I believe in a rebel God. A subversive system. A dissident discipleship.
Now, I don’t know about you, but where I live, most folks who hear that I am a Christian immediately associate this with a religion characterized by people known for judgmentalism rather than compassion, for upholding a “moral” status quo that shuts out those on the margins. As far as that kind of religion goes, I stand hand in hand with the atheist. That kind of religion kills.
Following Christ, in contrast, means following one who directly subverts and undermines that toxic religious system, and indeed subverts all religious systems. That’s what got Jesus killed, and what characterized the anarchist nature of the early church. To call Jesus “Lord” was to reject the image of power that ruled by violence and domination. It was a counter-cultural upside-down way that was seen as a threat to both religious and political power.
This kind of subversive faith, which dismantles and exposes abusive religious authority, can easily be said to be the main focus of both Jesus, Paul and the New Testament as a whole. It is on every page. Yet as we all know, that radical and subversive way has not been the history of the church. You don’t need to look very far to find some preacher on TV saying really hateful stuff, nor do you need to know much about history to recognize that the church has contributed to all sorts of horrible suffering: burning people at the stake, torture, crusades, ad nausium. That kind of toxic religion has also done all it can to make us read our Bibles in a way that neuters the New Testament’s radical message against religious abuse. For some people, that indoctrination has been so effective that it’s all they can see when they read the Bible now.
So I realize that mine may be a minority voice in today’s religious landscape that is characterized on both sides of the divide by ugly polarizing rhetoric. It is easy to find the ugly and hurtful in our world, and the media flocks to it like a moth to the flame. It is easy to look around at our world and see all the suffering and injustice and think that this is what rules our world. It takes a lot more stubborn (some would even say foolish) determination to believe in hope and compassion in the middle of all that crap.
In the face of that, I defiantly believe in the God of foolishness and weakness as an act of rebellion. I disbelieve in the picture of God as the Almighty One, far off in the clouds, untouchable, associated with kings and might. Instead, I believe that the true picture of God is best seen in a subversive rebel named Jesus who identified with the condemned and victimized, and was himself condemned and victimized. That is what God looks like. Killed by religion, this is the crucified Lord who God raised, defiantly overturning the death sentence of religion and state. The ones he called his own were not the upstanding citizens, but the outcasts, the forgotten, the failures and misfits.
I believe in that rebel God. I believe in Christi-anarchy. That is, I believe in the subversive way of Jesus characterized by compassion, grace, nonviolence, and restorative justice. I don’t believe in that way because it is easy or because it comes naturally to me (it certainly doesn’t). Nor do I believe in it simply because some book tells me I have to. I’m well aware that blindly following rules (even if they are good rules like forgiveness and self-sacrifice) means they can be misunderstood and misapplied, and thus become hurtful. So I want to go in with both eyes open. I believe in that way because I have seen how grace and enemy love have radically transformed my own life, and my relationships. I’ve seen its power to heal our broken world firsthand. After it changed my heart, and changed my life, I couldn’t help but let it change my mind. The way it spreads is though being lived and demonstrated.
I’m convinced that rebellion is not a character flaw, its a character trait that we need to develop. Over and over again, movements start out radical and fresh and then over time slowly become part of the establishment, part of the power structure. Originally being a follower of Jesus meant something radical, then very quickly it became the religion of the empire. When I was a kid being “born again” meant something radical too, now it has come to represent a group who (in mind-boggling fashion) is the least likely to share the values of Jesus. What begins as radical, all too quickly becomes ugly religion. On the flip-side, the response of the angry “new atheists” (not to be confused with all atheists, let alone agnostics) seems more like a mirror reflection of fundamentalism — just as judgmental, intolerant, and small-hearted. Nothing has really changed at all, because the system is the same. I want a bigger revolution than that.
What makes Christi-anarchy different from all other religions is that it is not a religion at all. In fact, it means the end of religion. Really following Jesus entails dismantling all of the walls that religion puts up. That’s why Paul says that he has been “crucified to the world” and counted all of his religious accomplishments and status as “garbage” compared to Christ. Not Christ as one religion over another, but Christ as the end of all religion: the end of the divisions that so often polarize us, the end of hurting others and wrapping that in religious justifications. That is not something you do just once. It is a way of life. It means continually allowing that revolution to take place in us. Never getting comfortable. Always allowing grace to upend us.
Derek Flood is the author of Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross. He is a featured blogger for the Huffington Post, Sojourners, Red Letter Christians, and writes regularly at his website theRebelGod.com. A longtime voice in the post-conservative evangelical movement, Derek’s focus is on wrestling with questions of faith and doubt, violence in the Bible, relational theology, and understanding the cross from the perspective of grace and restorative justice.