Subversion in Scripture: Intro to a New Recurring Series
Alongside my recurring series on women in Christianity, today I’m launching a second recurring series on subversion in scripture. I will certainly feature women in this series, although the focus will be broader, considering the many times when the stories in the bible take an unexpected turn that undermines our expectations about power and authority.
So why this topic? Over the last few years, I’ve thought a lot about the meshing of American evangelical Christianity and political power. I’ve also, in my professional life, read and taught extensively about the meshing of religious and political power in medieval and early modern Europe — a meshing found in both the Catholic church and most Protestant sects.1
In my experience, American Christians are quick to condemn, say, medieval Catholicism for intertwining religion and politics. But the notion of a separate church and state is very new in the arc of human history: only for the last three hundred years, or less, have some societies seen this separation as desirable. Denying this history seems to blind us to the reality that in America we seldom fully separate religious and civil authority.
And the 2016 election has brought the embrace of political power in the church into sharp relief. Donald Trump, with his series of wives and marital infidelities, his crude language, his racism, his sexism, his narcissism, does not even remotely seem like a candidate that Christians would support. And yet white protestant Christians did, in droves. And recent research shows a strong connection between Christian nationalism and voting for Trump — that is, Christians voted for him because they thought he was, despite his personal failings, the candidate most likely to protect Christianity in America.2
So how can American Christians claim faith in Jesus — who was executed by state power — and then put their practical trust in someone like Trump?
I think that we, as is typical for human beings throughout history, have forgotten that the weak things of the world will overcome the strong, that the wisdom of the wise is foolishness in the face of Christ. We place our trust in rulers and authorities, forgetting that Christ overcame all of them by humbling himself to not only become human but to live, suffer and die as a human.
White American Christians live the life of the wealthy, the privileged, the colonizing rather than the colonized. We forget that the comfort and power we enjoy would have been foreign to Jesus or Paul. Because we are used to power, we believe that it should save and protect us. But in our concern to protect ourselves, we seldom examine how that power oppresses others.
We the Romans and the Pharisees.
I want to be clear: I am not advocating for Christians to remove themselves from governments or other institutions or the public sphere more generally. Involvement in society at all levels is, in my view, a good thing for Christians.
However, we must stop placing our trust in the powers of this world, or more specifically, in controlling and sharing the powers of this world.3 We especially must stop supporting those powers to the detriment of marginalized groups. And as we do this, it’s worth re-examining scripture with an eye towards the many ways in which God uses the weak and the marginal and the outsiders instead of the powerful, indeed to humble the powerful.
And Holy Week is a particularly appropriate time to launch this series. For this week, we remember the most profound subversion of all: God entered the world as a poor Jewish carpenter, living and dying under the oppressive rule of the Romans. God could have blazed into the world in glory, crushing Caesar and elevating Israel to rule the world. Instead, God entered at the bottom of society as a human being, and instead of conquering, Jesus died.
And yet on Easter, Christ arose in glory. He hadn’t defeated the Roman Empire, but he had done something far more profound: he defeated sin and death and evil. He instituted new life, resurrection life, that is breaking through into the world in the promise of its coming fullness.
What seemed weak and foolish — a marginal Jewish teacher betrayed by a friend and brutally executed by the Romans — became the most profound victory the world has ever, or will ever, see. And this was accomplished through and for the powerless and oppressed, not at their expense.
So let us examine scripture to recapture the reality that God does not need earthly power, nor do we. Political power can certainly be used for good. But far too often, it elevates one group over others and props up systems of injustice and oppression. When we place our hope in those systems, we miss the point of the gospel and erect an idol for ourselves.
Some Anabaptist groups argued that the church and state should separate. But if the Protestants and Catholics could agree on one thing in early modern Europe, it was that the Anabaptists were crazy and should be persecuted out of existence.↩
I actually know one of the researchers who wrote the linked article, so bonus academic nerd points for me!↩
This applies most particularly to white American Christians, since our sisters and brothers of color have much less expectation that their voices will be heard and needs addressed by the government.↩