Not surprisingly, some people are already taking issue with my suggestion that Jesus was "subversive".
For my friends living in slums or on the streets, the idea that Jesus is overturning the status quo gives them hope. It's Good News for the poor.
They have been crushed by the status quo and rejected by the establishment. They long to see God’s Kingdom come on earth.
(In fact it’s the ‘on earth’ part that really excites them.)
For others, who see the life and ministry of Jesus in purely spiritual terms, the term “subversive” doesn’t feel right.
It feels political.
It feels economic. Maybe even a little bit socialist.
It feels earthy, not spiritual.
They mostly look forward to being part of God’s Kingdom in heaven. Here’s how one of my commenters put it:
Of course, it ALL hangs on your definition of “subversive”. Here’s how the Oxford dictionary defines subversive:
sub·ver·sive /səbˈvərsiv/ adjective
1. seeking or intended to subvert an established system or institution.
The word subversive comes from Latin. “Sub” means from below and “vertere” means to turn. So, to subvert means to turn things upside-down, especially the established system or the status quo, from below.
It seems to me that Jesus was all about turning things upside down. He overturned cultural norms, challenged the authorities, undermined the establishment, and generally shook everything up. He was a trouble-maker, a dissident and a thorn in the side of the establishment.
As far as the ruling authorities were concerned, Jesus was a HUGE pain in the ass. That's why they killed him.
His stated mission was to bring an upside-down Kingdom that would be good news for the poor and oppressed (Lk 4:18). This Kingdom was not just a place to chill out in heaven, after we die - but something that would come on earth as well (Mt 6:10).
So, here’s a quick survey - 10 overlooked examples - of Jesus overturning the status quo as a subversive troublemaker for the Kingdom:
1. Subversive Songs of Freedom
We get a taste of just how subversive Jesus will be even before his birth. Mary was inspired by God to announce the coming of Jesus with words so revolutionary they have historically been banned in multiple countries (India, Guatemala, Argentina and El Salvador to name a few):
“He has brought down rulers from their thrones and raised up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with nothing.” (Lk 1:52-53)
Ouch! Glad I'm not rich and powerful. Oh wait....
2. Subversive Birth Announcement
Born in the middle of an oppressive Roman Empire, the words used to announce his birth were considered provocative, to say the least (Lk 2:10-11). By adopting language usually used to announce a new Emperor, the angels claimed that Jesus, not Caesar, was the true king, responsible for bringing peace and justice to the earth. Today, those same subversive angels might say to Americans, “Pledge allegiance to Jesus and nothing else.” And every American would recognize the political implications of that statement.
3. Civil Disobedience
The very first public act of Jesus and the disciples was to break the law of the land. (Mk 2:23). Jesus’ followers went on to break multiple laws, and spend crazy amounts of time in prison. In the end, most of the 12 disciples were executed as criminals, just like their leader. How does that sit with our emphasis today on Christians being law-abiding citizens no matter what unjust laws our governments pass?
4. Subversive Associations
Jesus went out of his way to challenge cultural attitudes and hang out with outcasts. He ate with “sinners” and the socially marginalised (Mk 2:15) as well as the ritually unclean and those considered economic traitors (Lk 5:29-32). It would be like attending a luncheon with a Muslim refugee, a crack addict and Edward Snowden. Kinda crazy.
5. Re-imagining Religion
Jesus disobeyed the Jewish purity restrictions by having contact with lepers (1:41) and the disabled (2:3). He upturned the Old Testament code by teaching a new way of understanding God in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you…” (Mt 5:38). Even today, speaking out against "an eye for an eye" is considered unpatriotic, foolish and subversive. Nothing much has changed.
6. Challenging Local Authorities
Jesus challenged the authorities who had been given legal rule by the Romans. By the end of his life, every identifiable ruling faction in Jewish society opposed him: the Scribes (Mk 2:6-7), the Teachers of the Law (Mk 12:38), the Priests (Mk 14:55) and the Pharisees (2:16). If Jesus was simply a nice guy - a Jewish Joel Osteen - teaching people to love each other, it's hard to see why he was such a threat to the establishment.
7. Upside-down Kingdom Economics
John the Baptist and Jesus were like a "one-two punch" Tag Team on economic justice. When asked what it meant to repent, John challenged folks to give half their possessions to the poor (Lk 3:10-11). When Jesus had a little chat with one of the economic elite, the man announced that he would be redistributing a bunch of his cash to the poor. Jesus then declared, “Salvation has come to this house!” (Lk 19:9).
8. Overturning Tables
Jesus was pretty steamed up about the way the Temple was being used to rip people off and exclude various marginalized groups from worship. He marched in, toppled their tables and drove them all out, animals included. Since the Temple was the center of economic power in Jewish society, Jesus’ actions were like a direct attack on the Jewish Wall Street – a subversive challenge to the powerful status quo.
9. Non-Violence instead of Militarism
The crowds waving palm branches to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem were re-enacting a scene from the Maccabean revolt when Simon marched into the Citadel at Jerusalem and threw off the foreign oppressors (I Macc 13:49-51, II Macc 10:1-8). But Jesus deliberately chose to ride in on a donkey instead of a war horse, demonstrating a dramatically different way to address injustice without resorting to violence.
10. Death as a dissident
Ultimately, Jesus was executed as a rebel by the establishment, who found him too great a threat. The God of the entire universe chose to be killed as a criminal on a cross, hanging between two felons. It was the ultimate act of subversive love and vulnerability. And that one beautiful act changed literally everything...
So, how then should we live? If we truly follow a subversive Jesus – who came to turn everything upside-down and subvert the status quo – what difference would that make in how we live our lives in the shadow of the Empire?
That is the central question in my new book, Subversive Jesus: an adventure in justice, mercy and faithfulness in a broken world. It’s the story of my family's crude attempts and multiple failures to follow Jesus on the margins of society.
Do me a favour?
If you pre-order this week (before April 25th), my publisher Zondervan is offering you some pretty cool freebies...
Simply go to this link and enter your receipt number, and you'll be sent a link to download the following resources:
- 14 Days of Jesus, Compassion and Justice (a devotional e-book)
- Four Week Group Discussion Guide (thoughts, questions and discussion ideas for reading the book in a small group setting)
[My profits from this book all go to support the work of Alongsiders. So join the movement and get subversive!]