weakness

On demolishing strongholds: Approaching both wokeness and whiteness with weakness

Owen Strachan is, increasingly, a ‘thought leader’TM in the hardline evangelical Reformed Baptist movement in the United States. He was, for a time, the President of the Centre for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He’s an influential voice. If one was to peruse his Twitter output in recent weeks, and months one would find that he’s turned his earnest voice to ‘wokeness’ and ‘critical race theory’ and ‘intersectionality’. These are the bad guys in the culture war, where feminism was, for the CBMW guys, just the pointy end of the spear.

Strachan posted a video clip from one of his recent talks yesterday where he quoted 2 Corinthians 10. Here’s the full lecture for context.

He said:

“We are speaking the truth in love. We are demolishing strongholds according to Paul in Second Corinthians 10:4. A lot of us today, we don’t think in those terms, that language sounds kind of hostile and arrogant and imperial and very western. That is an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, martyred in the Christian faith, who tells us that he demolishes strongholds, the Corinthian church is to demolish strongholds, and by extension, two thousand years later roughly, you demolish strongholds that would seek to take you captive. We want unity in the truth of Jesus Christ, but where people have embraced wokeness, we must follow the steps of discipline per Matthew 18:15-20. We need to treat them as if they are being taken captive by ungodly ideology. Because they are… Even as we also publicly confront those teaching unbiblical ideas in a broader sense. Though it will pain us greatly, excommunication must be enacted for those who, after going through the Matthew 18 steps, we pray we don’t have to go all the way to the end, but if we do, excommunication must happen for those who do not repent of teaching CRT, wokeness, and intersectionality. At the institutional level the same principles apply. Trustees, voting members, organisational heads, educational boards, and so on, must not tolerate the spread of wokeness any longer. Not one day more. Not one hour more. It is time. It is time for a line in the sand.”

Critical Race Theory, wokeness, and intersectionality are quickly replacing ‘Cultural Marxism’ as the term of choice in these culture war debates; which is a small mercy, at least, because Critical Race Theory is not so much a pejorative label with anti-Semitic undertones, but an actual discipline. These umbrella labels are attempts to describe the same sort of phenomenon; a cultural move afoot that recognises that the established status quo typically benefits those holding cultural and institutional power, and indeed is systemically set up to benefit those holding cultural and institutional power such that this status quo also costs those excluded from cultural and institutional power.

One way to observe this status quo, in the West, is to look at the question of power through, say, a prism of individual wealth. Globally, the white male comes out pretty well. This systemic ‘status quo’ stuff is more obvious in other cultural contexts, like Russia’s oligarchy, or China’s communist party. More ‘free market’ based nations, cultures, or economies, have changed the power dynamic so that power is more connected to wealth (success in the free market). But this isn’t a neutral status quo, the market isn’t free of history or the institutions (banks, corporations, etc) that mediate it to us, or even the expertise to navigate it (that comes via education, opportunity, and connections). It is geared through cultural, structural, and political systems, to benefit those already at the centre; and those people are typically white and male. It’s not that being white and male guarantees success, it’s just that the status quo keeps benefiting the same people. This also isn’t to say that all white people benefit from these systems, or that no non white people do, one’s success will depend on how well one adapts to, or challenges, the status quo. An example might be that not all white people can afford a sports car or a nice suit, but if you have a sports car and a nice suit as a white person in the west, particularly in America, you’re less likely to be assumed to be a criminal than a black person in the same car, and more likely to be assumed to be an individual success. If you’re a non white driver of a sports car the narrative is often that you’ve succeeded by sheer force of will, against the odds. Those odds, or what is overcome, are the ‘status quo’…

In short, critical theory says there’s a system built to perpetuate this, and that we experience that cascading down from the top into all systems and relationships. Critical race theory observes that in the west there’s an ethnic element to this status quo, partly through the colonial history of the ‘commonwealth,’ where the British Empire brought an ‘establishment class’ into various nations, benefited from the wealth of nations connected to the empire, and built cultural and physical infrastructure to benefit that establishment class (universities, old boys networks, gentleman’s clubs, legal systems, political parties, corporations etc) at the expense of non-establishment (non-white) people (including through slavery, but also in dispossessing people from their lands). Then, these establishment institutions assume the white experience as a default, whiteness as a norm, and white voices at the center, and this perpetuates itself generation by generation. Often these nations and cultures have not just been built on ethnic inequality, entrenching a biased status quo that benefits the establishment class, but they have been built by cultures where power was held by blokes, sometimes for theological reasons, other times because of the typical power dynamic created by brute physical strength. So when ‘woke’ CRT people speak of ‘whiteness’ — it’s not white skin they’re particularly interested in, but the assumption implicit in our culture and institutions that whiteness is the default, such that, for example, I never have to describe ‘where I’m from’ (and really, I don’t actually know with much precision), I’m just white, and I don’t suffer the downsides of systemic racism, or the inherited baggage of intergenerational economic disparity built from those establishment decisions that created a status quo I see as ‘normal’ and am not particularly predisposed to change or challenge, on my own, because not only is it normal, it is beneficial.

