During World War II, the city of Lyon was part of Vichy France (1940-1944) and a center of resistance against French collaboration and NAZI occupation. On a recent trip to that beautiful and historic city I heard a talk by one of the few living members of the French resistance movement. As a young man, this gentleman was tasked with smuggling weapons past the German soldiers guarding the transportation systems. I was amazed at his stories of defiance, death, and heroism. He has received many honors from his grateful nation for his service. But if you described the actions of the French Résistance, which included theft, assassination, and sabotage, but changed its name and names of its opponents you would think you were learning about a terrorist organization. We so readily admire defiance and resistance when they directed against what we think is an unjust power. Hence it seems that our attitude toward “the resistance” depends on whom it is resisting and to what end.
In contemporary American society we hear much in the media about “The Resistance” movement; or perhaps it’s better described as a “mood.” It’s a mood of defiance and resistance to the current administration, which it pictures as an unjust power in analogy to the opponent fought by the French Résistance. And no doubt its name was chosen for its resonance with that heroic French movement. Resistance and defiance appear honorable and heroic—even when they involve violence, destruction, and hatred—as long as they are directed at the supposed evil and injustice of a greater power. To repeat the principle stated above, our attitude toward “the resistance” depends on the power toward which its opposition is directed and to what end. If you think your cause is just and your opponent’s is evil, you can justify whatever means necessary to succeed at resistance.
Ancient philosophy taught that only “like knows like.” And common sense tells us that only physical forces resist physical forces. Resistance, then, must be of like nature to the thing resisted. The French resistance movement resisted the occupying military and police power with physical force of like nature. The American “resistance” movement resists political power with political power, namely with protest, mobilization, and sometimes violence. To define it crudely but accurately, political power is the legal right to use military and police force to enforce the will of its possessor. It is understandable that people would become distressed when military and police power falls into the hands of their enemies. But we must understand that la résistance whether it has justice on its side or not always meets its enemy with the weapons of its enemy.
The City of Lyon was founded in 43 B.C. as a military outpost of the Roman Empire. Two centuries later, in 177 A.D, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius instigated a vigorous persecution against the Christian community in Lyon in which its bishop Pothinus was martyred. In 178, Ireneaus (130-200 A.D.) became bishop of the church in Lyon and, in executing the duties of his office, became one of the most influential writers the church has produced. The cause for which Pothinus gave his life and Ireneaus labored exists throughout world today while Marcus Aurelius’ Empire has long since collapsed. Ever since the arrival of Christianity Lyon has been a center of another kind of résistance.
In the New Testament, Christianity is often described in terms that resemble an ideology for resistance, and the church is pictured as a subversive community. However the power we are urged to resist, the means we must use, the type of community we form, and the ends we aim to achieve differ radically from those of the resistance movements discussed above. James, John, Peter, and Paul agree on this:
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you (James 4:7).
Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith…” (1 Peter 5:8-9).
11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph. 6:11-12).
The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work (1 John 3:8).
According to the New Testament, our real enemy is not the empire, the current administration, evil corporations, your boss, the opposing political party, the guy who cut you off in traffic, or your abusive neighbor. Our real enemies are sin, death, and the devil. And sin is the central player, because death is but the final outcome of sin and the devil needs sinners to do his work. Jesus is the leader of the real Résistance; for he came to “destroy the devil’s work.” And what is the “devil’s work”? The devil’s work is the hatred, selfishness, envy, jealously, rage, cursing, greed, falsehood, idolatry, lust, and fear that dwell in human hearts not yet touched by Jesus and the Spirit he promised. And how does Jesus destroy it? Jesus and his community resist the devil by returning good for evil and love for hate. His resistance strategy takes the form of resisting the urge to resist power with power, violence with violence, lies with lies, and greed with greed; that is, Jesus breaks the cycle of “like knows like” and shows us how to overcome evil with good.
The church is the Résistance that maintains no army, the kingdom that needs no guns, and the community whose cohesion needs no enemies. It desires no police power and collects no taxes. It invites everyone but forces no one. Its soldiers use only the weapons of truth, faith, love, the Spirit, and the Word of God. It gives life and never takes it. Jesus’ people are willing to suffer but not willing to inflict suffering on others.
In an age of resistance perhaps we should be even more wary of taking the putative justness of our cause as justification for using the means of the enemy against the enemy. Thoughtless resistance to an enemy of “flesh and blood” on earth always involves collaboration with the spiritual adversary “in the heavenly realms.”
Note: The picture above is of the Church of Saint Ireneaus in Lyon, France.