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The Style of Subversion Part 3: A Loving Resistance

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : August 25, 2008

What follows is the third and final part of a series on the Style of Subversion. In part one, I challenged hipsterism and the trend towards superficial counter-culturalism in light of the Kingdom of God. In part two, I continued in that theme and, in addition, called for repentance and lament in light of the fallen world order.

As I suggested at the end of my previous post, being truly prophetic must grow out of repentance over our own complicity and out of true mourning over those whose lives are ensnared within Empire. Of course, here I am using the word “Empire” in the grand biblical sense, not simply in regards to USAmerica. Though certainly the USA is a part of the global Imperial reality just as Paul’s use of “Principalities and Powers” points towards spiritual cosmic realities as well as to the flesh-and-blood reality of the Roman Empire.

As long as our understanding of our prophetic call is rooted in anger or simple frustration, we will fail. With such emotions fueling our vision, the best thing we can accomplish is destruction or, perhaps, deconstruction. We can tear down the Empire, but what will take its place? Another Empire. That simply creates an ongoing cycle where new oppressors continually take the place of the old oppressors. Revolutions tear down the status quo and set up a new status quo that is often twice the Son of Hell than the old status quo.

The King Who Already Reigns

We who follow Christ should know better than to simply seek to create a new world order.  Christ teaches us to reject the desire to rule over one another.  Paul teaches that we are to reject revolution. John Chrysostom teaches (in keeping with the common sentiment of the early church) that “the desire to rule is the mother of heresies.” No, we are the people who turn the other cheek. We are peace-makers in a violent world and enemy-lovers in a hateful world.

Nevertheless, the Christianity we’ve inherited has been, for the most part, interested in ruling over others, forcing morality on others, and enforcing their rule with violence. Let us not be naive: both the Right and the Left are guilty of this. Even that mytholigical group of people called “Moderates” are simply guilty of combing a mix of forced moralities of the Right with the forced moralities of the Left and seeking a new rule that operates under the facade of sensibility.

As folks like Yoder and his intellectual descendants have been pointing out for years, one of the worst habits of contemporary Christians (especially in the West) is that we fail to recognize that the Way of Jesus is intrinsically political. In other words, we fail to see that Jesus’ way should dictate the way we live in this world, the way we understand power, the way we as a Nation of Priests, a New People, a Sacred Society, should order ourselves. The Church is a political reality, and I’m convinced that a faithful reading of the New Testament leaves little room for a strong sense of dual citizenship. In other words: If you are a Christian, you should make a shitty American or Canadian or Mexican or Lithuanian. As a follower of Jesus the King, your allegiance is so profoundly tied to Him and His way of life that it should be nearly impossible to “conform to the patterns of this world” (Romans 12:2)…or to the patterns of America or Canada or Mexico or Lithuania.

Most Christians believe, deep down inside, that Christianity is a spirituality that should simply inform one’s politics, rather than seeing it as a developed political system already. At Missio Dei, we sometimes sing a song that exposes this way of thinking:

Sing to the King Who is coming to reign
Glory to Jesus, the Lamb that was slain
Life and salvation His empire shall bring
And joy to the nations when Jesus is King

We have to change the lyrics when we sing this song:

Sing to the King Who already reigns
Glory to Jesus, the Lamb that was slain
Life and salvation His empire brings
And joy to the nations for Jesus is King

The first set of lyrics is typical: Christians tend to believe that Jesus is our spiritual king whose REAL reign is yet to come. In this in-between-time, we simply wait for his coming. And so, we must negotiate Jesus’ call to “love your enemies” with the State’s call to “kill the enemy.” We lay aside the call to “turn the other cheek” as impractical and put off living the Jubilee until we move into the shimmering eschatological cube.

But Christ already rules. His kingdom is a present reality. And we are heirs already to the kingdom. Our prophetic call isn’t to try to take down “the Man.” It isn’t to somehow seize power for the least-of-these. Such a mission undermines the present-reality of the Kingdom. And it falls into the same old pattern of oppressed-becoming-oppressor.

Our prophetic task is to speak to the Powers and inform them that they are fallen. We are to expose them in their broken folly. We are to remind them that Christ is King and has defeated them. The Powers and Principalities have no authority OVER us, though are permitted to remain. Our task is to bring transformation through enemy-love even as we resist the Powers. And all the while, we are to embody the alternative–which is MORE true and real than the imperial facsimile. The State is simply a false body of Christ that exists so that we might bring redemption in Christ through the love-saturated embodiment of the Gospel.

We can only effectively preach God’s wisdom to the Powers if we are, at the same time, moving into a life freed from slavery to the Powers. We can only challenge Mammon if it isn’t our god. We can only reject nationalism if we live recognising there is no hierarchy amongst peoples. We will only resist social injustice if justice are expressed in our common life.