Where feminists particularly focused on the maleness caught up in the patriarchy, race theorists look at ethnicity, and when those groups recognised the similarities in experience and outlook the idea of ‘intersectionality’ was born. Throw in the sense that the status quo operates through the application of power, given to maintaining, or further entrenching the status quo as ‘the norm,’ sometimes the ‘God given’ or ‘natural’ norm, and we get the language of oppressed and oppressor in the mix.

This wokeness, when you open your eyes to the systemic reality — whether as an oppressed, marginalised, person, or someone benefiting from the system — then brings a new ethic. So we see groups or institutions that subscribe to ‘critical race theory’ and ‘intersectionality’ seeking to re-alter the landscape so that the voices that are dominant ‘status quo’ voices — that are all too often centered — are turned down, while the voices of the oppressed are amplified.

In the ultimate expressions of intersectionality or wokeness, powerful ‘centered’ voices can find themselves ‘cancelled,’ or historic statues toppled, for perpetuating oppression, while marginal ‘intersected’ voices — especially, say, the voices of a black trans woman (the ultimate intersection of oppressed classes) — are elevated, or centered. Now, we’ll come back to the question of whether this is actually a change of structures, or just a change of people occupying the positions of power in a structure that is essentially the same, below. It’s worth noting too that this whole intersectional agenda only really works in the west, it’s a particular product of western history, multiculturalism, violence, and even (in a positive sense sometimes) Christianity. Intersectionality doesn’t see ‘whiteness’ as a problem in China; it’s not a universally true, all encompassing worldview, and the people who want it to be have a pretty small view of history and geography. In some ways, our ability to even identify injustice, oppression, and systemic sin in our ‘status quo’ might, itself, be a product of the Christian framing and vocabulary that comes to the west via its heritage. It’s worth bearing that in mind when declaring it a heresy or a ‘line in the sand’ where anybody who uses any wokeness, CRT, or intersectionality should be excommunicated.

There are, of course, truths to the criticism of the west offered by critical race theory, or intersectionality, that anybody with a Christian anthropology might recognise. Our story — the Bible — is full of political leaders who create empires and cultures that perpetuate their godlike power, and that oppress and enslave (think Egypt, Babylon, and Rome). It shouldn’t surprise us when power based empires or cultures create a marginal experience where those not sharing power, or benefiting from the status quo, have similar observations, language, and experience that builds a shared revolutionary suspicion of the status quo.

In these ‘dominion’ style cultures it was hard to be from another ethnic group, or a woman, and to be a woman from another ethnic group did work in a sort of intersectional way. If Jesus had met, for example, the Samaritan woman at the well in Jerusalem, she’d have been an example of an intersectionally marginalised and oppressed voice on an additional count; as it was she was an outcast in her community, a bit like the woman accused of adultery, caught up and spat out by what we might now call the patriarchy and its status quo benefits offered to blokes (so that women bore the cost of sin and shame disproportionately). We see these dominion systems as an outworking of the sinful rejection of God, and our desire to rule in his place and to seek dominion over others, rather than co-operation.

This is the fall written into the fabric of human society — our beliefs, our structures, our institutions, our cultures — are as fallen as we are at an individual level, and then serve to perpetuate that fallen view of the world (so a Babylonian was raised to think like a Babylonian, according to Babylonian stories about what the gods were like, and who the king was as ‘the image of God, and this was the same in Egypt, or Rome, where the rulers of those empires were also ‘images of God’ in imperial propaganda).

The trick is that it’s hard for an Egyptian, Babylonian, or Roman kid to realise how much the default system, or status quo, was a departure from God’s actual design for life; and how flawed their picture of God was when built, inductively, from the life and rule of the ‘image of God’ at the heart of their empire. It’s harder still for someone caught up in the power games at the heart of the empire, and benefiting, to hear that their stronghold is a house of cards, and to see the oppression and destruction it brings.

It might take, like it did with Naaman, a general serving the King of Aram, an empire opposed to God’s people, the de-centered voice of a marginalised ‘servant girl’ to bring the whole house crashing down. Naaman wanted to keep playing the power game in his interaction with Israel; the girl sent him to the one who would speak God’s word — a prophet — but Naaman went to the king. The prophet, when he got there, wouldn’t take wealth, or power, or glory for healing Naaman, but sent him to get dirty and lower himself into a river. His picture of power was inverted; his stronghold demolished.

To suggest ‘CRT, wokeness, and Intersectionality’ are grounds for discipline and excommunication is a fascinating step, given that there are pretty strong Biblical precedents for reaching a similar diagnosis of what happens when idolatry and sin are systematised; namely, that people are oppressed or enslaved. It might be better, I think, to question the solutions offered by those bringing this diagnosis to bear on modern cultures and institutions (including the church). There’ve been some interesting contributions to this project from Tim Keller recently, and in these two response pieces to him from David Fitch (part one, part two).

Here are some additional further possibilities that might lead us to be cautious when it comes to drawing ‘lines in the sand’ — and ‘excommunicating people’ — especially when we belong to the ‘identities’ that are typically the beneficiaries of the status quo (especially if much of your professional life has been given to entrenching the gendered part of that status quo).

It’s possible that exactly the power structures that CRT, Intersectionality, and Wokeness identify are the structures we should be demolishing both in the world and in the church, but that the trick is we’re meant to demolish those with different weapons than the weapons of this world; and those same weapons might also be turned against the new world order dreamed about by those championing regime change or revolution under the CRT, Intersectional, or ‘woke’ banners.

That is, it’s possible that the demolition job the Gospel of the crucified king does on human structures and empires and power games actually demolishes both ‘whiteness’ or the patriarchy and ‘wokeness,’ intersectionality, and CRT.

It’s possible that the whole ‘identity politics’ game, whether played from the right or from the left is a politics built on a model of the human person where we’re creating our own ‘image’ and thus projecting our own ‘image of God’ as we pursue some sort of authentic self or ideal human life and experience (‘identity’).

It’s possible that democracy means that instead of having empires where the king is the image of God, we’re all kings and queens trying to carve out our own space, playing the game Charles Taylor calls ‘the politics of recognition‘ — where we want our identity to be affirmed and recognised and upheld by the law, and our chosen ‘identity’ to be the one that is at the centre of society, and that flourishes most of all.

It’s possible that Christian contributions to politics in the culture war have simply been a form of the identity politics we claim to hate, built from a desire for our own recognition as the ‘images’ that should be the social and cultural norm in a particular form of empire.

It’s possible then, that the church built by people playing this sort of ‘politics of recognition’ game, uncritically adopting worldly mechanics of power, or not demolishing the strongholds of our particular empires (democracy, meritocracy, technocracy, etc) have created a situation where those in positions of power in the church, at least those whose voices are centered, tend to look a whole lot like those in power in the world.

It’s possible that in all this we’ve totally lost the sense of personhood being something given to us from above, and built in relationships and community, not something we build by playing an individual power game where we claim our space in the world and yell ‘this is me, know me and love me for who I really am’ at the universe (see The Greatest Showman’s anthem ‘This Is Me’ for example).

It’s also possible that we’ve lost something of the essence of the Gospel in both the shaping of our own institutions, communities, and culture — the Gospel that is the story of a member of an oppressed people group (Israel under Rome), born into a system that was threatened by his very existence (Herod’s rule as a symbol of Caesar’s rule), and so further marginalised him (his exile into Egypt). Jesus was a non-centered voice in both Israel’s religious institutions (he wasn’t a priest, or a pharisee), and he consistently sought to ‘demolish the stronghold’ the Pharisees had built — the religious edifice that oppressed the people for their own wealth, relied on cosying up to imperial power (Herod and Pilate), and claiming, ultimately, that Caesar, not Jesus, was king of Israel as they sought to silence his voice.

