caesars and all those who bear more than a passing similarity to Gyges. And he does more than simply set them free – he empowers them toward accountability, charity, cooperation, humility, forgiveness and love.
In closing, think Gyges. Get in his fictional shoes with the magical ring on your finger. You might not reveal the full dimension of his evil, such as luring someone to make out with you or murdering whoever stands in the way of your success. You might not even cheat on your exam or deprive your roommate of a chocolate bar. But your curiosity will overtake your determination to resist temptation and you’ll end up doing something stupid; something that will reveal the deeply ingrained locus imperium of our race. I guess that’s true of all humans. With or without the magic ring, injustice is there within. Pretending it’s not there won’t make it go away. Promoting programs of social justice won’t make it vanish either. Repenting and believing will. The time for justice is at hand.
Beniamin Pascut, Ph. D. Joseph and Alice McKeen Research Fellow, New Testament Studies. Brunswick ME.
Dr. Pascut is a founding board member of an international NGO dedicated to combating sex trafficking.