“Changing the human heart and changing human society are not separate tasks, but are as interconnected as the two beams of the cross.” Henri Nouwen
Social radicalism apart from faith “has been like a cut flower without nourishment, without any sanctions deeper than human courage and good intentions.” Walter Brueggemann[i]
For the first three hundred years or so, the Sermon on the Mount was so fundamental to the Christian community’s way of life that it was their most often-quoted portion of Scripture. But when, under Roman Emperor Constantine, Christianity was largely co-opted by the state, the Sermon’s interest among adherents of the faith declined. “The revolutionary Sermon began to lose its central place in the Church’s teaching because it threatened those in power and subverted the authority of the empire.”[ii]
Jesus overturned more than Temple tables; he upended cultural norms, challenged authorities, undermined the establishment, and shook up most everything and everybody in his wake. Many embraced his counterintuitive Kingdom ethic. Others, unwilling to relinquish their social privilege and political clout, engineered charges against him and lynched him as a criminal and insurrectionist. He taught his followers that in spite of facing a similar fate, they were to love and pray for their persecutors.
When Jesus moves in, he dismantles our personal ethics and replaces them with his inverted ones. But he doesn’t stop there. He saves our souls and through us seeks to improve society. He destabilizes the defective foundation on which modern society is built and substitutes it with sturdier material. He was and is the kind of Carpenter that repairs the soul and renovates society.
When we say that we aspire to be like him, are we just talking about being clean-talking, drug-free, conservative-voting polite citizens. Or must we have something more in mind? Joshua Ryan Butler says: “Jesus calls us to holiness and justice. Holiness involves dealing with the spark, the poisoned well, the root in our own hearts. Justice involves dealing with the wildfires, the raging rivers, the wicked trees in our world.”[iii]
Besides Jesus, the most disruptive folk whose stories are told in the Scripture would have to be the prophets. All those “seers” from Elijah to John the Baptist, saw something and said something aimed to upset the status quo. As they rowed against the current, they alerted all those floating by on their merry way downstream of their destructive ways, a ministry for which they paid dearly.
Jesus promised a blessing to his persecuted followers because they are treated like “the prophets who were before [them].”[iv] The implication is that his followers are, on some level, the progeny of the prophets. Martin Luther King Jr. thought so when he said that the Church is “the conscience of the state … the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”[v]
Though it comes with a price tag, that “prophetic zeal” to speak truth to and about power is something the Church needs to recapture. In a self-satisfied secular culture “prophets” aren’t particularly popular. People tend to hush an active critical conscience. Nevertheless, I agree with King (and the King) that it’s time for us to disrupt the dysfunctional. As we strive toward a more perfect union, lawmakers and the media who frame public issues need the Church to hold them accountable to the sort of eternal values reflected in the Sermon on the Mount.
Some will have to de-construct their theology more than others in order to exhibit a Kingdom lifestyle. I find myself constantly adjusting my perspective as the Spirit patiently walks me through the story again with greater clarity.
As I’ve indicated, we can’t afford to bifurcate the spiritual and the social implications of the gospel. “An individual gospel without a social gospel,” said the great 20th century missionary to India E. Stanley Jones, “is a soul without a body, and the social gospel without an individual gospel is a body without a soul. One is a ghost and the other a corpse.”[vi]
One of America’s most prolific evangelists, Charles Finney, saw no disparity between spiritual regeneration and social reforms. His revivals and antislavery work were never mutually exclusive efforts. He denounced slavery from the pulpit and used his altar calls not only for salvations but also to enlist his converts into the work of abolitionism. He wouldn’t allow slaveholders to take communion at his New York churches and considered the destruction of the slave system as a major prerequisite for the coming of the millennium.
Splitting the two leads to a warped reading of Scripture and tempts us to domesticate the gospel. Any gospel without feet isn’t the gospel at all. “Prayer and evangelism without social action,” writes Father John Bettuolucci, “leads to pietistic withdrawal from the realities of the human condition and an escape from social problems rather than a confrontation and challenge to change.”
Jesus saves us from our personal sins but doesn’t overlook our sociopolitical transgressions. We can’t quarantine him inside our sanctuaries, giving him permission to save souls, while demanding that he leave the affairs of running the world to us! “No one can demand that religion can be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life,” says Pope Francis, “without influencing societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society.”
It’s true that the cross is at the core of it all, the crux of his-story. Nevertheless, Jesus came to do more than die. Read the gospels again and you’ll see that he also came to live and to show us how to live. He came to demonstrate down-to-earth Kingdom that came from heaven. “Jesus doesn’t want to be reduced to Secretary of After-life Affairs.[vii] He wants to reign over everything and everyone. Here. And now.
Although the Bible is not a manual on politics, it does offer us principles that structure our moral reasoning, which in turn affects our politics. Jesus teaches us in this Discourse (and in others) to integrate his truth into public life with morally compelling and biblically founded convictions.[viii]
Imagining the social implications of Christianity doesn’t devalue spiritual realities. It means that those realities have social repercussions. Martin Luther King preached that a church that refuses to participate in the struggle for justice will be known as an “institution whose will is atrophied.” But if that church will engage in the fight to free itself “from the shackles of a deadening status-quo . . . it will enkindle the imagination of mankind… and imbue them with a glowing and ardent love for truth, justice and peace.”[ix]
The Kingdom of Heaven insinuates itself on earth to make it more like heaven. “As participants in the civil community,” writes Miroslav Volf, “Christians strive to bring it into greater conformity to the character and rule of Christ.”[x] Through our holy nonconformity, the citizens of the counterintuitive Kingdom nudge the social order toward its originally intended form. Our influence reaches beyond getting people to say a “sinner’s prayer” and sign up for a new-believers class. Spirit-saturated subversives function, as we’ll see later, as “salt” to rescue souls and societies from decay and as “light” to illuminate the path to a better humanity.
