‘In the Roman Empire, you know that those who rule lord it over them; their great ones tyrannize them. But it is not so among you.’ (Mark 10: 42,43)
We read these two sentences as though one flows readily into the next. It doesn’t. There is close to an unbridgeable chasm between the two.
Jesus’ disciples were familiar with the practices of the Roman Empire. Their homeland had forcibly been incorporated into it in 63 BC after a lengthy period of self-rule.
Rome had an unstoppable ability to enact terror because of its military might. However, that didn’t mean others, who didn’t possess such power, weren’t susceptible to wishing they did.
In the meantime, they practised lording it over others on a smaller scale.
We are quick to discern ‘lording it over others’ in the actions of people we know about, but less willing to see it in ourselves.
It is, in fact, challenging to discern it within oneself.
Jesus’ claim that it was not so amongst his disciples appears to be wishful thinking; not least, because two of his disciples, James and John, had just requested that he grant them positions of glory (Mk 10:37).
I find it disheartening when leaders of liberation movements who espouse equality turn into despots when in power. Robert Mugabe from Zimbabwe comes to mind.
Mugabe had been a hero of the African nationalist movement. (Through its Program to Combat Racism, the World Council of Churches made a grant to support the work of Mugabe’s organisation.)
However, when he came to power, he ruthlessly eliminated perceived opponents. He, a Shona, orchestrated the killing of 20,000 Ndebeles (the other major tribal group in Zimbabwe). Resonant of Rome….
Nelson Mandela said of him, ‘he despises the very people who put him in power and thinks it’s a privilege to be there for eternity.’
Mandela is an unusual example of words about freedom, justice and service being put into practice when he gained power, but what happened to Mugabe and so many others?
Many now recognise that the oppressed often internalise the worldview of the oppressor. This insight makes what happened in Zimbabwe sadly predictable.
I hope Jesus’ ‘it is not so’ is more than wishful thinking, that it does call into existence an alternative possibility.
To enact it, though, requires rigorous self-reflection, hard mental and emotional work. In situations of oppression, it requires the oppressed to ascertain how they have internalised the worldview of the oppressor.
This hardly seems fair: not only do they need to displace those in power, but they also need to delve deep inside.
Genuine change usually requires much more than we imagine when we set on a new pathway, genuinely inspired.
Still, the ‘it is not so’ continues to call forth this new future, and all the work required on the way.