Matthew Tan: True signs of a Christian revolution

Not a Christian revolution: The dehumanising tragedy of Babel is depicted in this mosaic by Fr Marko Rupnik SJ in the National Shrine of St John Paul II, Washington DC, USA. The faces of the people are obliterated so that communion between them is lost; they become faceless labourers in an industrialised machine. Photo: Fr Lawrence Lew OP

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 completely undone and overthrown.

With vivid and sometimes violent imagery, the prophets speak of an overcoming of the great powers that dominated the sociopolitical landscape of the Middle and Near East. 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 in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (1:22-8) which, like Daniel, spoke of how, in Christ, God uses the humble things of this world “to overthrow the existing order” (emphasis added). And thanks to the evening Liturgy of the Hours, Christians today are regularly reminded of this passage in Paul.

It is striking that the coming of the Kingdom of God and the full and comprehensive undoing of the structures that underpin the status quo – in other words, a revolution – remains a thematic constant in the Book of Daniel. The theme of Revolution is something that continues on in popular (Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution), academic (John Howard Yoder’s The Original Revolution) and ecclesiastical discourse (Pope Benedict’s 2007 call for a “Christian Revolution”). More strikingly, and much to the chagrin of many politically correct exegetes of both left and right, 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. For love must assume a specific external form, and affect the structures within the status quo through that form, 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 potential for radical change imprinted in the Christian tradition. The word has been in modern times made synonymous with violent insurgency and the perpetration of unspeakable atrocities (both the French and Bolshevik revolutions will probably spring to mind as historical examples). Mixing theology with revolution makes the idea of revolution even more unsettling and so, unsurprisingly, the growing political prominence of what can be broadly called religious actors has been the object of many a critique by public leaders, political scientists, journalists and other social commentators.

Be that as it may, if fidelity to the Christian tradition makes this theme of revolution unavoidable, the faithful Christian might be forced ask a series of questions: if the theme of revolution is a biblical theme, and if the Church is a manifestation of the Kingdom of God, which Scripture says “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 more secular revolutions?

In answering these questions, 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, the Mondragon Corporation.

Touching on the issue of what a revolution is not, Arizmendiarrieta wrote that violence cannot prevail. For those that rely on power to bring about change, he said that: “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 …”

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 in relations of violence.

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. Indeed, what sets the Christian revolution apart from the secular is that the revolution must be done for, not against, the good of the community. The prophet Isaiah, in speaking of the overturning of the social order in his prophecies, nonetheless declared in chapter 62 that it was for Jerusalem’s sake that this overturn was prophesied.

Tied to this point, the Christian revolution is not a secular revolution in that it does not overthrow the existing order in one fell swoop from above, smiting all that stands in its way with a demand for an all-encompassing conformity. Rather, in the same way that the defining moment of our salvation began from a manger in a marginal town of a marginal region in the Middle East, the Christian revolution in our secular cities begins from a specific – and often marginal – standpoint in every epoch, a standpoint which Augustine called the City of God. From this standpoint, the City of God embodies what the Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder called in The Politics of Jesus, “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”.

These alternatives overthrow the existing order not only because they refuse to conform to the pattern of this world. Ironically, it is a revolutionary alternative precisely because the City of God, in its marginality, pays greater attention to and takes up the myriad little things in this world, things that secular alternatives tend to ignore for the sake of an abstract greater good.

The heavenly city, in its attention to the things of this world, is thus never calibrated against the earthly city as such. In its attention to the minutiae of life in the earthly city, the City of God actually travels with the earthly city on a pilgrimage towards the beatific vision. A fellow pilgrim, the heavenly city travels out of love for the city of man, since a proper love of God must also lead to a proper love of His creation, including the earthly city, one citizen, one building, one tree and one pigeon at a time.

Such is the strange format by which the City of God overturns the existing order.