No Conviction

By Peter Rollins 10-14-2008

In a world where following Christ is decreed to be a subversive and illegal activity, you have been accused of being a believer, arrested, and dragged before a court.

You have been under clandestine surveillance for some time now, and so the prosecution has been able to build up quite a case against you. They begin the trial by offering the judge dozens of photographs that show you attending church meetings, speaking at religious events, and participating in various prayer and worship services. After this they present a selection of items that have been confiscated from your home: religious books that you own, worship CDs, and other Christian artifacts. Then they step up the pace by displaying many of the poems, pieces of prose, and journal entries that you had lovingly written concerning your faith. Finally, in closing, the prosecution offers your Bible to the judge. This is a well-worn book with scribbles, notes, drawings, and underlinings throughout, evidence, if it were needed, that you had read and reread this sacred text many times.

Throughout the case you have been sitting silently in fear and trembling. You know deep in your heart that with the large body of evidence that has been amassed by the prosecution, you face the possibility of a long imprisonment or even execution. At various times throughout the proceedings, you have lost all confidence and have been on the verge of standing up and denying Christ. But while this thought has plagued your mind throughout the trial, you resist the temptation and remain focused.

Once the prosecution has finished presenting their case, the judge proceeds to ask if you have anything to add, but you remain silent and resolute, terrified that if you open your mouth, even for a moment, you might deny the charges made against you. Like Christ, you remain silent before your accusers. In response you are led outside to wait as the judge ponders your case.

The hours pass slowly as you sit under guard in the foyer waiting to be summoned back. Eventually a young man in uniform appears and leads you into the courtroom so that you may hear the verdict and receive word of your punishment. Once seated in the dock, the judge, a harsh and unyielding man, enters the room, stands before you, looks deep into your eyes, and begins to speak:

"Of the charges that have been brought forward I find the accused not guilty."

"Not guilty?" your heart freezes. Then, in a split second, the fear and terror that had moments before threatened to strip your resolve are swallowed up by confusion and rage.

Despite the surroundings, you stand defiantly before the judge and demand that he give an account concerning why you are innocent of the charges in light of the evidence.

"What evidence?" he replies in shock.

"What about the poems and prose that I wrote?" you reply.

"They simply show that you think of yourself as a poet, nothing more."

"But what about the services I spoke at, the times I wept in church and the long, sleepless nights of prayer?"

"Evidence that you are a good speaker and actor, nothing more," replied the judge. "It is obvious that you deluded those around you, and perhaps at times you even deluded yourself, but this foolishness is not enough to convict you in a court of law."

"But this is madness!" you shout. "It would seem that no evidence would convince you!"

"Not so," replies the judge, as if informing you of a great, long-forgotten secret.

"The court is indifferent toward your Bible reading and church attendance; it has no concern for worship with words and a pen. Continue to develop your theology, and use it to paint pictures of love. We have no interest in such armchair artists who spend their time creating images of a better world. We exist only for those who would lay down that brush, and their life, in a Christ-like endeavor to create it. So, until you live as Christ and his followers, until you challenge this system and become a thorn in our side, until you die to yourself and offer your body to the flames, until then my friend, you are no enemy of ours."


This reflection was written after I happened to see a car speed past with a bumper sticker that read, "If Christianity were illegal, would there be enough evidence to convict you?" At the time I didn't pay this little saying much thought, but over the course of the day it began to take root in my consciousness and play on my mind. So that evening I took some time to imagine such a world and what would happen to me if I lived within it. I was not interested in imagining a world where Christianity as a mere tradition or belief system was illegal, but rather a place where a life that reflected the acts and teachings of Jesus was prohibited.

Yet, in the process of reflecting I began to wonder whether we actually already lived in such a world. Rather than reading "If Christianity were illegal, would there be enough evidence to convict you?", I wondered whether the bumper sticker I had seen that day should actually have read, Christianity is illegal: is there enough evidence to convict you? For if I was really to take the teachings of Jesus seriously, would I not, sooner or later, find myself being dragged before the authorities? If I were to really live a life which reflected the subversive and radical message of love that gives a voice to the voiceless and a place to those who are displaced, if I were to really stand up against the systemic oppression perpetrated by those in power, then would I not find myself on the wrong side of the law makers?

The above story simply exposes the reality of Christ's subversive teaching by imagining that those who exist in the place of power today are both aware of the fact that they oppose the way of Christ and are willing to openly admit it. The story thus has two primary points. First, I used it to express the idea that authentic faith is expressed, not in the mere acceptance of a belief system, but in sacrificial, loving action. Here I reject the inner/outer distinction in which one can fool one's self into thinking that private beliefs are somehow more important or reflective of ones essence than public actions. Second, I wished to draw the reader into the reflection that perhaps this larger-than-life scenario, in its imaginary description of an alternative universe, is actually merely a reflection of the universe that we already inhabit. By creating a fictional world we thus come face to face with our own world.

Peter Rollins is the author of How (Not) to Speak of God, The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief, and the forthcoming book The Orthodox Heretic: And Other Impossible Tales, from which this story is excerpted.

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