The Subversion of Christianity
By: Jacques Ellul

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By: Don Milam - Jul 3, 2005

For the last couple of weeks I have been deeply engaged in the reading of The Subversion of Christianity by the French theologian and philosopher, Jacques Ellul. Each new concept that he brings forth confirms that he is a prophet to this generation. Unfortunately, he is a prophet whose voice has not sounded loud enough in evangelical Christianity. He is a prophet of a new breed whose writings uncover the silent subversion of the Church that Jesus gave His life for. This seditious action has altered the image of Jesus, exchanged grace for works, exchanged mystery for systematized theology and organized the simplicity of Christianity into a structure of religious order.

Ellul ably holds to the essential core of Christian teaching, while showing how the church throughout history has consistently been led away from truly living out the gospel -- whether by outside forces or by the weight of its own success, the church has continually done exactly the opposite of what the New Testament writers tell us to do. This book is fairly easy to read, and is very straightforward: Ellul takes us through some of the most important missteps in church history and shows how the good news of Grace and Freedom was forced to the side, even with the best of intentions. Ellul challenges us to find a new way of living out the Gospel, without either conforming ourselves to our present age or rejecting the essential elements of Christian doctrine.

Before I share with you an excerpt from this book, I want to introduce you to the man.

Jacques Ellul adhered to the maxim "Think globally, act locally" throughout his life. He often said that he was born in Bordeaux by chance on January 6, 1912, but that it was by choice that he spent almost all of his academic career there. After a long illness, he died on May 19, 1994 in his house in Pessac just a mile or two from the University of Bordeaux campus, surrounded by those closest to him. Not long before his death, the treatment for this illness illustrated to him once again one of his favorite themes: the ambivalence of technological progress.

Ellul's childhood was poor but happy. He was brought up to be committed to the aristocratic virtues. In high school (at the Lyc�e Longchamp, now the Lyc�e Montesquieu), he was at the top of his class. When he finished his homework, his mother would allow him to wander freely around the docks in Bordeaux or the marshlands of Eysines.

The family lived near the Jardin Public (one of the Bordeaux city parks) where he and his public school classmates regularly fought Homeric battles with the boys from the private Catholic school. This did not prevent him from later becoming an advocate of "non-violence" or, more precisely, of "non-power."

Ellul excelled in Latin, French, German and history and at the age of seventeen obtained his baccalaureate (college preparatory high school diploma) at the Lyc�e Montaigne. He wanted to be an officer in the navy but his father made him study law instead. Although Jacques Ellul may not yet have been converted to Christianity when he first went to the University of Bordeaux (his faith took some time to develop its final form), on August 10, 1930, God appeared to him in a vision which forever after he modestly refused to describe. Two further decisive encounters took place during his student years, one with Bernard Charbonneau and the other with his wife Yvette who was to bear him four children: three boys Jean, Simon and Yves, and a daughter, Dominique.

After obtaining his doctorate in 1936 with a thesis entitled "The History and Legal Nature of the Mancipium", Ellul began teaching at the Faculty of Law in Montpellier (1937-1938), before obtaining posts in Strasbourg and then Clermont-Ferrand.

After the war, Ellul was briefly a member of the Bordeaux city administration (October 31, 1944 - April 29, 1945) but forever after steered clear of all party politics, except for an unfortunate episode as candidate for the Union D�mocratique et Socialiste de la R�sistance in October 1945.

Ellul did, however, wish to continue embodying his Christian concept of "presence in the modern world"--- as distinct from the fundamentalist approach as from that of the liberation theologians. He held national office in the Reformed Church of France until 1970, but was never more than on the fringes of Protestant circles. From 1958-1977, he was president of a club for the prevention of juvenile delinquency and was also actively involved in the ecology movement, notably with the Committee for the Defense of the Aquitaine Coastline.

His active engagement in the events of the century nourished a considerable amount of writing: almost a thousand articles and fifty or so books translated into more than twelve languages. The Technological Society, the first volume of his trilogy on the subject, appeared in France in 1954. This book was discovered and promoted by Aldous Huxley, the English author of Brave New World, and brought him fame in American universities ten years later - a fact borne out by the hundreds of Californian students who came to study at the Institute of Political Studies until his retirement in 1980. Ellul was a demanding professor but open to discussion, knowing how to capture the attention of his audience without resorting to dramatic effects or giving in to fashion.

He was an engaged thinker in the noblest sense, that is, a participant in all of the most essential debates of his time and he did not hesitate to take up his pen to communicate with the general public by way of deliberately polemical articles.

His five-volume History of Institutions has been used by generations of French university students. The book he was proudest of, however, was Hope in Time of Abandonment.