It’s possible that we’ve missed the New Testament’s diagnosis that opposition to Jesus and his kingdom, particularly through the use of the power of the sword, was beastly, or Satanic, and represented a false image of God being held by those who were meant to be living as God’s image bearing, priestly, people; and that the leaders of the Temple had become oppressors who ‘devoured widows houses’ just like their tax-collecting Roman rulers did; as beastly, prowling, Satan-like wolves, rather than being like lambs trusting God as a shepherd.

It’s possible that where we’ve missed that essence, and even systematised the domination system caught up in our status quo in our churches the ‘strongholds’ that need demolishing will not be ‘out there’ in the community, but ‘in here’ in the church. Some examples might be where we uncritically embrace leadership manuals, or business practices, or status quo practices (like old boys clubs, gentleman’s clubs, setting the parameters for who gets authority in our institutions in ways that perpetuates a ‘sameness’ to the voices that are centered, etc). It’s possible, too, that the church will never see where it has sided with the ‘oppressor’ or the status quo unless we see these practices through the eyes of those who are marginalised and oppressed. If voices like ours are the voices we keep centering, how will the status quo ever be challenged? How will the strongholds ever be demolished? If, God forbid, we have systematised sinful patterns in our church structures, then it’s precisely the ‘woke’ intersectional critical race theorists we may need to hear from; there are plenty of examples in the Gospels of voices who would normally be ‘marginalised’ being centered in the kingdom; including the women who are the first witnesses to the resurrection (see the response of the disciples who “did not believe the women”).

If we’re going to discipline people and excommunicate them; let’s do it when they have a Lord, or king, who is not Jesus, and pursue an image of God not found in Jesus, and want revolution that looks something other than like bringing in the kingdom of Jesus. You know, like supporting Trump for president.

Let’s demolish strongholds. But let’s demolish all strongholds.

And let’s recognise that we might need to listen to voices who are typically excluded in order to see what we’re missing. The catch is, we won’t find many black trans women in our churches (and nor should we play the game of intersectional one upmanship, perhaps our posture should simply be to listen to those members of the body of Jesus, including the global church, whose experience and outlook is different to our own). This isn’t to say that wokeness, intersectionality, or critical theory aren’t ‘strongholds’ that need demolishing because they pull us from Jesus, just that they might be allies in tearing down some strongholds that have already dragged us into captivity. ‘Wokeness,’ in the culture wars, often feels like an attempt not to change the game, but change who occupies the centre (even whose image gets turned into a statue that sits at the centre of civic life). Our solutions to the problems of this world aren’t meant to look like elevating other, previously excluded, voices to the place of supremacy or dominion (though God does oppose the proud and give grace to the humble), that just perpetuates the same system under different parameters, our solution to the problems of this world don’t just sit in the space of diagnosis, but revolution. Our revolution isn’t about picking other humans as kings or queens who’ll become the image of our God to us, but about following the king who is the image of the invisible God. Wokeness, where it seeks to play a dominion game, captivating us and pulling us away from Jesus as the radical inversion of beastly empires we need, but also whiteness, the status quos from the world we’ve brought into the church.

This is, of course, why culture wars style politics, or worse, culture war Christianity, is problematic. And this is, in a sense, exactly what Paul is writing against in his letters to the Corinthian Church.

In the city of Corinth the dominant culture was one of power and status. They played the Roman game harder than most. The city skyline was dominated by an imperial temple. The city was big on oratory and impressive orators. They wanted Paul to be an orator — a big and flashy speaker who’d sway their power obsessed neighbours over to this new empire. They liked Apollos because he was an impressive orator, then, by the time 2 Corinthians rolled around, they were enamoured with the ‘super apostles,’ who, when you look at Paul’s response seem to be the very opposite of him; the sort of church leaders wielding the weapons of this world — sharp tongues — playing a power game that the Corinthian church was getting behind. Winning the culture war.

The Corinthian Christians didn’t quite understand how revolutionary the message of the Gospel was; how much Jesus being the antithesis of Caesar, Pharaoh, or a king of Babylon meant for how we’re meant to approach life, as individuals and in community. Jesus’ diagnosis of the world — from Israel outwards — was that the powerful had become oppressive; that sinful rebellion against God and siding with Satan and cosying up to Rome had corrupted the people and institutions who were meant to be representing God and his heart for the humble.

