Have you heard the news? Apparently archaeologists have just discovered a new scroll dating to around 30AD, with a fragment of the end of Matthew’s gospel containing the words: “Verily I say unto you, I was only kidding…”
Happy April Fool’s day! It’s an interesting juxtaposition that this year it falls the day after Easter Sunday. I’m told that in Greek Orthodox tradition the day after Easter is set aside for joke-telling, to celebrate God’s great practical joke against Evil. I love the idea of Easter as the ultimate nose-thumb to the great forces of Control, the cosmic Puppet-masters; as God’s great April Fool’s leg-pull.
Rebellious or respectable?
So in light of this idea, do you see Christianity as a movement that subverts the status quo, disrupts the respectable social order and challenges the puffed-up powers-that-be?
Or do you see Christianity rather as a religion of the establishment, of the societal and governmental powers that be? As a system of moral and spiritual control that sanctifies the social order and sanctions the status quo? A hierarchical top-down structure that circumscribes and proscribes thought and action and belief? An imposed order that values social respectability and conformity to moral norms; that punishes deviance and even diversity?
In our society I think we’re sadly far more used to the latter kind of view. We tend to see the church and religion as bastions of social order, of respectability and even earthly power; as firmly on the side of the establishment. I’ve talked before about the dangers of Christendom, the conflation of temporal authority with spiritual; the collusion of religious leaders in state structures of control. All too often the Christian church has been a state-sanctioned arbiter and imposer of rule and order, the moral police, the religious arm of the secular state.
I don’t believe this is the role Christ saw for his church at all. I believe that in this world the church should always have a subversive and also a playful streak. It should be a thorn in the side of the establishment, a gadfly stinging the conscience and pricking the comfort of the earthly powers – whose comfort so often comes at the expense of the poor and marginalised.
A disobedient faith
Of course, if we view the events of the current world as basically following God’s will, and the structures of the world as reflecting the divine order, then we’ll do little to challenge them. But if we see that God’s will is generally not done in the status quo, we can start to see our faith as truly subversive. Author Glenn Myers suggests that we should view prayer as an act of rebellion; as civil disobedience against the forces of chaos and control that hold so much sway upon the earth.
(NB I don’t mean to imply a paranoid or Frank Peretti-style view of demons controlling cities or governments. I just mean that the way things are is not generally the way things are meant to be, and we can engage in active resistance against the ‘powers’, whether those be literal or metaphorical.)
Of course God is a God of order and of peace, and also of justice and truth, of moral goodness and self-control. But his order and peace and goodness may not look like we expect, and cannot be contained within the structures and strictures of our society or even our religion. Sometimes he has to crash through our conventions and splinter our status quo in order to reveal his true order, his far greater goodness.
And though God is a God of order, he is not a God of control (except self-control) but rather of genuine freedom. He is the great Liberator, and liberation tends not to be tidy, polite or quiet. It tends to involve disruption of social order, disobedience to social convention and even destruction of oppressive structures and systems.
The anti-authoritarian Christ
It’s no coincidence that many of our most potent myths revolve around the little people who rebel against the apparently unassailable authority. The Halfling Frodo resists the mighty Dark Lord Sauron and prevails by courage and loyalty. The boy Harry Potter fights Voldemort and love wins over power. Luke Skywalker’s rebels rise up against the evil Empire, and goodness triumphs.
We see the same thing in the Bible: Moses takes on the might of Pharaoh and leads a band of dispirited no-hopers to freedom. David takes on and defeats the giant Goliath in the name of the One who casts down tyrants and raises up the humble. Christ submits himself to death at the hands of the invincible Roman Empire and in so doing disarms a far greater, even cosmic, Evil.
In popular myth, we’ve cast Satan as the subversive anti-authoritarian rebel and exciting outlaw pirate, or as the Loki-style prankster and Lord of Misrule. By contrast, we’ve imagined God as the divine headmaster, policeman and chief judge. But what if it’s really the other way round?
Jesus the prankster?
So in the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, it’s not Satan who is the rebel and Christ the authority figure but quite the contrary. Satan proclaims that he has dominion over all the cities and wealth of the world; he (not God) is the one who rules with rod of iron and coffer of gold. Jesus by contrast is the refugee rebel, the outlaw nobody, come to overturn the might of nations and challenge the authority of Satan in the name of divine love.
