At the beginning of the 2016 version of The Magnificent Seven, the mine owner Bartholomew Bogue gives a pseudo-sermon to the townspeople of Rose City who do not want to give him their land. He tells them that, in America, democracy is equated with capitalism and capitalism with God. Therefore, by resisting him, they were standing in the way of democracy, progress, and even God. After this blasphemous sermon, he and his men burn the church the townspeople met in.
While some may not admit it, this is the logic underlying the recent claim by Trump’s spiritual advisor that, had Jesus violated immigration law, he would have been a sinner, and therefore not our Messiah. Laying aside the absurd hubris of declaring what God can and cannot do, this claim indicates a complete failure to understand the Gospel message. Not only is Jesus a criminal, Jesus is our Messiah not despite being a criminal, but because he is one.
The oft-cited statement of Jesus that he came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (Mt. 5:17) remains true: Jesus follows the underlying principle of the Law, whether or not those principles are in line with laws as they are administered by human beings. The Law as ordained by God is meant to have human beings live in community, as exemplified in the Jubilee year that Jesus declares at the beginning of his ministry (Lk. 4:19). The Law, in making its way to human beings, and as codified in laws, becomes corrupted into a system of control, used to enforce oppressive social structures. God declared this to the people of Israel and Judea via the prophets like Jeremiah and Amos. In God’s time, God became human to display to us what it meant to be fully human that we might become fully free.
To display what this means for us, to truly live in community, this meant fulfillment of the Law in violation of the laws. When the religious laws say not to share meals with the downtrodden, Christ shares meals with sex workers with unwashed hands. When the religious laws said not to do work on the Sabbath, Christ healed those around him no matter the day. When the religious laws and the Roman Empire endorsed a system of exploitation using necessary religious ceremony, Christ, at the peak of his ministry, formed a whip, assaulted the proto-bankers, overturned their tables, and cast them out of their place of business. Jesus was executed by the Roman Empire, the closest thing to a modern state the world had known up to that point.
Jesus was a dangerous subversive, who, had he been allowed to continue, would have turned all human relationships upside-down. For Empire to survive, all such attempts must be criminalized. So when Jesus seeks to free us from the bonds of oppressive structures, he must necessarily be a criminal. All genuine pursuit of freedom in community must be criminal, because Empire cannot survive a community that sees to itself and seeks harmony. Jesus taught us to live in such a community, leading by example, and was a criminal as a result. Jesus’ criminality was essential to his ministry and to the Gospel that resulted from that ministry.
Every person who illegally builds a community garden, every person teaches oppressed communities self-defense, steals medicine, hides someone from ICE, who stands up to police brutality and the prison industrial complex carries on the mission of Christ. Christ was amongst the oppressed, was one of the oppressed. For those of us who are white in our society, the best we can do in following Christ is to be accomplices to the oppressed, and thereby to Christ. Christ was a criminal, was Christ because he was criminal, and we must seek to be so as well.