In a sense, I think that the Christian community – at least, a portion of that community – is in the process of returning to its roots. For the first three centuries or so of the church’s life, Christians were seen as a subversive presence within the Roman Empire. But this was not simply because the Roman authorities defined them that way: it was a definition that the early followers of Jesus claimed for themselves.
We have become quite accustomed to the language of the New Testament because it has always been a part of the world as we have known it. However, we largely fail these days to appreciate where this language comes from. We speak of the “kingdom of God”, we call Jesus “Lord” and “Savior”, and we fill those terms with meaning yet we usually don’t stop to think about how these terms would have been heard by the earliest members of the Christian community.
While we think of the “Roman Empire”, that is not the way Rome talked about itself. They understood themselves to be the “Kingdom of Rome”, and so when Jesus and his followers talked about the kingdom of God this would have been readily understood as a challenge to Roman power and to the vision of life that the Kingdom of Rome offered. In this context, following Jesus is seen as counter-cultural and subversive: it meant a choice to follow a set of values and commitments that stood in opposition to the values and commitments of the Roman world.
Likewise, when the early church named Jesus as “Lord” and “Savior”, they were using titles that belonged to someone else: they belonged to Caesar, to the Emperor of Rome who was called the Lord and Savior of the Roman people. Again, this would not have been lost on those who lived in that world: just as the kingdom of God was an alternative vision and reality to the Kingdom of Rome, so was Jesus an alternative to the Roman emperor.
The power of that emperor to act as Lord and Savior came from the might of Rome’s military. The Pax Romana, or the Peace of Rome, was achieved through force, brutality and repression. Jesus offered a different kind of lordship, and the peace of Christ which passed all understanding was achieved through a much different means than the Peace of Rome.
So the early Christians understood themselves in subversive terms: they were choosing to live a different kind of life, a counter-cultural kind of life, a life that sought to subvert the material wealth and military force of Rome. Of course, in the fourth century, Rome and the church got together, and Christians lost touch with their subversive side and, slowly but surely, took on the path and the power of the Roman state.
Today, in Europe and North America, that alliance between power and the Christian community is breaking down, though there are a good many Christians who struggle to hold on to it. Increasingly, Christians are beginning to rediscover the subversive power of the Gospel, contained within those ancient terms. The way of Christ, the kingdom of God, does represent an alternative vision to the cultural world in which we live. And it isn’t a vision described by narrow, rigid moralism as so many seem to think. It is a vision characterized by humility, inclusion, wholeness, generosity, justice, abundance and healing. Increasingly, many who seek to follow Christ today see that they are being called to walk to a different tune than the one that dominates in our world.
There will always be those who will want to ally the kingdom of God with the power of the state, to exchange the expansive moral vision of the Gospel for a narrow, individual, rigid and lifeless personal moralism. But despite the press this kind of Christianity constantly receives, it is, I think, losing its power. And Christianity is also losing its privileged position in society. And that, in the end, may be what leads us to recover the subversive power of the Gospel.