Jesus upended the ‘dominion’ style status quo, and its politics, and brought something very different as a solution. A cross. This is how Paul sees strongholds being demolished. God’s power and wisdom is found in the crucifixion. This realisation shaped Paul’s message — so that he resolved to know nothing but Jesus, and him crucified, but it also shaped his posture — his approach to persuasion — so that he came to the Corinthians not with powerful words, but in weakness and trembling. So that he ‘renounced underhanded ways’ of persuasion, and ‘carried the death of Jesus in his body so that the life of Jesus might be made known’ (2 Cor 4). If we’re going to trot out a part of 2 Corinthians 10, lets ground it in Paul’s criticism of the Corinthian pursuit of dominion within the life of the church, and for the church within the life of the city. If Paul were here today I don’t think he’d be speaking for ‘wokeness’ or ‘whiteness’ in a sort of fight-to-the-death battle for supremacy; I think he’d be pointing us towards weakness. I don’t think he’d be kicking out those who identify how the pursuit of strength in church structures has led to oppression of people we should be loving with our might, or those who cry out for reform and justice in the church on that basis (it’s worth seeing, for example, how Strachan’s speech plays out specifically against conversations about race in the American church in the midst of the conversations amplified by the black lives matter movement, and the current unrest in America produced by generations of racism that are now entrenched in the status quo). Paul might have used a ‘war’ analogy in 2 Corinthians 4, but it was precisely to subvert the sort of power games we’re so used to playing in the church and in the world.

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. — 2 Corinthians 10:3-5

The cross of Jesus is our weapon; it demolishes both wokeness and whiteness because it stops us playing the culture war and invites us, instead, to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor 5), who carry the death of Jesus in our body, and have relationships marked not by dominion but by the self-emptying example of Jesus.

This might mean rejecting, or re-directing, the power and opportunity given to us by the status quo; the platform, or the centering of our voices in the life of the church. It might mean making space to listen to those voices marginalised by structures that perpetuate the same sorts of people being given authority and influence. It might mean hearing the critique of our church structures, and the west, from those who stand among the oppressed. Maybe that’s where we find what the paradoxical strength in weakness of the cross looks like embodied in the western world. In the voices of those, faithfully in our churches, but from the margins of our society.

This might mean that CRT, intersectionality, and wokeness aren’t the enemy, even if they challenge the things we hold dear. It might mean that the things we hold dear, the things that give us strength and influence, are actually things we should be letting go as we embrace weakness, rather than grasp worldly weapons.

Here’s Paul again, just after talking about the ‘weapons’ he uses to demolish strongholds — the things Satan uses to capture us and pull us away from Jesus.

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. — 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

Which, of course, is an outworking of his whole understanding of the Gospel of his king, and the way it confounds the systems and conventions, the status quo, of the world he lives in.

For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” — 1 Corinthians 1:25-31

The persecution complex: for ‘exiled’ Christians freedom from persecution is a want, not a need

There’s a chorus of voices — Christian voices — standing at the margins of the public square, and sometimes even getting into it — clamouring for one thing. The one thing we can agree on as Christians, and that we can agree on even with our Islamic, Jewish, or Buddhist neighbours… what do we want? Freedom of religion. When do we want it? Always.

But is this really something we need? Is it self-evidently a good thing, because it makes our lives better, because it unfetters the Gospel message, and allows us to love our neighbours well? Is religious freedom — freedom from persecution — an ultimate good, or is it just a good thing that we want? And how much of that ‘wanting’ is self-interest? How much of it is genuinely motivated by love for others — be they Christian brothers and sisters, or our Islamic neighbours?

Religious persecution sucks. And there’s certainly no place for Christians to be persecutors — though we have been, historically, and continue to be in certain pockets of the world — even persecuting each other. But should we be fighting for religious freedom, or is religious freedom (historically) a good bi-product of a thing that we actually fight for — the Lordship of Jesus.

A bigger question I think is how coherent it is to actually push for religious freedom in a culture where the dominant religious position — a sort of idolatrous secularism that enshrines a bunch of new gods — practices its religion by opposing and dismembering all the others. Sure, you can be religious, it says, so long as your religion conforms to our new easy-going, inoffensive, set of beliefs and so long as you don’t call into question the central tenets of individual freedom and identity construction — around like sexuality, gender, and the pursuit of happiness by whatever means possible. You can be religious so long as you chuck your core beliefs in and replace them with ours. Keep the trappings, the pomp, the ceremony, the rituals… but empty them of meaning and make them signify some other thing…

This is the religion of our culture. And if we’re to be consistent, affording its adherents and priestly caste the right to practice will ultimately destroy us, or them.