It is impossible to separate the sociologist from the theologian in this polygraph whose tone was deliberately prophetic. As he told the newspaper Le Monde in 1981, "I describe a world with no exit, convinced that God accompanies man throughout his history". The author of Living Faith (literal French title "faith at the price of doubt") died with that certainty.

In this article Smedes, again, touches a sore spot of our culture � waiting. We live in a time that is characterized by the need to get what we want and when we want it. Solitude, contemplation, quiet place, waiting � these are all foreign concepts to many of us in the Western world. But, Smedes challenges us to discover the wisdom of waiting.

Scandalous Grace

Grace. Do you think it is acceptable? To learn that we are the recipients of grace. It does not depend on me; I can do nothing. "It is not of him that wills or runs." Grace is odious to us. There is nothing pleasurable in finding out that we are like people condemned by nature to whom a kind prince generously grants life for no apparent reason, for no realistic motive that we can understand. It is all so arbitrary: "I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and merciful to whom I will be merciful." How can we seize or force or constrain God? No sacrifice, ceremony, rite, or prayer can earn grace, precisely because it is purely and totally gracious and gratuitous. Am I happy about this? Not at all, for the whole principle of gift and counter gift, of exchanging presents, is punctured by gratuitous, prevenient, sanctifying grace. If we are to believe the specialists, this mechanism of gift and counter gift is truly decisive in human relations and human "nature." Grace, then, is totally unacceptable from this standpoint.

Furthermore, grace excludes sacrifice. Girard is quite right when he shows how basic sacrifice is to humanity. There can be no accepted life or social relation without sacrifice. But gracious grace rejects the validity of all human sacrifice. It ruins a basic element in human psychology. Revelation is essentially contrary. It does not satisfy religious needs. It satisfies none of our needs or great aspirations or great assurances, such as the need for self-justification. We are possessed by an obsessional desire to justify ourselves, to declare that we are righteous, to be righteous in our own eyes, to seem to be righteous in the eyes of others, Of neighbors and acquaintances, and finally to be declared righteous by the whole group to which we belong. In human conduct and sociological movements this thirst for self justification is constant and fundamental. The need for justification and rationalization is being better recognized today, since it is in this way that we see ourselves to be consistent. It is now known that those who are forced to adopt a party by superior authority inevitably come to justify what they do by presenting it as a free choice. Thus they also legitimize the power that constrains them.

A society can have no stability if its members are not just and justified by belonging to it. But the revelation of God at Sinai and the revelation of Jesus Christ come inexorably to contradict and contest and exclude this passionate desire and irreducible need. No, we are never righteous. We will never do what God requires. No matter what may be our passion or love for the law, our scruples and virtues, it is never enough. Before God we are always sinners, always in debt, always fundamentally unrighteous. The rich young ruler who comes to Jesus, undoubtedly a good Pharisee, tells him that he has done all these things, all the law with its host of detailed statutes, and he asks what more he should do. Here is the whole situation. I have done all, yet I know that there is more to do. But what? "Go, sell all your goods, and give to the poor." There is reason for despair, and Jesus aggravates the situation, first by affirming that no yod of the law need not be fulfilled, then by spiritualizing the law. ("You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say unto you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.") Then finally, by his life and death, he shows that those who cannot be justified before God are in fact justified by grace and the love of God.

Note well that "we are justified." The worst possible injury is done to us. We are dispossessed of grandeur, autonomy, and the faculty of justice. Someone (in our anger God becomes a someone) justifies us from outside. A sovereign prince grants grace to subjects who are prostrate before him in filth and abjection that they cannot cast off on their own. We cannot give ourselves this righteousness. We cannot even say of what it consists. We cannot appropriate either the virtue of righteousness or the glory of justifying ourselves (a glory that is so important that many tales and legends finally come to a climax in it, as the hero triumphs through a thousand tests and then at the last receives the supreme reward that he has won, that always corresponds to either absolute love or absolute purity, that is, the righteousness obtained at the cost of so many trials in a conquest that is strictly anti Christian, the quest for the Grail and the Lancelot cycle being a mere parody of revelation). The declaration that we are justified by grace, by the sovereign love of God manifested in the death of Jesus, dispossesses us of something that we regard as essential, namely, that we should fashion our own righteousness.

To come to the point of putting ourselves in God's hands for justification goes against the grain and causes us to bristle. A thousand times we have heard the indignant objection: "But what are you doing with our human dignity?" Indeed, we have to admit that there is no place for human dignity in the Bible. 'The one condition for coming to the Eucharist is the admission that we are not worthy.

