conformity

Ellul on the State of Permanent Christian Revolution

This entry is part 13 of 19 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Having explained his concept of “revolutionary spirit” and shown how most things described as revolutionary are mere power struggles, Ellul moves toward the meat of Chapter 2 by bringing Christianity more directly into the picture.

Christianity, Ellul says, is revolutionary, not in the sense of action but in situation. Christians exist in a revolutionary situation, a “state of permanent revolution.” Underlying a theme from the first chapter, Christians are called to exist in the world as signs that point toward God, and here Ellul says that Christians contribute to the world’s preservation by simply “being, in the world’s midst, a revolutionary and inexhaustible power.”

He admits that this seems like a paradox, since Christians of his time were “the most conformist, docile of all people.” I would argue that this is still true, even in a 21st century nation that seems plagued by hostile, angry “Christians” pursuing political domination. There is nothing more conformist to the state than trying to gain control of it in order to use its power for your own ends.

But, Ellul says, the Holy Spirit does not depend on human choices and works (intervenes) irrespective of what we do. He writes, “That the Christian situation is revolutionary is not due to a stance of the human mind or will. It is so by necessity, and it cannot be otherwise insofar as Christ is acting in his church.” The Holy Spirit, in Ellul’s vision, is a presence directly active in human history, not just the peaceful dove floating down from Heaven that we sometimes imagine.

Ellul takes pains to note that the Christian revolution is against the world, not against any existing governments. “One can be conformist toward the government and yet revolutionary toward the world,” he writes. “The idea of revolution goes deeper here; it does not essentially have to do with changing a form of the state or an economic form but precisely with changing a civilization’s structures, which must constantly be called into question.”

This may indirectly lead to changes in government or economic structures, Ellul says, but “it does not necessarily lead to direct conflict with authority.”