A recent post from elsewhere confronted people like me who might argue for the ‘romantic view of persecution’ — that persecution is actually good for us, posed these questions:

But I wonder if this view is in danger of so magnifying God’s sovereignty over history (and of persecution), that it ignores our responsibility to love our neighbour: wouldn’t such love include protecting our neighbour from harms such as persecution? … Now we Christians might feel ok about our basic freedoms gradually being reduced (at least in theory!): but what about our non-Christian neighbour: how might they fare in an environment where their basic freedoms of conscience, association, and speech, are rolled back?

But what if persecution is actually fundamental to our religious practice — our view of the world? What if the lens we’re to look through to assess the world and our experiences in it is the Cross, not some sort of worldly form of culture building or moral framework? What if the Cross is our moral framework? What if loving our non-Christian neighbour — especially potential victims of persecution — means standing with them and bearing the cost, not fighting to occupy a position of power and influence in worldly ways? What if the cross is actually where we start when defining neighbour-love? It was for John. It so defined his understanding of love, and of God’s love, that it became the paradigm for all acts of love in God’s name…

 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” — 1 John 3:16-18

A quick reminder of the Gospel

The heart of the Gospel is the persecuted, crucified, king. Jesus. We’re called to take up our cross and follow him. 

The power of God triumphs over worldly power and authority in the most unlikely way — through weakness, through persecution, through the sacrificial death of the king. Loving our neighbours — Christian, Australian, or global — will always look like us being like Jesus to them, and for them. This is how we know what love is. This, too, is how they know that we are Jesus’ disciples, that we have love for one another (John 13:35), and we’re not just sent to love our brothers and sisters the way Jesus does, but sent into the world to be like Jesus (John 20:21)… There’s a deeper richness in what John says in his first letter in these verses, but just note the links here between Jesus, the testimony of Jesus, the love of God, our knowledge of that love, and its implications…

And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love… In this world we are like Jesus…We love because he first loved us…” — 1 John 4:15-16, 17, 19

Every time John talks about love he has the character of God in view — “God is love” — and not in an abstract way, but the character and love of God we see on display at the cross. This is what love is. This is what loving our neighbour looks like. If you want to love your neighbour — and want them to know that your love is an echo of God’s love — then this love is always connected to the example of Jesus, not simply a figuring out what people think is good for them… what they think they need.

God is love. He’s also power. And the path to true freedom. And love, power, and the path to freedom are all on display at the Cross. Anything else is counterfeit, or some sort of shadow reality pointing to the ultimate. If you want to see freedom, power, and love as God does — look at the world through the lens of the cross. If you want to be powerful. If you want real freedom. It’s found in the Gospel, not some other picture.

The Gospel is the power of God that brings salvation (Romans 1:16), the world thinks the Cross, and the view it provides of God, is weakness and folly but it is the power and wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:23-25), and it is the pattern of life and witness we’re to adopt. Weakness. Being crushed, afflicted, destroyed. This is the picture of Christian life and love; of power and victory. Our victory procession looks like being the ‘scum of the earth, the garbage of the world’ (1 Corinthians 4:11-13). But we don’t really believe that any more. We’ve been conditioned by too many years of Christendom, or the comfortable idolatrous worship of morality that looked very Christian. The same man-made religion the Pharisees were condemned for… and now we fight for that idol in the face of our cultures new gods — sexual liberation and the freedom and safety to completely construct one’s identity without being offended. 

It’s like we no longer believe this to be true:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” — 1 Corinthians 12:9-10

“My power is made perfect in weakness”? Do we believe this?

Tell me again how religious freedom is a fundamental need if we’re really going to love people? This is one of those things that Paul says, that John says, that Jesus says, and that the blood of Christian martyrs through time and space cry out, but we don’t believe it. We live as though real success looks like worldly victory and freedom in this world.

The Christian life is one of meakness and weakness. Sure, we offer temporary freedom from suffering and pain to people — but we do that by taking it on ourselves, or wearing the cost of fighting for it, and these are good things. But they’re wants. Not needs. We’re called to a life of persecution and suffering as we bear the cost of following a crucified king in the world that killed him, and the cost of loving those who are afflicted. Suffering with those who suffer, mourning with those who mourn. The beatitudes are not a funny parody that God made up. They’re no Babylon Bee article. They’re a real pattern; they’re the pattern that Jesus followed. 