We’ve often painted a picture of Jesus as an entirely serious, funless figure, and it’s true that one of his aspects is as the ‘man of sorrows, afflicted by grief’. But another picture of Jesus with a long heritage is as God’s ‘holy fool’. In this view Christ plays the role of a holy clown or jester, thumbing his nose at pompous priests and po-faced Pharisees, making rude noises at the ridiculous self-righteous, and playing disruptive tricks on the self-important rulers and power-mongers – of whom Satan is the archetype.
As I said at the start, in this view Easter was God’s ultimate trick and practical joke on the devil. The first stage of the trick was to let Satan think he’d utterly destroyed and defeated Jesus on the cross. Then, just as the devil is prancing about in wicked triumphant glee, Jesus delivers the knock-out punch-line by popping up again – ‘surprise!’ – impossibly risen from the dead, and having ransacked hell and robbed Satan of his authority. It’s a great picture.
Disturber of the peace
There’s certainly little doubt that in his lifetime Jesus was a self-confessed disturber of the peace. He went out of his way to provoke and even offend the religious and self-righteous. He deliberately enraged the crowd in his home synagogue by appearing to insult Israel. He upset Pharisees by associating with ‘riff-raff’, prostitutes, tax-collectors and all sorts. He called teachers of the law hypocrites, whitewashed graves, broods of vipers.
He crashed through social conventions, for example by talking to a Samaritan woman alone, and through prized religious customs about how the Sabbath should be kept. He gave cheekily smart answers to anyone who came looking to trap him. And of course, he engaged in direct religious and political subversive action by overturning the moneylenders’ tables in the Temple.
Control and chaos
So if Christ is truly the image of God, then God is not the great tyrant or dictator in the sky; not a heavenly autocrat or puppet-master. He is sovereign, yes, but he rules and reigns not by displays of raw power or by coercion but by love and goodness, by serving and self-giving. For love cannot rule by the ways of power, or it would not be love. There may be an appropriate element of fear in that love (as we might have healthy respect for, say, a lightning storm), but it is not fear of a brutal tyrant.
By contrast, Evil – whether it has a personal figurehead ‘Satan’ or not – seeks to control as completely as possible, through any means possible. Control comes in many forms – mediated through fear or desire, through threat and punishment or allure and addiction; exercised overtly or covertly. And enslavement or imprisonment are the ultimate expressions or forms of control. The addict is enslaved to his or her ‘fix’, trapped and held captive by their craving – whether that be for drugs, sex, wealth, status, approval or anything else.
Evil then is a bully, a puppet-master, a slave-driver, a control freak. Evil needs to win, to rule, to exercise raw power. And conversely those who desire above all to rule and be powerful tend to buy into evil themselves (‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’). When we seek to control others we too are following these ways of evil rather than the ways of Christ.
The irony of course is that evil is itself fundamentally chaotic, always on the verge of spiralling out of control, of tearing itself apart. But unable to control itself, evil seeks to control everything and everyone else. And perhaps its ultimate control is chaos. Perhaps evil looks to the day when entropy has done its final work and all is dead and still, chaotic and meaningless, and therefore (in a sense) fully under control.
Winning by losing
However, Evil is ultimately self-defeating; though it spreads like a disease and seems unstoppable, it carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Love by contrast cannot die, cannot be truly defeated, though it allows itself to be crushed and humiliated and even killed. You could even say that Love wins by losing, whereas Evil loses by winning.
I’ve quoted Martin Luther King several times before on this blog: ‘By violence you can kill a murderer, but you can’t murder murder’. You can’t destroy war by fighting with the weapons of war. You can only defeat evil by innocence, by the deeply subversive operation of love, the disarming and self-sacrificial act of forgiveness.
Of course, another word for ‘innocent’ is ‘gullible’, and it would be easy to see the utterly innocent and guileless Jesus as merely a childlike fool, a Don Quixote, easy prey to the brutally brilliant powers of evil intent on his destruction. But innocence is not stupidity. Jesus knew what he was doing; knew that his innocent death would be the undoing of the great schemes of evil and power. The ‘holy fool’ overcame the cunning of wickedness; God’s foolishness is wiser than earthly wisdom.
Jesus’ death and resurrection then could be seen as the ultimate insurrection, the greatest act of civil disobedience against the rigid ruling laws of the universe – the law of entropy and the rule of death, the law that dead things stay dead. And perhaps in so doing, Jesus even potentially freed the universe’s tyrants and controllers from their need to control everything – in the unlikely event that they should ever accept that freedom.
In which case, perhaps the Anglican Easter liturgy should be changed to:
“He is risen: He is risen indeed – neaah neah-ne-neah neah!”