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 Necessity of a Liberation Theology: Slavery is Sin

The humor of Slavoj Žižek continually makes the singular point that the law or the symbolic realm is an oppressive force, so pervasive in its power, that it is inescapable. A man who fears chickens thinks he is a grain of corn and likely to be eaten. He is institutionalized and undergoes years of therapy. On the day of his release he runs back into the hospital as he has encountered a chicken. His doctor patiently insists that he must now understand that he is not a grain of corn. The man readily agrees that the years of therapy have paid off, he says, “I know I am not a grain of corn. “But,” he asks, “does the chicken know this.” Is escape from the “big Other,” God, the law, or fate, possible? For Žižek, the category may be subject to manipulation but ultimately the mind of the chicken cannot be changed. Continue reading “The Necessity of a Liberation Theology: Slavery is Sin”