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The Subversive Spirit

The Subversive Spirit

In the beginning, we find the Spirit hovering over the unformed deep. There, at the beginning as God spoke light into being, the first spark of creation.

We know what happens later in Genesis: innocence lost, murder, the deepening of human frailty and wickedness.

Amidst the shattered fragments of our frail world, the Spirit does her work…the work of sacred re-creation. It is the Spirit who opens up new possibilities, new opportunities for God’s people to be restored and transformed. Where things fall apart, and the world falls deeper into oppression, the Spirit subverts.

“Subvert” is one of my favorite words. It is the combination of two Latin words: sub (meaning “under”) and vertere (meaning “to turn”). Subvert means to turn under, to turn upside down, to overturn, to overthrow. A good picture of subversion is what a plow does to soil, it turns it over, letting the good soil emerge from beneath the surface into the sunlight.

The Spirit brings new possibilities to light. The Spirit disrupts the status quo. She refuses to take the world as it is and, instead, flips it. She speaks into our reality, giving us eyes to see things as they are, so that we can deconstruct the world around us and embrace new realities.

The Spirit refuses to accept things as they are, and instead woos us down the dangerous path of restoration, re-creation, renovation. We see this throughout the Hebrew scriptures. Every time God brings about change, the Spirit is present to open eyes, inspire wisdom, reveal forgotten or new truths. It is by the power and influence of the Spirit that we have the great artisans shaping great works (Exodus 31:2-5). It is with the voice of the Spirit that the prophets call God’s people faithfulness (2 Samuel 23). And we are told that it is through the power of this Spirit that things will be made right…justice will come to the nations (Isaiah 42).

Without the Spirit, we cannot encounter God. It is this Spirit that opens our eyes to see the world-as-it-might-be. It is this Spirit that opens our eyes to see the God-who-is-coming. It is this Spirit who then empowers us to over-turn the world as it is. The Spirit subverts.

When we first encounter the Spirit in the Gospels, we see her preparing the way for the Messiah. It is the Spirit who impregnates Mary…it is the Spirit who empowers John to be the greatest prophet and it is the Spirit who anoints Jesus at his Baptism.

The Spirit brings forth the Christ. And then leads him into the desert to be confronted by Satan. From there, we see that Jesus’ understanding of his own ministry is tied up with the Spirit…for it is the Spirit’s anointing that empowers Jesus to preach good news to the poor.

And it is the Spirit who, after Jesus ascends to the Father, is unleashed upon the disciples…a terrifying wind that leaves flames dancing upon their heads. By the Spirit’s power, these disciples start to vomit strange words–a terrifying sign of new unity. A great reversal of Babel, where God fragmented human speech into many language, so that people would scatter. At Pentecost, the fragmented are brought back together.

In Luke 4, Jesus proclaims his Spirit-filled manifesto. Luke and Acts are companion volumes. They are to be read together. In volume one, Jesus is filled with the Spirit at his baptism on the edge of society and then marches to Jerusalem for a final confrontation. In volume two, the followers of Jesus are baptized with the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem and then driven to the edges of the world. The first baptism, of Jesus inaugurates the Jubilee. The second baptism, at Pentecost, fulfills it.

In Acts 2, we see the disciples sharing all good things, breaking bread, praying, and listening to apostolic teaching. They too, as the Spirit compels, proclaim good news to the poor, set people free from social exclusion, heal the sick, cast out demons, and giving sight to the blind.

It is the Spirit who collapses the distance between people. It is the Spirit who opens our eyes to the reality of God. It is the Spirit who drives us into the wild places. It is the Spirit who brings the Jubilee.

The Spirit not only creates, she destroys. Gone are the old divisions. At Pentecost, the Spirit destroys national distinctions. And later, as the Spirit woos the Gentiles, she destroys the division between Jews and Gentiles.

And every time we see the disciples do a miraculous deed or utter a bold word, it is the Spirit who enables them to do so. Every missional step forward in the book of Acts is at the Spirit’s urging. There is no mission apart from the Spirit.

The Spirit blows where she will. She is never commanded, never used. She is unpredictable. And mysterious. She is a dangerous bird. She subverts. And when she burns in your heart, she destroys you from within, so that a new life will rise from the ashes.

The Spirit has quietly ripped apart the old world and is bringing forth the new. Within us. Let us listen to the Spirit.

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The Politics of Jesus 6: Objections to a Radical Reading of Scripture

The Politics of Jesus 6: Objections to a Radical Reading of Scripture

A Roman coin.

