In the last decade or so, whenever an atrocity has been committed, the first assumption is that must have been a terrorist attack perpetrated in the name of Islam. Such a suspicion is based on the common perception that most infamous atrocities since 9/11 have been committed by Islamist terrorists. Paradoxically, among the victims of such acts of violence are ordinary Muslims, for whose rights those terrorists claim to fight. Adopting Islam as an ideological justification for violence is really nothing new. It’s merely the most recent representation of courses of action that have been taken down the ages. We have been tribal ever since time immemorial and fighting for the survival of the tribe is hard-wired into our brains. Such tribalism needs an ideological glue of some kind; indeed, it takes the form of anything from identifying with a particular football club through political ideology to religion. This last is reflected indirectly in today’s gospel.
When Jesus asked his closest followers, the Apostles, about their understanding of his identity, Peter answered with a very simple phrase: ‘You are the Christ.’ To our ears, used to treating ‘Christ’ like a surname, that sounds pretty innocent. In fact, such a proclamation was explosive at that time in the Holy Land. The Roman Empire was the latest in the succession of invading powers down the centuries that had occupied what the Jews regarded as their God-given homeland. There were groups of Jews actively trying to overthrow the occupying imperial power and to reinstate an independent Jewish kingdom. They believed that a powerful figure would be sent by God to lead their uprising to ultimate victory. The Hebrew title of such a figure was ‘the Messiah’, which translated in Greek as ‘the Christ’. So, what Peter said in answer to Jesus’ question had the potential to stir up political unrest – even more so when Jesus didn’t utter a denial; instead, he told the Apostles not to tell anyone about him. Indirectly he confirmed that Peter was right about him.
We can only imagine what was going on in the Apostles’ minds. Stirred up by the news that the Messiah was among them, they started readying themselves for imminent victorious battles, the restoration of the Jewish kingdom and themselves taking seats of power. Jesus’ announcement of his humiliation, prosecution, torture and death must have been like pouring a bucket of ice over the hot heads of the Apostles. Peter’s remonstration with Jesus indicated that clearly. Perhaps it was also a desperate attempt to change Jesus’ mind. But he rejected such a temptation. In the gospel of St Mark this is a turning point; from now on, Jesus would explain his role and his mission as the Messiah in terms of being sent to offer a completely different kind of freedom.
‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine…’ Jesus, in his opening line, employs the same term used for political backers: a follower. The term implies someone’s strong association and commitment; it describes someone actively involved, not someone standing on the side or watching from a distance. The qualities expected of a follower of Jesus were shockingly different from anything that anyone could have assumed beforehand: ’If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.’ Jesus’ call wasn’t the classic battle cry to fight against an external enemy, to rise against the Roman Empire and its Jewish collaborators. Jesus’ call was the call to fight against the enemy within. And for that, his call remains relevant to you and to me. The enemy within lives in our hearts. It shows up every now and again in different forms and manifestations, but it has a common underlying feature: selfishness. This is the toughest enemy to conquer. Fighting it takes an entire lifetime. ‘Anyone who loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.’