In the context of contemporary events, protests, and the revolt spreading throughout Serbia, the matter can also be seen from a theological point of view. It is hard to say how well the churchgoing people are managing in all this. On the public stage, there are but a handful of voices that are perceived as the voice of the Church. However, in the general confusion, it is not easy to discern the Christian position. Christians are usually thought of as being exclusively interested in the Kingdom of Heaven, which is basically true. Yet the path to Heaven leads through the world in which we live. Our testimony in the world is a ticket to the Kingdom of Heaven. It is often forgotten that one part of the prayer Our Father reads: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” If there is no justice of God on earth, how will the Kingdom of Heaven descend on it?
This question concerns Christian action in the world. If Christians are silent or approving of injustice, are they on the path of the Kingdom of Heaven? If they rise up against injustice, then one might call that a rebellion, a rebellion against injustice. Only free people and those who strive for freedom are capable of rebellion. The obediently pious cannot rebel. In order to better understand things, we will look at and recall some things which are almost forgotten in the Church, and which are an essential part of its mission in the world. At the heart of this recollection is the idea of rebellion.
Rebellion theology is prophetic theology. The prophetic movement originated sometimes in the 9th century B.C. It was essentially a revolt against social injustices, especially against abuses of power, and the fact that a small group (of tycoons) began to amass wealth at the expense of the rest of the people. The Old Testament prophets are the first movement in history that, at the theological-ideological level, opposed social injustices.
The Israelites are a rebellious people. On the way from Egypt, they manifest their freedom precisely through rebellion against injustice, but sometimes they also rebel against God. It only shows that God wants just such a people as an ally, not obedient and sterile pious slaves.
Israel was constituted as a people in Canaan preciesely when they were approached by rebelling slaves from the cities of Canaan, who were attracted to the Israelites because of their idea that every man was created in the image of God.
In the Old Testament, the land belongs to God and he shares it with the chosen and rebellious people. God divides the land so that it belongs to everyone and that it is impossible to permanently alienate it without the will of the owner/the heir. That was the meaning of the Jubilee year.
The exodus of the rebellious slaves, the people of Israel, and their constitution as a people in Canaan essentially springs from rebellion. The conquered land belongs to them and is for them to live in in a different way from other nations. That is why they were given the land to be the “light of the world.”
Rebellion does not exist only at the social level. Although unjustly, Jonah rebelled against God when God sent him to Nineveh to preach. Interestingly, God directs Jonah in various ways, even as Jonah remains stubborn. God seems to love rebels!
Christ’s public appearance is in many ways revolutionary. There is a strong social aspect, which emphasizes the pursuit of justice: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10) .
Christ’s followers are the impoverished and disenfranchised strata of society, despised by the state and church (temple) establishment. Both the Romans and the Jewish leaders perceive Christ as a rebel.
The first followers of Christ were perceived by the Roman Empire as an anti-social factor, whose members will not confess the emperor as God. The persecutions of Christians were most often initiated for these reasons.
The book of Revelation is also a rebellion against injustice in the world. The emperor himself is presented as the Antichrist.
The main attraction of the Christian mission is the fundamental demand for justice on earth. In the system in which they lived, this often meant a call to rebellion.
The monastic movement and flight to the desert was a rebellion against a world governed by injustice, which became more and more ingrained in the “church circles.” This is especially seen in the example of St. John Chrysostom, a great theologian and fighter against injustice.
John fiercely clashed with the Byzantine court and privileged social strata. As the archbishop of Constantinople, he did not want to peacefully cohabit with the authorities. He sold the marble intended for the construction of the temple and distributed the money to the poor. He addresses Empress Eudoxia with the sermon “Again Herodias raves.” John was exiled and died in exile. He was soon canonized.
The well-known symphony of the Church and the state meant that the Church should be one of the fundamental pillars of society. Often the spiritual superstructure was reduced to the spiritual obedience of the subjects. The religious was identified with social needs.
Such a concept of religiosity overemphasized man’s unworthiness and sinfulness, which can be well seen in the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. In addition to a certain spiritual weight, it is clear that it expresses the theology of a serf who sees God through the prism of an earthly ruler.
Such piety was transferred from Byzantium to other Slavic nations. The Slavs were Christianized according to that ideological and spiritual matrix. In the West, the subjugating Christianity was even more explicit: peoples conquered and taught obedience under the sign of the cross.
Bishops and clergy in Byzantium and the rest of the Orthodox countries were state officials, appointed and controlled by the imperial government. The original election of the clergy remained only a part of the ritual “worthy.”
Bible readings in the Middle Ages were largely based on texts that supported such piety. Christ is represented as the Almighty King, often represented as the judge. The legal dimension of the Old Testament was emphasized. The prophets were undesirable because they were rebels.
One of the paradoxes of modern civilization is that it developed in conflict with the Church. The paradox is that the world has begun to stand up for freedoms and human rights. The church insisted on traditional values and created a cult of medieval tradition.
The Church thus lost its prophetic role, often fighting against the justified rebellion of the oppressed. National or “church” interests were placed above the interests of many as a divine being.
With the loss of the prophetic dimension, theology turned more into the ideology of the powerful church, in which one of the essential roles of theology is to devise a good mode of coexistence with the government. In essence, theology has lost its touch with life because it has stopped recognizing and reacting to the injustice that governs this world.
The theology of rebellion is not possible without it, it emerges from such insights and the need to achieve justice in this world.
Liberation movements around the world, with few exceptions, could not find a serious foothold in the church. The rebellion moved to the “flower children,” various revolutionaries and fighters for justice, who rightly became icons of freedom.
Today, a theology of rebellion is especially needed. New theologians will have to speak with the voice of the Old Testament prophets. A world in which various forms of injustice grow and false idols and authorities abound, requires a deconstruction of that system. First of all, the system of values. It is necessary for theology to breathe a deeper spiritual and anthropological dimension into the general rebellion.
This means redefining a man’s self-understanding and liberation from religious fear. Christ is our best friend, ever ready to help, not a terrible judge who punishes subjects and serfs.
The theology of rebellion is not rebelliousness, but a struggle for internal and external freedom. At the same time, it is a rebellion against internal vices, which at the societal level express themselves in injustice, violence, hypocrisy, etc. It is a struggle against that which enslaves us, and against that which hinders such a struggle, such as, for example, submissive piety.
Rebellion is a natural state of man; just direct it from the stomach into the sphere of the spirit!
Rodoljub Kubat is a full professor at the Old Testament Chair (Department) of the Theological Faculty of the University of Belgrade. His field of research is Old Testament exegesis and theological hermeneutics, and he currently runs a project to translate Septuagint into Serbian.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.