If the Victors Write History Where is the Authentic History of the Losers Called Christians?

While it may be hard to trace the survival of the fullness of the gospel in particular periods of church history, to assume that it is fully traceable historically or institutionally would seem to be a category mistake. It would be to assume that the victors are capable of writing a history of losers (those who take up the cross). At the same time, to presume Constantine or the Dark Ages or American Evangelicalism wiped out any trace of the authentic gospel, presumes Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, or Protestantism, with their various institutions and formulations, are the sole purveyors of the gospel. I am not suggesting the gospel is to be found in a retreat to human interiority or individuality, though interiority is not excluded, but I assume that the word of the cross is, as Paul describes it, a suspension of the symbolic order in which the law and its oppressive force is rendered inactive. The symbolic order is that place where things are thought to endure, where history is written, where people make their mark, where institutions reign, and it is where order is maintained through an established hierarchy (the arche of this world), but this is precisely what the gospel is not.

The symbolic order or the law cannot be reduced to commands or instructions but includes, in various N.T. illustrations, the institutions and history of Israel but institutions in general (the institution of marriage, ethnicity, social class, etc.). Paul will equate the human struggle on both the cosmic and the individual psychological level as a struggle with the law or the symbolic. In short, the symbolic order is an order of reality which the gospel challenges. This may seem to be an implausible statement, which I want to show to be the case, but then I want to suggest that given this truth, the history of the church will have to be written and read from beneath this suspension of the “given” order of reality. In the case of the American church, this place beneath is exemplified by black experience under the prevailing “white” symbolic order.

 Jesus (in Luke 13:7) uses the same word as Paul in suggesting that the fig tree, representing Israel or the institutions of Israel, should be cut down or rendered inactive (καταργέω). Paul uses a gentler image in depicting childhood as suspended or rendered inactive by maturity (I Cor. 13:11) but he depicts the suspension of the law as on the order of the suspension of a marriage due to death (Ro. 7:2). One order of life, childhood or married life, may hover behind or overhead but it is suspended in the past or in midair by another order. The constraints of childhood or marriage, the limitations – inclusive of rules but also pertaining to vision and capacity, are lifted.

 Paul uses a different expression that gets at the same idea, in suggesting that the Christian identity should not be tied to marriage or society but one participates in these things “as if not” (I Cor. 7). The law is an all-inclusive category for Paul, but it is not the law per se that is the problem, any more than it is marriage or singleness or slave or free that is the problem. It is the arche or principalities and powers of this world which stand behind the symbolic structures, and it is the constraint or oppression which the arche deploy through the symbolic order that is suspended. Paul says that for the Christian these things are rendered powerless (I Cor. 2:6) through the wisdom of God. One cannot escape law and language any more than one can escape marital status or social status but the point is not escape but suspension of the oppressive hold these things can have.

 Ironically, Luther aggravates the problem of the power behind the law by conflating the law with this power and creating a religion that would empty itself of any remnant of law – thus creating the law of no law – or the empty faith in faith of modern Protestantism. The point is not to obliterate or destroy any of these categories but to not let them bind identity. One is not primarily a law keeper or a law breaker (circumcised or uncircumcised), married or single, Jew or Greek, male or female, Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic, Protestant or Anabaptist. None of these categories can bear the weight of prime identity and when they are made to bear that weight, they deal out death in the same manner as those who crucified Jesus (I Cor. 2:8). The Lutheran reaction to the Anabaptists (slaughtering them) makes the point – where the law is the thing, death reigns. Pharisees, no matter if they are of the Lutheran, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or American brand always make the mistake of identifying the sign, the law, or the symbolic order, with the thing itself. This consistently proves deadly.

The “as if not” identity and lifestyle does not concern itself with dispensing with this order, it simply sidesteps its power (through Christ) and does not let it play a determinative role. This suspension of the law, the cessation of its continual condemnation, is as broad and all-inclusive as the symbolic order itself, but now this order no longer oppresses and condemns. The N.T. exposes the pursuit of power as being possessed by power, the pursuit of wealth as an idolatrous succumbing to a poverty of spirit, the attempt to control chaos as being out of control. Or as Paul will depict it, the attempt to conquer the agonistic struggle within is the origin of this struggle. Jesus models a relinquishing of power and control in his lifestyle of poverty, of turning the other cheek, and ultimately in submitting to crucifixion.

Key, in both the N.T. and in the radical reformation, is the presumption that Jesus models the peaceful, suspended sort of life. It is his choice of identifying with the poor that imparts wealth to those who follow him (2 Cor. 8:9) and it is his disempowering cruciform identity which Mary’s song proclaims, “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty'” (Luke 1:52-3). Jesus can walk through the barriers put up by the symbolic order as easily as walking through doors or as permanently as being raised from the dead. One can move through this matrix with him, something like Neo, as it is only binding upon those who imagine it is absolute. The resurrection life-style of “as if not” suspension is captured in a series of images in the N. T. but I presume they are all focused on the same experience of peace, freedom, and unity, which breaks down the walls of hostility definitive of the symbolic order that enslaves and deals out death.

