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The Thessalonian Strategy

At the moment, American Christians are discussing Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option, which proposes establishing, literally or metaphorically, monastic-like communities of counter-culture and learning to preserve Christianity in a new dark age.

Experiences in Australia have made me less inclined towards the Benedict Option. What we are encountering is not merely the loss of inherited cultural privileges, but something more like outright hostility. We have a situation where government is trying to legislate religious convictions out of religious organizations, where media outlets attempt to stereotype Christians as homophobic, and where activists are pushing to get opponents of same-sex marriage fired from their jobs. We are dealing with opposition that is powerful, punitive, and predatory—opposition meant to purge Christians from the public square and pressure them to change their beliefs. Whatever monasteries we build, metaphorical or real, they will not be safe from an overreaching state or from progressive activists.

We need a response that is neither defeatist nor retreat-ist. My suggestion is to launch something of a counter-cultural campaign against political progressives, which I call the Thessalonian Strategy. The name comes from the complaint made about Paul and his colleagues while in Thessalonica: “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:6–7, NRSV, emphasis mine).

Paul and his co-workers had a well-earned reputation of “turning the world upside down.” They were not a pious order of monks living peacefully on the fringes of society; rather, they were a subversive threat to the edifice of Roman power, its pagan paraphernalia, and its claim to conscript everyone’s worship through the imperial cult. That is because Paul saw himself as a royal ambassador, announcing that Israel’s God had acted, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, to bring forgiveness and peace to all people. He summoned everyone to believe the royal proclamation about King Jesus.

For Paul, it was Jesus rather than Caesar who was the true Lord of the world; it was the Son of David rather than the son of Augustus who was destined to rule over the nations. Paul traveled around the eastern Mediterranean creating a network of churches that confessed allegiance to Israel’s God, worshiped a man the Romans had crucified for insurrection, and ordered their lives according to his symbols and his story. These Christian assemblies integrated a diverse cast of Jews and Gentiles, men and women, elite and common, slave and free, in a way that undermined the stratified tiers of power and privilege in Greco-Roman society.

By itself, “turning the world upside down” can sound like an empty slogan. So how might the Thessalonian Strategy work in practice? I foresee a two-pronged approach.

First, this strategy entails love of neighbor as the defining theme. We must champion confident pluralism as a socio-political philosophy, demonstrate community-in-action, embrace people of all faiths and none, and live in such a way that those who hate us cannot give a reason for their hatred. The Thessalonian Strategy is not about establishing a new theocracy. Rather, it means advocating for a cultural pluralism where all religions are free and all people respected. We have to show that we are the ones who believe in tolerance, diversity, and respect. We demonstrate the sincerity of this commitment by listening rather than silencing our opponents; explaining rather than demonizing; affirming people’s right to be different rather than demanding uniformity; and turning the other cheek when assaulted by activists.

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Turning the World Upside Down, Down Under