xbn .
Politics of Scripture

The Ascension and the Politics of Endurance

Contending against the dominion of sin and death requires the same wisdom and willing vulnerability that characterize Jesus. Exemplifying both of these characteristics means seeking a solidarity with the world’s plight while simultaneously refusing to assimilate to its norms of greed, selfishness, and domination.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.

1 Peter 5:6-11

Jesus’ ascension to the Father’s right hand is the public ratification not only of his messianic claims but also of the form of life he exemplified. Jesus’ mission was undertaken for the life of the world and against the forces that corrupt and degrade that world: the devastation of sin and death, the will to power, idolatry, and hostility towards the Other.

The compassion Jesus has for the world of ecosystems, creatures, and phenomena must be distinguished, however, from “the world” as a metonym for the system of power and rule that opposes God and his creatures. Jesus loves and serves the former but is resolutely against the latter. And because the two are intertwined in the present age, Jesus and the community that bears his name must embody the love of God in a resistance that manifests both judgment and compassion.

Contending against the dominion of sin and death requires the same wisdom and willing vulnerability that characterize Jesus. Exemplifying both of these characteristics means seeking a solidarity with the world’s plight while simultaneously refusing to assimilate to its norms of greed, selfishness, and domination.

Douglas Farrow observes that the church “is marked off from the world, insofar as it is marked off, not by race or culture or even by religion (marks which are definite enough by worldly standards and more or less acceptable) but by its mysterious union with one whose life, though lived for the world, involves a genuine break with it” (Ascension and Ecclesia, 11). Jesus’ ascension vividly demonstrates that his being for the world excludes belonging to the world-system. Those who would be his disciples, then, must enact the same form of life.

1 Peter 5:6-11 is an aid to disciples seeking to exemplify that form of life in the time after Jesus’ ascension. This text frames its moral instruction as the response of faith to Jesus’ exaltation. But the trajectory towards exaltation counterintuitively incorporates hardship and dishonor. This must be so because the faithfulness that awaits exaltation is committed to resistance to the world-system. Disciples are called to inhabit the same cruciform pattern exemplified by Jesus Christ, knowing that all who belong to him and conduct themselves similarly will undergo the same sufferings as him.

The efforts of the community that professes him as Lord to resist the world’s darkness and promulgate the gospel will often appear to be exercises in futility, little more than brief flashes of pointless intransigence. But this is in accordance with that same pattern, as Jesus’ mission culminated in what appeared to be abject failure. Faithfulness will often formally resemble defeat because it is so frequently overshadowed by the world-system’s antagonism.

Jesus’ resurrection, however, was a reversal, an outcome that was secured not by the coercive means of those who put him to death but through the unconventional practices of humility and renunciation that distinguish him from the despots that are typical of the present age. The same type of endurance is vital, then, if disciples are to persevere in their vocation of embodying Christlikeness.

Accordingly, the apostle prescribes practices that can nourish a network of care so as to sustain such perseverance. Verse 7 commands honest petition to God because followers of Jesus Christ must encourage each other to be honest with themselves, with each other, and with God concerning the difficulties of faithfulness. The world-system’s opposition cannot be withstood with denial of these difficulties. It is only through such acknowledgment and prayer that the Spirit who enabled Jesus to endure will likewise empower them to endure.

 The apostle cautions disciples to remain vigilant and implores them to resist the devil and its machinations in verses 8-9. The adversary that contends against the community of believers and subjugates the world is operative within the conditions that tempt disciples to abandon their vocation. The devil cannot manufacture such abandonment on anyone’s part, however: it can only deceive someone into believing there is no dignity in enduring for the sake of a future world.

            Humility is crucial, therefore, for disciples. The apostle emphasizes humility’s importance in verse 5 as it is the fundamental posture that funds Christian witness as well as the means by which disciples endure. Disciples are instructed in verse 10, therefore, to humble themselves “under the mighty hand of God,” as they await exaltation and the return of their Lord. 

The practices of Christlikeness, such as forgiveness, hospitality, and generosity, are a form of prefigurative politics. Such a politics contests the plausibility structures that shape our social and political existence by embodying the future that has been inaugurated in Jesus Christ. It is this form of life that must confront the present age to actualize judgment against its injustice and to embody an entirely different mode of being.

Prefigurative politics is always susceptible to the criticism that its focus on living differently changes nothing at the societal level. Moreover, its enactment of a preferable future as opposed to a violent seizure of power renders it vulnerable to the brutal force and humiliation the status quo is unafraid to utilize. Its ethos, however, is such that its suppression commends the truth of its claims. The subduing of its practitioners exposes the true character of contemporary power structures and of ideology. In its lived resistance it renders visible another, heretofore unimaginable, possibility.

Christian prefiguration of the age to come exposes the mechanisms of contemporary regimes as their coercive powers are brought to bear upon manifestations of the Kingdom of God. Everywhere, the practice of Christlikeness provokes opposition and invites negative consequences. In the United States various forces dissuade Christian practice: the alt-right characterizes Christian faith as decadent and weak; partisan polarization nurtures incentive to refuse to forgive enemies; and capitalist ideology deceives Christians such that the churches devote negligibly to the poor.

A Christian politics of endurance is therefore never simply a matter of individual determination. The apostle asserts that disciples depend upon one another for their perseverance, as the imperative to resist in verse 9 is a plural effort. The imitation of Christ is always empowered by the mutual care that should bind the disciples that form the body of Christ, and the failure of disciples to do so is an index of their capitulation to the world-system.

Prefigurative politics does not preclude the strategic politics that engages structures and relations of power so as to accomplish concrete goals. A specifically Christian politics of prefiguration, however, is the ordinary means by which disciples sustain more strategic efforts, as generosity, renunciation, and forgiveness can be enacted in any setting in which disciples find themselves. It is in embodying the ethos of the age to come on any and all scales that the givens of the present age are destabilized and new consensuses are developed.

This relieves disciples of the burden of securing the consummated Kingdom of God now. The movement of the world towards the eschaton incorporates each act of faithfulness in the history that begins with Israel’s forebears and reaches into the present and beyond, insofar as these actions are set in motion and funded by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ in the accomplishment of his mission.

This movement, however, can never be quantitatively gauged by any metric on the plane of immanence, nor should it ever presume to be cresting towards its culmination. Progress towards the consummated Kingdom of God cannot be evaluated on any basis other than the approbation of the ascended Lord, for whom faithfulness is the sufficient condition of contributing to his program of rescuing and renewing the creation. All that is visible in any given moment is Christlikeness being exemplified in particular situations and in costly ways.

Jesus Christ’s ascension is the act of God by which he is appointed the principal catalyst of the world-system’s dissolution. He is himself the continuity between the Roman-occupied Palestine of the first century and every subsequent time. But just as importantly, he is the connectivity binding discrete moments of human faithfulness to God to the eschatological future, invisibly linking them to faithfulness in the past and to the age to come in which justice and flourishing are at last consummated.

This is the hope to which a Christian politics of endurance is committed. This is the hope that must sustain Christian faithfulness when fidelity routinely seems to end in defeat. For Jesus has ascended above and beyond the conditions of futility such that from his station of enthronement he can supply endurance to his beleaguered followers and focus their faithfulness into a coherent and effective opposition to the world’s disorder. Every ostensible defeat for the sake of the Kingdom of God is an act of resistance that embodies the age to come in the present. And in its wake arises new disciples, the erosion of ideology and, one day, exaltation by God alongside the ascended Jesus.

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!