Together with several friends and allies, I participated in a panel on religion and radical politics at the recent Mobilizing and Organizing from Below conference in Baltimore. The following is a manuscript version of what I shared.
My own involvement in anti-war, economic solidarity, and climate justice work began nearly ten years ago in a very unlikely place: a conservative Christian college in the Midwest. Taking an introductory course on historical criticism of the bible, I discovered a deep dissonance between the Jesus described in the New Testament and the one touted by our Christian president George W. Bush. How, I wondered, could a Jewish peasant executed by the Roman Empire for insurrection be rhetorically deployed in support of imperialist war-making?
Since discerning that initial question, I have spent much of my time tracing the genealogy of Christian collusion with colonial expansion and capitalist accumulation, and seeking out other anti-oppressive forms of Christian expression. What I have found is a thin line, often barely visible and at times completely submerged, of faith-fueled resistance to empire and universalist pretension. And this line can be traced all the way back to the earliest days of the Jesus movement, which in reality was not Christian at all, but arose within the prophetic and apocalyptic streams of Judaism in Roman-occupied Palestine.
So what I offer here is not some form of apologetic so much as a contention that religious narratives deployed in support of oppression can and must be contested. And for those of us who continue to claim these traditions, we can resist their dominant expressions from within and on their own grounds, instantiating counter-Christianities and organizing revolts of conduct over and against the religious order of things. In order to further such an effort, I want to briefly outline three liberating trajectories within the early Christian movement, ones that have been pursued historically by numerous forms of counter-Christianities, three lines of flight that track alongside contemporary anarchist and communist concerns.
1) An economics of jubilee redistribution. In his recent book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber introduces anarchist circles to the concept of Jubilee that was central to the work of Jesus and his disciples. Part of the Mosaic covenant, the law of Jubilee called for the periodic cancelling of all debts, releasing of those in bondage, and returning of land. It overturned the widespread equivocation of debt with morality, whereby to be in debt was essentially to be sinful and instead claimed that the highest moral act was the abolition of all accounts. Such calls for Jubilee took on a radical urgency in Galilee, where most peasants were on the edge of survival, having lost their land to elite absentee landlords in the trickle-up economics of the Roman Empire. Acting as community organizers, Jesus and his disciples sought to renew practices of mutual aid and cooperation amongst the peasants while critiquing imperial economics and demanding a generalized Jubilee. In our own day, when membership in the 99% equates with massive amounts of debt and austerity is being presented as our only public option, it is time to reignite a Jubilee refusal of debt and its moral metaphysics.
2) A politics of prefigurative space. The Occupy encampments of this past fall were described by many anarchists as an experiment in prefigurative politics, i.e. an exercise in ‘living the world we want to see now.’ This same prefigurative impulse animated the early Christian communities scattered throughout the Mediterranean region. The word ‘ekklesia’, typically translated as church, meant in its original usage simply assembly. In other words, the ekklesiai founded by the Apostle Paul were organized as people’s assemblies counter to the official city assembly reserved for male elites. And for those forbidden from the official assemblies these counter-communities were quite attractive. Women, slaves, ‘ethnic’ outsiders, and others who occupied the underside participated as full partners in a Spirit-enlivened horizontalism. Power was shared alongside meals and homes and people who normally would have nothing to do with one another came together in creative encounters. It was not long before the patriarchal power forms returned, as the further development of the New Testament literature makes clear. But there is a moment here of novel, nonhierarchical organization of bodies in space. Despite what would later be penned in his name, it is fair to say that Paul—a figure who continues to fascinate theorists of radical subjectivity—would have sooner recognized the tents in Zuccotti Park than the church at Trinity Wall St.
3) An ethics of nonviolent militancy. Today’s struggles—characterized by intense engagements with power followed by periods of dispersion and the discernment of new tactics—share something in common with the form-of-life followed by Jesus and his disciples. The Jesus movement did not shy away from antagonism with the state and religious authorities, employing what anthropologist James C. Scott has called ‘the weapons of the weak’ in their struggle. Jesus’ admonition in The Sermon on the Mount to ‘turn the other cheek’ when you are struck, long regarded as a sign of deference and deployed by Christian kings to quell rebellion, has actually been shown to be a performative subversion of master-slave relations. In essence, to turn the other cheek was to force a face-to-face encounter with your superior, refusing one’s ‘natural role’ in the Roman hierarchy. Similarly, Jesus’ instructions to give your cloak as well to those who sue you for your coat and to go a second mile for those who force you to go one were teachings intended to ratchet up tension and produce change in situations of everyday oppression. When Jesus went from the countryside to the city—consciously engaging the center after occupying the periphery—he disrupted the colonial order through symbolic actions that drew on political satire and long-rooted traditions of religious resistance. Garnering the attention of the Temple elites and their Roman overseers, he forced into public discourse political dreams typically reserved for hushed tones. Like many before him and after, these acts of insurrection ended in Jesus’ execution. The purpose of these encounters, analogous to today’s autonomist aims, was not to take over the apparatuses of power but to demonstrate their illegitimacy and point to their ultimate undoing. In a moment when freedom seems almost unthinkable, the Jesus movement would remind us that militant forms-of-life can widen the entire political horizon.
So these three elements—an economics of Jubilee redistribution, a politics of prefigurative space, an ethics of nonviolent militancy—these have appeared in various configurations throughout nearly two millennia of counter-Christianities: the Franciscans and the Anabaptists, the Diggers and Levellers, underground slave churches and black women’s benefit societies, the Catholic Worker and Latin American base communities. And at least part of my hope is that new forms of counter-Christianities will arise, joining the other singularities that together can compose a multitude against empire.
 As this text was prepared to be read aloud, it does not carry the usual appendage of substantive footnotes. Suffice it to say I had the following biblical scholars, theologians, or theorists in mind throughout the presentation’s preparation: Judith Butler, Michel de Certeau, Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Michel Foucault, David Graeber, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Richard Horsley, Wes Howard-Brook, The Invisible Committee, Willie Jennings, Ched Myers, James C. Scott, Dorothee Soelle, John Howard Yoder, and Walter Wink.