Will the Revolution Endure?

Calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them.  “But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

Mark 10:42-45 NASB

Donald Trump has explained to U.S. governors his mode of rule: “You must dominate the streets,” he told them. John Bolton indicates this was also Trump’s advice to the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, telling him he should build concentration camps to keep Uighur Muslims under control. He encouraged Xi, according to Bolton, to buy more American farm products, not for farmers, but to improve his reelection bid. Where the values of empire reign supreme, the lives of Muslims, protestors, blacks, or ordinary citizens, are of less value than the lives of the “great men” themselves.  According to Jesus, their authority permits them to “lord it over” others, such that political power can be equated with this power over life and death. The power to dominate is what power amounts to in this valuation system.

The move that Jesus makes is not simply the relinquishing of power, but the unleashing of a different sort of counter power, in what John Howard Yoder calls “revolutionary subordination.” Subordination is not normally equated with revolution, but there are several instances in literature and cinema which illustrate the point that embracing that which gives control to the other is a means of dispossessing them of power.  In The Usual Suspects, Keyser Söze’s family is being held hostage by Hungarian mobsters. Rather than succumb to their demands he murders his own family, which leaves the mobsters without any power over him and then he is free to massacre the mobsters and their families.  In Speed, Keanu Reeves character shoots his own partner in the leg as a means of freeing him from being held hostage. In Ransom, Mel Gibson playing a wealthy media executive, instead of paying the ransom demanded by his son’s kidnappers, puts up a large sum for their capture. Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, is inspired by the life of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who kills her own child rather than let her be taken back into slavery. In each instance, the situation is reversed and those who exercise power lose control because their would-be victim embraces the very thing that is threatened.

 Abraham, the biblical prototype of faithfulness, is made to act against his own best interest at every stage of his life. He is told to leave home and family and is promised a child, and he spends most of his life waiting for the promised arrival. Once the child is born, he is told to sacrifice him as an act of faith.  The lesson of his faith is that his identity as father, husband, patriarch, and founder of a new people and new form of life, is gained in his move to relinquish the forms of identity which would secure him a place in the world.  For Abraham, the standard order and protection of society, is shattered by his subordinating himself to the very danger this order protected him from.  He embraces homelessness (without kindred or land); he embraces childlessness (leaving him no way to propagate his name); his life is one long encounter with and acceptance of death and by this means he escapes one order of existence for another.

Jesus mode of liberating from the power structures, fulfilling the foreshadowings of Abraham, is not through domination but through subordination to the worst of conditions; a slave’s death. His taking up of the cross is his means of disempowering those who would use crosses and death as a means of enslavement. The willingness to take up the cross renders the threat of the cross as powerless. His subordination is neither obedience nor acquiescence but inaugurates a new kingdom built on servitude.

Paul will submit himself to the same powers, not by ceasing to preach, but by seeing his arrest as itself a sign of honor – the mark that he is an ambassador for Christ.  So too each of the disciples subordinate themselves to the powers, submitting to crucifixion, beheading, and a martyr’s death, but this is counted as a primary form of witness (the meaning of the word martyr). Accepting death is not a form of obedience but it is the most radical form of revolution, as it accepts the threat and in doing so empties it of its power to control. Once death is removed as a means of control, through death acceptance, fear is cast out as a means of coercion.

Where the values of empire reign supreme, the lives that matter most are those of the “great men,” those who “lord it over” others and this is their power. The value of power is immediately evident in the prerogative to threaten life and to cause suffering and death. In the world of Caesar, Roman lives matter and Caesar’s matters most. Every Roman soldier as an extension of the power of empire is representative of this value. In the case of Caiaphas, Jewish lives matter and the life of the chief priest and the Temple matters most. Sadducee lives and Pharisee lives matter, as they are the protectors and keepers of the Jewish way of life. Rome and Israel conspired in their valuation of which life was expendable, what man must die, so that the nation might be preserved. Who would dare defend the life of one Jewish slave against the needs of empire? His death would only serve to secure the empire. Afterall, it is slaves who make masters, the oppressed who make rulers, and subjects who provide the ruler with the substance of his rule. In the world of empire, it is the representatives of power, the blue lives, that matter and any challenge to this power needs to be made an example.

