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Politics of Scripture

Reimagined Victory

John proclaims that our trust conquers the world and makes us victors…Trust implies relationship rather than transaction or exploitation. For John’s audience to be people who trust (and who are trustworthy) means for them to see others as people rather than problems.

1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3 For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, 4 for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. 5 Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? 6 This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.

1 John 5:1-6 (NRSVue)

In 1 John 5:1-6, John describes the small and seemingly insignificant church of the late first century in grandiose language. This tiny group of Jesus-followers John describes as victors: “who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” John makes it sound so straightforward, as if his readers would naturally assume that they indeed achieve victory over the whole (Roman) world. But at first, John’s words to his readers might have seemed more like delusions of grandeur rather than simple truth!

In the first century Roman world (which is not that different from our current world), victory was not only desired but worshipped. Troops invoked the goddess Nike—the personification of victory itself—before going into battle. Nike’s portraits and statues decorated the places frequented by the victorious: mountain tops, temples, and cosmopolitan streets. Her likeness is recognized by unfurled wings in flight. These open, beating wings symbolized both speed and the advantageous higher position that flying offers.

John’s readers, by contrast, have taken the lower position, following a Messiah who shamefully endured crucifixion at the hands of seemingly “victorious” Romans. The goddess Nike did not bless such people with victory.

Victory also never meant just winning. It was not enough merely to best one’s opponent; a total domination of one’s rival must be demonstrated. Roman statesman Ennius observed: “The victor is not victorious if the vanquished does not consider him so.” This mentality explains the Roman triumph—a military parade of stolen spoils and conquered captives—which heartily celebrated the victorious might of Rome and equally celebrated the thorough decimation of whatever foreign people Rome had recently conquered. A zero-sum game, all the honor goes to the victor and all the shame to the defeated, no compassion for the losers and no consolation prize.

The losers could not escape the shame of defeat even after the triumphant processional was over. Rome minted commemorative coins to celebrate newly conquered peoples—the coins featured the personification of the defeated nation as a slave (usually female), shackled and ravaged. Such images circulating as currency reminded everyone of the greatness of the winner and the reduction of the loser. Upon such necessary cruelty of the winners inflicted on the losers, Cicero remarked, “victory is by nature insolent and haughty.” And so victors must be equally insolent and haughty.

But John’s audience resembles the loser more than the winner. Throughout the letter, John refers to them as “little children” and encourages them to be obedient and abide not only in Jesus but in Jesus’s way. In other words, these people looked more like the servant than the served, and their messiah looks more like the captive on the Roman coin than the conquering emperor. Their religious and ethical values simply could not have militantly triumphed over the Roman Empire that elevated emperors to gods and redefined war as peace.

Moreover, John encourages believers to be characterized by love and obedience, not violence and “haughty insolence.” But in 1 John 5, we see the believing community told to celebrate victory, “for whatever is born of God conquers the world” (1 John 5:4a). But how could it have possibly won?

What makes the difference is how John defines “victory:” “this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith” (1 John 5:4b). Faith is a fuzzy word that seems to mean everything from organized religion to personal piety to intellectual agreement with a set of doctrine. In her book Roman Faith and Christian Faith: Pistis and Fides in the Early Roman Empire and Early Churches, British theological historian Teresa Morgan argues that the best understanding of this word (pistos) is actually “trust” rather than belief or faith. In other words, it defines faith as more of a “how” than a “what.”

John argues that trust conquers the hostile world. Trust turns losers into victors, not by being dominant, but by being different. Trust in whom? In what? The ambiguous language suggests that “trust” can, and perhaps should, mean many things: trust in God, trust in Christ’s example, and trust in the faithful community. Trust implies relationship rather than exploitation or transaction. For John’s audience to be people who trust (and who are trustworthy) means for them to see others as people rather than problems.

To show his readers how to embody this trust, John returns to the foundational story of his community. He points to the one who crafted the picture of victory for them “through water and blood”—Jesus’s own blood, not the blood he spilled of others (5:6a). Jesus did not defeat his enemies; he trusted God. Unlike the goddess Nike, he took the lowly place of the cross rather than soaring through the air. As opposed to swiftness of wings, he lay still three days in the tomb, trusting God. He was neither insolent nor haughty, but obedient and humble. Enemies, Jesus taught, were not meant to be defeated, but prayed for and loved.

In an American election year, the Roman picture of victory does not seem so distant in the ancient past. At campaign rallies, Donald Trump refers to political opponents as “vermin” and threatens to “crush” those who question or criticize him. This rhetoric is certainly an extreme example, and people are right to identify it as dangerous and evil.

But even people opposing such values and rhetoric find themselves making similar comments—people in the other camp must be crushed and humiliated. For example, people who clearly see the ever-growing and increasingly disturbing problem of white Christian nationalism often describe the problem as white Christian nationalists. Rather than simply desiring a more just world for everyone, people are tempted by a desire to see shame or harm come to people who oppose what is good. This is understandable, but it is not trust.

When we consider John’s argument that victory is achieved by trust, it becomes evident that victory defined as total decimation of the contender demonstrates a lack of trust. Ennius’ sentiment about the necessity of the defeated feeling completely defeated points to the world’s ongoing belief that enemies must be obliterated in order to no longer pose a threat. This notion is just as apparent in our current world as it has ever been. Politicians and other people of influence proclaim that wealth must be accrued and hoarded in order to prevent potential poverty, and power must be wielded so that it will not be taken away. Trust, by contrast, seems naïve and weak.

Now, people often insist that if we endeavor to love our enemies and seek the good for those who work against our values or desires, we cannot trust that such opponents will offer the same courtesy back. We will be the losers, and the values that we know are just and righteous will be assaulted. But John’s text does not implore readers to trust those who work against justice and peace. People need not and definitely should not place trust in people who act corruptly or unjustly.

What John does demand is that his audience act with love and in obedience to God’s requirement of righteousness. In other words, work against the problems but work for all the people involved. To put it in our own current context, protest injustice but remain non-violent toward those who defend the injustice. Work for a just and righteous world and leave room in that world for the people with whom you disagree. Let words be kind even as they must be firm and honest.

Returning to the idea that faith is more of a how than a what, John’s letter reminds people to embrace the process of establishing loving relationships, not merely to chase the result of ending hateful ones.

John makes clear that it is God who is the guarantor that such trust is not in vain: “and the Spirit is the one who testifies, for the Spirit is the truth” (5:6b). For John’s community, it is not Nike that grants the victory but God. While Nike may be said to bestow victory in battle, it is only God who bestows life in spite of death and elevates the lowly into places of honor. This kind of victory means life for everyone. And so John suggests: trust the process.

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