There remain many open questions. My point here isn’t so much to defend a radical read of Scripture as much as it is to give a sketch of the possibilities. We read Scripture in ways that support authoritarianism because we learned how to read Scripture in authoritarian contexts. Once you start pulling the loose threads, you begin to find the whole authoritarian fabric unraveling. For sake of brevity, I’ll address the two most commonly raised passages against Christian radicalism.

The first is Romans 13, where Paul tells his readers to “submit to the governing authorities”:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment (for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation, for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath of the authorities but also because of your conscience. For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants devoted to governing. Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

Romans 13:1-7

When interpreting this passage, there are several things that one must keep in mind:

1) This passage occurs immediately after Romans 12, where Paul challenges his readers to bless persecutors, live peaceably, never avenge, feed enemies, and overcome evil with good. By clear implication, the “governing authorities” are persecuting enemies whose evil needs to be overcome with good. Given that Paul is likely drawing directly from Jesus’ teachings, it may be best to interpret the call to “be subject” as an application of the call to “turn the other cheek.” It is not a call to mere obedience or happy citizenship.

2) Jacques Ellul suggests “the passage thus counsels non-revolution, but in so doing, by that very fact, it also teaches the intrinsic nonlegitimacy of institutions.” In other words, the very fact that Paul has to argue, in light of enemy-love, that the people should forsake (violent) resistance reveals that the “governing authorities” are, in some sense, worthy of revolt. Just like Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek recognizes that, under normal circumstances, one would hit back. To refrain from violence is a testimony to the the Roman Christian’s goodness, not the goodness of Rome.

3) Some scholars have (rightly) challenged translating the Greek word tasso as “instituted.” Rather, they argue that a better translation would be that the authorities are “restrained” by God. Therefore, Paul could be advising his readers against revolt since God is already restraining the rulers.

4) Due to the nature of translation and the dualism in our modern imaginations (separating spiritual from political realms), we don’t often recognize that Paul’s language around the “powers” blurs the distinction between political and spiritual realities. When we read words like “authorities” or “rulers” or “powers,” Paul may be talking primarily about spiritual realities, political realities, or (most likely) both at the same time. This adds complexity to what would otherwise seem like a straight-forward challenge to be “subject” to the “authorities” because, elsewhere, such “authorities” are enemies to Christ.

5) It is a mistake to take Romans 13 as a universal message of how Christians everywhere ought to relate to government. Wes Howard-Brook states:

We can say, though, that whatever Paul meant to convey to the Christians at Rome in the 50s, it was not a general principle of subservience to imperial authority…we’ve seen how Paul’s letters regularly insist on attributing to Jesus titles and authority that his audience would certainly have heard as “plagiarized” from Roman sources…The most likely explanation of Romans 13 is that it was a message addressed to specific concerns of Roman Christians under Nero.

And so, from Paul’s perspective, the Christians in Rome in the 50s should not revolt. Rather, they should love their oppressors and leave wrath to God. This wasn’t because the Roman government was good, but because followers of Jesus are called to the way of love. Furthermore, God has restrained the authorities and will judge them.

Much more could be said about what such teachings could mean for us. At the very least, it encourages us to trust God and love our enemies. While Paul argues against violent resistance, his words leave room for nonviolent struggle. It would be foolish, I think, to extrapolate universal principles of governmental engagement from this passage. Nevertheless, once we understand Paul’s sentiments, we can better discern how to express the love of God in our own contexts.

Tied for the most referenced pro-Rome passage is Mark 12:13-17:

Then they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to trap him with his own words. When they came they said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are truthful and do not court anyone’s favor, because you show no partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But he saw through their hypocrisy and said to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” So they brought one, and he said to them, “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.

Clearly they were trying to trick Jesus into publicly picking sides either would be dangerous. If he sided with Rome, he’d lose the support of the people. If he denounced Rome, he’d be a marked man. The fact that Herodians and Pharisees are working together against Jesus is telling; Jesus is so offensive that enemies have put aside their differences to resist him. What is remarkable about this passage isn’t so much that Jesus is clever. The implications of his statement are remarkable.

Are the implications that we should be Augustinian, creating a distinction between church and state? Or even separating them into two separate kingdoms with different claims as Luther or some Anabaptists have advocated? No. This is a very smart slap against Caesar without simply denouncing Caesar. By pointing to their coin (no good Jew should have a graven image like a coin in their pocket to begin with), Jesus is exposing idolatry and saying that such things belong to Caesar already, not God. If you’ve got any Caesar-stuff, it should be rendered accordingly. But what is God’s belongs to God. Or, to quote Dorothy Day, “If we rendered unto God all the things that belong to God, there would be nothing left for Caesar.”

