Taylor: The most successful subversion

Most empires imposed authority from the top down. The Christian church infiltrated from the bottom up.

With spring, came weeds. A particularly nasty variety of grass infiltrates my flower beds. I don’t know its name; I don’t want to get to know it by name. I think of it as terrorist grass.

It spreads underground, you see. It sends out long roots that worm their way along out of sight through my mulch until they find a suitable place to surface. Where they then proliferate. Two days later, there’s an active cell of alien grasses intent on destroying my garden plants.

When I pull up a clump of this grass, I discover a network of long white roots. They stretch for several feet. They go right under the heather, the periwinkles, the peonies.

Sometimes, rooting out the infiltrator means doing serious damage to plants I hold precious.

Do you see why I call it terrorist grass? Terrorist cells operate the same way. They move invisibly within a society, until they find a few disaffected, alienated young people. They cluster for mutual support and encouragement. The intruders avoid attracting attention to themselves, until they’re firmly rooted.

These cells flourish in settings where they are least expected—like Brussels, headquarters for the European Union. Or Paris, a city long celebrated for free speech and liberty.

But when you try rooting out that cell, you risk damaging the environment that you want to protect.

In the U.S., in Europe, in the Middle East, efforts to combat terrorism have cost more freedoms than the terrorists themselves ever threatened. But apparently that’s the price you pay for ripping out roots.

The terrorist process works, because it’s copied from the most successful act of subversion in history—the spread of the Christian church.

The biblical book of Acts documents the tactics used by travelling evangelists like Paul. Go to a city where you’re not known. Mingle in the synagogues and markets. Find the social and political underdogs—rarely the dominant Roman citizens and officials; more often women, slaves, and small business operators paying taxes to a remote and ruthless emperor. Gather those people into a supportive community.

It took time for Rome to realize that these Christian cells threatened its imperial authority Then it tried to stamp them out. It threw Christians into the arena to be slaughtered by lions and gladiators. It dipped them in tar, and lit them as torches.

But Rome didn’t succeed in stamping out the underground church.

Twenty centuries later, we have grown so accustomed to this story that we fail to realize how radical it was. As I read history, all previous empires overcame other societies by force. Greece, Persia, Egypt, Babylon—all relied on military might to expand their territory. Even King David’s realm conquered neighbouring tribes by might. The Norse and the Normans did the same to England. And England, France, and Spain re-applied the process in the Americas.

All imposed authority from the top down. The Christian church infiltrated from the bottom up.

Or at least it did—until Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire.

I’m not defending terrorists—or grass. Following a successful model doesn’t make them right.

But they’re not doing anything new, either.

 

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