Christ’s death forever exposes the means of “great men” and empire. Perhaps the jujitsu reversal that Christ and the early Christians played on empire is no more starkly illustrated than in the letter to Philemon. Paul is willing enough to accept elements of the household codes. Slaves, and specifically the slave Onesimus, is to subordinate himself to Philemon, his master. It was not Paul’s goal to start a violent revolution in which Christian slaves would rebel and the church would dominate and enforce a new code of behavior. (In fact, where the church has aligned itself with the means of empire it is questionable that any hint of Jesus-power remains.)  Paul’s mode of undoing the slave/master relationship is much more direct and immediate: “I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart” (Philemon 10-12). Paul claims personal kinship and identifies Onesimus with his own deepest feelings – the very center of who he is. “If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me” (v. 17). It is doubtful that Philemon will regard Onesimus as anything short of a brother, which is Paul’s appeal: “For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever,  no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (15-16). Here is Christ’s ethic applied, as Paul identifies himself with the slave he undoes the oppression of Onesimus.

Paul might be said to be exercising a kind of authority, but it is the authority of “sharing in Christ.” Paul’s position in prison is not a place of power by any worldly standard, yet Paul takes pride in being imprisoned for Christ. He is subordinate to the powers and he would have Onesimus be subordinate also, but in both instances, he is enacting a revolution. He is challenging the social status projected upon slaves at the same time as he challenges the social status of being imprisoned (he considers imprisonment and chains as the sign of his being an ambassador for Christ). Paul sees his suffering as “filling up the suffering of Christ” so that to suffer with him is to be identified as an ambassador of the Gospel.

God chooses to identify himself with the suffering and oppressed in Christ and his followers. As James Cone puts it, “God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience. God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering” as he identifies with the oppressed and suffering.[1] The very essence of divine activity, as revealed in the Cross and as revealed in Christian witness, reverses this world’s orders of power. The victims of the police state, those lynched and killed by the powers are most intimately identified with Christ. Christ’s radical reversal of power enables us to align every lynching tree, every victim of the thugs of empire, with the victim of the Cross. Christ was himself hung from a tree and his followers identify, not with those who put him there (the lynch mob, the Roman lives, the Pharisee lives, or the blue lives), but with the one on the tree (and thus with the victim of every lynching, every victim of empire). While the kingdoms of this world rapidly fail under the rise and dominance of succeeding orders of “greatness,” the revolution of radical subordination endures in its effects as Christ’s life and kingdom endures .

In this sense the revolution enacted through Christian subordination, the revolution of Jesus, of Paul and the apostles, the revolution of Martin Luther King, the revolution of the victims who refuse violence and choose love, is the only enduring sort of revolution.


[1]  James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 63-64

The Options of Non-Violence or Gnosticism

Two things are clear from the teaching of the early Church prior to Constantine: 1. Christians were forbidden to participate in violence or in those professions connected to violence. 2. Violence is such a pervasive and deeply rooted problem that it often went unnamed and unrecognized even among those advocating its abolition. For example, Tertullian forbids any form of participation in violence for Christians, declaring: “But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away?” A Christian, must not bear the sword in any circumstance as the Lord, “in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.”[1] Yet, Tertullian could also revel in the potential delights of watching his enemies suffer: “What sight shall wake my wonder, what my laughter, my joy, my exaltation?—as I see all those kings, those great kings, unwelcomed in heaven, along with Jove, along with those who told of their ascent, groaning in the depths of darkness!”[2] Tertullian completely rejected violence, in so far as he understood it to be such. He was simply blind to the violence he projected onto God and which he still harbored in himself.

