Guerilla Christianity
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 Guerrilla Christianity:
 Towards Recovering an Apocalyptic Paradigm for Spirit-filled Ministry


Daniel F. Flores


            The Christian appropriation of martial terms has always made me a bit nervous.  Though not purely a pacifist, I utterly disdain warfare and abhor violence of any kind.  So I usually bite my lip when a praise song glorifies “mighty warriors” or the “army of God.”  Is not this the stuff that false prophets like the late David Koresh use to militize their followers against society?   Yet, anyone who reads the Bible cannot avoid  mention of soldiers, armies, battles, and violence.  “Since John the Baptist came, up to this present time, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence and the violent are taking it by storm” (Matthew 11:12, New Jerusalem Bible; cf Luke 16:16).  The peace-loving believer must find a way to interpret such otherwise off-putting language.  So, it is with much trepidation that I dare to introduce a term with an inescapable etymology relating to warfare. 

            Historically, the term “guerrilla” comes from the Spanish resistance tactic of using irregular soldiers to conduct surprise raids against Napoleon’s forces (Webster’s s.v. “Guerrilla”).  Quite literally, a guerrilla is a “little war.”  This is distinct from acts of terrorism, often committed in the name of God, which operate by inflicting senseless violence for the purpose of causing widespread fear and panic.  Guerrilla soldiers are not the elite crack troops such as the Green Berets, Seals, or Rangers.  They are irregular fighters - the peasant resistance of the war effort against interloping oppresssors.  Despite the strangeness of their multi-varied styles, the can disrupt the enemy operations in significant ways.  They do the work until the professionals arrive, whether “twelve legions of angels” or “the armies of heaven” being led by one called Faithful and True (Matthew 26:53; Revelation 19: 11, 14).   When the term guerrilla is applied to the New Testament apocalyptic, it describes an aggressive action (“little war”) waged against the realm of the present cosmos by the irregular soldiers of the Kingdom of God.  Guerrilla soldiers execute intermittent bursts of sorties to rescue prisoners and demolish the structures of the Enemy.

            It is difficult to determine if the metaphor guerrilla would arise in my own mind if the world was lavished with peace.  Nevertheless, it is a good expression for describing apocalyptic ministry.  The term guerrilla is not meant to supplant the term “pockets of resistance,” introduced by New Testament scholar Brian Blount, which describes tactical actions against the present earthly kingdom of Satan (Blount 48).  Rather, it attempts to answer the question of mission for the contemporary Spirit-filled Christian.  Their mission is a continuation of that of Jesus who announced it to the world, quoting Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18, 19).    

            If Jesus performed healings as “pockets of resistance,” what does that suggest for the 21st century church?  Here the church must be understood in the broader sense of the church catholic.  Certain charisms, such as healing gifts, are less emphasized in so-called mainline congregations in favor of social action.  Nevertheless, healing rites are practiced regularly in holiness, pentecostal, and charismatic traditions.  A holistic approach to contemporary ministry celebrates both emphases and encourages a balance of charism and social action.  The local parish should promote both works of piety and works of mercy.  These are the actions of guerrilla warfare.

            To expand the guerrilla metaphor, soldiers need to follow a cogent “battle plan.”  For the Christian, the strategy is encoded in the mission statement of Jesus mentioned above.  It can be broken down into the two major components: (1) proclamation; and (2) liberation.  There was a biblical mandate for remission of debts in the sabbath year.  “Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts” (Deuteronomy 15:1).  The Isaiah text pointed to the fiftieth year cycle of sabbatical years called the Jubilee year.  “The celebration of every seventh year, and especially every fiftieth year, which was after 7 X 7.  Jewish slaves were to be released and mortgaged land returned” (Browning s.v. “Jubilee”  210).   Certainly, this was good news for the anyone strapped by exorbitant Roman taxes and a poor economy.  Notice that this post-exilic aspect took a different tone during the time of Jesus.  Why?  Because Rabbi Hillel created a loophole so the lenders could avoid forgiving the debts incurred in the forty-ninth year.  Known as the prozbul, it was a “declaration made in court to the effect that the law of limitation, by the entrance of the Sabbatical year, shall not apply to the loan to be transacted” (Sperber 154). Jesus’s proclamation was a challenge to Hillel’s authority as well as to the ethical use of prozbul.  According to Morgenstern, the idea of the Jubilee Year had all but vanished by the time of Jesus.  “In rabbinic Judaism and its literature the Jubilee Year had only antiquarian character and import and nothing more” (J. Morgenstern, s.v. “Year of Jubilee”). 

