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.
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 the Mennonite Worker, 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
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
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:
- proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ
- tithe relationally
- discerningly engage in civil disobedience
- confess your sins to one another, and proclaim forgiveness
- live communally
- establish regular rhythms of prayer with others (here’s a nifty and free resource)
- thoughtfully participate in the Lord’s Supper
- be family with people that are in a different socio-economic and/or ethnic situation than you
- get in the way of violence
- plant a garden (for extra credit, practice guerrilla gardening)
- spend less money
- spend justly
- or just don’t spend money at all
- ride a bicycle or take the bus
- draw attention to the sins of society
- lovingly challenge the sins of the Church
- invite strangers to dinner
- have a guest room open to those in need
- practice mutual submission
- read Scripture in community and struggle together to put it into practice
- practice communal discernment
- embrace a sense of place in ministry
- learn the stories of marginalized people…especially your brothers and sisters in the developing world
- pray for political authorities
- share good things with the poor
- give the wealthy (including yourself) an opportunity to divest of their wealth
- remember, in all things love
Mark Van Steenwyk is a co-founder of the Mennonite Worker (an intentional community in Minneapolis). Mark is a writer, speaker, and grassroots educator working with radical Christian communities around North America. He is one of the facilitators of JesusRadicals.com and co-host/producer of the Iconocast podcast. Mark has contributed to several books, is the author of That Holy Anarchist and the unKingdom of God. He likes building pirate ships out of cardboard with is four year old son, cooking whatever strikes his fancy, and singing karaoke (badly).