Lest you think that such approaches to scripture are a recent innovation, I direct you to Irenaeus. Irenaeus was a 2nd Century bishop on the fringes of the Empire in Lugdunum, Gaul. He was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John. In other words, he was removed from Jesus by two generations; he was a friend of a friend of Jesus:

The Lord himself directed us to “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and to God the things which are God’s,” naming Caesar as Caesar, but confessing God as God. In like manner also, that which says, “You cannot serve two masters,” he does himself interpret, saying “You cannot serve God and mammon,” acknowledging God as God, but mentioning mammon, a thing also having an existence. He does not call mammon Lord when he says, “You cannot serve two masters,” but he teaches his disciples who serve God, not to be subject to mammon nor to be ruled by it…

In other words, Irenaeus believed that the thing we should render Caesar is our renunciation. Caesar’s lordship is comparable to that of mammon 11. He is only your lord if you are his slave.

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The Politics of Jesus 5: The Radical Thread in the New Testament

The Politics of Jesus 5: The Radical Thread in the New Testament

Let’s jump right into the origin story. Luke tells the story of Jesus birth. Jesus’ mother, while Jesus was still in the womb, said the following words while filled with the Spirit:

[God] has demonstrated power with [God’s]
arm; [God] has scattered those whose pride
wells up from the sheer arrogance of their
hearts. [God] has brought down the mighty
from their thrones, and has lifted up those of
lowly position; [God] has filled the hungry
with good things, and has sent the rich away

Luke 1:51-52
Image by Ben Wildflower

Jesus grows up. He starts his ministry and is tempted by the devil in the wilderness. The temptation of Jesus by the devil reveals the manner in which Jesus understands his authority. Jesus’ sense of authority bears little to no similarity to kingly authority. In the wilderness, he is tempted politically, economically, and religiously to assert his messiah-ship. But he refuses. The diabolical nature of his temptation isn’t due to the source of the temptation—that the offer of political, economic, and religious power comes from the devil instead of God. Rather, the temptation concerns the sort of reign Jesus should pursue. Jesus is the unking.

Later in Luke 4, right after his trial and baptism, Jesus goes to his home town (Nazareth) and gives a political manifesto of liberation for the poor and oppressed, essentially announcing his messiah ship and the coming of Jubilee (the “year of the Lord’s favor”). Provocatively, Jesus seems willing to include oppressors in the kingdom. Which is why his hometown folks—who most likely knew him well—try to kill him.

Just to jump ahead a bit, in Luke 17:21 Jesus says (in words that would later inspire the development of Leo Tolstoy’s anarchism): “The kingdom of God is within you” (or among you). In the context, it seems to be a way of suggesting that the kingdom of God isn’t a place, a demonstrative regime change, or a clear event. Rather it is here. Now.

Later, when Jesus heard his friends arguing amongst themselves the pecking-order in this kingdom (Luke 22:25-26) he tells them: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.”

Jesus is asking his friends to rethink everything they know about socio-political realities. The next time you read the Gospel of Luke, try to read it through the lens of Jubilee—where the ones who have accumulated have to give up and the ones who have lost receive. Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell everything and give it to the poor. He says the same thing to his disciples, by the way.

In case you think only Luke is quotable for radicals, the Gospel of John is also juicy. For example, Jesus calls Satan the “prince of the world” which is likely a way of referring to the Roman Empire.

In John 18:36, in a conversation with Pilate, we learn that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. Actually, it is perhaps better translated as “not from this world.” Usually, this is interpreted as saying that Jesus’ kingdom is spiritual or heavenly. However, the way such dualistic language worked in that time makes such a meaning unlikely. Rather, Jesus is saying his kingdom is different. It is something entirely new. It is a gift from God–it comes from God.

After the resurrection, we read of an account of civil disobedience in Acts 5. When the disciples were ordered by authorities to stop their teaching, they answer: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” Here’s what most people hear when they read that: “We must obey God rather than any human authority in those rare circumstances where there is a clear and obvious contradiction between what the law says and God says, since God’s laws trump human laws.” I’m not so sure. If you believed that your messiah was a socio-political/religious unking who died and then rose from the dead (and then mystically poured his Spirit out upon you), then you might simply mean “we must obey God, not any human authority.”

