Pursuing the Holy Mandate

Subversive Witness
Scripture’s Call to
Leverage Privilege
Dominique Gilliard
Zondervan, 240 pages

Reviewed by Joel Sommer | August 11, 2021

Subversive Witness, the latest offering from award-winning author and Covenant minister Dominique Gilliard, provides a valuable map detailing the connections between Scripture, justice, and Christian witness.

Church historian Mark Noll identifies biblicism and conversionism as two crucial characteristics of evangelicalism. Similarly, our own tradition in the Covenant Church affirms the centrality of the Word of God and the necessity of new birth. Yet, lamentably, the very movements that celebrate a love of Scripture have also struggled to faithfully pursue the justice mandated in our holy book.

Subversive Witness helps diagnose this disconnection and powerfully argues that the work of justice is integral to the witness of the body of Christ. One significant point of disconnection, Gilliard notes, is how believers respond to the reality of our privilege—whether in the form of gender, race, economic, education, or any other form. After illustrating how attention to Scripture and history confirm the reality of privilege, he observes: “When unchecked, privilege distorts how we see God, our neighbor, ourselves, and creation. It also perverts how we read the Bible and live out our faith.” The most precious, most fundamental arenas of Christian discipleship—love of Creator and creation, mediated through biblical authority—are harmed when privilege goes unchallenged.

Does this mean that those of us born into some measure of privilege (which probably describes almost anyone reading this review) are doomed to a distorted view of God and perverted view of Scripture? Not at all! The crucial insight repeated throughout Subversive Witness is that “we are called to leverage privilege to further the kingdom and love our neighbor.” The choice to confront privilege, from the days of the early church to the present, has been connected to the spread of the gospel. 

This is far from a new phenomenon. Gilliard elucidates the lives of individuals in Scripture—Pharaoh’s daughter, Esther, Moses, Paul and Silas, Jesus, and Zaccheus—to demonstrate that the Holy Spirit has always prompted God’s people to leverage privilege in order to further God’s reign and love our neighbor. Interwoven with scriptural and theological reflections are real-life accounts—by turns harrowing and inspiring—of how injustice has been propagated and how God has raised up those who resist it. Through examples of injustice and resistance, as well as scriptural narratives, Subversive Witness offers a vision of Scripture and history that calls believers out of our captivity to an ahistorical, individualistic faith. Instead, we are invited to the genuine freedom that comes from confronting the reality of systemic sin in the context of our discipleship to Jesus. Gilliard reminds us that freedom is never so that we can pursue our own agenda, but always so that we can more faithfully live into the purposes for which God created us. The freedom God desires cannot be compartmentalized to certain individuals or demographics. Rather, we are called to a “collectivist liberation.” 

Toward the end of the book, as he challenges ways antiracism advocates sometimes downplay the devastating injustices of misogyny and patriarchy, Gilliard delivers one of the more tweetable quips of Subversive Witness: “We can no longer afford to fight for freedom in silos.”

Subversive Witness is also filled with signs of hope. While the biblical narratives inspire those of us who love Scripture, the many examples of contemporary movements for justice remind us that God continues to exert his strength on behalf of the oppressed. I felt my soul lifting as I digested story after story of believers who, in the author’s words, “establish kingdom pressure points that help us topple oppressive systems that counteract the will of God.”

Gilliard offers a refreshing drink to those who are parched by the denials and minimizations of injustice that occur too often in our faith communities. It is a strong biblical foundation for those who suspect that the people of God are called to challenge, not endorse, the unjust status quo of our day. Subversive Witness is a powerful tool for forming church leaders, clergy, and all disciples in the liberating way of Jesus.

About the Author

Joel Sommer works part-time as a diversity, equity and inclusion trainer, and he also serves as the pastor of vision and formation at Access Covenant Church in Southeast Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his wife, Sabrina, and their three hungry adolescent sons. 

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