Biblical Rebellion?

Recently the Public Orthodoxy blog published a post by Rodoljub Kubat, entitled, Rebellion at the Heart of the Bible. Usually I would not respond to a piece referencing a revolt spreading throughout a land as far away from our own as Serbia. But given the revolts and rioting happening here in North America in the name of righteous indignation and justice, I thought it worth addressing his issue.

Mr. Kubat asserts that to be faithful to the Biblical tradition, Christians must be rebels. He asks (rhetorically), “If Christians are silent or approving of injustice, are they on the path of the Kingdom of Heaven? If they rise up against injustice, then one might call that a rebellion, a rebellion against injustice.” He further writes, “Rebellion theology is prophetic theology. The prophetic movement originated sometimes in the 9th century B.C. It was essentially a revolt against social injustices, especially against abuses of power.” For Mr. Kubat, rebellion against the injustice in our society is at the heart of the Christian mandate, and so to refuse to take part in the rebellion constitutes lack of prophetic faithfulness to God.

As examples of such rebellion Mr. Kubat cites the Israelites rebelling against Egyptian oppression, Jonah rebelling against God, and Christ’s ministry, especially His word in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. Kubat writes, “Both the Romans and the Jewish leaders perceive [sic] Christ as a rebel” and the Church after Him was perceived as “an anti-social factor, whose members will not confess [sic] the emperor as God.” Later, “the monastic movement and flight to the desert was a rebellion against a world governed by injustice…This is especially seen in the example of St. John Chrysostom, a great theologian and fighter against injustice.”   In Kubat’s view, the Church was (and should be) rebellious at its core, but later became too entangled with powers of the world and so proved itself unfaithful to its divine prophetic mandate.

It is not hard to see that Mr. Kubat has a point: the Church during its Byzantine phase of supposed symphonia with the Empire too often made shameful compromises with Caesar in supporting a worldly status quo. This is hardly new. But Kubat’s point is not historical, but theological: he asserts that we need a “theology of rebellion” to “achieve justice in this world”. In particular he says that the needed rebellion, having found no welcome in the church, at one time “moved to the ‘flower children’…who rightly became icons of freedom.”

My Google search of Mr. Kubat could not discover his age, though the picture of him online showed a man roughly the age of my own adult children, neither of whom were present when the flower children made the news, chanted “Make love, not war”, and over-dosed in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. The flower children were not icons of freedom, but confused young people in pain, estranged from their elders, and lost in the disillusioned turbulence of the Viet Nam years in America. But of course that was far from Serbia.

Normally rebellions in Serbia would call forth little comment from me here in North America. But we seem to be in the throes of our own home grown rebellion. We are rioting in the streets, indulging in violence, and pulling down statues at will. Like all rebellions, our own current one seeks justification for its violence in the injustices perceived in society around us. The injustices may be real. But the problem with rebellion is that the injustices we perceive can blind us to the injustice inherent in our own violence, and lead us to feel that our violence is justified because we are building a better world when we are simply tearing down the one we have. For anger always blinds those who embrace it; that is perhaps why St. James reminded us that the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God (James 1:20). It is far too easy for us to imagine that we are following the mandates of the Kingdom, when we are simply being led by the spirit of the age. And the problems attending any violent rebellion should not be that hard for us to recognize—was the Communist Revolution so long ago?

What is missing in the theology of Mr. Kubat is an eschatological perspective—to say nothing of sound Biblical exegesis and historical acumen. In fact the Israelites did not rebel against Egyptian oppression, but waited until Yahweh liberated them. As Moses said, “Yahweh will fight for you, and you have only to be still” (Exodus 14:14). Jonah’s rebellion was not sanctioned by God, but rebuked and judged by Him—which was the whole point of the story of Jonah! Christ did not counsel rebellion against Rome, but refused to acquiesce in such rebellion, insisting that His disciples render to Caesar what they owed to Caesar, and that His Kingdom was not of this world. The monks did not counsel rebellion against the world, but looked to the age to come as they withdrew from the world to devote more time to prayer. And St. John Chrysostom did not counsel rebellion either: he rebuked the Empress for her sins, but never sought to overthrow the established order—probably because he had read Romans 13.

It is just here that we arrive at the crux of the matter. As children of the eschaton and the age to come, our mandate is not social rebellion and the overthrow of the established order, but witness. The prophets (including Jonah) witnessed to the truth of God, and left the judgment (and possible overthrow of the status quo) to Him. Christ witnessed to the truth of God, saying to Pilate, “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37).

In saying this, Christ gave the Church its mandate: not to overthrow the established order and substitute a new order of its own devising, but to witness to the truth, and to demonstrate a better way. Those who hear and heed the truth will change the order from within. If we have political power and the opportunity to enact godly laws, we should do so. But ultimately the change we desire will not come from revolution and rebellion, but from the diffusion of the Gospel. Political change cannot save us if our hearts remain unchanged. The flower children thought rebellion against “The Man” could save us. They were wrong.

The fundamental issue here is ecclesial: does the Church belong primarily to the age to come, or to this age? Are we strangers and sojourners passing through this age, witnessing to the truth, and doing what good we can while we are here? Or are we citizens of the world, with a mandate to change it and make it a better place to live? The dichotomy, of course, is not absolute: obviously either way we must strive to work for peace and justice and help the poor. And either way we set our hearts on the Kingdom to come. Nonetheless the choice between two basic orientations and two fundamental tasks remains.

Christ does not call us to rebel or promote revolution, but to offer revelation. It is our message which is revolutionary—and if society does not heed the message, we may not take up arms to put our message into effect. Peter tried to do that in the garden of Gethsemane—and Christ told him to put his sword back into its sheath (John 18:11). In so doing He took the sword from the hand of any of His followers who would resort to rebellion to establish the justice which can only come about through a transformed heart. Rebellion is not Biblical, and is always wrong. It seeks a political solution to a spiritual problem. The true solution was given to Nicodemus long ago: you must be born again.

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