The confusion is not in regard to the Church’s stance toward violence. There is a unified voice in the first three centuries of Christianity ruling out this possibility. “Christians could never slay their enemies. For the more that kings, rulers, and peoples have persecuted them everywhere, the more Christians have increased in number and grown in strength” (Origen Contra Celsius Book VII). “Wherever arms have glittered, they must be banished and exterminated from thence” (Lactantius’ Divine Institutes IV). “Christians are not allowed to correct with violence” (Clement of Alexandria).  As Justin Martyr (110-165) explained to Emperor Antonius Pius, Christians cannot be guilty of sedition as the Christian notion is a kingdom of peace, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 2:4, in which people “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” Citizenship in God’s Kingdom, Justin informed the Emperor, is a present tense reality which renders Christians nonviolent: “That it is so coming to pass, let me convince you. We who once murdered each other indeed no longer wage war against our enemies; moreover, so as not to bear false witness before our interrogators, we cheerfully die confessing Christ” (The First Apology of Justin Martyr). There is an unequivocal stand against violence in the early Church.

The problem is not in determining whether violence was acceptable (it was not), the problem was in determining what constitutes violence. For example, is it acceptable for a Christian to accept a laurel crown as part of a military ceremony (the problem Tertullian deals with in On the Military Crown)?  A soldier, perhaps recently converted, refuses the honor and accepts martyrdom rather than to wear the crown. Tertullian argues that martyrdom is the correct choice, rather than to be associated, even by implication, in violence. He asks, “Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?” His answer is a resounding “no.” To be associated with such things, even through a laurel crown, is not an option. One could argue the point – as some did. It could even be pointed out that there were Christian soldiers (occupied nonviolently or recently converted, as is clear in the example). What cannot be argued is whether Christians rejected violence, as they clearly did. The problem they were negotiating is determining what constitutes violence.

The conflict is not between pro and anti-violence but with how to follow Jesus, how to recognize violence and evil. Tertullian’s opponents are arguing that “a peace so good and long is endangered for them.” Their fear is that obstinance, an unwillingness to recognize nuance, is being confused with nonviolence. Tertullian argues, “they have rejected the prophecies of the Holy Spirit” and “are already turning their back on the Scriptures.” He suggests a certain cowardice is at work: “in peace, lions; in the fight, deer.” One might argue either side of the equation, but the lack of clarity is not in regard to whether one should be violent but how to best avoid violence.

The first Christians had recognized that shedding blood, no matter the circumstance, is sin. Even vague association with violence, or the improper curbing of anger which leads to violence, they considered sin. What they had not recognized is that oppressive treatment (including physical punishment) of social inferiors, of women, of slaves, was violence as well. Origen, in making the case that God employs discipline, uses an unfortunate example: “And just as when you, punishing a slave or a son, you do not want simply to torment him, rather your goal is to convert him by pains.”[3] That beating one’s slave might count as violence seems to escape this one who railed against every form of violence. The point is not that the early Church accepted forms of violence, but the sense of what counted as violence had yet to be fully and clearly articulated. This is the proper task Christians are to continue to engage.

 We, I would hope, have no problem in recognizing the incongruity of Christians advocating beating slaves. That incongruence or blindness points to the need in the Patristic period to continue to develop a nonviolent sensibility. It also suggests the possibility of a similar blindness among contemporary followers of Jesus. The incomplete non-violence of the Fathers is not an excuse for violence. It should not serve to convince us that we can indulge in violence but indicates that the work of the Gospel continues, through the ages, to penetrate notions of authority, relationships with others and even within ourselves.

There is the need, as John Howard Yoder recognized, to overcome the Constantinian error of fusing state violence with the Church. Certainly “the entire Christian gospel” cannot be restored without recognizing this error. But this overcoming – this recognition that violence is evil – is not itself the restoration of the entire Christian gospel. Prior to the failure of Constantinian Christianity we do not, as Jennifer Otto points out, encounter a golden age of a perfect worked out pacifism.[4] This, however, is not a license to read Constantinian violence into the first centuries, it is simply the recognition that naming and overcoming violence is not easy but is the primary Christian task, and failure in this task is the greatest of temptations.

