What Do The Risks of Aleksei Navalny and Jesus Say to Us?

When Aleksei Navalny returned to Russia from Germany in January 2021 after recovering from being poisoned, prison was certain and death was likely.   Navalny died on Friday, February 16 at the IK-3 Penal Colony, located 1200 miles northeast of Moscow in the arctic circle.  His death shocked the world, but it was not a surprise.  The circumstances surrounding his demise are still unclear. Questions continue: how did it happen? who is responsible? Where is his body? And the conundrum that befuddles most of the world:  why did he go back to Russia in the first place, knowing he would be jailed, sentenced (three different times on bogus charges), and probably be killed? He was safe outside of Russia, his family was safe.  He had a platform.  He was a much-followed prophet.
Aleksei Navalny was on a mission.
In my first visit to Israel/Palestine nearly twenty year ago I asked a similar question.  Why did Jesus, who had a following in Galilee, more than a day’s journey from the religious and political capital, go back into the lion’s den of Jerusalem? The Roman occupiers kept close tabs on Jesus’ teaching and healings (what the Romans no doubt considered to be cheap  parlor tricks), but they won’t particularly worried.  At some level they recognized that all the attention Jesus received from the locals made their life easier, in that Jesus distracted them from Roman oppression.  But when Jesus went back to Jerusalem, rode into the city being proclaimed as king of the Jews, and then created a disturbance in the temple when he turned over the tables of the money changers, Jesus became a threat. Prison was certain and death was likely.  Jesus knew that; in fact he predicted it. His inner circle didn’t believe him, but Jesus knew his fate, and he willingly walked into it.
Jesus was on a mission.
Two thousand year separate Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and Aleksei Navalny flying into Moscow in an airplane.  Both were on a mission.  Navalny’s mission was — and is, to bring hope and justice to Russia by shining a bright light on Putin’s corruption and cruelty.  Jesus’ mission was, and is — to shine a light on oppression AND (and this is an important difference between Aleksei Navalny and Jesus), what happened after Jesus’ death (his Resurrection) changed the trajectory of history — and transformed millions and millions of lives.  We can hope that Navalny’s martyrdom will empower the people of Russia to, if not change the oppressive regime, than challenge it with greater courage and effectiveness.
Both Navalny and Jesus took life threatening risks, which led to each of their deaths, in the service of greater life for those who remained.  And that’s where we come in. William Sloan Coffin, the late Christian minister and social justice advocate, left us with a blessing, which I offer every chance I get:
    May God give us the grace to never sell ourselves short;
    Grace to risk something big for something good;
    Grace to remember that the world is too dangerous now for anything but truth,
    And too small for anything but love.
We are called, Christian or not, believer or not, to risk something big for something good.  When we do that we become manifestations of the Christ.  Aleksei Navalny was, and is, a manifestation of the Christ.  He is not the Christ; Jesus was and is.  Martin Luther King was a manifestation of the Christ.  As was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as was Mahatma Gandhi.  As is anyone who has risked something big for something good.  The risk doesn’t need to be our very life; it can be something that enhances and empowers the life of someone else.  Jesus himself refers to something as simple as giving someone a cup of water as a  life-giving gesture, which in some cases can be a big risk (Matthew 10:42).
Given the frenzy and cruelty of the world, there is a temptation in all of us go hide under a rock,  until the storms pass over; and avoid any sort of risk at all costs. 
Taking risks can change — not just our lives, but the lives of others. Into something good.
Let it be our mission.

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