Nietzsche was right. He expressed the natural and normal thinking of natural and normal people. He was not a demonic destroyer of Christianity. He was not a philosophical genius. He was simply a natural human being taking seriously what the Bible says and as energetically as possible rejecting it as unacceptable. The same situation arises with sanctification or liberation. Such things take place outside us. The decision is not ours, for it arises out of God's free grace. God comes to sanctify us (which, we must not forget, does not mean making little angels out of us, but setting us apart for the service that he expects of us) and to free us, to liberate us. Once we were slaves, and a third party (not our ancient master) comes to set us free.

Am I an object, then, a puppet to whom God attributes righteousness, holiness, and freedom? Not at all! Before God I am a human being (or else he would not have undergone the terrible pain of dying in his Son). But I am caught in a situation from which there is truly and radically no escape, in a spider's web I cannot break. If I am to continue to be a living human being, someone must come to free me. In other words, God is not trying to humiliate me. What is mortally affronted in this situation is not my humanity or my dignity. It is my pride, the vainglorious declaration that I can do it all myself. This we cannot accept. In our own eyes we have to declare ourselves to be righteous and free. We do not want grace. Fundamentally what we want is self justification. There thus commences the patient work of reinterpreting revelation so as to make of it a Christianity that will glorify humanity and in which humanity will be able to take credit for its own righteousness.

Not only am I not the author of the righteousness that is assigned to me from outside, but even worse, I do not possess it. I am not its owner. It is not an intrinsic quality of my nature. The same holds good for all the elements of the Christian life. Faith? It does not belong to me. It is given. It makes me alive. It is at the heart of all my acts and thoughts. It is not an object that I can take and set aside as I please. It comes down on me like a hawk. It grasps me and takes me, possibly where I do not want to go. And this is unacceptable to me, as the traditional formula testifies that speaks of "having or not having faith." I absolutely want to have and to hold faith. I want it to be mine. I want to have the choice of taking it or leaving it. The totally anti Christian character of this formula is something that I have shown elsewhere.

But "having" plays a role in every domain. It applies to salvation, too. I absolutely want to be its master and owner. I am saved by grace, agreed. But once this is done, it is done, is it not? I enter into a stable, solid state that is foreseeable and unchangeable. But lo! in salvation, as in faith or freedom, I do not enter a fixed state. Salvation is nor a finished thing. I never hold it. I never own it. It is not an acquired situation. I may lose it (Paul himself tells us so). Nothing is ever finished with God. I am never installed.

We need stability, certitude, and constancy. We are all jurists before God. But grace is not a juridical matter. We have an absolute need to be owners. I am not going to launch out into an attack on private property. This is not a matter of economics. We need to be owners of our lives. How glorious to be able to say that our body is ours, that we own our qualities and destiny. I need to be on solid ground and to have acquired rights. Grace in its movement goes against this pretension !! It reminds us, sometimes harshly, sometimes humorously, that all such pretensions are no more than rodomontade. Our body is ours, but seriously, after sixty years we shall have to ask if it still belongs to us or to rheumatism. We want a fixed state, but how can we forget that all things are in flux? We want to be owners, then we should reread Michaux's fine work Mes propreites. I have intentionally used non Christian gifts as examples. What this grace gives you is a new state, an opening onto a life that has nothing whatever to do with your petty pretensions, but that truly does not come from you. You are not the owner. Yet you try to transform it into your property. Christianity (as a kind of "ism") expresses the human property instinct.

Intolerable Revelation

Let us finally take another example that shows how this revelation is so intolerable for us. We need to go back to some, thing we have heard already, the Beatitudes. In themselves, if taken seriously, these are absurd and unacceptable. It is not true at all that "the earth belongs to the meek". What the Beatitudes say is against all reality. This alone makes them unacceptable to sensible people. Above all, we have to recognize that their "spiritualization" makes an additional demand, imposes a heavier burden. The whole of the Sermon on the Mount is unacceptable if it is taken seriously. The preferred interpretation finds in it the sweet folly of a good and generous prophet who did not really know what he was talking about. Or else this teaching is reserved for the saints, the perfect, not for the world at large. Or else each piece is detached so as to prove exegetically that it does not really mean what it seems to on a first reading.