The hard stance against violence in the early Church explains the looming gnostic temptation in Patristic Christianity. The temptation is to concede the physical realm to the logic of this world’s kingdoms, an unnecessary concession where a clear delineation is not drawn between the two kingdoms (that of Christ and the world). The threat of martyrdom, of not striking back, of not offering resistance, is a temptation to concede to the logic of violence. As Tatian recognized, following his master Justin Martyr, a stark choice is posed: “I do not wish to be a king; I am not anxious to be rich; I decline military command.” I must “die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it.”[5] Tatian recognized the “death to the world” Christ requires, but he could not endure it. With the death of his teacher, he takes up the gnostic religion of Valentinian.

Dying to the world, it turns out, is a continual process of repudiation. It is the process of the ages of cultivating peace, of continually recognizing and overcoming violence.  A Christianity that has relinquished this task of extending peaceful non-violence has already conceded to gnostic madness.


[1] Tertullian (145-220 AD) in On Idolatry

[2] Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30. Translation by Carlin Barton in Barton and Boyarin, Imagine No Religion, 68. From https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/sites/ca.grebel/files/uploads/files/cgr_35-3_otto.pdf

[3] Origen, Homily on Jeremiah, 12

[4] Jennifer Otto, “Were the Early Christians Pacifists? Does It Matter?” https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/sites/ca.grebel/files/uploads/files/cgr_35-3_otto.pdf

[5]Tatian (120-180) Address to the Greeks.

Is Christian Complementarianism Helping Fuel The Abuse Reflected In #Me Too?

Harvey Weinstein, Hugh Hefner, Donald Trump –  the list of prominent men who abuse women could be added to from every walk of life: comedians, athletes, political figures, and of course prominent religious figures.  Harvey’s brother describes him as an abusive bully who regularly insulted and hurt those around him.  He said he is unrepentant for his actions and is incapable of remorse.  The figure that came to mind with Bob Weinstein’s description of his brother was the administrator at the college where Faith and I worked.  His open misogyny and abuse of power will continue, as with Harvey Weinstein, because grievance and complaint were squelched by the institution.  While his forte was not private sexual assault but open cruelty and abuse, the wall of silence is the same. Continue reading “Is Christian Complementarianism Helping Fuel The Abuse Reflected In #Me Too?”

Beyond the Postmodern to Christ

I have no label to describe my present understanding of Christian Truth and its function.  Twenty years in Japan taught me that my own static (“modern” ?) apprehension of Christ could not be made to address the Japanese heart and mind.  When it occurred to me how the Gospel does address Japanese, it did not leave me with a new static truth but with an understanding of how Christian truth is necessarily dynamic, as it unfolds only in its engagement of the world. Continue reading “Beyond the Postmodern to Christ”

Donald Trump and the Hollow Truth of American Evangelicalism

Billy Graham relates, to his own shame, his low point in mixing politics and religion. After seeing President Truman for the first time, the press waiting outside the White House asked him to reenact what he had done with the President. Graham obligingly knelt on the lawn, as if in prayer, for a photo op.  The tall preacher in his white suit and out sized Bible, kneeling at the behest of reporters, captures the willing eagerness of American evangelicals to gain entry into the centers of power.  Graham’s biography reveals his long and close association with Richard Nixon and his near disillusionment at the revelations of Water Gate.  Graham is shocked at the vulgarity of Nixon (revealed in the White House tapes) – someone he considered to be the best of Christians.  Graham, in spite of his disappointment with Nixon, never quit the pursuit of power through association but modeled it throughout his lifetime.  Continue reading “Donald Trump and the Hollow Truth of American Evangelicalism”