Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Luke 6:1-19) transports me to the night time streets of Gotham City, where a caped crusader can be counted on to take the law into his own hands and hunt down the various villainous thugs threatening the public safety. While I can appreciate the talents of figures like the Green Lantern, Captain America, Zorro, and the Lone Ranger, Bruce Wayne’s Batman for me is the ultimate of the masked vigilante. I grew up loving the campy tv version, and in adulthood have been captivated by the darkness of the movies. One of the things the movies do well is reveal the struggle and the mixed feelings people have around having a closeted crusading vigilante in their midst. Natascha in The Dark Knight isn’t so sure she wants to raise kids in a city that idolizes a masked vigilante. In Batman Begins, young Bruce Wayne seeks training from Henri Ducard, and at one point resists the prospect of joining a band of vigilantes. Ducard replies, No, no, no. A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, then you become something else entirely. . . a legend.
Jesus, who would become more than a legend in his own right, had a lot in common with these vigilant crusaders. While he didn’t wear a mask, he did mask his true identity throughout his ministry, maintaining what New Testament scholars call the Messianic secret. He wouldn’t fully come out of the closet until Holy Week and the time of the cross. And he was a vigilante, taking the law into his own hands, as today’s passage shows. When confronted by the protectors of law and order, Jesus hearkened back to an earlier legendary hero, King David, who also took the law into his own hands, literally, when he entered the sacred space and handled the forbidden bread of presence, to satisfy his hunger. Jesus’ disciples had similarly handled grain on the sabbath, to satisfy their need. Then a suffering man showed up in the sanctuary on another sabbath, and Jesus took the law into his own hands again, restoring this man’s withered hand. Jesus allowed the onlookers to have a peek behind the mask, as he made the oblique statement, without clearly referencing himself, The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus, as a child of humanity, understood that the purpose of law in civil society is to enhance human rights, not limit them, to expand opportunities for service, not restrict them.
We, like the scribes and Pharisees of old, have good reason to feel mixed emotions about vigilante heroism. Throughout our history, vigilante justice has been served to shore up the prejudices of the populace, often times with violent means, depriving people of basic human rights. The real life Lone Ranger and Zorros of our day, as George Zimmerman proved, aren’t always good guys. And yet we laud the legendary figures of other vigilantes, like Gandhi, who took the laws of the British Empire into his own hands, and Martin Luther King, who took the Jim Crow laws of the South into his own hands. They didn’t employ violence, and they didn’t deprive anyone of their basic human rights as they sought to expand the reach of those rights. Today, as the Supreme Court begins hearing arguments in the cases involving the rights of gay and lesbian couples to marry, we can remember back thirteen years ago to the vigilante who set this chain of events into motion. California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, then mayor of San Fransisco, shocked everyone by announcing on Valentines Day in 2004 that he was instructing his city clerk to begin issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples, in defiance of the state’s law that defined marriage as heterosexual. Thousands of same-sex couples flocked to city hall in the ensuing days and weeks. It was the genesis of an entirely new kind of civil disobedience movement – one led by government officials. San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrerra talked about how strange it was to abandon his traditional role as a defender of the law, and instead brazenly defy the law of the land. He explained his rationale: When a disfavored minority is being targeted, it’s up to a public law office to stop it. Gandhi and King would no doubt appreciate how this social change was executed nonviolently, and how the vigilante action did not deprive anyone in the populace of their basic human rights. Jesus would no doubt appreciate that they were boldly acting to heal and restore hands in marriage that had become withered by prejudice and bigotry. We will have to wait and see how much the brethren and sisteren of SCOTUS appreciate that Newsom and company were acting to satisfy the deep hungers of a people starving for justice and fair play. My sense is that history will eventually determine these actions to have been nothing short of legendary and heroic. I can just hear the boy wonder Robin reacting to it all: Holy estate of gay marriage, Batman!
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.