We are just as clever at evading the demands of Jesus as at evading the demands of freedom. We have seen already that Jesus' spiritualizing of the law is a terrible aggravation. It is impossible to live that way. I should like to counteract here all those expositors who think that spiritualization smoothed things over for the church (as when the materially poor become the poor in spirit). On the contrary, we have to consider that spiritualization makes Christ unacceptable. I repeat that we are in the presence of terrible nonsense if we think that there was a first age of revolutionary material proclamation and that the church fell back on spiritual positions only out of timidity and cowardice. If the disciples had wanted their preaching to be effective, to recruit good people, to move the crowds, to launch a movement, they would have made the message more material. They would have formulated material goals in the economic, social, and political spheres. This would have stirred people up; this would have been the easy way. To declare, however, that the kingdom is not of this world, that freedom is not achieved by revolt, that rebellion serves no purpose, that there neither is nor will be any paradise on earth, that there is no social justice, that the only justice resides in God and comes from him, that we are not to look for responsibility and culpability in others but first in ourselves, all this is to ask for defeat, for it is to say intolerable things. It is indeed intolerable to think that peace and justice and the end of poverty cannot take place on earth. For people of the first century as for those of the twentieth, such things are strictly unacceptable. Yet Jesus himself says such things.

Of course, the great argument of Marx, Nietzsche, and all the rest is that this is demobilization. In saying such things we demobilize by putting happiness in paradise and justice in the coming kingdom of God. We sterilize the energies that ought to be transforming society. After a century we now see the glorious results of the mobilization that the liquidation of the heart of Christianity has permitted. This shows, however, what is unacceptable in the preaching and example of Christ. For he does not say "Since my kingdom is not of this world, do nothing and submit." On the contrary, he says: "My kingdom is not of this world, so act in every way possible to make this world livable and to share with all people the joy of salvation, but with no illusions as to what you will accomplish. This is very little. (Well done, good and faithful servant, you have been faithful in little things ... or: When you have done all that you have to do, say, I am an unprofitable servant. . . .) You will not achieve liberty, peace, justice, equality, goodness, or truth. Each time you think you have achieved them, you will have set up only an illusion or lie."

Now this is what we can neither hear nor accept. When we act, we want our action to serve some end, to succeed, to bring progress. We want to do it all ourselves. In this regard the word of Christ does indeed demobilize; but this is not due to the truth, rather, it is due to our human indolence and pride and stupidity. What since Marx (and since the thinking of Marx has in effect penetrated our unconscious for the last half century) has been called spiritual evasion, the opium of the people, or the Machiavellian means used by the dominant class to deflect the poor, oppressed, and afflicted, all this that we know so well ought to be divided into two (as the New Testament shows).

It is effectively before God the condemnation of the rich and powerful who use God's truth to their own profit. We see this when Jesus speaks out against the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees who lay on others burdens too heavy to be borne but do not lift a finger themselves. Jesus is not attacking the law. The law is still good and true. He is condemning the way that leaders use this law in their own interests. We see the same thing here. Revealed truth spiritualizes all conditions and situations. By this fact it makes everything more radical, bringing it before a final court. Everything, and hence all political, social, economic, and philosophical questions, and all the means that we use everything becomes more radical. At the same time, however, this radicalness demands that we leave what we claim to have, including political instruments and collective means. (Go, sell all that you have. . . not just real estate and jewels!) We can then begin to be and to act in a new way, to recognize another form of efficacy.

To proclaim the class conflict and the "classical" revolutionary struggle is to stop at the same point as those who defend their goods and organizations. This may be useful socially, but it is not at all Christian in spite of the disconcerting efforts of theologies of revolution. Revelation demands this renunciation -- the renunciation of illusions, of historic hopes, of references to our own abilities or numbers or sense of justice. We are to tell people and thus to increase their awareness (the offense of the ruling classes is that of trying to blind and deaden the awareness of those whom they dominate). Renounce everything in order to be everything. Trust in no human means, for God will provide (we cannot say where, when, or how). Have confidence in his Word and not in a rational program. Enter on a way on which you will gradually find answers but with no guaranteed substance. All this is difficult, much more so than recruiting guerillas, instigating terrorism, or stirring tip the masses. And this is why the gospel is so intolerable, intolerable for myself as I speak, as I say all this to myself and others, intolerable for readers, who can only shrug their shoulders.

Grace is intolerable, the Father is unbearable, weakness is discouraging, freedom is unlivable, spiritualization is deceptive. This is our judgment, and humanly speaking it is well founded and inevitable. This is one of the first reasons for the rejection of the proclamation of God in Jesus Christ. And because we do not want to seem to reject it, perversion and subversion take place. All these judgments and actions are based on good sense, reason, experience, and science, that is, on our ordinary means of judgment, on what all people think and believe. But it is precisely here that we fall down. Jesus tells us plainly that if we simply do as the world does, we can expect no thanks, for we are doing nothing out of the ordinary. What we are summoned to do is something out of the ordinary. We are to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. No less. All else is perversion.

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