"In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime -- the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps ...the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists." --Martin Luther King Jr.
Just as police states have arisen throughout history, there have also been individuals or groups of individuals who have risen up to challenge the injustices of their age.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer risked his life to undermine the tyranny at the heart of Nazi Germany.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn challenged the soul-destroying gulags of the Soviet Union.
Martin Luther King Jr. called America on the carpet for its color-coded system of racial segregation and warmongering.
And then there was Jesus Christ, an itinerant preacher and revolutionary activist, who not only died challenging the police state of his day--namely, the Roman Empire--but provided a blueprint for standing up to tyranny that would be followed by those, religious and otherwise, who came after him.
A radical nonconformist who challenged authority at every turn, Jesus was a far cry from the watered-down, corporatized, simplified, gentrified, sissified vision of a meek creature holding a lamb that most modern churches peddle. In fact, he spent his adult life speaking truth to power, challenging the status quo of his day, and pushing back against the abuses of the Roman Empire.
Those living through this present age of militarized police, SWAT team raids, police shootings of unarmed citizens, roadside strip searches, and invasive surveillance might feel as if these events are unprecedented, the characteristics of a police state and its reasons for being are no different today than they were in Jesus' lifetime: control, power and money.
Much like the American Empire today, the Roman Empire of Jesus' day was characterized by secrecy, surveillance, a widespread police presence, a citizenry treated like suspects with little recourse against the police state, perpetual wars, a military empire, martial law, and political retribution against those who dared to challenge the power of the state.
As I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, a police state extends far beyond the actions of law enforcement. In fact, a police state "is characterized by bureaucracy, secrecy, perpetual wars, a nation of suspects, militarization, surveillance, widespread police presence, and a citizenry with little recourse against police actions."
Indeed, the police state in which Jesus lived and its striking similarities to modern-day America are beyond troubling.
Secrecy, surveillance and rule by the elite. Much like America today, with its lack of government transparency, overt domestic surveillance, and rule by the rich, the inner workings of the Roman Empire were shrouded in secrecy, while its leaders were constantly on the watch for any potential threats to its power. The resulting state-wide surveillance was primarily carried out by the military, which acted as investigators, enforcers, torturers, policemen, executioners and jailers. Today that role is fulfilled by the NSA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the increasingly militarized police forces across the country.
Widespread police presence. The Roman Empire used its military forces to maintain the "peace," thereby establishing a police state that reached into all aspects of a citizen's life. Today SWAT teams, comprised of local police and federal agents, are employed to carry out routine search warrants for minor crimes such as marijuana possession and credit card fraud.
Citizenry with little recourse against the police state. As the Roman Empire expanded, personal freedom and independence nearly vanished, as did any real sense of local governance and national consciousness. Similarly, in America today, citizens largely feel powerless, voiceless and unrepresented in the face of a power-hungry federal government.
Perpetual wars and a military empire. Much like America today with its practice of policing the world, war and an over-arching militarist ethos provided the framework for the Roman Empire.
Martial law. Eventually, Rome established a permanent military dictatorship that left the citizens at the mercy of an unreachable and oppressive totalitarian regime. Not unlike police forces today, with their martial law training drills on American soil, militarized weapons and "shoot first, ask questions later" mindset, the Roman soldier had "the exercise of lethal force at his fingertips" with the potential of wreaking havoc on normal citizens' lives.
A nation of suspects. Just as the American Empire looks upon its citizens as suspects to be tracked, surveilled and controlled, the Roman Empire looked upon all potential insubordinates, from the common thief to a full-fledged insurrectionist, as threats to its power and punished them publicly and cruelly as a means of deterring others from challenging the power of the state. Jesus' execution was one such public punishment.
Military-style arrests in the dead of night. Jesus' arrest account testifies to the fact that the Romans perceived Him as a revolutionary. Eerily similar to today's SWAT team raids, Jesus was arrested in the middle of the night, in secret, by a large, heavily armed fleet of soldiers.
Torture and capital punishment. Jesus was presented to Pontius Pilate "as a disturber of the political peace," a leader of a rebellion, a political threat, and most gravely--a claimant to kingship, a "king of the revolutionary type." After Jesus is formally condemned by Pilate, he is sentenced to death by crucifixion, which was usually reserved for slaves, non-Romans, radicals, revolutionaries and the worst criminals. The purpose of crucifixion was not so much to kill the criminal, as it was an immensely public statement intended to visually warn all those who would challenge the power of the Roman Empire. Hence, it was reserved solely for the most extreme political crimes: treason, rebellion, sedition, and banditry.
Jesus--the revolutionary, the political dissident, and the nonviolent activist--lived and died in a police state. Any reflection on Jesus' life and death within a police state must take into account several factors: Jesus spoke out strongly against such things as empires, controlling people, state violence and power politics. Jesus challenged the political and religious belief systems of his day. And worldly powers feared Jesus, not because he challenged them for control of thrones or government but because he undercut their claims of supremacy, and he dared to speak truth to power in a time when doing so could--and often did--cost a person his life.
Unfortunately, the radical Jesus, the political dissident who took aim at injustice and oppression, has been largely forgotten today, replaced by a congenial, smiling Jesus trotted out for religious holidays but otherwise rendered mute when it comes to matters of war, power and politics.
Yet for those who truly study the life and teachings of Jesus, the resounding theme is one of outright resistance to war, materialism and empire.
What a marked contrast to the advice being given to Americans by church leaders to "submit to your leaders and those in authority"--which in the American police state translates to complying, conforming, submitting, obeying orders, deferring to authority and generally doing whatever a government official tells you to do.
Telling Americans to march in lockstep and blindly obey the government--or put their faith in politics and vote for a political savior--flies in the face of everything for which Jesus lived and died.
Ultimately, this is the contradiction that must be resolved if the radical Jesus--the one who stood up to the Roman Empire and was crucified as a warning to others not to challenge the powers-that-be--is to be an example for our modern age.