Subversion in Literature Part 2


Subversion can be a ‘good’ thing at certain times, when the cultural norms become oppressive, and a ‘bad’ thing when those norms are supportive and when rejecting them or undermining them would be destructive.

Take the Bible, for example. At the time when the New Testament was put together, slavery and patriarchy were the norm. St. Paul instructs slaves to obey their masters and wives to obey their husbands:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

Husbands, love your wives and do not be bitter toward them.

Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord.

Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.

Slaves, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eye-service, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God.

And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ.

But he who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality.

Masters, give your slaves what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. (Col 3:18-4:1)

There are other similar passages to do with the Roman Emperor and respecting earthly authorities. These are easily misunderstood as being supportive of oppressive cultural norms. In Romans 13, for example, Paul writes:

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honour to whom honour. (Rom 13:1-7)

Taken to an extreme, this can be seen as an evocation to support Hitler. But Christianity is in many ways the ultimate in subversion. Christ commanded us to love our enemies not because they were ‘good’ but because God is good. The examples above outline Christian subversion: Christians do not do these things to uphold the powers of the world but to undermine them by asserting the supremacy of God.

In Christianity the ultimate 'social norm' is the Kingdom of God.

Paul writes:

If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:18-21)

Slaves should not obey their masters because their masters are right to own them as slaves; they do it because we all must serve the Lord. The Scriptures clearly portray a Lord who sides with slaves over masters.

Subversion in this sense is a good thing and is not an earthly matter. Think of Christ’s conversation Pontius Pilate. Pilate threatens Him and reminds Him that he has the power to release Him or condemn Him:

You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. (Jn 19:11)

In other words, you cannot do anything that I don’t want you to do. Obedience and service are not offered out of obligation or because others are right to demand them: they are voluntary. The world can do nothing to us.

True subversion is this standing apart from the world and only continuing to participate in its oppressive ways by choice, as part of a larger and wider obedience. It is recognising, or asserting, that the absolute 'norm' is goodness. Anchored to the Good, the world can wash over us without harming us. We have already subverted it, as the anchored and harboured ship subverts the storm.

In Wuthering Heights, the storm that was Heathcliff eventually passes. Bronte's aim was not to create a new norm, but to step outside the conventions of the society around her so that we could see them anew.

What gives subversion a bad name is when it is an attempt to do the opposite - to reject all obedience, to undermine all goodness, to destroy from within the nourishment of the spirit. When subversive literature points to no safe harbour, it becomes destructive.

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