Salvation that comes through death and resurrection is the picture of freedom we’re to adopt. Real freedom. And this example is the picture of love we’re to adopt. Anything else offers false hope.  

Until we start believing that God is the source of real power, real freedom, and real love, all we’re offering to our world are shadows and counterfeits. Until we start believing it then every time the world beats us down it’ll feel like a loss, not a victory. We’ll think we’re loving people if we’re offering up some analogy of the world’s view of power, or flourishing, or love… but let’s start with our first principles, about who God is, and who we are, and then with God’s view of the world…

A quick ancient history lesson

John and Paul wrote their gear about the Christian life in a secular-religious world. A world where people were free to have their own god or gods, so long as they first bowed the knee to the real ‘god’ — Caesar. The personification of the ultimate human empire. The image of human might and power. At least the Caesars didn’t pretend to be ‘secular’, they just declared themselves divine. As Rome conquered they absorbed the gods of other cultures into their pantheon, but all under the ‘secular’/state agenda. Until they got to Israel… The Jews kicked up such a stink about the idea of bowing to Caesar they were given a special dispensation so long as they prayed for Caesar, rather than too Caesar. Judaism was a ‘religio licita’ (a legal religion) so long as the Jews acknowledged Caesar as the real king, the real power. A dynamic on display in the trial and execution of Jesus.

John and Paul wrote all this stuff about weakness and power, about what we need to flourish, not just nice things we want, about what love for our neighbour really looks like amidst persecution. Not just soft persecution. The persecution that involved the execution of Jesus, and others, for claiming that Caesar was not really powerful; that the emperor had no clothes. This is what we’re called to testify to — not to win religious freedom, but to call out idolatry and its destruction, even in its secular form. At our cost. This is what neighbour love looks like. Not just laying down our possessions for those who are oppressed and marginalised, but being prepared to lay down our lives in defiance of other religious agendas.

The secular landscape — the public square — is not neutral. It is not a platform where natural law arguments win out. It’s a landscape controlled by beastly powers who want to keep overcoming the lamb. Because they’re ruled by fear. They’re also not really in control. Their destinies are assured by the one who is — so are ours.

John writes another book, or letter, into this political reality. Revelation. Oft-misunderstood. His apocalyptic vision presents the slain and resurrected lamb as the one who is really in control — even as he dies — and the beastly powers as what they are; losers with a godless, crossless, view of the world, of power, and of love. Real witness, real love, well, it looks like the same testimony he calls Jesus’ followers to in his Gospel, and his letters, being faithful witnesses who live like Jesus, at cost. The letter starts with seven churches who he calls to be faithful witnesses, he calls them not to get sucked into beastly, worldly, visions of power — the same temptation that lured Adam and Eve, and that Jesus rejected in the wilderness — he calls them to hold on to Jesus… and by chapter 11, only two are standing. Two lampstands. Two faithful witnesses, who ultimately share their king’s fate. First death. Then resurrection.

“Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city — which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial. The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.

But after the three and a half days the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on.” — Revelation 11:7-12

This is what faces us when we faithfully walk into the secular public square. It’s not secular and neutral; its hostile and idolatrous. Its beastly. The world is hostile, as John puts it in 1 John (and Jesus puts it in the Gospel), it’ll hate us because it hates Jesus, it’ll hate us because its full of people ‘secular’ types who, though they seem nice seem to want good things, and seem to be rational, are children of the Devil (1 John 3); people who’ve grabbed onto the temptation of worldly power, not to the Cross. This seems harsh, and perhaps it is, but John says there’s no middle ground. No neutral ground. The public square is hostile; the gatekeepers are against us. Without the lens of the cross — God’s way of seeing the world — we have the distorted lens handed to us in the first chapters of the Bible, by the serpent, so we get love, power, and ‘good’ wrong. The world doesn’t just reject Jesus, but his messengers.

A quick theological ‘positioning’ primer

We keep making the mistake of not seeing love the way God sees it, or ourselves the way the world sees us (and the way God calls us). This is not a ‘romantic’ notion; but the gritty reality. We are exiles. Strangers. Followers of a king the world rejected. Destined for the same scummy procession, rubbish in the world’s eyes but faithful and beloved by God.

