By Ted Bond
The question or accusation still arises from time to time as to whether or not Craig’s Brother is a “Christian Band.” Whether it be Christians wanting to know if our music is safe, or punks wondering if we are really punk, the question continues to follow us and usually with some negative connotations, in spite of our attempts to lay it to rest.
When we first started we definitely called ourselves a Christian Band, but we quickly realized that there was a problem with the label. As a Christian Band we played Christian shows which were attended almost exclusively by Christians, and though they had surprisingly good turnouts, the music was generally second rate. The shows were all around awkward. Bands were pressured to preach, which led to these often forced sermons where a guy with tattoos, who 30 seconds earlier had been screaming his head off, is now saying “… and like if you accept Jesus into your heart and stuff then you don’t have to go to hell bro.” Perhaps worst of all, music was seen as secondary to the message, which perhaps explained the lack of quality, and gave even the “good bands” an air of propaganda.
The whole scene made us uneasy, and so in 1997 we made a decision that we would no longer call ourselves a Christian band. We felt that we were called by God to play punk music for punks, and that the description “Christian Band” implied that we were something else, that we were Christian propaganda for Christians. We were a punk band because we liked punk. For us, punk was the sound and attitude that best expressed the frustration of growing up in 80’s suburbia. We couldn’t help but relate.
We didn’t believe punk was wrong. We weren’t out to trick punks into listening to Christian music by disguising it with power chords. We were Christians, but we began to feel that the most Christian thing we could do as a punk band was just be a good punk band. Just as you wouldn’t judge a plumber on whether or not he was Christian, bands also should not be judged by the faith of their members. 15 years later I think we can say that we have been faithful to our goal. Craig’s Brother records have been called some of the best punk albums of all time, and we have successfully cultivated an audience that is composed of not only Christians.
That said, our thinking on the relationship between our faith and our music is not something that stopped developing 15 years ago, and I think it is time we revisited the issue with some fresh insight.
We’re not just punks because we like a certain style of music. If that were the case we would have had no reason to not be a Christian Punk band. We’re punks because we believe in punk. We believe that there is something seriously wrong with the status quo justifications of power and social hierarchy, and that Punk is a refreshing and honest attempt to call the bluff on those justifications. We believe that our outlandish style and raucous music are not just a “look” or a “sound”. They are a statement of radical politics, a flat out rejection of the establishment.
There seems to be some confusion, however, about how a band can be punk if they are espoused believers in Jesus. Somehow in the 2000 year history of Christianity, the story of Jesus has become tightly wrapped into the story of the status quo, and the justification for government. It is as if people forgot that Jesus was a radical who was executed by the government for being a revolutionary, for challenging the status quo to its core. People forgot that Jesus is punk. With that in mind, I am writing to explain why we Christians in Craig’s Brother are inspired to be punk. I am writing to explain that the Gospel, the story of Jesus’ work on earth is as radical and punk as anything ever.
Some of the earliest writings that we have about Jesus are the letters of Paul of Tarsus. Paul’s understanding is that Jesus’ death and resurrection represent a radical challenge to the status quo notions of power and authority. The idea is essentially this: All governments are established upon the fear of death. The right to kill, and the authority to direct an army are essentially what makes government, government. This was an overt reality in Jesus day as criminals, and revolutionaries were crucified publicly on the roads, but is no less a reality today. The story changes from time to time.
In the 20th century communists were out to kill us. In the 21st, religious extremist terrorists are out to kill us, but the conclusion is the same, we need the U.S. military to protect us. The fear of death is what justifies the government, and lest we forget, cops carry guns. For Paul, the death of Jesus and His resurrection 3 days later, represent an irrevocable victory over the power of rule by death. The Roman authorities were not mistaken in crucifying Jesus as a revolutionary, as one who challenged their right to rule, they were mistaken in thinking death could stop Him. Being victorious over death, Jesus demonstrates that he is the rightful King of a new society, one that rejects fear and death as motivating forces.
And so when Paul writes in his letter to the Christians in Rome, the city of Caesar, that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the spirit of life in Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death“, that “you did not receive a spirit which makes you a slave again to fear”, and “… we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered… in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither life nor death neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future nor powers, neither height nor depth nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the Love of God.”
He is making the case that the old system of rule by death has no power over followers of Jesus, that Rome is no longer in charge. For Paul, the Gospel , the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection, is a radical announcement of a subversive new kingdom, one that supplants all previous systems of power. For Paul, the statement “Jesus is Lord”, carries the implication that Caesar is not.
For many it will come as a surprise that Paul was so anti government. I would like to suggest that this is because we have been trained to read a false dichotomy between politics and spirituality into the letters of Paul. Phrases like “The Gospel”, “The Kingdom of Heaven”, and “Jesus is Lord” have come to refer to spiritual truths or the afterlife, when in fact they carried radical political implications for Paul and his audience. To demonstrate this I would like to focus on the radical undertones in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome.
