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.

The Kingdom and Interruption

I think it's fair to say that in our culture of hurry, technology, and multi-sensory stimulation on a constant basis, we glide through life locked in our own world of concern and agenda. We wear our headphones, while texting on our cell phones. We spend copious amounts of time tending to our carefully crafted identities on social sites. We rush to make our multitude of commitments that are only possible as a result of our mobility. We are hemmed into our agendas with few margins for spontaneity or a shift in plans. As a result we have been carefully and well trained to ignore anything outside of the scope of our own agendas. We miss the broken ones hungry on the street because we're too busy. We fail to see injustice unfold before us in subtle ways. We are uncomfortable when someone doesn't respond with “I'm fine.” to our “How are you?” We are self centred.

In many ways, we followers of Jesus have managed to structure our faith into the pattern above. We've attempted to follow a very radical, spontaneous and responsive-to-the-Spirit Jesus in a way that is clean, neat and free of surprises. Outside of the occasional “internal” insight about self betterment or “feelings” of warmth about our idea of security in the world to come, we are largely neutered in our ability to follow Jesus appropriately. This frustrates me because it makes no sense considering we follow a God that is free and uncontrollable. The pattern of control in which we fashion our faith does not mesh with the pattern of God.

A very unique aspect about Jesus' ministry is his willingness to be interrupted by the Holy Spirit. There are constant examples of encounters that were spontaneous and interruptive to his Journey. The gospel of Mark is riddled with interruptive-type ministry beginning in the first chapter. Jesus had an eye on how the hearts of those around him were being stirred in curiosity or need. He responded in distinct action that blended into his agenda of demonstrating who God is and what God was doing on the road to his ultimate example on the cross. This is largely because Jesus' entire purpose and being is summed up in participating in the mission of God to reconcile the world. I'm suggesting that our crafted and controlled life above lies in stark contradiction to the pattern of Jesus' life, yet we try to make it work… uninterrupted by anything new or surprising from God. In a unique way, the interruptions are the ministry, yet we go out of our way to avoid them.

At the centre of this issue lies two problems. The first is an issue of purpose and obedience (or discipleship). The second is an issue of vision as it relates to our inability to see and understand how we are being pulled into ways of disengagement with God's Kingdom action. We are scripted into ways of self-centredness and self-focus and this leads to the development of both issues above. Our discipleship is private and tends to focus on the self, while our blindness to how we are scripted leads to our miasma. It is a catch twenty-two and part of the solution is a radical shake up of how fragile our self constructed world really is. We need to be jolted out of the pathology of private faith and startled away from the script of our empire that lulls us into our own uninterruptible worlds.

In times long ago, it was God that acted decisively to jolt and startle his people by allowing their enemies to carry them off into Babylonian exile. This made them reorient their lives around God and come to terms with their need for Him. Hopefully we can wake ourselves up on our own rather than suffer the alternative of being led into a new type of Babylon as slaves. Or maybe we're already there?

Kingdom Discernment, Discipleship, & Art – Part 2

Brokenness

The photo above is my attempt at expressing how I’ve seen God at work this past week. I think many people feel like they are a crooked broken line in a world of straight lines. While the world shuns brokenness and praises put-togetherness, God is found in the cracks and frailty where we would least expect him to be. This has been the theme for me is last week based on my experiences.

Picking up from part one of this adventure, last night we continued on our journey of creativity as a mission group. This week’s exercise was about answering the question of “Where have you seen God at work this week?” In my opinion, I have seen people (myself included) struggle to easily answer this question. It can cause anxiety and often makes us painfully aware of our inability to pay attention to the divine in the daily. We try hard to align our beliefs and actions with a theology that God is always present, but somehow the out working of this is more complex to realize than we would like. The point of growing as artists in the kingdom is to ultimately be able to express our journeys in provocative and inspiring ways.

Rather than just trying to answer this question, the creative exercise was to answer it with a photograph (the photo above is my attempt). We were prepared with some instructions in advance to guide the process. I also recognized that photography might be intimidating for some so I broadened the scope to include two other options related to the poetry exercise we did last week, or a “show and tell” about some sort of art or craft made in the past. Here is the exercise and instructions.

