January 23, 2021

Jesus Has Left The Room: Pharisees, Zealots and Culture Warrior Youth Ministry

ist2_1091982_christ.jpgUPDATE: Frank Turk hits it into the upper deck on this story. I’d welcome other links as well. Areopagitica had the first post I saw on it.

UPDATE II: Six months ago, Restless Reformer and BHT fellow Travis Prinzi was on this story. Jeff Sharlet says he will post the whole story at his site soon.

: A video promo of one of Luce’s youth camps. It speaks for itself.

Reading the summary of Rolling Stone magazine’s coverage of the Battle Cry Youth Event (and watching the linked videos of last year’s events), I find myself feeling strangely torn and uncomfortable.

Part of me- the part that has worked with teenagers for three decades- knows and feels the kind of brokenness and moral chaos that the event speaks to. I continue to work with many students who have found themselves in drug abuse, abusive relationships, crime, sexual promiscuity and all the consequences of those behaviors. I’m on the front lines of the failure of families, public schools and the community to come to terms with the destruction of young people by a corrosive culture. I see, firsthand, the degradation of the human mind, body and spirit that our consumeristic, voyeuristic, technologically mad society has produced.

It makes me mad, and I’m not ashamed of my anger. It’s part of what keeps me going (though not the center or all by any means.) I can put names and faces with the stories that I’ve seen in my ministry. I’ve lost good student friends to the vices and appetites our society promotes in its endless and insatiable appeal to youth culture. We are truly a culture willing to sacrifice our children for economic survival, and we shamelessly blame the young people lost in this maze for being what they are.

But as I watch and listen to the rhetoric of Battle Cry, I’m feeling something else as well. I’m uncomfortable. I’ve felt this before at youth events and in the presence of youth speakers who headed down this road of anger.

It’s the feeling I get when Jesus has left the room and something else has taken his place. In this case, anger.

When you read the New Testament, you never see the name Zealots, and there is some scholarly discussion over how definable the Zealot movement was in Israel in the first century. What’s not arguable is that there were people in Israel in the time of Jesus who were angry and believed that their anger was redemptive if channeled into a response that would overthrow the existing order. In other words, they were culture warriors.

These were Jews who felt their culture had been corrupted and violated by Greeks and now Romans. They resented what had happened to their children in a Hellenized, Romanized world. They weren’t surprised that God seemed to be letting things get worse and worse, leaving them in “exile,” because God’s people were compromising and “wimping out” when the times demanded strong action. These were people who were mad at culture, entertainment, moral standards and religious compromise. They despised those who preached tolerance and cultural diversity. They had their own rhetoric of anger. From time to time, extremists acted on these views and paid the cost.

These were people who wanted to purify Israel, march on Jerusalem, overthrow the corrupt political puppet regime of Herod and set the God of Israel against the pagan idolators from Rome. This was a culture war, a religious war and eventually, a real war.

Jesus was surrounded with this kind of anger from the time he was a child. He heard the Zealot voices in the synagogues, in the shops, and in the village square. He heard those who applauded John the Baptists direct attack on the immorality of the Herod family, and he felt the pressure to declare his movement a servant of that larger culture war.

Patriotism, zealotry and faith were never separated in Jesus’ world. To be a traitor to the cause of a renewed and liberated Israel was to be a traitor to God. There were plenty of people doing nothing, plenty of people to blame and plenty of targets for action and revolution.

Of course, Jesus profoundly disappointed this angry current in his audience. He was non-violent. More than that, he talked about loving and praying for those who were the persecutors and the oppressors. Jesus said that when the oppressor exerted power, the way of peaceful nonresistance and active love were the right responses. To the Zealot, Jesus said turn the other cheek and go the second mile.

This was not what the culture warriors of Jesus’ day wanted to hear. They wanted to bring change by anger and action. Jesus said the Kingdom was here, and those who were born again could see it. He knew the corruption of his times, but he said that it came from within, not from without. In fact, nothing outside of a person could make them unclean. Such a view undercut the rhetoric of the culture war. Yes, Israel was a covenant-breaking people, but they didn’t need the Romans or the Greeks to make them idolaters. They had been idolaters from the beginning because their hearts were far from God.

God’s people had been ordered to fight against the Canaanites in the past, but Jesus did not come repeating the rhetoric of the book of Numbers or Judges (which Ron Luce could use at one of his rallies without any.) The attempt to draft Jesus into a “war” mentality was going on in the first century. The movement and community Jesus began wasn’t military in nature, as he told Pilate. It disarmed rulers and authorities at a deeper level, through a more substantial kind of victory.

When Jesus wept over Jerusalem, he was weeping, in part, over militant Pharisees and Zealots who wanted transformation by politics or even bloodshed. He wept over a city that saw its culture war in terms of how God would vindicate human agendas, not how God would vindicate his own righteousness in the cross and resurrection. The Christian community formed by Jesus and empowered by his Spirit is in conflict with some in the culture, but it declares its intentions to BE a renewed Israel in the Spirit of Jesus, not bring about a renewed Israel by way of culture war weaponry.

