a collaborative genealogy of spirituality

political faith

by Stephen Duncombe

The Parable by <a href=''target='_blank'>Lars Justinen</a>
The Parable by Lars Justinen

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.

1 Corinthians 9:19-22


A few Sundays ago I was in what I suppose passes for my church: an activist space in an old warehouse on the edge of the city. I was there with my partner to train a group of veteran organizers on how to employ creativity and the arts in their activism in order to become more effective political players in our media-saturated, culture-rich world. Standing in front of the organizers, I got to a point in my stock presentation where I introduce Jesus as an example of a creative activist. My proselytizing was of a secular rather than religious nature: it wasn’t the spiritual figure of Christ I was interested in but the purely historical Jesus, a radical Mediterranean Jewish peasant building a revolutionary movement two millennia ago. Jesus, I explained, understood the fundamentals of using story and spectacle, signs and symbols as means to criticize the status quo and offer up an alternative vision. When, for example, he entered the main temple of Jerusalem and overturned the tables of the money changers and sellers of ritual objects he was staging an effective political performance. He could have stood outside and harangued the passerby with his opinions, the ancient equivalent of the activist on the soapbox, but instead he demonstrated his politics though a spectacular act of civil disobedience. Through such an action he not only demonstrated visually and bodily his political ideals, but did it in such a provocative way that news of his deed, and therefore his message, was sure to travel. In modern parlance: Jesus went viral.

I then spoke of Jesus’ use of parables and how, by employing these often oblique stories, he created an opening for his audience to make the message their own. Unlike a list of grievances or demands, easily understood and just as easily ignored, the parables asked listeners to puzzle through the mystery of the stories and their meanings. It was an “invitational form of speech” to quote the Bible scholar Marcus Borg, which does not command, but instead works in its “ability to involve and affect the imagination.” One can almost imagine the scene following an impromptu teaching by Jesus: people walking away, debating amongst themselves exactly what this crazy holy man meant by comparing the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed. But with every argument and counter-argument, Jesus’ words ceased to be his alone and became the common property of his audience.

Finally, I discussed how Jesus was able to prefigure his vision of a better world tomorrow though creative actions situated in the present day. By sitting down to dinner—a deeply meaningful ritual in Biblical times—with women, tax collectors, sinners and the ill, he enacted in the here and now the egalitarian community he prophesized for the future. Similarly, by entering Jerusalem on a donkey, the titular “Son of God” seated upon a lowly ass, he acted out his ideal of a world turned upside down in which “the last shall be first, and the first last.” Jesus, I concluded, took the ideal of a political “demonstration” quite literally… and thus employed it very effectively.

I was done with this lesson and ready to move on to a discussion concerning the use of creative tactics in the American Revolution when one of the participants raised their hand and asked me if I was a Christian. The question threw me, and I had to think for a moment. I was raised Christian and I know my Bible, my father and grandfather were both ministers and, most other Sundays, I attend a “real” Church with my family. But am I a Christian?

By way of an answer I explained that a large majority of Americans—anywhere from 76 to 83 percent, in fact—identify themselves as Christian and that many of the guiding myths, symbols and ideals of the United States have their roots in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. I argued that religion, as a compendium of stories, a system of ethics, and a model of behavior could be drawn upon as a popular alternative to norms and ideals of competitive consumer capitalism. I admitted that there’s much to condemn in religion, its bigotry and intolerance for starters, but also pointed out that most religions also extol such virtues as love, community and responsibility for others. Good material for an astute organizer to work with.

I also reminded the activists in the room of the first rule of guerilla warfare: know your terrain and use it to your advantage. Whether we approve of it or not Christianity forms the contours of much of American life and consciousness; it is a, if not the, lingua franca. If you want to be an effective activist in the this country you need to be able to talk the talk, even if you are uneasy walking the walk. We might profit, I concluded, from the words of the Apostle Paul, the crackerjack community organizer of the early Church, who wrote: “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible… I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

By the end of my jeremiad I realized I had my answer. I am a Christian, but only because I believe it makes me a more effective political activist. In a word, I am an opportunistic Christian. (A public admission made more awkward by the fact that the minister of my—albeit activist—Church was participating in the workshop). So much for the authenticity of my faith. But sitting down to retell this story now I realize something else. I do have faith in Jesus, but a particular and perhaps peculiar faith. Do I believe that Jesus walked on water? No. Do I believe in the divinity of Christ? No. Do I believe in God? No. But do I believe that Jesus cared about those who are used, abused or forgotten by society? Do I believe that Jesus wanted to radically transform the world? Do I believe that Jesus can teach me something about how to be an effective political organizer? The answer is Yes, yes and, again, yes.

I believe. I believe that all history, to paraphrase Marx and Engels, is the history of social struggle. It is a bloody and brutal history of those who use their power and privilege to kill, oppress, demean and regulate others in order to maintain and increase their own power and privilege. But there is another history too: a long tradition of people who have stood up to those in power and teached and preached and organized and demanded the redistribution of power and privilege. And there is an even more radical history of those who have envisioned and demanded a world in which power and privilege are abolished altogether.

Jesus is part of this history, as is Moses and Buddha and the Prophet Mohammed; Karl Marx, Emma Goldman and Martin Luther King too. This is my community of faith. I may be opportunistic in the material I draw upon for inspiration and lessons. I will readily become a Christian amongst the Christians, a Jew amongst Jews, and a Muslim amongst Muslims, not to mention a Communist or Anarchist amongst Communists or Anarchists—“I have become all things to all people.” And while this sounds coldly instrumental, I can assure you it is not; it’s something deeply spiritual. I feel impossibly yet intimately connected to those who have fought, and continue to fight, to radically transform the world. Their history is my history and mine theirs. Together we share a faith that we can make heaven here on earth.