Paul writes this letter to the Romans circa 58 . It is Paul’s longest letter, and the most developed description of his theology. He describes his mission in 15:23-33. He has been traveling in Macedonia and Achaia where he has taken a collection of donations for the poor Christians in Jerusalem. After traveling to Jerusalem it is his intention to travel to Rome and he is writing this letter in advance. The letter is essentially an argument for Paul’s version of Christianity which stands in contrast to a more traditional conservative version of Christianity, which taught that Christians were essentially Jews (the first Christians were Jews, Paul desire to include Gentiles was a seen as a radical innovation) and that converts to Christianity needed to follow Torah, the laws of Old Testament Israel.
After his intro Paul launches into a description of those who are lost without the law (1:18-32). Having gained the attention of his detractors he then flips the table on them. Jews, even though they have the law, break it and so are not better off. His conclusion is that no one is made righteous by the law (3:20), or to put it another way, rules do not make good people. Instead Paul argues that justification, which is a word that could be described as the process of becoming a good person, happens by faith in Jesus. This is a strange statement that deserves some explanation.
Paul argues from the story of Abraham in the Torah that righteousness is actually a gift (Romans 4). Rules can only help us by showing us where we have gone wrong, and so evil or sin is a reality that is entailed by rules (5:20). The consequence of evil is death (6:23), but the fact that Jesus has risen from the dead, means that death is defeated, and consequently the law is superseded as it is in matters of death, (ie marriage 7:1-3) and sin now has no power. Having defeated sin, righteousness is now a gift that can be received by all who believe in Jesus (6:23).
If we are recipients of Jesus’ victory over death, argues Paul, then we have no fear of it, and there is consequently no power that can defeat us. (Romans 8). He then goes on to defend his ministry describing how God’s plan to take the Gospel to the gentiles is really just a continuation of his plan in the Old Testament, that it was always about God’s sovereign choice, and not about being Jewish (9-11:24).
That said, God still loves the Jews and will save them (9:25-36). The conclusion is that love should be the governing principle in all things, (12:9 13:9), he forbids vengeance arguing that evil should be overcome with good, (12:21) hence we should submit to governing authorities and we should not let matters of practice divide us. We do all this because we know that God is fulfilling his promise in scripture and here Paul quotes several passages ending with a quote from Isaiah. “The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will rule over the nations.; the Gentiles will hope in Him.” (15:12). Paul sees his ministry as a fulfillment of these promises and he describes his plan to take the message to Rome and ultimately to Spain. He ends by sending a list of greetings.
Recent scholarship on Paul has focused on the growing popularity of a “Caesar cult” in the Mediterranean world at the time that Paul was writing . This was a powerful combination of religion and politics which worshiped Caesar as God. Much of what we consider the basic language of Christianity seems to be borrowed from this cult. NT Wright points out that Rome claimed to have brought justice or righteousness to the world, and that as such the birth of the emperor was considered good news. The emperor who demanded allegiance from his subjects was called Lord, and part of Augustus’ claim to authority was that he was the son of deified Julius, a god.
Paul opens his letter to the Christians in Rome, the city of Caesar by using his own language against him. Paul is an apostle set apart for the good news… of God’s son, Jesus Christ our Lord, and he is not ashamed of the Gospel because in it a righteousness from God is revealed. Paul’s intro to the book of Romans uses Caesar’s own language to suggest that Jesus is the real king. Paul’s conclusion is no less subversive. By quoting the scriptures he does , by claiming that Jesus is the “Root of Jesse” who will rule over the nations, he is implying that Jesus is a replacement for Rome, the current ruler of the nations.
The question then is how does Paul’s anti Roman government stance affect our understanding of his message to the Romans? Does understanding the Gospel as presented in Romans as an answer to the Gospel of Caesar change anything? I think it does. Caesar’s gospel claimed to have brought peace and righteousness to the world, but how exactly did Caesar do this? He did it through brutal tyranny. Peace and law and order were preserved by the constant threat of death, hence the cross. For Paul to argue that righteousness comes by faith, then, was to propose that in fact Caesar’s law did not create righteousness, that at best it kept people in line through fear of death. True righteousness, according to Paul, comes from fealty to the new king Jesus, a king who does not rule his subjects by fear of death but instead treats them as sons (8:15). This then implies a new society, one in which power is not understood as the ability to wield coercion, fear and death.
This has some radical implications. Follow me if you will on a punk thought experiment. Most punks when asked what their preferred form of government is, would reply none at all. We espouse anarchy as the most punk system of human organization. But what do we mean when we say this? What we don’t mean is that we think it would be good for someone to punch us in the face, or steal our stuff or kill us. What we mean is that we have a strong intuition that we could get along just fine without cops and government getting involved in our lives, without social hierarchies, without attempts to influence each other through coercion and power. This kind of anarchy precludes punching someone in the face, stealing or killing because these are simply individual acts of government.
If we are truly committed to anarchy then, we are in a position of being committed to the well being of other people. In fact the only way we could possibly maintain a system of human organization that did not involve coercion and power would be for every member of that society to be radically committed to the well being of the others. I would like to suggest that this is the lifestyle that Paul is describing in Romans 12-15:6. We are to love one another, and we are not to take vengeance or repay evil with evil, and we are to bare with those whose faith is weak not allowing debates to divide us.