Ron Luce says that Jesus is angry. He says that resentment is a good fuel for the life of discipleship. The anger of children makes for a better revolution. He wants a renouncing of the secularism that pollutes a godly generation. Luce sounds like the Zealots, the Pharisees and the Essenes all rolled into one…and Jesus pronounced them all wrong.

Luce would have us believe that Jesus rejection of the Sadducee compromisers and their pollution of the temple with secularism is the whole truth about Jesus anger. But Jesus was stopped Peter from using the sword. He denounced the Pharisees- whom N.T. Wright believes were often much more sympathetic to zealot type political action than we suspect- as corrupt and under judgment. He said to the Pharisees that the Kingdom wasn’t going to come with armies or revolts, and he announced to the Zealots that a withdrawal to an alternative community in the desert missed the entire point of God’s suffering, redemptive, amazing grace.

Jesus’ anger was generally toward the culture warriors and their co-opting of God as the sponsor for their angry agendas. Jesus presented, in the Kingdom and in the cross, a new agenda entirely, brought about without the bitterness, manipulation and violence that always accompanies the Zealot project.

Barabbas was a brigand; likely a Zealot who had cut a few throats. He is the choice of a crowd that rejects Jesus. Judas may have been a frustrated Zealot, angry that Jesus would not use his power in the cause of a Godly revolution.

You will hear a lot about Jesus at a Battle Cry event, and I am sure a good bit of it is on target. I know many people who think highly of this movement and believe in its version of discipleship. It’s true that Jesus is a true revolutionary who demands far more of his disciples than a Che t-shirt. But much of the rhetoric of the Battle Cry movement doesn’t sound, or feel or act like Jesus as he’s shown in the New Testament. Jesus turned over tables, but that wasn’t his way of changing people or the world.

There is no redemption in proclaiming your victim status, even if thousands of Christians proclaim it loudly and repeatedly in stadiums. The Christian movement is centered around Jesus, the cross and the Gospel, not around the culture war. The Kingdom community doesn’t look like the Battle Cry movement, and all the venting of resentment in the world won’t bring about the power of the spirit of the risen Jesus.


  1. steve yates says

    yep…on all counts. and that hurts for me to say, because i’ve been at events and spent the money on Christian culture. but you’re right on…did you see the response ATF got in san francisco a year or 2 ago when they did their stadium event? it was like they had slapped the city in the face! not to stand up for their culture, but perhaps we disrespect others with the loudness of our stuff instead of the loudness of our compassion.


  2. Michael,
    This might very well be the most on target post I’ve ever read from you. I’ve struggled to describe to people why movements of this kind bother me so much. It was a great moment to remember that Jesus dealt with this exact type of attitude himself. It’s a good reminder that there are no new attitudes, just new ways of presenting. thanks.

  3. Beyond Words says

    This is so timely. I saw a youth leader passing a poster for BattleCry last night and I wanted to cry. It’s like we skipped the whole point of the Gospel, of the power of Jesus taking violence and vengeance to the cross and coming out the other side in the Resurrection.

  4. Regarding the video in Update III…wow. That is, frankly, a little scary. It looks like some sort of training camp for Christian Jihadists…

  5. If the church as a whole believes that we are in a “Culture War” it’s no surprise that somewhere along the line the powers that be would decide that we need Special Forces. And who better to send to the front lines than our impressionable youth who are wildly swayed by appeals to emotion and mob mentality. If you want perhaps scarier food for thought be sure to rent “Jesus Camp.” (I have a brief review on my site). Pay careful attention to the girl named Rachael. Watch how she approaches strangers with tracts with the innocence of a child but with the conviction that she is a warrior for God. On the one hand I have admiration for her. On the other, I’m scared to death of what she is on her way to becoming.

  6. Jeremiah Lawson says

    A friend showed me part of Jesus Camp, specifically the Ted Haggard part, and told me that people who wanted to show Christians in a bad light couldn’t have picked better footage even if they wanted to.

    When I was in my teens I took the culture war stuff pretty seriously and the “worldview” discussions that often seemed to boil down to pep rallies for Republican activism. It seems Christians lack the historical breadth to see how quickly the shoe gets on the other foot. Now I feel that if conservative Christians saw how legislation from the era of the Social Gospel laid the groundwork for the “teen culture” so many culture warriors now get upset about they’d think twice about setting up what they consider to be “good law”. Even if we have laws that are good we still have plenty of people who are bad and law seems to be not about getting what you want from law in the next twenty years but the next century, especially when we consider the implications of enforcing laws that Christians seemed to push for in the 19th century.

    The “good law” of prohibition, child labor laws, and compulsory public education finally got enforced and produced the teen culture Christian culture warriors have been fretting about for decades. Why do conservative culture warriors fool themselves into thinking that their forms of legislation and activism won’t backfire? Apparently the same reason prohibition activists thought so.

    Culture warriorism for either liberal or conservative Christian thought seems to produce a nasty myopia about the implications of actual laws. I don’t think people shouldn’t be involved in politics but it just seems that we could use more Christians looking at the history of politics and Christian theological rationales for political action. If we’re to be the light of the world and a blessing to the nations in fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant it means we need to seek the blessing of people who aren’t Christians, right, not just ourselves?

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