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Mutual Inequality

In a previous post the issue of Jesus’ opposition to patriarchy and pyramidal hierarchies the issue was raised of how the order of the kingdom interrupts and overturns oppressive social conventions. Does the order proclaimed by Jesus and witnessed to in the church supplant hierarchical social orders of oppression with new social orders of egalitarian equality?

The answer to such a way of putting things must clearly be no. The apocalyptic nature of the order of the resurrection defies any such notions of social engineering being the substance of Jesus’ message. So, how then should we characterize the theopolitical message of Jesus as it regards social relations?

The fundamental character of Jesus’ theopolitics revolves around the way they shatter the polarities which define the normal oppositions within social relations. In other words, the order of the resurrection transfigures rather than merely inverts the hegemonic and counter-hegemonic binaries between oppressor and oppressed. That is why the order of the Triune God is apocalyptic, miraculous, a scandal. Alan Lewis got this dynamic exactly right in his book, Between Cross and Resurrection in a passage I have quoted before:

“What damage could be done to the mighty structures of the empire by one who gave Caesar his due, who scorned the bigotry which hated an infidel and punished the ungodly, and who pictured a kingdom of freedom, peace, and love in which the distinction between friend and foe would lose all meaning? Yet, with their unseeing eyes, the Romans had rightly perceived a radical and dangerous subversion — with clearer intuition, it seems, than those who still characterize the preaching of Jesus as spiritual and therefore not political. What, in fact, could be more ‘political,’ a more complete and basal challenge to the kingdoms of this world, to its generals and its lords, both to those who hold power and to those who would seize it, than one who says that his kingdom is not of this world, and yet prays that the kingdom of his Father will come and his will be done on earth. This is an aspiration for the world more revolutionary, a disturbance of the status quo more seismic, an allegiance more disloyal, a menace more intimidating, than any program which simply meets force with force and matches loveless injustice with loveless vengeance. Here is a whole new ordering of human life, as intolerable to insurrectionists as to oppressors. It promises that forgiveness, freedom, love, and self-negation, in all their feeble ineffectiveness, will prove more powerful and creative than every system and every countersystem which subdivides the human race into rich and poor, comrades and enemies, insiders and outsiders, allies and adversaries. What could an earthly power, so in love with power as to divinize it in the person of its emperor, do with such dangerous powerlessness but capture and destroy it? It could change everything were it not extinguished, and speedily.” (p. 49-50)

John Howard Yoder understood this in a radical way when he engaged the texts of the household codes in the New Testament and classified them as “revolutionary subordination.” The message of the gospel is not simply a message of equality, let alone the notions of liberal democratic, rights-based equality that inform our contemporary imagination. Rather the message of the gospel seizes both the oppressed and the superordinate, calling them both to the message of mutual subordination. The message of the gospel is, properly speaking, not an egalitarian proclamation of equality, but an apocalyptic interruption of mutual inequality.


  1. Hill wrote:

    Milbank used to talk about “tangled hierarchies” and constantly inverting hierarchies. I wish I could remember the specifics, but it was an attempt to engage this in a way that I found very compelling (at least I remember finding it very compelling). Unfortunately when I googled it, I was taken to a comment on this blog made by me. Something about strange loops came up as well:

    Friday, October 3, 2008 at 8:45 am | Permalink
  2. dcrowe wrote:

    What a fantastic quote from Lewis’s book! Another book on my list…thanks Halden.

    Friday, October 3, 2008 at 11:40 am | Permalink
  3. Dan wrote:

    “Rather the message of the gospel seizes both the oppressed and the superordinate, calling them both to the message of mutual subordination.” i’m plowing my way through Miroslav Volf’s “Exclusion and Embrace” in which he explores this theme in depth.

    and you give me more food for thought as i develop a series in response to my congregations request that I do something on Revelation.

    Friday, October 3, 2008 at 12:26 pm | Permalink
  4. Doug Harink wrote:

    Thanks, Halden, for the quote from Lewis, and for your further clarification of this issue. Of course, Yoder’s chapter on “revolutionary subordination” is the guiding light here, for both you and me. Yoder teaches us to see “be subordinate” not as a means to another end, but as itself the socio-political form of the gospel.

