In the Old Testament, the prophecies in the Book of Daniel speak of a time when, with the arrival of God’s Kingdom, the Kingdoms of this world become not adjusted or even reformed, but comprehensively overthrown. This very unsettling theme continues on in the New Testament, where we see numerous references in the Gospels to the arrival of this Kingdom. The undoing of the status quo is continued on in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (1:22-8) which, like Daniel, spoke of how, through Christ, God “has chosen things low and contemptible…to overthrow the existing order” (emphasis added). Christians are even reminded of this passage in Paul, thanks to the evening Liturgy of the Hours.
Though this is not the most prominent feature in the book, it is striking that the coming of the Kingdom of God spells the full and comprehensive undoing of the structures that underpin the status quo – in other words, a revolution – remains a thematic constant, that continues in popular (Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution
), academic (John Howard Yoder’s The Original Revolution
) and ecclesiastical (Pope Benedict’s 2007 call for a “Christian Revolution”
) discourse. More strikingly, and much to the chagrin of many politically correct exegetes, the biblical text itself never spiritualises this undoing of the status quo, as if all that is being referred to is an internal conversion in the heart of the believer. The call for an overturn of externals, including the structures of the “Kingdoms of this world”, is nowhere precluded in the biblical text. Equally unsatisfying is the tendency by many to reduce the revolution to a vague mushiness by calling it a revolution of love, as the enclosed picture puts it. For love must assume a specific external form, and from that affect the structures within the status quo, or it is no revolution at all.
The word revolution will understandably be a source of discomfort to many, even to those who firmly believe in the revolutionary potential imprinted in the Christian tradition. The word “revolution” is has been in modern times made synonymous with violent insurgency and the perpetration of unspeakable atrocities (both the French and Bolshevik revolutions will doubtless spring to mind at this point). The infusing into the revolutionary mix of a theological element makes the idea of revolution even more unsettling (the Talibanisation of Afghanistan should come to mind at this juncture), and so, unsurprisingly, the growing political prominence of religious actors has been the object of many a critique by political scientists, journalists and other social commentators.
But if this theme of revolution is unavoidable in order to maintain the integrity of the Christian tradition, the faithful Christian might be forced ask a series of questions: if the theme of revolution is truly a biblical theme, and if the Church is a manifestation of the Kingdom of God which “overthrows the existing order”, should the Church not be the vehicle of a Christian revolution? And if so, what does a Christian revolution look like? Most importantly, should the contours of the revolution spoken of in the bible necessarily parallel those of the more secular variety?
More posts will need to follow in order to explore this theme, more comprehensively but a helpful starting point might come from Don Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta, the Basque priest who in the 1950s began a program of economic renewal in a Basque region left devastated by the Franco regime, a program that has now evolved to become as one of the biggest and most successful cooperatives in the world. Touching on the issue of what a revolution is not, Arizmendiarrieta wrote that violence cannot prevail, for
…power will pass from one party to another, but when the smoke has cleared and the bodies of the dead are buried, the situation will be the same as before; there will be a minority of the strong in power, exploiting the others for their own benefit…the same greed, the same cruelty, the same lust, the same ambition, and the same hypocrisy and avarice will rule… (cited in Race Matthews’ Jobs of Our Own: Building a Stakeholder Society, Alternatives to the Market and the State)
Nor is a Christian revolution simply reduced to, as John Howard Yoder calls it in his For the Nations, “a call to upset society” or “an illusory vision of ending all suffering by a simple shift in the social order”.
A Christian revolution, therefore, without shying away from the goal of “overthrowing the existing order”, must at the same time avoid the mimicking of secular revolutions, which presume a social landscape grounded by relations of violence, and thus necessitate a violent solution. At the same time, one acute problem to keep at the forefront of one’s mind is that the Christian revolution, in order to be effected, must still speak to and negotiate this secular landscape.
The Christian revolution begins from the standpoint of Augustine’s City of God, which travels on pilgrimage in the City of Man towards the beatific vision. In this pilgrimage, the Church as the Body of Christ overturns the exiting order, but does so by first embodying what Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus calls “a nonconformed quality of involvement in the life of the world”, which “thereby constitutes an unavoidable challenge to the powers that be and the beginning of a new set of social alternatives…”.