The Church as the Liberated Zone
Father Daniel Syosyev, the Moscow missionary priest who was murdered last week, said something very interesting in an interview shortly before his death. He was explaining why Christians should go to Church on Sunday, and his explanation reveals something of what the Church is. You Wish to See Many Miracles – You Should Become a Missionary or a Martyr: Fr. Daniel’s Autobiography and the Interview with Him on the Occasion of the Opening of the Missionary Centre:
If you will, all we Christians are terrorists. We are the members of a rebellious army, which is revolting against the prince of this world (the devil). Churches are linking stations. There we get information from our governing body: ciphers (New Testament), reinforcement (Holy Communion), and we get support through mutual communication. We master all kinds of tricks in order to commit terrorist attacks against the prince of this world, that is, we learn how to do good. Obviously if an agent of the Holy Kingdom shirks attending the headquarters and does not keep in touch with the command center, he can easily get lost, lose his power, and fall in battle.
I have some reservations about the term “terrorist” as a model for Christians. Terrorists are those who use terror-inspiring methods, but as Christians we are to remember that “perfect love casts out fear”. But, as has often been said, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. The enemies of freedom like to call freedom-fighters “terrorists”, whether they are really terrorists or not, and in that sense, perhaps one can liken Christians to terrorists. And once I had a bumper sticker that read “Read the Bible: it’ll scare the Hell out of you.” Perhaps the idea of inspiring terror is not entirely absent.
Generally I prefer the image of freedom fighters.
But the thing that interests me especially is that Fr Daniel uses the image of guerrilla warfare. We are revolting against the prince of this world, the devil. And so Father Daniel uses imagery that comes from the ecclesiology of the church as the liberated zone. It is imagery that comes from guerrilla fighters and liberation struggles.
And it is biblical imagery too. The Bible gives the image of the world as enemy-occupied territory. The world lies in the power of the Evil One (I John 5:19). Satan, the devil, is described as the “ruler” or “prince” (archon) of this world. But in the midst of this world, this enemy-occupied territory, our Lord Jesus Christ has established a liberated zone of the Kingdom of God. And the Church inhabits that liberated zone until Christ comes again and the whole world is liberated.
In baptism we are called to leave the enemy-occupied territory, and enter the liberated zone, just as in the Exodus the children of Israel left the realm and jurisdiction of Pharaoh by crossing the Red Sea. So we renounce the devil, and breathe and spit upon him, and we turn to the east, and acknowledge Jesus Christ as our king and our God. We transfer our alliegiance from the devil to Christ, and we are transferred from the “authority of darkness” to the Kingdom of God (Colossians 1:13).
There is a Western hymn
Conquering kings their titles take,
From the lands they captive make;
Jesus, Thine was given Thee
For a world Thou madest free.
another translation from the Latin is worded slightly differently:
Conquering kings their titles take,
from the lands they captive make;
Jesus, by a nobler deed,
from the thousands he hath freed.
In either case the contrast is clear — there are conquerors and liberators, and Jesus is counted among the liberators.
Ironically, perhaps, the hymn was quite popular in Victorian times, and Queen Victoria took one of her titles from one of the lands her soldiers had made captive: Empress of India.
But the symbol of IC XC NIKA (Jesus Christ conquers) actually symbolises the opposite. The letters surround the Cross, which the Romans used to execute their foes and any would-be liberators in the lands they conquered. Jesus Christ did not come to trample upon life and liberty, like the kings of this world led by the Ruler of this World, but to trample down death by death.
I’ve read many words written by Western Christians about the emerging church and the missional church and the emerging missional ecclesiology. But I think the missional ecclesiology of Fr Daniel Syosyev has been around for a long time, for 2000 years or more. “Ecclesiology” is a relatively new subdivision of theology, and only emerged in the 20th century (in the 19th century it was concerned primarily with ecclesiastical architecture). But it seeks to answer the question “What is the Church?” And, if I read him correctly, Fr Daniel answers, in effect, that the Church is the liberated zone of the Kingdom of God in the midst of the enemy-occupied territory that we call “this world”.
I looked for the original Latin from which the hymn “Conquering kings their titles take” was translated, and found a version on this blog here: Bad things in new hymn books and other sad tales: Conquering Kings their titles take:
Victis sibi cognomina
Sumant tyranni gentibus;
Tu, Christe, quanto dignius
Ab his capis quos liberas.
If you know Latin, you can judge for yourself which of the versions above is the better translation.
The blog on which I found it laments that this hymn has been omitted from some modern Western hymnals, and speculates that the reason for this may have been that it was one of those cases where the hymn is condemned because it appears to indicate that we go happily to death for Christ’s sake. You’ll see that, in verse 4, we say “Joyfully for him to die is not death but victory”. Possibly, or possibly the editors of the new hymnals were too squeamish to accept the liberation theology espoused by the hymn.
I don’t know if it was that verse or that sentiment that made them reject the hymn, but look at it:
Rather gladly for that Name
Bear the Cross, endure the shame;
Joyfully for Him to die
Is not death but victory.
I can’t think of a more fitting epitaph for Fr Daniel.