Divine Anarchy

 on March 14, 2023

Jesus came among us preaching a kind of divine anarchy. In the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus say: “The truth shall set you free.” (Ch. 8:32) In other words, he came to cause some trouble—“good trouble”, as John Lewis, the courageous American Christian and civil rights activist used to say. While Jesus didn’t talk too much about political institutions and religious hierarchies, he was, in his own words, “as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove” in relation to both.

Jesus knew very well that this “good trouble” can trouble the forces of evil. Along with John Lewis, we could also think of Dan Berrigan, and his brother Philip, both Jesuit priests, active in the era of Vietnam protests. So direct and so public were their actions that Fr. Dan ended up on the FBI’s “most wanted” list—the first and only priest ever to be on that list. Once you do a little reading about the life of Thomas Merton, who became an equally stalwart public voice against the Vietnam war, you learn that his sudden and shocking death, at age 53, in Thailand, could have come at the hands of the CIA. The CIA have also been implicated in the shocking and infamous murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her 16-year-old daughter in El Salvador in 1989. The Jesuits were a source of hope for the poor of El Salvador. The Gospel of Jesus still frightens the powers that be.

We might also mention the Christian peace activist, Jim Forest, who died peacefully, age 80, January 13th, 2022. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wrote of him: “Jim Forest’s record of exceptional witness and discipleship is a unique record of both activism and deep spiritual discovery. It is a precious testament to a whole age of generous and risky Christian radicalism—and as such it is water in our contemporary wilderness.”

The public execution of Jesus can be properly understood as the result of “good trouble”. The proclamation of the inherent dignity of all humankind in the preaching and healing action of Jesus eventually brought about the collusion between church and state. When I say, “church”, I mean the hierarchy of the faith community to which he belonged. The hierarchy saw, in his espousal of a divine anarchy, a threat to the established order. Rome, the imperial power of the day, occupying Israel at that time, likewise saw Jesus as a threat to the established order.

The divine anarchy of Jesus is rooted in Holy Scripture. The Scriptures of Jesus were the Hebrew Scriptures. These Scriptures, which formed and nurtured what St. Paul came to call “the mind of Christ”, are most often termed by Christians, the “Old Testament”. However, there is nothing “Old” about them!

In the very first verses of our Bible we hear our God, pictured as if in divine assembly: “Let us make humankind in our own image.” It must have been a powerful moment for the young Jesus when he first read, or most likely heard, these words for the first time. Likewise, the Hebrew Scripture: “The Spirit has anointed me to bring good news to poor, to proclaim liberty to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free … to proclaim the year of our Lord’s favour.” This is a direct quotation from the prophet Isaiah. Jesus found his footing in his culture and his life’s purpose in his Scriptures.

What Jesus found in his Scriptures, St. Paul later amplified in his understanding of the impact and full meaning of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16)

We are to be understood not only as bearers of God’s Image but also of God’s very Spirit! This is the root of what we might call a “divine anarchy”’. Each human being on the planet is imbued with a divine dignity. Each human being on the planet is born of, and bears, God’s Holy Spirit. As Jesus intimated to Nicodemus, the puzzled and spiritually hungry Pharisee: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

As we come into faith in the witness of Jesus to the sanctity of all life, we are born into the free-flowing independence of God’s gracious life. It is for the sake of the inherent dignity of our divine origin, image, and purpose, that our radical defenders of the faith witnessed, and often to the point of martyrdom, to our freedom. As Jesus once said: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) In other words, our dignity, purpose and destiny do not lie in the institutions to which we belong; if our institutions bear any dignity, purpose or sense of destiny at all, it is surely original in the persons these institutions have been called to serve. The charisms of Spirit have brought into being a joyous and divine anarchy—ultimately without political institutions or hier-archy. Would we call that the new heaven and the new earth?


  • Max Woolaver

    The Venerable Max Woolaver is rector of St. Andrew's, Grimsby. He is also an avid singer/songwriter as well as a retreat leader. Max was ordained in the Diocese of Niagara in 1986 and received his M.Div. from Wycliffe College, University of Toronto; he also studied at the Shalem Institute of Spiritual Formation.

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