When the world witnessed the crowds of many young, white Trump supporters attacking the Capitol building on January 6, 2021, many thought America might be coming to an end—the end of democracy even! While the importance of the event should not be understated—it was an attack on modern American democratic norms, the sheer lack of security to stop the onslaught reveals a laxity in the halls of power either because they do not think the masses of Americans capable of revolt or they feel safe within the delusion that they are themselves identify with Americans—since this event is the best scan on the health of the American experiment. But a nation founded on the myth of a righteous revolution has rebellion indelibly written on the hearts of its people. So, it should not be a surprise that America has a long list of little revolts throughout her history. The value in democratic norms or systems is to allow the semblance that those in power care what the masses think and in this way the anger of the population towards the leadership of the nation has a release valve, but when masses do not believe they are being heard democracy will not satisfy.
But does such dissatisfaction with the status quo justify revolt? Does injustice justify intentionally destabilizing a nation or empire to force the systemic changes desired to satisfy a large group that is fully convinced of the their righteous revolution?
“Of course it does!” cries out the a part of me that so resonates with America’s history and culture. Abuses should be corrected with righteous anger, injustices met with severe and proper punishment, the despot (least such pretenders) should be cast down and his world burned to ash, and oppressors should be met with a sword, their systems crushed under the grinding hammers of the oppressed! And I don’t think I alone have been gifted this American voice in the recesses of my mind and heart.
Yet, there is something challenging about this way of thinking when you read Scripture. Yes, there is an Exodus, a liberation of an enslaved and oppressed people, but it is God who fights for them. Whenever the people of God raise up arms, unless God has sent a word through a prophet to do so, the people are punished with failure and usually greater suffering. The kings who are allowed to wield power over Israel seem unable to stop Sin from misusing their God given authority and eventually God destroys his two little nations, divided as they were by his own divinely sanctioned civil war, because they kept marching down the road of idolatry and evil.
Losing the monarchy and rule over Jerusalem in the land seems to have brought in a new phase of living as the people of God. A time where they would be marked as a people of exile. Through Jeremiah God tells them, “Build houses and live, plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and have sons and daughters, take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so they may have sons and daughters. Become many there; don’t become few. Seek the well-being of the city where I’ve exiled you; plead on its behalf with God, because in its well-being there will be well-being for you.” This didn’t mean the Jews should stop longing to return to Jerusalem or forget about the land, but that they had to learn a new way of life among the nations while not trying to be like the nations. The only way to care for their own people was to serve their enemy. To up-end the nation they lived among might destroy their oppressor, but God would make sure that it would ruin the people of God too by linking their outcomes. God would not support a revolution.
Then the long-awaited Davidic king was promised to a young virgin girl! At the coming of the Messiah would come the start of the year of Jubilee, the messianic age, the kingdom of God, and the end to the long lived and hated exile. In her elation, Mary sings of God up-ending the world of Israel’s oppressors with his justice. God gives her son the name Jesus, meaning “God saves”, and following him she chooses names for her other sons after other great men in Israel’s history, including two revolutionaries: James/Jacob, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. But when Jesus of Nazareth begins his ministry he speaks like Jeremiah. “Be peacemakers”, “turn the other cheek” or “go a second mile” for your abuser, “pay your taxes” to the despot, “my kingdom is not of this world” so seemingly unchallenging to the systems of this world. His own disciples understood the contradiction in Jesus as king. Peter scolded Jesus for speaking of willingly going to a cross, which would mean their revolution had failed, Judas eventually betrays him, and the rest were willing to fight for him in Gethsemane but when Jesus commands them not to fight they fled. While many draw out Jesus’ words and actions about non-violence into the whole of Christian life, the texts are most directly and explicitly about how King Jesus did not support revolution.
After the coming of the Holy Spirit, Peter and the disciples have their minds changed. They are willing to suffer for proclaiming the gospel and count it as glory. Peter later writes to Christians as “the elect exiles” of the people of God charging them to “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to the governors as sent by him to punish evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” Quite the flip-flop by the wannabe insurrectionist who just a few decades before in Jerusalem had said to Jesus, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and death” and then tried to take an officer’s head off in Gethsemane. Peter had come to realize that God didn’t support his revolution.
Then, there is Paul. He follows King Jesus and Peter’s lead saying that Christians must pay their taxes, obey governing authorities, live quietly and peaceably among the nations, accomplish public works for the common good, pray for pagan leaders, and they must refuse to take revenge or justice into our own hands. Paul goes even farther, seeking to purify and redeem the relationships inside systems used for oppression, whether government rule, household structures, or even slavery. There is no initiative in Paul to start a revolution that would destroy the Greco-Roman cities where his churches lived.
Does this mean Christian should simply do nothing? Absolutely not! Peter tells us to live as a free people. We don’t need another revolution. We need to learn how to live with God together wherever we find ourselves. Christians are not called to change the nations we live among, neither their culture nor their social systems. Instead, we are called to invite those in the nations to become baptized and learn to live within the kingdom of God according to the life of obedience given to us by King Jesus, who even rules their nations though they do not realize it!
This is not some kind of isolationism nor a type of idealism. Christians must work for the stability and longevity of the societies we live among, while at the same time using our influence and actions to convince these nations to obey the faith given to us. Taking care of these nations for the common good means not destroying them, which is also what is best for the churches, and the faith is the greatest good we have for these nations. For example, Paul did not call for Christians to destroy slavery. Instead, he taught how Christians can be empowered by the Holy Spirit to redeem the relationship between Christian masters and slaves under the lordship of King Jesus, therefore, transforming slavery by stripping slavery of its abuse and oppression and adding a gospel-based care and dignity as siblings under a common master.
Christians have to relearn that oppressive systems and evil rulers are not the ultimate enemies we are intended to be warring against. These are just servants of the Powers and the Enemy seeking to control us by fear of Sin and Death. As Paul emphasizes, “We do not fight against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The focus of all of them—the despot, the abuser, Sin, Death, Satan—is to rule over human persons. It is only by baptizing and teaching people how to live with God within the people of God that these evils are able to be addressed. Such transformation only comes through personal relationships and a vibrant life as a local community of faith. While we don’t need another revolution, Christians need to dedicate to an intentional and demanding evolution of church life as communities of faith among the growing tribes of America. This is the only way Christians can once more begin working for the good of America (and other future nations).