Everybody worships. There is no real ‘secular’ we’re not just facing flesh and blood when we put forward a position but people and cultures who have been shaped by generations of rejection of God. In John’s apocalyptic, vivid, technicolour view of the world the beastly world, that views power the way the Caesars did, wants us dead. They don’t like the threat we pose to unfettered freedom to pursue your own identity. They don’t like a view of victory that involves an ugly cross. It’s a religion that can’t tolerate the freedom of other religions unless it dismembers them and leaves converts with a carcass to pick over or stitch on, Frankenstein-like, to their new religious identity.

This apocalyptic vision has to change the way we engage with the world. It has to change what we think love looks like, or needs, or freedom, look like. Love looks like Jesus. People need real freedom from seeing the world wrong. People need freedom from death and judgment. People need Jesus, not freedom to find their identity in some cobbled together god who doesn’t challenge the secular ‘reality’…

Not only do we seem not to believe weakness is real power, we seem to believe the world is our friend. A friend who can be cajoled and persuaded with good natural arguments or as we play the power game, lobbying for such goods as ‘religious freedom’ for everybody but the secular overlords. Rome had something like that… the religio licita. It’s not enough for us simply to want the secular world not to hurt us. To buy our freedom simply by seeking the welfare of the city or empire on its terms alone… We really do want a revolution, the revolution of hearts and minds as they find real freedom and power in the Gospel. In the blood of Jesus.

A quick look at implications

Religious freedom is a luxury. A luxury won, in part, through the blood, sweat, tears and sacrifices of Christians throughout the ages, I’m not suggesting we throw it away cheaply; I’m suggesting we rediscover the truths that underpin it. That we rediscover the radical sort of love for our neighbours that goes far beyond simply winning them the right to freedom of speech, but that comes from speaking freely to them, whatever false picture of god or power they have. I’m suggesting we stop throwing our lot in behind counterfeit gods like ‘freedom’ and start exercising the freedom that comes from knowing God really does love us, and he really is powerful, and real love and power is on display in the crushing victory of the cross — which looks like a crushing defeat. If we stick with this message rather than playing worldly games using worldly tools (like lobbying, using natural law arguments, or using force) then we avoid a bunch of issues, the sort of issues that arise when we’re inconsistent, the sort of issues that have seen Christians turn the sword against one another, or against others, the sort of issues that undermine our witness. We also make sure we’re being rejected for the right thing, for our core business — we’re not called to be hated because we’re different, Jesus says the world will hate us because of him.

We can’t actually call for ‘religious freedom’ and expect that it won’t lead to persecution because aggressive secularism is a religion, a beastly religion that co-opts power to destroy all other gods and assimilate people from all other faiths. I’m suggesting that we should work harder at believing the world isn’t going to love us when we proclaim Jesus, that the secular world is not neutral but opposed to us because it has a different view of power and freedom, and that weakness and apparent defeat is the norm — and what God works through our humble sacrifice offered in love for others.

This also gives us clarity when it comes to how we relate to governments. This is tricky, they’re a means of God’s grace to us, a means by which law and order happens, we’re told to pray for them, to live at peace with them, and to obey them. But the government these instructions specifically, originally, refer to is the government that executed Jesus. Rome. Paul’s approach to the representatives of this government in Acts presumably line up with what he tells us to do in Romans 13. And what does he do in Romans? He appeals to Caesar, he wants to get to Rome to make some sort of case for his approach to life (and we get a hint that the Gospel makes it into Caesar’s household in Philippians), and en route to Rome he preaches the Gospel to its representatives… hoping to convert them. Ultimately this is what happens to the empire… the Gospel is lived and preached and becomes too compelling to ignore (or genuinely converts the emperor, depending on your take on history). It’s ultimately this change, via the testimony of the Gospel — God’s power through weakness — and the love for those who are oppressed and marginalised by the beastly powers of the world that brings freedom of religion for people in the west. According to history, and the development of good things we like, like religious freedom and freedom from persecution, the lived and spoken demonstration of God’s love — the proclamation of the Gospel in word and deed — is the best way to oppose oppression and horrible, harmful, uses of power, the best way to love our neighbours, and the best way to secure religious freedom for those who disagree with us. Tolerance of alternative religious beliefs is not widely practiced outside the west (nor is it something Christians were/are all that good at). It’s how God works.

This puts our expectations more in line with the Gospel, history, our theology and the experience of persecuted Christians in the minority world. Christians who face physical persecution along with limitations in what they can say or do… It leaves us resting in our weakness, and relying on God’s ultimate victory being on display in death and resurrection.

Scroll to Top