            Jesus’ proclamation that the Jubilee was re-instated in the present surely would have been a hard pill to swallow for anyone in the synagogue, especially those in Nazareth whom Jesus personally knew as mortgage holders and slave owners.  In another encounter, the rich young ruler refuses the advice of Jesus to give up his wealth to the poor (Luke 18:ff).  The Gospels do not indicate whether he gained his wealth by surety or other means.  In any case, it is no accident that this string of thought remains in the Our Father formulation: “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us” (Luke 11:4).  Our contemporary rote repetition of the prayer risks ignoring the indictment of sin and the imperative for justice imbedded in the message.  A Christian guerrilla does the work of a prophet speaking out against social-economic inequities as sin.  The Jubilee message is located at the heart of the good news of the kingdom.  “The evidence is broad and conforms to the pattern already set in the OT - namely, the Jubilee as a model or image for the kingdom of God embodies both eschatological affirmation and ethical demands” (Wright s.v. “Year of Jubilee”).     

            Proclamation and liberation function interdependently.  The proclamation of the kingdom of God necessarily includes liberation language.  Liberation cannot be done in the name of the kingdom of God without proclamation.  The synagogue at Nazareth where Jesus read the Isaiah scroll was unwilling to receive the message.  However, it is significant that the synagogue at Capernaum permitted him to confirm his proclamation with an exorcism.  “They were all amazed and kept saying to one another, ‘What kind of utterance is this?  For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!’” (Luke 4:36).                               

            Jesus Christ’s acts of healing were understood by observers, whether friend or foe, as signs of his authority and power.  “Now he was casting out a demon that was mute; when the demon had gone out, the one who had been mute spoke, and the crowds were amazed.  But some of them said, ‘He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.’ Others, to test him, kept demanding from him a sign from heaven” (Luke 11:14-16).  The Gospel writers do not record these acts of healing solely for the purpose of shock value.  Rather, as Luke tells Theophilus, it is so that the church will “know the truth” about what they have been taught (Luke 1:4).  Thus, liberation is imbedded in the proclamation message itself. 

            A contemporary application of this is preaching the apocalyptic texts of scripture.  The message itself is liberating to those who receive it by faith. Proclaiming the message that the kingdom of God tells as much about the preacher as it does about the audience.  In Preaching Apocalyptic Texts, Larry Paul Jones tackles the problem faced by many contemporary mainline preachers.  In short, they fear that preaching apocalyptic texts will get them branded as “bible thumpers.”  He cites three challenges which make the task an imperative: 1) by what authority they preach; 2) how God relates with humanity; 3) who lays the greatest claim on their lives (Jones 2, 3).   Under Jones’s model, the issue at stake is the integrity of the preacher and the veracity of the message.

            What does the person practicing guerrilla Christianity look like?  As mentioned above, they are irregular soldiers.  They come in an infinite variety of shapes, sizes, colors, ages, genders, races, classes, theologies, denominations, etc.  They are decidedly Christian in self identity, but catholic in the broadest sense.  Clearly it represents a “united front” in terms of purpose, not in organization.  “John answered, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he does not follow with us.’  But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him; for whosoever is not against you is for you’”(Luke 9:49).   The wise soldier recognizes this unspoken unity of purpose even if other parties choose to work independently.  The guerrilla forces are strengthened by the diversity.  They are not dependent on the strengths of one human general.  Rather, they look to the guidance of the Holy Spirit who supplies the needed gifts or charisms to accomplish the tasks.             

            What are the acts of liberation?  It cannot be by physical violence as in modern warfare. Blount has accurately described the downside of the use of violence, especially by the powerless of society.  “Violence brings with it an aura, false though it may be, of control for those who are denied expressions of power through other, more communally sanctioned means” (Blount 230).  In the new metaphor of guerrilla Christianity, there are incursions behind enemy lines with intent to destabilize the usurper’s power.  In this case, violence does not carry with it an illusion of power.  Rather, the sorties are displays of genuine spiritual power by the Holy Spirit exercised on behalf of the coming King.