Oscar Romero said that the gospel is “subversive because it does indeed touch the foundations of an order that should not exist, because it is unjust.”
Admittedly, the word “subversion” carries a decidedly un-christian connotation. When I first came across it in a biblical context I recoiled. It felt too aggressive, more hostile than biblical. But though it normally refers to an attempt to overthrow or undermine a government by working connivingly from within, that’s neither the mission of Jesus nor the commission he gave the Church. We don’t plunder governments or crash cultures. The Kingdom we preach works quietly to transform the world one person at a time and one social ill at a time. Our influence isn’t derived from wealth, social position, or military power. Instead it comes from Christian love, prophetic witness, generosity, and sacrificial service.
The Latin origin of the term, “subvert” means to “turn from beneath.” It usually refers to bringing change from underneath a secretive cover. But Christ’s followers influence others from beneath them as servants. He calls us to turn things upside-down from below.
A South African Dutch clergyman told missionary evangelist E. Stanley Jones: “You preach a very troublesome gospel. We preach a Kingdom in heaven that upsets nothing on earth. You preach a Kingdom of God on earth that upsets everything!” Jones writes: “I would upset everything on one level––the level of this unjust and unworkable world order, to set up everything on the level of a higher order, the Kingdom of God. In watering a dusty road, you have to have to raise a lot of dust in settling it.”[xi]
It is our mission to partner with God to create a society that more closely reflects Jesus’ vision of his Kingdom. Our tactics are not to declare war on it, blend into it, or sequester ourselves from it in Christian bunkers. Rather, as Spirit-saturated insurgents we lovingly disrupt the world at its foundations and show our neighbors a better way. “[Our] union with Jesus allows [us] now to be a part of his conspiracy to undermine the structures of evil, which continue to dominate human history, with the forces of truth, freedom, and love.”[xii]
While we have no right to insist that pre-Christians live like Christians, we must model and recommend what we know to be socially advantageous for the community as a whole. To the exiles in Babylon the Lord said: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7) Their orders were not to take over Babylon or isolate themselves from it, but to influence it from within. As we bring our best and seek the best for our generation, everybody wins!
Jesus was a culture-changing, foot-washing troublemaker! Instead of royal symbols of sword and chariot he chose a servant’s basin and towel. He had all the power of heaven at his disposal, but rather than vaunting himself to dominate, he bent low to wash the feet of those who should’ve been washing his. The irony of the “meek” inheriting the earth is the essence of Kingdom disruption. He disrupts the top-down system from the bottom up.
He then passes the basin and towel on to us to influence our social order with the same spirit of servanthood. By selfless servitude he subverts the conventional wisdom of the world and requires us to do the same. We don’t grope for power, attempt to control reality, or expect the world to understand us, let alone serve us. We love them past their insults and threats and continue to sow seeds of justice and mercy.
“Newness happens in the world,” says Walter Brueggemann, “when long silenced people get their voice enough to sing dangerous alternatives.”[xiii]
[i] Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 65.
[ii] Greenfield, Subversive Jesus, 99.
[iii] Butler, Skeletons, 32.
[iv] Matthew 5:11–12
[vi] Jones, The Unshakable Kingdom, 189.
[viii] The Bible doesn’t provide a governing blueprint on every policy or how to legislate our convictions into law. A crystal clear “Christian” answer to all things political doesn’t exist. As we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” we’ll tremble to find discretion and wisdom as we seek to advance God’s just Kingdom in our own time.
[x] Volf, Public Faith in Action, 7.
[xi] Jones, A Song of Ascents, 105.
[xii] Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 207.
[xiii] Present day examples of people that have found their voice to sing dangerous alternatives are innumerable. Here are a few that come to mind:
- Catholic Charities – https://www.catholiccharitiesusa.org/our-ministry/
- Word Made Flesh – https://wordmadeflesh.org/new-monasticism-new-friars-and-the-third-order-61/
- Alongsiders International – https://www.alongsiders.org/
- Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service – https://www.lirs.org/?gclid=Cj0KCQjwjpjkBRDRARIsAKv-0O27IjggfcN9dlVgAxTNlmLlKqHEyGy2ce6B2VLhpsIYtdVKqplrXVAaAixQEALw_wcB
- International Justice Mission – https://www.ijm.org/?gclid=Cj0KCQjwjpjkBRDRARIsAKv-0O1H0u83u__Apy-Fs7c9QJQQfqBqBvzWTgTtgeK01DLryXtkBhIdk-QaAvnBEALw_wcB
- Compassion International – https://www.compassion.com/
- Christian Community Development Association – https://ccda.org/
- The Simple Way – http://www.thesimpleway.org/
- Church of the Savior in Washington D.C. – http://inwardoutward.org/
*This is chapter six in my book: WHAT ON EARTH? Considering the Social Implications of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount