The UNkingdom of God : Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance – Book Review

What really makes a book a good book? For me, like a work of art, a good book is precisely “good” because of its ability to facilitate an encounter with truth and beauty. A good work of art invites us to experience something greater than our current orientation to the world and transforms us on the other end of the encounter. This is kind of how I feel about Mark Van Steenwyk's latest book, The Un-Kingdom of God: Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance. Like a work of art, this book is an invitation to explore the other end of an encounter with Mark's imagination and experience about who God is and what it means to follow in the ways of Jesus.

Mark writes from a refreshing posture of vulnerability regarding his own 'scripting' in the Christian faith. It's refreshing because his posture is not a possessive one, in that he claims no special knowledge or to have all the answers to the problems; but one that is aware of his own captivity to the Empire that God longs to liberate people from. He carries us through the chapters in humility with a desire to constantly discern the direction the Holy Spirit reveals to his community.

His premise in the book is that much of Western Christianity is married to the imperial trappings of Empire and that ongoing repentance – and relinquishment of said imperialism – should be the paradigm through which the church can experience the Kingdom. What are these Empirical trappings? The trappings of empire are difficult to see and when Mark poetically pulls the sheets back on us we are left exposed and clearly complicit in the colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and economic power systems that define privilege within the empire; a privelage the church has comfortably enjoyed for milenia. Mark helps us see in this regard that every one of us partakes in systems of injustice even as we partake in the bread and cup at Jesus' table.

Mark helps us see our shortcomings and opportunities in several important ways. Three stand out to me:

Repentance over Privilage: In the west we somehow feel we have the template on what it means to be Christians, as if the goal is to turn disciples into well behaved middle class Americans. Our Privilage has caused us to tell national myths that are quite oppressive to the indiginous people whose land we inhabit, as if our enlightened standard is the goal. He says:

The engine of Western imperialism is the quasi-Christian set of national myths that shape us into the sort of people who believe that we, uniquely, embody the good life and should spread that life to the rest of the world. The American dream is our gospel.”

Our Christian memory is tied to the empire and this empire partook and partakes in injustice to offer us the freedoms we feel make us exceptional today. In a prophetic way, Mark suggests that we shed such privilage and repent of our work in sustaining these myths and the ongoing injustices they enable. In this sense there is no genuine Christian witness or restorative justice outside of repentance, just ongoing oppression.

Compassion over charity: So we are exceptional at justice because we give a lot of money as westerners to good causes? Before reading this book I had no idea how charitable generosity can actually perpetuate injustice, even with sincere intentions. Mark deconstructs charity and offers fair criticism because rarely does charity redefine the social fabric of our societies justly – the business Jesus was about. In fact charity often maintains the divisions between rich, poor, black, white, etc… And gives us a safe place from privilege to give with little real cost. The gospels are riddled with exchanges where Jesus was critical of the status quo for excluding others. Compassion on the other hand requires a relationship of empathy on even ground. It is a radical identification with the other, a suffering with, that is mediated via a posture of repentance and rooted in hospitality. Hospitality is the primary vehicle for compassion and it is evident in the many stories Mark tells. His authority in my mind stems from the extent to which his community has oriented their lives around these principals.

Anarchy over Oppression: Mark is an Christian Anarchist and that should not scare you, although it will scare many who have a shallow understanding of it. Anarchism is simply the desire to participate in voluntary, non-coercive, combinations (or relationships) in society. It is the idea that a group of people can autonomously organize according to the community's best interest. As a Christian, Mark sees Jesus as the organizing centre of life together. The community gathers and decides via concensus what it is that the Spirit of Jesus is revealing. The Spirit also helps the community name oppression as Jesus did in his time. To Mark:

“Good anarchists are namers of all forms of oppression, seeking to understand the way oppressions reinforce each other in enslaving creation and seeing, in contrast, a way of liberation and life for all of creation.”

This is an interesting posture against the oppressiveness of our society as it places no one person or position over any other. In addition, Christian Anarchism names oppression and our complicity in it, while creating an environment where equality and mutual love can occur. This idea resonates more with how Jesus and the early church organized before the eventual marriage of church to the Roman Empire. Sadly, many ecclesial structures today reflect moreso the pattern of empire than the anarchistic organizing principle evident in the gospels.

To conclude, Mark is a tremendous cultural exegete that strives for “eyes to see” and is relentless in discovering ways to embody what the Spirit reveals. Reading this book is uncomfortable and inviting at the same time, like a good work of art. This book has challenged my own assumptions and understanding and begun to help me shake free from the lull the empire has on me at times. I'm encouraged and challenged. To many who are marginalized and have felt the boot of empire on their chest, this book is very hopeful. To the powers (including ecclesial ones) that are modelled in the way of empire and privilege this book will be hard to endure.

Different Types of Ecclesiology

I am still in no place to blog thoughtfully….still nothing meaningful to say. But I will link to other [more] thoughtful bloggers to give you something for stopping by this site. Halden posted a great description of different types of ecclesiology…..

“This is intended solely as a descriptive, handout-style breakdown of different sorts of ecclesiology within the broad spectrum of the Christian tradition. As such it clearly is not accurate on the micro level. Any and all typologies are, in my opinion extremely dangerous. However, if they help in facilitating the theological task at points, then perhaps they ought not be done away with.

From my perspective there are two basic polarities which define the shape of a given ecclesiology. The first is what I term the High-Low polarity, the second I refer to as the Strong-Weak polarity. Within this framework any given ecclesial body could potentially fall in one of four categories, High-Strong, High-Weak, Low-Strong, and Low-Weak. Here are my descriptors of these categories and my attending attempt to put various Christian ecclesial bodies in their proper place. I am sure there will be inaccuracies here based upon my own ecclesial experiences, familiarities and limitations. So, please correct me if you are so inclined. It will help greatly my final development of this typology.


High Church Ecclesiology: High view of church history and tradition. Emphasizes the liturgy and above all the Eucharist. Churches are generally structured episcopally (i.e. through a hierarchy of bishops who stand in communion with each other). Emphasizes salvation as membership in the church through participation in the sacraments. Generally holds to infant baptism. Close connection between baptism and initiation into the broad community of faith.”

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Vision as Incremental…

I have been far too busy to blog lately because life is taking its toll on me from all angles. One thing I have tried to keep up is meeting for lunches downtown with friends who church plant and are involved in the missional conversation. This has been a source of life for me in the absence of time to blog.

One topic we have bantered about lately is that of vision. There is much talk about vision in churches and so much of it is good and some needs to be questioned. What I perhaps question most is the type of vision that is based more on models of commerce. Many critique this as it often leads down roads of church growth strategies that are concerned most about growing numerically through a repeatable and controllable process. But is biblical vision about that?

In conversation with my friend Anthony, he put me onto the idea of vision as vocation rather than a static constant. What I mean by static constant, is that if a church’s vision, for example, is to grow to 10000 people, the unswerving pursuit of that vision can often lead to a lack of openness to the spirit’s direction for a body as their life together unfolds. The desire may be a noble one that seeks the Kingdom, but it may not be the specific direction or goal for that church as discerned through the circumstance of their life and the Spirit’s presence. Vision as vocation, on the other hand is a buy-in into the macro promise of the covenant God to restore all things. Vocational vision can be understood as a communal resolve that we are a pilgrim people, traveling through time with the Spirit, as we implement and participate in the redemptive action of God to restore all things. What that looks like in a local context needs to be teased out and discovered through relationship to the Spirit in a posture of listening. It is not controllable, but is is discoverable. As we only have the creative visions of scripture that give language to this redemptive hope, it comes to be for us through a process of improvisation (thanks NT).

The above should lead us to consider that perhaps vision is an incremental endeavor. If we have a vocational vision that includes an openness and attentiveness to the Spirit from a macro perspective, then we can trust that direction will be reveled incrementally as we travel through time with God. What is more, the vision discovered will be an impulse by the Spirit that is intertwined with the communities wrestling match with God. Discovering God in the midst of our circumstances (faithful and unfaithful) as we walk through the good and bad consequences of our life together is the playground for discovering our next steps toward God in this life. What grounds this for me is Israel’s journey through the wilderness. There was only enough guidance for the next few steps of their life alongside their vocational vision/hope for the promised land. Are we willing to take the route they did? Perhaps not for us, but for God, this seems the preferred place he would have us. Strikingly, it is not a place of efficiency, strength, and pride, but a place of weakness, humility, and powerlessness where the only walking we do is with a limp.

This leads me to wonder if each church vision should not begin with a resounding "For now…" as they seek to discern each step along the journey.

What do you think?