This helps us understand the way in which the early church practiced community. They were encouraged, among other things, to work out their issues internally rather than appealing to the courts. In Romans 12, Paul argues that his friends in Rome should “not be conformed to this present world [read: empire], but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God.” This is, again, often read as a call to be spiritual or heavenly minded. But, given the larger context, it is perhaps better to see it as a challenge to stop being so Roman-ish and, instead, pursue the way of love.

I am often asked to justify my anti-imperial reading of the New Testament. After all, the word “empire” doesn’t appear in the New Testament. Well. Here’s the thing. The early church was sneaky. They didn’t want to sound overtly treasonous. So usually we have to try to inhabit their context with our imaginations to see Rome closer to they way they saw it. And no writing is as anti imperial as, perhaps, John’s Revelation. Read Revelation 13, 14, and 17 for a not-so subtle picture of oppressive Rome.

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The Politics of Jesus 4: The Radical Thread in the Hebrew Scriptures

The Politics of Jesus 4: The Radical Thread in the Hebrew Scriptures

For most Christians, the Bible has a fundamentally conservative emphasis. A superficial reading of the Bible reveals a God who thinks of himself as a sort of Warrior King, who sanctions state enacted genocide, and who promotes a string of saintly kings, like King David. When Jesus arrives, it is to start a Kingdom of God that, apparently, seems content to co-exist with earthly rulership. In fact, Jesus himself says to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” and Paul advocates being good subjects to the governing authorities. Therefore, Christian radicalism is a contradiction in terms, right? 

Furthermore, the sorts of ideas many Christian radicals hold are also glaringly unbiblical. Like nonviolence (many biblical heroes were prolific smiters). Like communism (certain patriarchs were “blessed” with vast property–which they didn’t share equally with all). Like egalitarianism (Paul tends to affirm male leadership, Jesus praises a Centurion who holds a position of authority, etc.). The Bible seems to be the enemy of liberation. 

While it is outside the scope of a blog post (or book) to tackle every challenge that traditional readers of Scripture advance against radical political stances, I can offer a short overview to serve as a simple lens for seeing Scripture differently. I’ll try to note other resources for those of you who’d like to dig deeper.

To really address the myriad of issues that emerge from an radical reading of Scripture, one would be better served by a commentary series. What I’m offering here is a super simple overview, not a complete survey. If any Bible scholars out there want to publish a Radical Bible Commentary, I would not only be happy to buy a set, but also would have great ideas for who should contribute.

Let’s start at the beginning. Many read Genesis as an anti-civilizational text. It begins with the story of humans living in harmony with nature and upholds that as a pristine ideal. As Ched Myers suggests,

…in the “primeval history” of Gen 1-11 Israel’s sages—redacting older sources and probably writing in the aftermath of the failed monarchy—also attempt to explain [the rupture from primal life]. Eden can be interpreted as a mythic memory of the old symbiotic lifeways: humans, creatures and God dwell intimately and richly together (Gen 2). 

From “The Fall” by Ched Myers in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature

When paradise is lost, humans are relegated to hard agricultural toil.

The first act of violence is committed by the agriculturalist (Cain) rather than the nomadic herdsman (Abel). As we know, agriculture emerges with the advent of civilization. It is this murderer who establishes the first city. Later, as humanity “progresses” all sorts of crazy things happen, like when human population spikes, the “sons of elohim” have sex with women, people become increasingly wicked, and God sends a flood to reboot creation. Later, when folks gather to build a huge tower that reaches to the heavens, God scatters the people. For the most part, Genesis is remarkably negative about the civilizational project and its subsequent imperializing tendencies. God even has to drown the earth to knock back the evils of civilization.

Again, Myers writes:

The “Fall” in Gen 1-11, then, is not so much a cosmic moment of moral failure as it is a progressive ‘history’ of decline into civilization—exactly contrary to the Myth of Progress. The biblical primeval history thus should be considered not only as “mythic memory,” but also as perhaps the first literature of resistance to the grand project of civilization—rightly warning against its social pathologies and ecocidal consequences. 

From “The Fall” by Ched Myers in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature

The rest of Genesis follows the story of the first patriarchs, who YHWH has called out to become a people who will follow YHWH into a promised land. Throughout Genesis, trouble happens when the Jews favorably interact with imperial powers or try to settle too soon. While it is true that the patriarchs had many possessions, it is a stretch to infer from their wealth modern notions of property rights. Pre-agricultural nomadic peoples were tribal. While the patriarchs were hardly egalitarian, their understanding of ownership was much more communal than modern Western notions. The wealth of the tribe or clan or family was for the benefit of all. And, it would seem, that God’s vision for Jubilee would push the communality of goods and lands even further.