            The sorties of liberation are not equivalent to “random acts of kindness.”  Rather, these are strategic strikes against the Enemy.  The New Testament identifies the Enemy by many names:  Satan, Beelzebul, the Devil, the Lawless One, Abaddon, Apollyon, the Beast, the False Prophet, the ancient serpent, the Dragon, and the deceiver of the whole world.  These bizarre appellations pose no small problem for contemporary readers, postmodern children of the enlightenment.  St. Paul further complicates the matter in the strange text: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).  Does God expect the Christian to believe that there is a spiritual world inhabited by malicious demons, abetting spirits, and angels?  Perhaps this language is merely a reflection of the naive mentality of a superstitious people in first century Palestine.  Or, perhaps, this is a useful metaphor for human powers which act in “demonic” fashion.  In The Powers that Be, Walter Wink suggests a middle way for understanding the opposition.  He says that the biblical witness more than suggests the possibility of both [invisible] spiritual and [visible] human agents of wickedness in this world.  Apocalyptic literature and early Jewish and Christian sages believed that everything in creation had its own angel.  “That meant, I concluded, that everything in creation has both a physical and a spiritual aspect.  The Powers That Be are not, then, simply people and their institutions, as I had first thought; they also include the spirituality at the core of those institutions and structures.  If we want to change those systems, we will have to address not only their outer forms, but their inner spirit as well” (Wink 4).   

            Say that we can agree with Wink’s definition of “powers” above.  What does this mean in practical terms, for guerrilla Christianity?  I think that one clue is in the narrative about Jesus sending our seventy disciples to announce “The Kingdom of God has come near to you” (Luke 10:9).    These were mini-sorties into the enemy territory.  These lay evangelists were to cure the sick and enjoy the hospitality of those who were willing to receive them. Here you have both proclamation and liberation. The promise of a fuller liberation under the coming King was good news. “The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’  He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.  See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.  Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven’” (Luke 10:17). 

            The healings and exorcisms function as visible signs of something greater coming, the Kingdom of God on earth.  Some congregations take these terms quite literally.  My proposal is that each congregation, the basic unit of guerrilla fighters, must explore their spiritual gifts as best attending to the dual tasks of proclamation and liberation.  If some groups claim to have the genuine gifts of physical healing - whether by spiritual prayer or by medical training or both - they should use them for the glory of God’s Kingdom.  Another group may have the financial means to forgive debts, house the homeless, or feed the hungry.  This is no less spiritual than the first.  Still others may have the ability to lobby against corporate or national inequities or ecological threats.  These also can be understood as guerrilla sorties.   

            It is important to note again how guerrilla tactics function.  They are lay ministries  utilizing the irregulars, not only ‘professionals.’  These sorties are not ‘John Rambo’ operations.   They function best using group dynamics.  The women’s guild or youth group in a church can often accomplish much more in the lives of the needy than the minister.  The minister takes the role of the leader, organizing and training his people for service.  They all depend on the Holy Spirit who empowers and guides the people into the guerrilla sorties to announce the Kingdom of God and liberate the captives not only by healings and exorcisms, but also by works of love.  

            Gustavo Gutierrez warns us that this type of message is not without risk. “The proclamation of the gospel of liberation to the poor is not an easy task.  The giving of life may bring death at the hands of those who have chosen death against life.  The experience of the Latin American church in recent years bears eloquent testimony of this” (Gutierrez 9).  Recent events are a strong indication that the North American context is not immune to these risks.  Regardless, the work of the Kingdom of God goes unabated.    

            How long do we continue in the guerrilla campaign?  When costly ointment was used to anoint Jesus, Judas objected that it could have been sold to help the poor instead.  Jesus defends her and gives an enigmatic saying.  “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me” (Mark 14:7).  This verse is usually interpreted only as a rebuke to Judas for his greed.  On the other hand, it may be that Jesus is teaching us a final lesson about the Jubilee year.  “Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.  Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land’” (Deuteronomy 15:10, 11).  The women’s gift fulfilled the verse in both her unreserved love for the Lord and wanton generosity of spirit.  Would-be contemporary followers of Jesus - the guerrilla fighters - are called to continue these apocalyptic kingdom acts work of spiritual healing and works of love.  The mandate to generously help the poor and needy will never end until the Kingdom of God is come in all her fullness. 


Works Cited

Blount, Brian K.  Go Preach! Mark’s Kingdom Message and the Black Church Today.  Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1998.

Browning, W. R. F.  A Dictionary of the Bible.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Gutierrez, Gustavo.  The God of Life.  Trans. by Matthew J. O’Connell.  Maryknoll, New York:  Orbis Books, 1991.

 Jones, Larry Paul and Jerry L. Sumney.  Preaching Apocalyptic Texts.  St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 1999.

Morgenstern, J.  “Year of Jubilee.”    Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, c. 1962.

Sperber, Daniel.  A Dictionary of Greek and Latin Legal Terms in Rabbinic Literature.  Bar-Ilan:  Bar-Ilan University Press, 1984.

Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary.  Thunder Bay Press, 2001.

Wink, Walter.  The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium.  New York: Doubleday, 1989.

Wright, Christopher J.  “Year of Jubilee.”  Anchor Bible Dictionary.  New York: Doubleday, 1992.     

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