It is in this context that Paul makes a statement that has been historically twisted to argue that the Gospel as understood by Paul is supportive of government. In Romans 13 Paul tells the Roman Christians to submit to the governing authorities, that there is no authority that has not been established by God, and that the government holds no terror for those who do good only those who do evil. The first observation I would like to make is that Paul is either wrong in this statement or he does not mean it the way it sounds at face value. Clearly Paul is aware that Christians are facing death for their faith. He even says this in chapter 8, and in chapter 15 he seems to acknowledge that his own life is at risk.
The point is not that the authorities are good guys but that the gospel is not an excuse for criminal behavior or riots. The second observation comes from NT Wright who observes that the presence of this statement at all implies that readers were likely to understand the radical implications of the gospel. Paul had to include this section so that Christians would not take his message as advocating revolution by force.
Another observation is that the chapter break was not in the original text. The chapter break creates the impression that Paul is starting a new section but it should be noted that Paul is continuing his argument against vengeance. The sentence immediately preceding the command to submit to authorities, is an argument that we do not defeat evil with evil. In this light the section seems to be arguing Christians do not overthrow the government because this would simply be an attempt to defeat an evil system with its own evil methods. We do not defeat a system of rule by death through killing and destruction, rather we render it obsolete through life and love.
I would like to suggest that when modern readers read the word righteous we read it with a post Pauline understanding. That is, we think of righteousness as a character quality that leads to right action. Paul seems to think this way too, but we should be aware that his audience does not. Prior to Paul (or Jesus) righteousness would have been thought of as right action, not necessarily a character quality, so when the Caesar gospel claims to have brought righteousness to the world, it is not saying that it has made people good. All it is saying is that it has enforced good behavior, or law and order. Society under Rome was relatively functional, the economy flourished, intellectual activity was rampant, things were relatively civilized.
When the Roman Christians read Paul’s announcement of a righteousness from God, that is by faith, they would have understood that word righteousness to imply ordered civilized society, but unlike Roman righteousness, or law and order, which was kept in place by a brutal government and the ever present threat of death, the righteousness from God by faith is founded on love and is maintained through a radical commitment to the well being of others before our own (12:10).
All this is to say that Paul was a radical who saw Christianity as a replacement to Roman authority. He understood Jesus’ death on a Roman cross and subsequent resurrection as the defeat of Rome. Having conquered death it’s self Jesus has rendered government by death obsolete (8:2). Paul saw his mission as that of traveling the world establishing communities of people who were loyal to the new King and who practiced a new form of civilization, not organized by rules backed up by threats, and social hierarchies but motivated by love and life and self sacrifice.
The natural question then is how did American evangelicals become so conservative and supportive of government? This a long story that is beyond the scope of this paper, but it should be noted that one of the more successful strategies of the Roman Empire was to allow religious freedom so long as subjects also recognized Caesars authority. The fact that Christianity remained illegal for 300 years is a testament to how subversive it really is. Never the less we shouldn’t be surprised that eventually Rome caught on and ended up incorporating Christianity into its narrative.
Nearly every leader in the western world has claimed Christianity since. Perhaps more importantly it is being recognized that there has been a long standing trend among scholars to depoliticize Paul . The argument has been that righteousness by faith is an inward spiritual reality.
Christ’s work on the cross makes us into good people as individuals, but we still need government for matters of public policy. The result is we have a faith that helps us deal with guilt and feel better about ourselves, but does not actually change anything in terms of the world’s power structures. This is exactly what Paul was worried about.
In Apocalypsis and Polis: Pauline Reflections on the Theological Politics of Yoder, Hauerwas, and Milbank, Douglas Harink observes a continuity between Stanley Hauerwas’ thought in Against the Nations, with Paul’s ideas in the book of Galations, an earlier version of the arguments expressed to the Romans. Paul’s concern for the Galatians is that they are failing to recognize that God is One and Universal, by attempting to follow Torah, they are reducing God to another localized deity.
If God is the God of all nations, indeed of everything, then forcing Gentiles to follow a culturally specific agreement He made in the Torah is a failure to recognize His universal authority, and is essentially a different and false Gospel. American evangelicals are similar to the Galatians, not in that we want to be Jewish, but in that we have failed to recognize the Universal nature of God’s authority. We have separated spiritual matters from political matters and we have said that Jesus is the answer in all matters spiritual but that American liberal democracy is the answer in political matters. This is a different and false gospel then the one Paul taught.
We in Craig’s Brother see no conflict between the Gospel as practiced by Jesus and understood by Paul, and our punk beliefs. The cross is not just a spiritual reality that brings forgiveness of sins, it is also a political reality that directly confronts the power of government, which is rule by violence. The gospel is punk in that it recognizes all governments as false gods. There is only one King. His name is Jesus, and he does not rule through fear. The result of this message is that those who believe form a new society, one that looks very much like the punk ideal of anarchy, one where coercion and violence have no place, and instead order is maintained through faith, love and respect for one another.