Advent Reflection: Deviants, Vigilantes and Empire

 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.” Matthew 2: 16-18

“The new cultural and institutional systems of Empire support a monopolization of resources by the ruling elites, whose lives become concerned in competing with one another for the top positions in the dominance hierarchy. Because power struggles are continuous and often treacherous, relationships commonly feature a substantial element of distrust, fear, and duplicity. Fear is Empire’s friend, as it creates a psychological need for certainty, control, and structured relationships that motivates acquiescence by those below.” – David Korten, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community

Thought:  When the present/established order is challenged it recourses to violence, coercion, and labeling to squelch the alternative voice, perspective and practice.  In the context of North American Christianity establishment forms of Christianity are adept at using fear (e.g. believing such and such will lead you down the slippery slope to relativism and hell) and using the word heretic.  A survival function of establishment Christianity is to label serious challenges or what is perceived to be a threat as ‘heresy’.  This is a quick way, it is thought, to disregard a troublesome expression of Christian faith.  History teaches us that establishment Christianity is normally blinded by its own epistemological and moral totalitarianism.  It cannot see its own crumbling from the inside-out.  As it dies on the heap of its own rigidly structured world it sends out assasins to eliminate the threat to its existence.  It sends out what New Testament scholar Bruce Malina calls vigilantes: Vigilantism is establishment violence against a person or persons successfully labeled as deviant by some moral entrepreneur in the community for the purpose of maintaining prevailing values…The object of vigilantism is to eliminate deviant behavior. –  The Social Gospel of Jesus (p.57)

Thought: Apparently, Jesus was not a part of the establishment.  According to the establishment of Jesus’ day he was a heretic and a theological deviant.  

Reflection:  While many Christians feel compelled to maintain the center I find it interesting that Jesus worked primarily in the periphery.  The coming of baby Jesus was not received with joy by those in the establishment…by those that held the power to name what was and what was not orthodox.  Herod and Company’s orthdoxy was driven by fear and a particular kind of certainty that did not have room for the deviance of Jesus and his rag-tag group of disciples.  Jesus’ deviance was perceived to be a grave threat.  So much so that Herod had every little boy killed in Jesus’ town.  He shot wide of the mark hoping to squelch and kill the deviance.  This Advent season has me asking myself: will I be a vigilante…or a deviant? 


7 thoughts on “Advent Reflection: Deviants, Vigilantes and Empire

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  1. Well said! So much of contemporary Christianity is a kind of theological vigilanteism. I have not read The Social Gospel of Jesus, but will have to pick it up now.

  2. Hi Anthony,

    I met you at the “After Evangelicalism” conference at Cornerstone a year or so ago, and I follow your blog sporadically. I was interested in the following comment you made:

    “When the present/established order is challenged it recourses to violence, coercion, and labeling to squelch the alternative voice, perspective and practice.”

    My related question is: Is this the perpetual dichotomy that Christians need to ultimately strive to transcend? I don’t mean to imply that the dichotomy isn’t concrete or real, or that there aren’t actual and brutal social hierarchies that need to be addressed in a prophetic way in order to counteract oppression. I am all for following “the God of the oppressed”. What I mean is, rather, that this dichotomy often acts symbiotically, i.e., conceptually, there is no alternative without the established, and vice versa. And while no one really likes to think of themselves as “the establishment” (not even the Bush White House), it seems that everyone (unconsciously?) strives to become part of a secure establishment or institution that might ultimately be tempted to use vigilante defense measures to maintain its position. In other words, how do we transcend the implicit desire embedded in such a dichotomy? Especially since the desire is only magnified among the “established”, and even more in the midst of its crumbling. Indeed, it seems to me that the fear of losing one’s stability is the main reason for the violence in the first place (“revolutionaries” don’t have much stability, but are still tempted to use violence in order to gain it; they just don’t usually have the resources to use the really big guns). Both insiders and outsiders are subject to the same weaknesses of human nature, though each are blind to it in different ways and for different reasons. Thus, it seems that the way to transcend this is to deal very directly with the underlying desires and temptations in regard to stability and security. Maybe the cross helps here (not to reconcile the oppressed to their conditions, because justice is non-negotiable, but to free them of a purely existential anxiety regarding it).

    I know you were making a much more direct and practical point, but it touched on some things I have been thinking about lately. Sorry if I was merely going off on a tangent.


  3. “In other words, how do we transcend the implicit desire embedded in such a dichotomy?”

    Michael. Good question. I am not sure if we will be able to fully transcend this reality this side of the Eschaton. I believe what we can do to resist total complicity with the powers is to constantly self-examine our practices and beliefs. Which means we constantly learn from the saints of old, attend to specific Christian practices that enable us to be a site where God can give us direction.

    The current discussion surrounding epistemology in some circles is an excellent example of self-examination. For instance, many North American Christians are foundationalist in their epistemology when reading and interpreting the Christian faith. What we have learned from non-foundationalist theologians and scholars is that the word “Christian” is a tradition-dependent concept that arises out of a particular communities language and practices. Learning this has enabled us to discern how our theology has been shaped by differing historical and political contexts. Understanding that the Christian faith has been translated in different ways depending upon the context helps us see those forms of Christianity that are more at home with an imperial ethos than that expressed by the early Christians.

    Seeing the situadedness of our theology and Christian practice can aide us in resisting the powers. That’s a start.

  4. Thanks, Anthony, for the response. I entirely agree that regular self-examination, especially with an eye to ancient prophetic examples, is crucial. My own heroes in this regard are Dietrich Bonhoeffer, MLK, and the old anarchist poet, Kenneth Rexroth, who once said that “if a fairly small minority of people started to consistently live out the simple ethic of the gospels, our present society would immediately collapse.”

  5. I wasn’t meaning to conflate “ancient prophetic examples” with Bonhoeffer et al. in the previous statements. They are, rather, for me, fairly contemporary examples of those who have exercised the self-examination you were discussing.

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