Rule #1: This should be fun and relaxed without pressure of any kind. This is not a photo critique.

  • Have your camera or cell phone nearby
  • Be in a time of prayer and recognize God’s presence in you and in the moment
  • Realize that it is a sacred moment that you are experiencing
  • Consider your feelings, where you are, colours, textures, shapes, and what God might be saying to you. Consider what’s unfolding around you (people, things, events, etc…).
  • Your photo can be an expression of God’s beauty or something that makes him sad. Identify with the feelings of God’s heart. Does your heart rejoice or break with His?
  • Make your photo from a place of response to God’s love for you and His love for the world. important: does it connect with what we have journeyed through as a church this week? (identity, seeing with new glasses, etc…)

Option 2:

  1. Revisit your four line poem from last week and share with us the experience of reflecting on your life without God and the contrast to the scripture we read (Isaiah 65:17-25) here is the link to the verses. What is happening in you through this?
  2. Bring something to the group that you created yourself (a craft, knitting, painting, etc…) and share what it means to you and what it was like making it.

As everyone shared about their various experiences, it was interesting to see how vividly God spoke to them through this. We also agreed as a group that having an artistic impulse connected to the discovery of God in our lives made it easier to answer the question of where we see him at work. There was less anxiety and more meaningful engagement because of the artistic element. It’s becomming clear that there is great value to expanding our experience of God from just the cerebral to include the artistic.

Part of our night together also included discussing ways we could discover and participate in Kingdom life in our neighbourhood. Fundamentally, I believe answering this question comes from a process of listening to who God is and Where he is working in our community, while strongly resisting the urge to speak of how up front. Because of our existing friendships and involvement with the local school, themes of what matters to God were already self evident. We identified with a sense of disconnectedness that already exists, the epidemic of Latchkey children in our city, and poverty. This is already clear to most of us. But we want to learn more about the people, ourselves as part of this greater broken community, growing friendships, and most importantly discover the constant newness of the Kingdom in our midst. We want to move toward the hope and future of God in our community.

We decided as a group that we would like to facilitate an environment where we could connect with the community and enter an active discernment process to discover God further. We are planning to use a large back room in our building to host a games night with a number of the kids from the local school and their parents. The idea is to create connection while we actively look for God to reveal his kingdom among us. As God reveals himself through this, we would love the opportunity to include the community in the journey of instigating the great prayer of “…on earth as it is in heaven.”

I was pleased that our desire to be more artistic and creative contributed (and will continue to contribute) to our processing of God among us and our sending by him.

 

God’s Mission: Who, Where, How?

If missional church is all about relying on God's agency to lead the church in discovery of Who he is and Where he is working, then what about the How? Well it turns out that putting the How before the Who and Where when it comes to mission is placing the cart before the horse. As I've learned, emphasis on How is reflective of an imagination held captive by market economic language based on strategy, control, and predictability. Emphasis on the Who of mission and the Where demands a different posture; a listening posture open to the leading by, what Walter Brueggemann describes as the God that is:

“…irascible in freedom and pathos-filled in sovereignty, one who traffics in hiddenness and violence. This God does not fit much of our theological preference and certainly does not conform to any of our bourgeois reductionism. This God is the one who keeps life ragged and open, who refuses domestication but who will not let our lives be domesticated either.

In my last few posts on this topic, I've been led by a trusted friend to see my own captivity to notions of How in mission. The reality is that we are so intrenched in this economic market script that we are often unaware of how deep our allegiances lie. Much work needs to be done to understand our own reductions about God and how they hinder our ability to follow this irascible and free God out of the comfort of our private salvations…a place where Christianity has been safely sequestered and domesticated for far too long. If all I'm doing is reaching out to people in order to get them to believe in a private, cerebral, God without subverting and impacting the very public empire of domination and its systems of injustice, I really accomplish nothing.

But I don't want to crucify the question of How; doing so would be too harsh a reaction. I just want to eradicate it from the front of my mind when I think about mission and following this God, who is apparently bigger than my own imagination can bear. The How can only emerge when a genuine encounter with the Who and Where happen. How can be a beautiful thing if it emerges from the transformation of encountering God locally in a profound way. The community of listeners that experience this encounter become artisans of the way as it is revealed for them through the encounter.

