Ted Grimsrud—June 14, 2022
Jesus has gotten sidelined in many ways, which is one of the main reasons why the record of Christianity is so poor when it comes to witnessing to the world in a healing manner. One kind of sidelining goes back to the several centuries after Jesus when church doctrine evolved to exclude the life and teaching of Jesus from core creeds and confessions, moving from Jesus’s miraculous birth to his death and resurrection with scarcely a glance at what Jesus said and did. Another kind of sidelining has been what we could call the sentimentalizing and devotionalizing of the events of Jesus’s life in a way that minimize their social and political elements.
Jason Porterfield’s new book, Fight Like Jesus: How Jesus Waged Peace throughout Holy Week (Herald Press, 2022) initially may give the impression of fitting in this second category as a devotional treatment of the last week of Jesus’s life. Happily, though, Fight Like Jesus ends up being a challenging account of ways that the events of Jesus’s final days actually have powerful socially transformative significance. As such, its relevance extends much further than simply a spiritually uplifting set of meditations that would mainly be of interest just during the Easter season. Indeed, this book would be a valuable resource for any Christians seeking to understand better the practical relevance of Jesus’s life and teaching for all peacemaking work the year around.
Giving a close reading to the stories from Jesus’s final week, Porterfield shows how those several days serve as a kind of microcosm that help us better understand Jesus’s overall peacemaking agenda. The book is both practical and theologically perceptive. The Jesus that is presented here was creative, courageous, confrontive, and constructive in his response to the deadly resistance he faced due to his activist peaceable ministry.
Each day of holy week is given a chapter. We get a good sense of the traumas of those days and of how Jesus sought to find transformative responses. From the opening moments of Jesus weeping over the ignorance of the ways of peace that he saw around him to his final affirmation, “peace be with you,” the following Sunday, Porterfield helps us see that Jesus was not simply a passive victim of the circumstances but, to the contrary, was at every moment actively revealing the reality of things that do make for peace. One of the best aspects of this discussion is how by looking at all the different familiar events and teachings of those days (for example, the cleansing of the temple, Jesus being anointed in precious perfume, Jesus’s apocalyptic teaching, and his confrontation with religious leaders) as part of one story, we can see how each aspect contributes to a portrayal of Jesus at work in embodying God’s healing love in face of the brokenness and death-dealing of the powers that be.
My favorite section here is Porterfield’s insightful reading of the story of Jesus “cleansing” the temple, showing that this actually is a story of active nonviolence that reinforces Jesus’s peacemaking agenda, not a “problem” text that undermines that agenda. Porterfield concludes the chapter with an appropriate quote from Pope Benedict XVI: “The ‘zeal’ that would serve God through violence Jesus transformed into the zeal of self-giving love” (p. 61).
Porterfield writes out of his own experience of embodying Jesus’s healing love that reaches out especially to the vulnerable of society. This experience gives him deep insights into the way of Jesus. Fight Like Jesus draws effectively on a wide range of scholarship, presenting it always with a light touch. While I appreciate Porterfield’s focus on the stories themselves that the gospels tell, and not on the technical discussions of historical-critical writers that pit different gospels against each other in a quest for historical accuracy, I did find it a little unsettling when he seems to go too far in taking everything at face value with no attention at all being paid to the agendas of the various gospel writers. That approach can at times leave the reader with the impression that Porterfield switches from one gospel to the next mainly in order to smooth the telling of the story according to his own wishes. There is no perfect balance in navigating the gospels in light of the needs both for clarity in telling the story and for treating the sources responsibly. Overall, I appreciate Porterfield’s choice to simply tell the story. I think that best serves his purposes in writing this book.
One other concern I have, that I am more troubled by, is Porterfield’s brief reflections on Jesus’s crucifixion. His comments about how we all (seemingly equally?) contribute to Jesus’s death are combined with silence about the specific role that the political and religious leaders played in executing Jesus. So, he misses a chance to help us better understand that significance of Jesus’s direct confrontation with the elite human beings of his day along with the spiritual forces of evil. In killing Jesus, the elite exposed themselves as rebels against God rather than as God’s servants as they claimed. This exposure is a crucial contribution the story of Holy Week makes for our peacemaking work—since the same idolatrous dynamics remain potent in our world (for more on this point, see my book Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness [Cascade Books, 2013]).
Even with this one important missed opportunity, Fight Like Jesus makes a most helpful and constructive contribution. It adds to our understanding and appropriation of the radical peacemaking message of the gospel account of Jesus’s final week. It is clear, practical, and perceptive in conveying the truly transformative message of Jesus as our greatest prophet of justice and healing—a message the ultimately refuses to be sidelined.