    Friday, October 3, 2008 at 4:35 pm | Permalink
  5. David Rudel wrote:

    If the conclusion we are to draw from this post is that we are not called actively to effect social change through secular means as part of obedience to the Gospel, I disagree for a number of reasons.

    [I realize that such was not a conclusion you intended one to draw, but this reader was not so clear on the proposed outworking of the viewpoint in modern society.]

    A. Multiple orders can be derived from the same action without conflict.
    B. Even in Christ’s most apocalyptic, we are called to effect a social order in compliance with God’s righteousness.
    C. Disciples of Christ, even through the mere requirement of imitating Christ would naturally be drawn to such inbreaking of the social system.

    A.Multiple orders can be derived from the same action without conflict:

    The claim is made that Jesus’ work does not set up an order of social equality because instead it sets up an order of mutual inequality/subordination.

    This appears to be faulty logic as it suggests only one order can derive from a given action. Consider the order imposed by the Mosaic Covenant. When God calls Israel from Egypt, a basic order is set up based only on Israel following God through the intermediary of Moses. No sacrificial system is set up (as God points out later when illustrating that such a system was only instituted due to their waywardness), and no Levitical priesthood exists, etc.

    Very soon thereafter, when Israel begins to show its stripes, God instituted the sacrificial system and the intermediary caste of priests. This was not the “substance” of God’s calling Israel from Egypt, but it became the order nonetheless.

    Later Israel demanded a King. This was most definitely not part of the theoretic order, but it became part of the social system of Israel and through David Israel was blessed immediately and Judah was given extra protection from God’s later wrath.

    Similarly, while you are definitely correct in saying that Christ’s message imposes a new order of mutual inequality, that order (the theoretic/idealistic) order can only be universal in a world where all join the New Covenant. Those who are not the Father’s are not called to Christ, and there are several who are called that do not come, etc.

    With that in mind, it makes perfect sense that some derived order also comes from Christ’s work, so that in our current hybrid time of light and dark some lesser [but "wider"] social order that includes all of humanity should naturally derive from the pure social order that only pertains to people of Light. Since laws allow believers to engage non-believers at this point in creation, the natural conclusion is that we attempt to mimic through poor tools the same egalitarian principle that derives from the more perfect social order followers of Christ are called to observe.

    Consider Old Testament examples where the nations of Judah and Israel are told to change their policies to stop oppressing the poor. Should we somehow do less?

    B. Even in Christ’s most apocalyptic, we are called to effect a social order in compliance with God’s righteousness.

    Christ when He comes into His glory looks forward as much as He looks back. He is the fulfillment of a massive collection of prophecies regarding the coming Kingdom, prophecies that pictured the current world [for they included both God's people and other nations, but with God's people under the care of the Davidic King].

    Just as every promise of deliverance in the OT is implicitly a call to repentance, Jesus’ glorification is implicitly a call to effect the Davidic Kingdom of Justice and Righteousness.

    When Israel or Judah refused to repent at the appropriate times, they were in danger of losing the promised deliverance. In the same way, we are required to react to the Messiah’s coming by effecting the Kingdom pictured in the later prophets. That kingdom is one that lived “among the nations” where Justice and Righteousness reigned. [Note that the OT meaning of "Justice" referred mostly to protection of marginalized groups.]

    Therefore, apocalyptic or not, Jesus’ resurrection is a clarion call for Christians to bring about the nation pictured in the Old Testament, and to the extent that circumstance make secular channels the most effective way to do that [and to the extent that all the oppressed are to be empowered, not merely Christians], Jesus death does, in fact, rally us to jurisprudential and social intervention.

    C. Disciples of Christ, even through the mere requirement of imitating Christ would naturally be drawn to such inbreaking of the social system.

    Since Christ’s orders after His resurrection are to teach all nations to obey everything He taught, and many of His actions were violently opposed to the current regime in an effort to empower marginalized groups, it would seem that any follower of Christ should be doing the same.

    Saturday, October 4, 2008 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

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  1. Radical Subordination, Disloyalty « Return Good for Evil on Friday, October 3, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    [...] Subordination, Disloyalty Halden posted a great bit of writing on “mutual inequality” and the true radicalism involved [...]

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