When I embarked on it I had no idea that this writing on Jeremiah 29:11 would take me on such a circuitous, even arduous, journey. I confess that I’ve ranted more than I intended about such things as the nature of “prosperity”, how we achieve it, and when we will fully receive it. In my most recent post I suggested five inadequate ways Christians tend to approach living in this foreign world of Babylon. Whether or not you’ve made the effort to follow my ramblings I hope you’ll give the next few posts a chance to provoke you toward a forward trajectory that may or not be novel to you. I’d like to propose a biblical alternative to those aforementioned strategies, a road not-so-well-travelled that I’ll call “Servant Subversion.”
I’m aware that by itself the word “subversion” carries a decidedly unChristlike connotation. When I first ran across it in Christian context I recoiled. In fact, it felt to me like diametrically opposite of the way of Jesus. It felt political, economic, and all too earthy to be a biblical idea.
Subversion normally refers to an attempt to overthrow or undermine a government by people working secretly and connivingly from within and we’re not trying to overthrow or undermine anything. We do advocate a kingdom that works quietly and often secretly to transform a culture one person at a time. Our goal is not to ruin one thing to replace it with something else but to transform the trajectory of our world, like Jesus did, by taking on the role of the servant.
The Latin origin of the term “subvert” means to “turn from beneath,” usually referring to beneath a guise or secretive cover. But if you attach to it a servant’s way of subverting we’re talking about influencing someone from beneath them. So, to subvert means to turn things upside-down, especially the established system or the status quo, from below.
Jesus is our prototype of servant subversive. He was all about turning things upside down. He overturned cultural norms, challenged authorities, undermined the establishment, and generally shook up everything and everybody around him. He was a trouble-maker, a dissident and a thorn in the side of the establishment. This is what got him killed!
He said he didn’t come to be served but to serve, like when he got down to wash the grimy feet of those who should’ve been washing his, and then told us to do the same. This is his way of subversion. From him we learn that our role is not grasping at power, controlling reality, or expecting this world to serve us and our insatiable appetites.
There’s another way to sing God’s song in exile. Instead of fighting our captors, conforming to them, or running away from them, we serve them and even work with them for a better world.
Speaking of “servanthood,” did you know that the term gets flagged as a nonword in Microsoft Word and doesn’t appear in most dictionaries? The closest they get to it is to split it up into two words, “servant” and “hood.” So what’s that about, a “servant’s hood”? Maybe it’s a hood (a thug) that’s a servant. No that’s definitely not it! Sometimes a neighborhood is called the “hood,” so could servanthood be a neighborhood made up of servants? Motherhood, brotherhood, manhood, likelihood pass the test of legit words, but servanthood has no place in the English language. Worse than that it has little to no place in American culture. Nevertheless, servants – those who take the lowest place – possess the highest place in God’s upside down kingdom.
I’ve attempted to make the case of the inadequacy of five approaches to living as exiles. Let me now propose a servant subversive answer to each.
Servant subversion versus fortification
A lot of popular preaching is about surviving Babylon. “Just wait it out, this godless world will get its due… If we stick together we’ll get through this… Come to church every Sunday and we’ll weather this storm together… In the meantime, stay as far away from worldy ways as possible…” But the Bible is no survivalist manifesto. Cowering in our Christian ghetto bears no resemblance to the God honoring faith of our forefathers.
We tend to cower behind our church walls and rave against the wickedness of the world out there. There’s no doubt that it’s bad, and probably much worse than we know. But it’s as though we need to be constantly reassured that we picked the right team, the one that wins it all, and that the other team is composed of a bunch of losers. It’s easy to get a lot of “Amens” that way, at least from our teammates. It’s okay though because we post our rants on YouTube and call it evangelism. How else will they know how bad they are and how much they need Jesus. I call that preachiness, not preaching.
Driven by panic and paranoia, our worship services can sound like we’re trying to convince ourselves that what we believe is real. It’s reminiscent of the Ephesian pagan mob that chanted for two hours straight, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19) The City Clerk finally stepped in and said in effect, “Everybody knows Artemis is real. We don’t have to go on and one like this. She’ll take care of her own reputation!” Even pagans can prophesy!
We expect Babylon to be more hospitable to us than it is, so we burrow into our Christian foxholes to keep safe. Jesus didn’t tell us to live in isolated silos, disengaged from the world. Sure, we are “called out” (ecclesia) of worldliness, but just as immediately and powerfully we’re called back into the world to show and tell them that God so loved the people of this world. A Christianity that is walled off from its host culture is a Christianity with a very short shelf life. Ours is a missionary gospel, one that calls us to an engaged alienation.
Jeremiah instructed the exiles to pray for “shalom” for the city and its citizens. Evidently our prayers aren’t to be exclusively aimed at our own peace but for our captors. We’re to share shalom rather than horde it. There’s plenty of shalom to go around!
If I’ve heard people quote the verse about “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” once, I’ve heard it a thousand times (conservatively speaking). I mean no knock on those who love national Israel and pray for peace in the region. There is, to my knowledge, one place in Scripture to warrant such prayers. But never once have I heard a call to pray for the “peace of Babylon (i.e. the world in which we live as exiles).” Furthermore, in all the Jeremiah 29:11 messages I’ve heard I’ve seldom if ever heard verse 7 mentioned – “seek the shalom of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it experiences shalom, you too will experience shalom.”
When Mother Teresa heard God’s voice tell her to serve the poorest of the poor, since it would require her to leave the propriety and security of the convent, her church officials were opposed to the idea. She reasoned that though she loved the community of the convent, she was wanted to share that love with the destitute and dying. Even Jesus couldn’t serve from afar. He had to leave the safety of his Father’s house to “take the very nature of a servant” among us. “(Our) attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2)
It’s hard to serve the world from behind our church barriers. Servant subversives are always scaling the wall.