Christian Subversion

The earliest critics of Christianity saw this movement as a threat to the established order. Central to that threat was the way Christians insisted on affirming that all persons have great worth, regardless of their social class, ethnic heritage, or gender. Underlying Christian thinking was a belief that even those at the lowest levels of society can be full participants in a new humanity in which they share in the divine nature through Christ. Because of what God had done in Christ, the lowly were elevated and the mighty were humbled. In what must have been regarded as an affront to accepted notions of social hierarchy, free people and slaves worshiped together in Christian communities. This practice was a kind of declaration that whatever society might say about human worth had been overruled by a higher authority. 

The order that critics of Christianity wanted to preserve was based on distinctions between people that were thought to be built into the nature of things. For example, influential thinkers of the ancient world defended slavery on the grounds that some people were incapable of ruling themselves and must be ruled by those with greater endowments. Similarly, the superiority of the high-born and the inferiority of lower classes seemed obvious to the critics, while the idea that those from the bottom rungs of society could be regarded as equals of the nobility seemed ludicrous. Nevertheless, the critics responded to Christian teachings with some alarm. Even if Christians were not organizing a political revolt, their ways of thinking and their practices might sow seeds that could undermine the stability of authority structures that held society together.

A later critic of Christianity who echoes their concerns is Nietzsche. He thought that the coming of Christianity was a social disaster that had resulted in those few humans capable of real creativity and achievement being restrained by desires of the contemptible masses. Nietzsche recognized that ideas of the equal worth of all had become ingrained in the thought of people in his own time, including those who had rejected Christianity. Part of the mission he undertook was to show that giving up on the Christian view of things meant rejecting the kind of morality that went with it. The sort of compassion for those who suffer Nietzsche thought deplorable was in his view a byproduct of Christianity that must be left behind.

The kind of concern for the weak and vulnerable found in Christianity is rooted in fundamental themes of biblical religion in which God is portrayed as deeply concerned for those at the bottom of the social hierarchy. In the pivotal origin story of the Jewish people, God hears the cries of slaves and comes to their aid. Thoughts about uses of power are likely to be different if you approach the issue from the perspective of coming from slavery. Throughout Hebrew Scripture there are repeated reminders to Israelites that they need to be merciful and generous toward their needy neighbors. In prophetic writings there are unequivocal declarations that performing all the right religious rituals means nothing if you are oblivious to the plight of the poor. They are also to be responsive to the situation of the most vulnerable people: the widow, the orphan, the alien. In biblical stories condemnations of the misuse of power to take advantage of the weak are applied even to kings. 

Jesus continues the prophetic tradition in announcing liberation for the poor and oppressed, and early Christian documents make it clear that his message was understood as elevating those in the lowest social classes. The book of James condemns preferential treatment of the rich and powerful over the poor. The book of Acts describes extensive efforts to make sure that needy members of the community were provided for. In the striking judgment scene of Matthew 25, it is how the weak and vulnerable are treated that reveals whether people have genuine connections with the Christ who identifies with those who are regarded as least.

Needless to say, Christians have not always seen the import of a message that declares the worth of each individual. It took centuries to come to a consensus that slavery is inconsistent with the biblical message. And even today, many who invoke the name of Christ think that women should play a subordinate role. Our understanding of the Christian message is often filtered through customary practices or political ideologies that block our awareness of what it is like for those who have been denied a realistic chance at full participation in society.

Nevertheless, biblical ideals of protecting those who are vulnerable have had significant effects. They have directly inspired efforts to build ministries dedicated to healing the sick, caring for the homeless, and feeding the hungry. Movements toward greater social justice such as the civil rights movement in the United Sates or opposition to apartheid in South Africa were explicitly rooted in a biblical vision of the good society. But even when the impulse toward greater social justice has been secularized, it can be recognized as an outgrowth of a vision of equal worth that came into the world through Christianity. 

We tend to think of revolutions as sudden, violent overthrows, but genuine cultural change doesn’t typically happen that way. The most enduring transformations are often slow, involving shifts that seem hardly noticeable at the beginning, but over time give rise to new ways of thinking and feeling that begin to permeate our imagination and motivate our actions. The Christian vision of the incalculable worth of each individual has altered the way we respond to suffering. Our consciences do not allow us to avoid noticing the victim. For most of us, the kind of world that the ancient critics of Christianity sought to preserve that denies worth to some people is not one we are prepared to enter.