Every seventh year was a Sabbatical Year, during which the land is to lie fallow and agricultural activity is to cease. At the end of the year, all debts are to be forgiven. The year at the end of seven Sabbatical cycles is the year of Jubilee. At that time all land was to be redistributed back to its original owner. If these practices were kept (along with the additional stipulations to provide for aliens, widows, and others), there would be little room for economic injustice.

Exodus tells the story of a people enslaved by the Egyptian empire and how YHWH delivers them. You know the story: YHWH calls Moses (in the burning bush theophany) to lead the Israelites out of slavery into a Promised Land. Of course, once they are liberated, the people grumble and complain–desiring a return to Egypt instead of the long journey in the wilderness. In Exodus, we see a “story of Israel’s communal bonding around the mountain at which they encounter YHWH, with no need for ‘sacrifice’ of animals or enemies.”  As a result of their grumbling, YHWH keeps them in the wilderness for forty years.

Then, apparently, Moses passes the mantle of leadership to Joshua—a sort of military hero who engages in war against the indigenous peoples of Canaan.  The people successfully settle and are attacked by their neighbors, leading YHWH to raise up “judges” to lead the people in combat against the enemies of Israel. 

YHWH sets up a brilliant economic and political reality, which will follow Jubilee economic practices and, instead of having a centralized government, will employ temporary leadership as need arises. Instead of a king, God dwells among them to rule directly rather than ruling through kings or priests. For example, one of the leaders who emerges, Gideon, tells the people, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The LORD will rule over you.” (Judges 8:23) Unfortunately, Gideon’s offspring attempt to set up a dynasty.

The people keep complaining for a king, and eventually YHWH relents. Saul–who fits the people’s idea of a king–sucks. He dies in battle and David (after some oft-told bible stories transpire), becomes king. The kingdom splits during the time of David’s grandson. Conflicts between the prophets and the kings become common place as Israel becomes increasingly like its neighbors, leading to the eventual demise and captivity of both the northern and southern kingdoms.

This story–from Exodus to the monarchy–is one of centralization and waywardness. As Wes Howard-Brook writes, 

As it stands in its canonical order, the story conveys a relatively (and deceivingly) simple message: the shift from a twelve tribe confederacy under YHWH’s rule to a human monarchy “like the nations” (1 Sam. 8:5) was a disastrous betrayal of the unique status of Israel as YHWH’s “chosen people”…Israel “converted” from the religion of creation to the religion of empire, with predictable results.

From Wes Howard-Brook’s Come Out My People, p. 95

It is important to highlight some of what makes this a “deceivingly” simple message. It is simplistic and foolish to assume that the days of David and Solomon, with a monarchy centralized in Jerusalem and worship centralized in a Temple in Zion, should be considered a golden age. There is, according to Howard-Brook, a tension (or out-right contradiction) between the pro-monarchic “Zion Theology” that placed YHWH in the Jerusalem temple” where Solomon “could be understood as truly empowered by YHWH with ‘wisdom’” and the prophetic “Sinai theology” where “Solomon’s ‘experience’ can be written off as either wishful thinking or simply as propaganda.” In other words, the Hebrew Scriptures present a sort of argument between the religion of Empire (where a faithful, powerful, secure, wealthy and vast nation is centralized in Jerusalem, where YHWH and king dwell) and the religion of Creation (where a faithful people live in Jubilee, encounter YHWH in creation and amidst people, and live as kin without an earthly ruler). 

As we read through the prophets, when God speaks, it is usually through a prophet who challenges the king’s power and who stands outside of the machines of the monarchy. So much could be said here. The emphases of the kings are very different than those of the prophets. It is astonishing how much the prophets link idolatry and exploitation of the poor. The kings often centralize wealth and power. The prophets challenge that trend. The prophets, it would seem, still hold God’s Jubilee vision in their imaginations.

One of my favorite proto-anarchist sections from the Hebrew Scriptures is Ezekiel 34. God judges the “shepherds” or rulers of Israel, essentially striking them down to become the people’s sole Shepherd. Incidentally, this may be the passage that Jesus had in mind in his “sheep and goats” story in Matthew 25. Here’s a choice quote:

I myself will feed my sheep and I myself will
make them lie down, declares the sovereign
Lord. I will seek the lost and bring back the
strays; I will bandage the injured and
strengthen the sick, but the fat and the strong
I will destroy. I will feed them–with

Ezekiel 34:15-16
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