The Way of Jesus is Weak?

There is a mistake many have made in trying to embrace church-as-contrast-society. Some believe that they must opt out of the system entirely…or at least try to. In a desire to be free from the stain of empire, many attempt to keep their hands clean and disengage. This isn’t the stance taken in the New Testament, and I don’t think it is a stance we should adopt either. We must not withdraw from the issues in the societies surrounding us. We are, instead, to be a Nation of Prophets and Priests, who name the sins of society and seek to bring reconciliation and healing. We are a beacon of liberation. We must model an alternative within the disarmed, dethroned Powers as we resist the temptation to employ the tools of Empire to bring that liberation.

Our call is not simply to resist and subvert the Powers, but also to love the masses of humanity ensnared by those Powers. We wrestle against spiritual forces as we love flesh-and-blood people. We are called to a collective life of love and gentleness, peacemaking and (as Yoder helpfully points out), revolutionary subordination. Even as we turn the other cheek and submit to those who exercise power over us, we recognize that we have a deeper power. Naming the powers, we resist them as we invite the oppressor to come out of Babylon.

We must be careful here. Some take Yoder’s “radical subordination” idea to mean that civil disobedience is never an option. The life of Christ and the Apostles alone tells us that there is a time and place for civil disobedience. Jesus directly spoke against some of the rulers and leaders. He turned over the money changer’s tables. And, in a number of cases, violated the law of the land (healing on the Sabbath, eating grain on the Sabbath,

This sort of talk upsets everyone. Some reject it for being too weak and ineffectual. Others feel as though it supports oppression in its unwillingness to, in some way, fight back. But this is what Christ taught us. It is what Paul and Peter reinforced. We don’t like it because we are still ensnared in the way the world apparently works. We have poured the values of liberal democracy into our understanding of the Gospel.

For us, the way forward is powerlessness, not power. We must not grasp for power in order to use that power to combat the Empire…or to accomplish our goals.

Rhythms of Loving Resistance

So…what does it actually LOOK like to embody an alternative? How do we lovingly resist the Powers as we invite people to move into God’s Kingdom? This is a big question. For all the books Brazos Press puts out, very few deal with practical realities. The recent books about New Monasticism and the works of folks like Shane Claiborne help scratch that itch, but still more work needs to be done in imagining tangible realities. There really isn’t enough space here for me to really develop this out, so I’ll end this series with a list of practices/activities/experiments that will help us develop a communal life of loving resistance. If two or more people were to engage in the following sorts of things together as a regular practice, it would go much further than a mountain of rhetoric and challenge the status quo more than voting:

  1. proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ
  2. tithe relationally
  3. discerningly engage in civil disobedience
  4. confess your sins to one another, and proclaim forgiveness
  5. live communally
  6. establish regular rhythms of prayer with others (here’s a nifty and free resource)
  7. thoughtfully participate in the Lord’s Supper
  8. be family with people that are in a different socio-economic and/or ethnic situation than you
  9. get in the way of violence
  10. plant a garden (for extra credit, practice guerrilla gardening)
  11. spend less money
  12. spend justly
  13. or just don’t spend money at all
  14. ride a bicycle or take the bus
  15. draw attention to the sins of society
  16. lovingly challenge the sins of the Church
  17. invite strangers to dinner
  18. have a guest room open to those in need
  19. practice mutual submission
  20. read Scripture in community and struggle together to put it into practice
  21. practice communal discernment
  22. embrace a sense of place in ministry
  23. learn the stories of marginalized people…especially your brothers and sisters in the developing world
  24. pray for political authorities
  25. share good things with the poor
  26. give the wealthy (including yourself) an opportunity to divest of their wealth
  27. remember, in all things love

Anything else?

Mark Van Steenwyk is the editor of JesusManifesto.com. He is a Mennonite pastor (Missio Dei in Minneapolis), writer, speaker, and grassroots educator. He lives in South Minneapolis with his wife (Amy), son (Jonas) and some of their friends.


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    Mark - This is excellent. As a fellow Mennonite, I appreciate how you ground this post in anabaptist eschatology. In my church community, I think people are open to political advocacy as long as you don't get too cozy with politics and more specifically politicians. I work for a mainline organization that sees value in building relationships with politicians and communicating with them in a friendly way about "kingdom values." I sometimes wonder if my fellow Mennonites feel like I'm too cozy, because I don't push these politicians about controversial issues like Israel/Palestine, Iraq and US dependency on oil. I'm concerned about all those issues, but I haven't found an effective model for witnessing to the state on more controversial/polarizing issues. When it comes to concerns like poverty and hunger, I've stuck with relationship building and educating politicians about why Christians are concerned that hunger exists in this nation. What are your thoughts on more traditional political advocacy - lobbying, letter writing, phone calls - as one way to express our values?
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    That is a great (and huge) question. Hopefully I can dig into it more in the future. But for now, here's a short answer that is lacking in some nuance:

    I think the best sorts of political action should never require that we shed our Christian self-understanding and Christ-centered language. In others, we need to engage in the system in such a way that we maintain our unique Christian identity. I also think we should engage in advocacy in such a way that we maintain a proper amount of theo-political distance. In other words, we should remain distinct.

