Some people have raised the question why I use the term “subversive”. It sounds pretty extreme. It may remind them of rabble crowds out to destroy, with pitchfork or molotov cocktail. Do Christians, followers of a loving Jesus, want to be part of something that sounds suspect? Let me use a piece of history to explain what I mean by the use of the word “subversive”.
In one of the hundred or so books in my bibliography which come out of the biblical research of the last 25 or so years on ‘Kingdom versus Empire’, the author reminds us of what took place in the state of Tennessee during the American Civil War.
“During the slavery and states’ rights debates of the mid-1800s,.. both West and Middle Tennessee increasingly sided with the separatist sentiments of the Confederacy… (T)hey were open to the argument that the only way to preserve their rights and independence was to make a clean break from the established order. Declare their disloyalties. Stand in rebellion.
East Tennesseans, on the other hand, with their mountainous terrain that depended less on farming and agriculture (and, therefore, depended less on the slave labor such livelihoods relied on) remained predominantly allied with the abolitionist Union. Though living in the midst of a southern state bordering on breakaway, the people in the East were not in agreement with the beliefs and practices espoused by the loudest voices who lived in other parts of the state…. So when Tennessee officially became the last of the southern states to secede from the United States following Lincoln’s attack on Fort Sumter in 1861, it did so without the full support of its fellow citizens from the East. Right after Tennessee seceded from the Union, East Tennessee seceded from Tennessee.
East Tennessee was in rebellion against the rebellion.”
From “Subversive Kingdom: Living as Agents of Gospel
Transformation”, by Ed Stetzer, editor of Christianity Today.
(Which shows that the idea of the church as subversive is
not limited to those on the left.)
That was how the early followers of Jesus saw their role, and it is how I think the church today needs to see its role.
Look at it this way: If you believe as the Psalmist writes that “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof”, then the earth and its people do not belong to the Empire. They belong properly to God. Thus, the authority the Empire claims is a usurpation, a rebellion, against the Kingdom, whether they see that or not. They are rebelling against what the scriptures proclaim, the sovereignty of God.
Biblical scholars agree that the central teaching of Jesus was the Kingdom of God. This was not a kingdom for some time in the future. It was to be “among you” now. Or as it is in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come…on earth.” This makes sense out of the ambiguous response Jesus made to the question posed him: “Do we pay taxes to Caesar?” Actually, his response wasn’t ambiguous to the Jewish leaders who posed it. What is implied for those who read the (Jewish) scriptures? “You know full well- or you ought to know- the Scripture says that all is from God and belongs to God. So nothing rightfully belongs to Caesar.” But Jesus knew saying this clearly was treasonous and would result in the form of execution for those who undercut the authority of the empire- crucifixion.
The Roman Empire of Jesus’ day- and all the empires before and since- claim power, possession, and authority that rightfully belongs to God. They are in rebellion against God. The early followers of Jesus were thus “in rebellion against the rebellion.” This, too, should be the role of the followers of Jesus today.