The Hutterites will refer to this experience as Gelassenheit, a term carried over from mysticism which means “having-let-go-ness.” As with Paul’s “as if not” there is an abandonment of self-concern or self-affirmation and a relinquishing of the desire to be in charge or to rule over things.[1] It directly correlates with the situation in Corinthians in which Paul is dealing with rivalries among members at the same time as the church is submitting to the authoritarian super-apostles, who seem to be literally slapping them around. These leaders would extract obedience through shaming or public humiliation and Paul is offering a counter to this illegitimate authority. The Corinthians have yet to completely extract themselves from the illegitimate authority of their culture and Paul is both demonstrating in his own life and telling the Christians that coercive authority is illegitimate. To secure oneself through these coercive principles and powers (arche) is the natural human disposition and Paul is putting into place anarchic Christian communities of those who would resist the powers or arche.

With this understanding in place, that there is both the symbolic order with its all-inclusive structures and there is the gospel’s suspension of the condemnation of this symbolic order, the question is raised as to how to find the church and how to understand its history? Is the Constantinian shift and the empowerment of popes, bishops, and councils to be identified with the church or with its near disappearance? Is the Protestant Reformation a recovery of what was lost? Or as I stated above, while it may be hard to trace the survival of the fullness of the gospel in particular periods of church history, is it a category mistake to assume that it is traceable through “normal” historical and institutional channels?

As I have previously shown, the Protestant Reformation normalized the Constantinian ethic (e.g. just war), the Constantinian relation of church and state (the sword of the prince protects and decides for the church), the Constantinian sense of history (God is at work through the principalities and powers), and the Constantinian ethos (the dualism(s) aligning church and state in the same goal from different directions – the left hand and right hand of God). Prior to the Protestant Reformation there was a concession to Constantinianism which, nonetheless, left intact, at least among the majority of common people, the sense that killing is sinful and the understanding that the core of the church is a realm apart from the violent and oppressive necessities enacted primarily by those at the upper level of society. Though we mainly know of the top of the hierarchy from those who would tell this story as if a singular thing is happening (from their view as enforcers of the symbolic order), if the story could be told from the bottom, or from within the place of the gospel suspension of power, I presume that tales of popes and councils, bishops and kings, would hardly figure into the history at all.

This is the sort of narrative that we encounter throughout the Bible. The history of a people of no consequence culminating in a tale of a crucified carpenter’s son, is meant to cause us to identify with the dispossessed and outcasts, just as Jesus did.  If we read reality and history from the biblical perspective, we understand that the rise and fall of earthly kings, or of the presumed people of importance, are only blinders to the real story culminating in the cross. Perhaps due to pervasive Constantinianism we have trouble discerning the biblical perspective in our own context.

In the American experience it is not Jew/Gentile or male/female so much as white/black which grounds the symbolic order. As James Baldwin describes it, “I was also able to see that the principles governing the rites and customs of the churches in which I grew up did not differ from the principles governing the rites and customs of other churches, white. The principles were Blindness, Loneliness, and Terror, the first principle necessarily and actively cultivated in order to deny the two others.”[2] The dominance of the value system of the ruling culture emptied the gospel for Baldwin. “I would love to believe that the principles were Faith, Hope, and Charity, but this is clearly not so for most Christians, or for what we call the Christian world.” Baldwin describes a Christianity that “has operated with an unmitigated arrogance and cruelty” as it has identified itself with “the realm of power.” He describes this Constantinian form of the faith as “more deeply concerned about the soul than it is about the body, to which fact the flesh (and the corpses) of countless infidels bears witness.”[3]

Baldwin is left under the crushing weight of the symbolic order thrust upon him, but James Cone describes the cross as enabling the lifting of the anger and pain entailed in black oppression. “The more I read about and looked at what whites did to powerless blacks, the angrier I became. Paradoxically, anger soon gave way to a profound feeling of liberation. Being able to write about lynching liberated me from being confined by it. The cross helped me to deal with the brutal legacy of the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped me to understand the tragic meaning of the cross.”[4] The countless acts of violence enacted on black bodies in lynching and murder brought Cone to a definitive choice: “Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism.” We must accept, according to Cone, “that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering” and that He identifies with the oppressed and suffering. [5] I believe the liberation Cone describes is not unlike the suspension of the law, the “as if not,” or Gelassenheit in which oppression can be thwarted and freedom and peace realized in the face of death through the work of the cross.

In this understanding, the true history of Christianity can only be written or told by those rendered invisible by the symbolic order. This is not the invisibility Augustine proposed, an otherworldly and indiscernible group of the chosen. This is a form of symbolic blindness in which the suffering are invisible to those who are stepping on their necks. The cross is a means of erasure, a means of rendering insignificant, so that if the history of those who take up the cross is to be written, by definition it cannot be authored by those who crucify. Those who exercise power and violence, whether that of the state or church, may speak with the loudest voices, but they cannot speak for those who witness to an order suspended by the cross.

This history has yet to be written, and perhaps it can never be written, but it is a perspective that must presume the blindness of church history revolving around power and a present church experience that presumes the powerful determine significance.

[1] John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (p. 198). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] James Baldwin. The Fire Next Time (Kindle Locations 247-250). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[3] Baldwin, 376-380

[4] James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (p. 16). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

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