    I know that all sounded a bit abstract. These things need to be taken on a case-by-case situation. We need to balance it with a healthy distrust for the system and a proper confidence in direct action. We should never let the "us" language be wrapped up in parties or candidates and be unashamed in engaging in it in a Christ-centered way, even if it makes us look silly.

    Anyone else want to chime in?
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    Broadly speaking, I agree with Mark -- letter-writing, phone calls, and whatnot seem to be great ways for Christians to engage the powers, as long as we are unashamed of who we believe is truly Sovereign and Lord. It does feel silly, no doubt. But we've -- I'VE -- got to start getting my footing more secure in using "Jesus-is-King" language in public discourse.

    And maybe that's where Anabaptist and Jesus-Radical Christians cut against the grain of most other progressive-ward Christian groups (Sojourners, etc.). Usually those groups prooftext about "Blessed are the poor", taking care of "the least of these", and so on. Doing that is, to some extent, is just dandy. But to claim Jesus as KING, as MORE than a spiritual teacher who also happened to have suggestions for how the Empire can suck less -- why, that's mighty dangerous! And damn awkward. Quoting the Beatitudes as "suggestions to the Empire" (hat-tip to Claiborne) makes the Bible into a tips-sheet and Jesus into the "Ask Jeeves" of such political proverbs and tips. Keeping that language within a bigger story in our advocacy-language of Jesus as being the sovereign we pledge our allegiance to makes those prooftexts far, far sharper. And, to the Powers, scarier.

    Jesus' words do impinge on the empires, and do say "this is how I do things... take a hint.". But putting them within language of the Kingdom of God, and Jesus as the World's True Lord/King/Prime-Minister/President/what-have-you -- ahh, there's the rub! Anabaptists, N.T. Wright, Ellul, and others seem to get that claiming Jesus as Lord does radically inform our political engagement. It compels us to, as Mark says, remind the powers that they're beat and that Jesus, not them, is in charge.
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    You wrote, "If you are a Christian, you should make a shitty American or Canadian or Mexican or Lithuanian." I don't know that I fully agree. While I understand what you are saying, I think that a Christian should make a damn-fine American. Caring for the poor, working for justice, overcoming oppressive systems...that doesn't sound shitty at all. It all comes back to who is defining what is and is not shitty. Conforming to the patterns of the world sounds like a shitty American and yes, an even shittier Christian to me.

    I believe it was Hauerwas that said something like, "Prior to Yoder Christian ethics in America were about America." Yoder and those that think like he did have helped me to understand the lordship of Christ and how that lordship knows no national boundaries. If that makes me a shitty American, then so be it. Thanks for the good series of posts.
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    Excellent post thanks. I wish I had more to add to it.
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    Good stuff Mark.

    Noam Chomsky says (apparently) that there is little point in speaking truth to those in power, as on the whole they already know what the truth is and are trying to hide from it. He says we ought to be speaking truth to those who are in a position to affect power, which is obviously ourselves a lot of the time.

    I was thinking about this last week. On the one hand I was reading a biography of Gandhi and marvelling at his ability to change lives rather than just challenge those in power. In the final analysis, the British Raj was forced to leave because a few thousand bureaucrats and soldiers could not manage millions of people who refused to co-operate - years of meetings with them had no effect other than repeated visits to prison.

    On the other hand, a relative was speaking about printed resources available to the youth group at his church, saying that some were following the 'social gospel' - a term I've often heard but not really understood. I wonder what would happen if young people were taught to take Christ-like action in church rather than the usual diet of bible-study and table tennis. I think (somewhat shockingly) I actually believe in this social gospel that others use as a swear word.

    Some other things I would add to your list (in no particular order):

    1. Moving from talking/blogging/attending conferences about action to actual action
    2. Planting vegetables and being more concerned about eating local produce
    3. Supporting others directly in their struggle for justice (verbally, physically, emotionally)

    Kevin - interesting. Do you not think that most 'Christian' values are actually benefiting society rather than the kingdom? If I was a Christian of the form of those activists of Jonah House, I'm not sure the government authorities would be too impressed. If there were enough people of the same mind, they would have to change their ways.

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