“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles … If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household … Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” – Jesus (Matthew 10:16-18, 25, 34).
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.” – Written by Paul the Apostle (Romans 13:1-5) whom Rome executed a decade later for being a criminal.
Imagine you were following Jesus at the moment he told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” To Jesus’ followers at that moment these words warned anyone who wished to be Jesus’ disciple that they would become criminals, criminals who would meet execution by the state. At this moment Jesus confessed that he would be what his disciples understood as a failed messiah. Is that what the cross means to readers today, many of whom live in America and couldn’t imagine the inside of a cell let alone being the object of state execution?
The troubling reality Christians must confront today is whether we believe the cross Jesus bore and the fate he and his disciples met are still relevant in our society. We’ve transformed that instrument of state power and punishment, inextricably bound to the body of the criminal, into a figurative endeavor expressing the Christian’s need to renounce vice. It’s common to link the cross to the denial of the self as Jesus does, but we’ve interpreted the meaning of the cross for the life of disciples today in light of our understanding of what is the self. The argument typically goes that Christians must be willing to sacrifice their desires—selfishness, greed, envy, passion, etc.—in order to follow after Jesus, specifically in private relations. But when we unfasten the cross from the body of the criminal, discipleship also takes on a new form. In effect, we have severed the spiritual life from the social. Either the cross Jesus spoke of is irrelevant for the life of a disciple today because we assume society no longer embodies the power to which Jesus spoke truth, or we’ve reconstructed the cross so law-abiding citizens can carry it as a badge.
My professor Willie Jennings captured what perhaps lies at the heart of our problem when he wrote,
The great illusion of followers of Jesus—especially those who imagine themselves leaders—is that they can live a path different from Jesus and his first disciples. They believe somehow that they can be loved, or at least liked, or at least tolerated—or even ignored—by those with real power in this world … Real preaching and authentic teaching is inextricably bound to real criminality. Christians of the modern West have never really grasped our deep connection to the criminal mind, our mind.
Can we truly understand the form and content of discipleship without remembering the true criminal face of the cross?
These issues and questions have recently revealed the site I plan to focus on: criminals and martyrs. Christian martyrs are effectively criminals. And martyrs have often exemplified in the Christian imagination the epitome of the disciple of Jesus, that is the one who obeys Jesus’ command to pick up one’s cross and follow after him. But the martyr has also become a point of contention, something to protect. Following WWII, for example, there was much debate surrounding the martyr status of Dietrich Bonhoeffer due to his participation in the conspiracy against Hitler. As Christians, English-speaking and German, discovered the depth of Bonhoeffer’s complicity they wondered how he could maintain his integrity as a Christian while conspiring against Hitler. Eberhard Bethge, best friend of Bonhoeffer, explains that the very circumstances necessary to Bonhoeffer’s status as a martyr simultaneously constituted for many a menace to Christian identity. Such tension results from the struggle for Christians to reconcile the perceived righteousness of the disciple with the body of the criminal.
This is not simply a concern for Christians living in some nation or time where Christianity is explicitly illegal. We shouldn’t deceive ourselves by thinking that Christianity can maintain its integrity as witness to Jesus—the Word that fundamentally disrupts social powers, categorizations, and orders—if the principalities and powers assimilate or tolerate Christianity. To be clear, I’m not suggesting the Church measure its faithfulness in proportion to social rejection and persecution by social powers. Nor am I baptizing criminality as a new righteousness by which Christians may take the role of judge over and against others. But we must confront the reality that Christians only ceased to be criminals when they wielded the power of the state.
No society has ever (nor will) embodied, enforced or legislated justice and peace to a degree that no longer warranted speaking holy words of truth to power. As such, we cannot anticipate to be welcomed by power if we faithfully witness to a reality that calls power into question. On the one hand, the Church should be suffering some form of rejection/oppression by those in power regardless of the society, or question whether or not it is truly being the Church. On the other hand, the Church must make certain its suffering comes from politically and socially engaging its place as witness to Jesus, rather than suffering for politicized ideological loyalties or being downright mean or indifferent. Society’s conventions in the penultimate age do not tolerate the Lord whose kingdom is not of this world. If the cross is inextricably bound to the body of the criminal can Christians carry the cross while perceiving themselves—their Christian identity and imagination—to be fundamentally differentiated from criminals? How do Christians presently imagine the criminal theologically and socially in relation to the disciple? How might the body and mind of the criminal inform the content of discipleship?