One can look at the pages of the New Testament and find in the synoptic Gospels, the letter of James and the book of Revelation that indomitable, uncompromising spirit which set itself against the values of the present age. Such clear-cut counter-cultural strands are, as has already been suggested, a common feature of early Christian texts. Yet, as the Pauline letters indicate, the new converts, particularly those in the urban environment of the cities of the Empire, had to learn a degree of accommodation with the world as it was, without, somehow, abandoning the stark call to discipleship of the teacher from Nazareth. What is remarkable about the letters of Paul, however, is the way in which this Christian activist maintained the counter-cultural identity of these isolated groups by his traveling and writing. The strange thing about Paul is that the energetic innovator and founder of the gentile church should have been the one who above all sowed the seeds of the acceptability of the world order as it is and passivity toward it. Nevertheless, as a recent study has reminded us, there is at the heart of this emerging Christian church a distinctive identity in which elite goods and privileges (wealth, power, holiness, and knowledge) ceased merely to be the prerogative of an elite and came to be accessible to all within the common life of the Christian communities (Theissen 1999: 81-118). It comes as no surprise, therefore, that in the history of Christianity many have often looked to the radical Paul as a basis for appeals for change, as the examples of Augustine, Martin Luther, and Karl Barth indicate.
Tensions certainly exist both among the New Testament documents, and, in the case of some writings, within the same document. Such a tension between what was politically and theologically possible and what needed to be held on to, to be heeded whenever possible within the severe constraints posed by historical circumstances, is part of the story of Christian radicalism. Some were more inventive than others in the ways in which they dealt with this conundrum. There were martyrs who brooked no compromise, or found there was no alternative but to die for their faith. But there were those who sought the freedom within the status quo to pursue their goals. In many ways their ingenuity and their knack for survival bespeaks of that same divine spark that kept the faith alive in the early years of the Christian church. Such were the ways to maintain the commitment to Christ's kingdom in the midst of the political and economic order of an age which demanded compromise.
The picture we have of early Christianity from the sources is a "sectarian" picture which sits uncomfortably with all that we hold dear. From the position of discomfort, persecution, oppression, and minority status, Christian people found that the Bible resonated with their lives. For all their protestations of loyalty to the emperor, they refused to conform to the demands of empire. For them there was another king: Jesus. They looked forward to the time when to him every knee would bow. There could be no compromise between God and
Caesar. Allegiance to the resurrected Christ meant that in any conflict of loyalty the nation-state had to take second place to the pearl of great price which those who confessed Jesus as Lord had discovered.
The eschatological hope of God's kingdom on earth which is such a dominant thread in New Testament theology cannot allow any easy accommodation between the church, the community of those called to bear witness to the reign of God, and political powers. While still living in an age which is passing away, the church is bound to have to make choices about its involvement and participation, based on its assessment of the extent to which, in whole and in part, the kingdoms of this world manifest the way of the Messiah. This is a complicated process in which one might expect significant differences of opinion. But when that wrestling with the issues is carried out in a situation where integration into a political system is a continuing datum, the chances of critical awareness are dramatically diminished and the dangers of being used to baptize social, political and economic systems which are far from reflecting the righteousness of God are increased.
The contrast between Caesar and Christ pervaded early Christian discourse. Thus when Polycarp was brought before the local governor, he refused to swear an oath to the emperor, or burn a pinch of incense to Caesar. In the legends surrounding his death the crowds condemned him as the "destroyer of our gods, who is teaching the whole multitudes to abstain from sacrificing to them or worshipping them" (Martyrdom of Polycarp 10-12). A neutral, apparently secular, action is an event of supreme importance in the eyes of God. The redemptive moment means siding with the Lamb at the moment of testimony, and standing firm in one's convictions and commitment to the horizon of hope symbolized by the Lamb who bears the marks of slaughter. In this respect John's apocalyptic vision is typical of early Christian political understanding. It offers hope to those who stand firm against the insidious blandishments of a decaying culture. The Apocalypse reminds readers of the ultimate character of apparently harmless actions. The odd bit of compromise with the old order is nothing less than being marked by the Beast. All action, however small, is ultimately significant and of infinite value in the divine economy.
In the ordinary situations of life in the present there exist a challenge, a threat, and an opportunity to discover the hidden life of God. The scriptures mix the mundane and the heavenly to convey the deeper character of what it is they seek to communicate. We see this most clearly in Matt. 25: 31 ff., with the subtle relationship between the eschatological judge and his hidden presence in the least of his "brethren" in the midst of the present age: the consequence for final judgment is now being gestated in the womb of history. This is true of the Bible as a whole. All of life is an issue for the religious person, from eating to buying, words and deeds as well as what is narrowly regarded as worship. There is no area of existence which is neutral and unaffected by religious significance. This link between the public and the private, the spiritual and political, which Christianity inherited from Judaism has become a central element of catholic Christianity down the centuries.
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