In my last post on the role of dissent for the Christian artist, we looked a little bit at the definition of dissent and why it might be a good thing for us to get involved with.
One of the biggest theological obstacles when thinking this through is the place of authority. In saying ‘no’ to the prevailing opinion, in disrupting ideological circuits, we often come across states, governments and law enforcement – those who might protect the status quo for the sake of order, or for their own security or profit.
Whatever our political persuasions as Christian artists, we have to acknowledge that all governmental authority is appointed by God and so deserves our respect and submission, as Paul makes clear in Romans 13. In many situations though, Paul’s instructions here don’t seem easily applicable and it’s worth giving them some careful thought in their own right (here’s a short resource from Jonny Mellor or a more extensive examination in this four-part John Piper sermon series- ‘Subjection to God and Subjection to the State’).
The relationship between dissent and civil disobedience is an important one to explore, because the Bible and more recent history shows that civil disobedience does have its place and must be used very carefully. However, civil disobedience is not really the kind of dissent I’m trying to get at here. A while back I conducted a poll among some Sputnik artists. Only one artist recognised that when they dissented, it was against civil authority. The most popular adversary was the biblical concept of ‘The World’. The World is what we as Christians should be continually dissenting against, because Jesus commands it. We are compelled to be non-conformists when it comes to the patterns and cycles of The World. It is the kingdom that is not God’s. It is the gate which the forces of heaven will prevail against. It the strong man who must be bound up that we might raid his house.
And sometimes it is ‘the principalities and powers of this dark world’ (Eph 6:12). The World and the systems of government therein often collaborate. Under these circumstances the subject of our dissent might be the government. The message of submission in Romans 13 is rightly emphasised. The idea that all authority is appointed by God, especially in the realm of an Emperor whose power was in part derived from his claims to divinity was also an incredibly bold statement of dissent. Other examples of civil disobedience litter the Bible. It might be when the state commands us to do something God forbids, in the case of Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego. It might be when the state forbids something God commands, in the case of Daniel praying towards Jerusalem. Don’t even get me started on Jesus. In each of these stories, the dissenters submit to the punishment the state sanctions against them.
The majority of modern dissent against the state in the UK is a lot less inspiring, creative, or costly. Largely it is formed by our own worldly political convictions. Some Christians dissent against abortion, equal marriage and ‘political correctness’ but pretty much nothing else seems to bother them. Plenty of other Christians will rail on social media against everything the Tories do, particularly in regard to the poor, without their dissent getting any more creative than contributing towards a culture of memes and puerile name calling. At different points in my lifetime I could have been seen in both of those stereotypes.
So, before we conclude this discussion next time, a few questions to consider:
In your art, are you often aware of the tension between ‘being all things to all men’ while ‘not being conformed to the patterns of this world?’
How far can we go as Christians in our dissent against human authorities? Is there a line over which we shouldn’t go?
In your art, do you focus your dissent against ‘The World’?
For the last post in the series, try here.
Luke Sewell is a one-time archaeologist interested in vegetables, history, photography and decolonising everything.