God Is Subversive:
Talking Peace in a Time of Empire
God is Subversive is a collection of seven lectures and less formal talks prepared by Lee Griffith – an author, veteran anti-war activist, and Christian anarchist – for the week-long 2007 Peace Fellow in Residence program at Elizabethtown College, a Brethren in Christ school in Lancaster County, Pa. Written to American university students, the book analyzes and critiques life in the American empire in an effort to inspire a life of nonviolent peacemaking under the lordship of Christ.
Although Griffith’s book is concerned primarily with U.S. dynamics, Griffith’s reflections should prove provocative for Canadian Mennonite Brethren.
First, Griffith provides interesting introductions to some of the questions, assumptions, challenges, and debates related to pacifism, just war theory, and peacemaking. For example, chapter two offers some responses to the usual questions asked of a pacifist: What about Hitler? and What would you do if someone attacked a loved one? Two of the more helpful observations Griffith makes are “Pacifism should not be misunderstood as mere passivity,” and confidence in violence “entails a series of what must be described as faith assumptions.”
Or consider chapter three, where Griffith discusses the creative thinking that determines the methods and modes of peacemaking. Using the underground railroad as an example, Griffith explains how secrecy and silence – tools of “the powers” – may be deployed in the service of truth. When it comes to another form of civil disobedience – damage to property – Griffith outlines various criteria intended to prevent the physical or emotional injury to another person. Ultimately, Griffith declares, nonviolence depends on a conversion that struggles to serve life rather than death.
In chapter six, Griffith addresses the ongoing “effectiveness vs. faithfulness” debate. Griffith argues that allowing the Western values of efficiency and effectiveness to trump all other considerations diminishes human freedom. “Utilitarians are willing to sacrifice the present for the future,” Griffith explains. “We may engage in a little evil now for the sake of avoiding a future result that is really – well, evil. The people who are made to suffer now are treated as mere means” toward a supposedly happier future. Instead of simply pursuing effectiveness, Griffith explains, Christians who submit to the reign of the Lamb will also be guided by, among other things, prayer and joyful service, honesty, and suffering love.
While Griffith launches readers into ongoing conversations about peacemaking, he also provides a helpful summary of biblical texts and themes that inform and motivate peacemaking. Chapter one – a sermon – focuses on Isaiah 1:10–18. Standing firmly in the Old Testament prophetic tradition, Griffith reminds readers that injustice does not descend “like a natural disaster that no one could have seen coming.” Injustice is a byproduct of living in “a filthy, rotten system.” Drawing on a catalogue of Old Testament texts, Griffith calls readers to form communities of expanding compassion for the suffering and the oppressed, because doing justice will lead to “a renewed encounter with God.”
In chapter seven, Griffith explains that the Bible’s books present conflicting images of God: God is a lion who mangles and devours prey (Hosea 13:7–11), yet God is also a mother hen with outstretched wings (Matthew 23:37). Griffith claims this ongoing argument gives contemporary followers of Jesus permission to argue with God about (among other things) evil and injustice. Like Jonah and Abraham, followers of Jesus are to argue for “God’s kingdom come” and a return of “the slaughtered Lamb.”
This permission to argue, Griffith writes, should lead Christians to argue with other would-be gods – philosophies like utilitarianism and patriotism, political powers that encourage revenge (e.g., prisons and war), and economic powers that ignore the plight of the poor.
Helpful introductions and summaries aside, a second way in which Griffith provokes is through the questions he asks and the explanations he provides. Some of Griffith’s conclusions will be unsettling. For example, in chapter four Griffith argues in favour of prison abolition. He insists that “getting tough on crime” fails to protect all the weak and oppressed.
Furthermore, Griffith claims prison is a “totalitarian institution” that exacerbates poverty, racism, and classism. In outlining the reasons why prisons do not facilitate rehabilitation, he notes that prisons separate families, mark prisoners with the stigma of being a convict, and thus limit their friendship and employment options. He explains: “You break into my house and steal a hundred dollars. As a result, I get nothing, but you get a year in jail, a thousand dollar fine, and the loss of your job and maybe your family as well. That is not an eye for an eye. That is mean-spirited vengeance.”
At bottom, Griffith insists that contemporary Christians revisit their assumptions about prisons and criminals, for the biblical story tells us that God is about freeing prisoners. Indeed, like Jesus, many members of the first Christian community were convicts.
In another instance (chapter six), Griffith critiques the religion of patriotism. He notes how patriotic allegiance to national values can lead to injustice: “Patriotic fervor is often sustained through assertions of superiority and exceptionalism. In the United States, the very way we live constitutes an assertion that we have an exceptional right to a large portion of the earth’s wealth…. This life constitutes theft, not only from people living elsewhere, but also from future generations and from other species of animals and plants.” Given the similarities between Canadian and American lifestyles, Griffith’s uncomfortable challenge to consider one’s loyalties is directed equally at U.S. and Canadian Christians.
Griffith is stimulating because he does not provide all of the answers for his readers. Instead, he invites readers to jump into the peacemaking fray and discover things for themselves. Those positive qualities play into a third – and negative – way in which Griffith plays provocateur. At times, Griffith makes bold claims without providing enough evidence in support. For example, Griffith states that the U.S. spends more on the military than the next 30 highest-spending nations combined. Yet he offers no statistics. Elsewhere, Griffith declares, “Prisons increase the suffering of offenders while doing nothing to diminish the suffering of victims.” On what basis can he claim that prisons do nothing to help victims?
Even worse, Griffith sometimes trades in oversimplifications. For example, in a discussion of power, he writes, “We do not control power; it controls us,” later concluding that “Faith and coercive power are incompatible.” Contrary to what Griffith implies, the biblical evidence indicates that power is not necessarily bad. The New Testament is clear: Christians are to receive God’s gift of power for the sake of salvation (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8, Ephesians 3:18, 2 Timothy 1:7). Furthermore, faith and coercion are not necessarily incompatible. Griffith equates coercion with oppression, yet as Duane K. Friesen explains in Christian Peacemaking and International Conflict, coercive power can be used in nonviolent, nonoppressive ways. In sum, at times Griffith’s arguments might be more convincing if they were better supported and more precise.
Reading God is Subversive may prove frustrating at times because Griffith is not always clear what it is he is arguing. Nevertheless, given that this book combines many insightful observations with the occasional “inciteful” statement on some interesting content (prison abolition, patriotism, peacemaking), this book would be an excellent resource for Sunday school classes, Bible studies, and discussion groups. Warning: reading God is Subversive may inspire you to pray and live in different ways – peaceful ways that anticipate the coming of that “great subversion promised by God.”