How is a beautiful thing in its rightful place…

What is Discipleship?

A friend and thoughtful blogger, Bill Kinnon, got my mind stirring yesterday with his latest: Discipleship is Conspiracy post. Bill suggests that that there is an intimacy lost in the conventional pedagogy of western discipleship. I agree. The classroom approach does not compare to the down-to-earth discipleship reflected in the gospels. To say discipleship is conspiracy suggests so much more than the transference of religious information.

Understanding discipleship against such strong language of conspiracy could be helped by introducing language of “empire”. Empire is ultimately the principalities and powers at work in the world to exert its will in the form of politics (Eph 6:12). The empire is in rebellion toward God because of sin. The empire exploits, comodifies, and dehumanizes people with its lust for power, domination, and control. The empire conspires to perpetuate its agenda by worshipping the false gods of money, redemptive violence and power.

Against the backdrop of empire, I really like the language of conspiracy that Bill introduces for a number of reasons.

  1. Discipleship is ultimately participation in God's project for creation. This project was inaugurated in Jesus and carried out in a subversive and transformative manner within the empire and for the sake of the world. Therefore, an undermining took place and we can say that God's undermining of the “powers that be” and defeat of evil constitutes a conspiracy.
  2. Bill traces the etymology of conspiracy to the act of breathing together. There is an intimate connectivity (a breathing together) that we witness in the life of Jesus with his disciples. There is a story playing out within the larger story of the empire to non violently resist the practice of domination and oppression that ultimately support the empire. Therefore; this type of breathing together constitutes a conspiracy to subvert the empire.
  3. Discipleship is conspiracy because of the invasiveness of the word into the world through the incarnation. In other words, God took the world by surprise. Only by this incarnate invasiveness can the breathing together with humanity occur. Disciples are co-conspirators with God. It is ultimately a demonstration, rather than religious education or ideology alone.
  4. Conspiracy has an element of surprise. As co-conspirators, disciples work their way through the empire as the Holy Spirit leads (Matt 13: 31-32). Discipleship is surprising because of its way of non-violent resistance. This type of resistance disarms exploitation by exposing sin and responding in love (Matt 5:41, Luke 6:29). It leaves the aggressor disarmed while demonstrating a new way of being in response to aggression.

I want to take discipleship further as well and suggest that it is also an act of civil disobedience. In Baptism, for example, the disciple declares a “YES” to the Kingdom and a resounding “No” to the will and values of the empire that are in opposition to God. Through baptism, we become dissobedient toward the empire for we declare a new order that is led by a new King as supreme. If the empire dehumanizes, the Kingdom through discipleship is about dignifying and making fully human those that are broken; restoring God's order of all things. This is a public act. Through baptism one renounces allegiance to the empire and is born into a new life of breathing together with God and his people for this purpose. Is is the ultimate conspiracy and is dangerous when taken seriously.

The challenge with Western discipleship (in addition to what Bill mentions) is a form of blindness to the conspiracy and how it ought to play out against the empire. To take it further, allegiances are mixed and following Jesus has been co opted into a form of private religion that is palpable by the empire. It poses no significant threat. The empire goes as far as bestowing benefits upon the disciples of this coopted religion. The church and the empire are breathing together in conspiracy.

As much as true discipleship is a conspiracy, there is a conspiracy that works in the opposite direction that has far too many adherents to pose any significant threat to the empire. Caesar loves this arrangement.

 

 

Missional

“But it’s one thing to say that the Church at large is involved in the Missio Dei; it’s another to use the term “Missional” as a kind of advanced concept of Church, or as a thing you have to do to qualify for Church.”

Maggie Dawn helps our understanding of this oft misused/misunderstood term. From back in 2007

Ecological Crisis and the Missional Church

There has been increased discussion these days about the importance of the environment and the challenges presented by Global Warming. In fact, polititians are even finding these issues unavoidable as they construct their election campaigns. Talk shows are covering the issue and newspapers are reporting it. This is evidence that the crisis has made its way into mainstream thought and this is good. In addition to the political press, churches are taking more seriously the stewardship question. In fact, the stewardship/eccology quesiton plays an importnat part of the missional church conversation.

One of the characteristics of the missional church is the emphasis on an eschatology that affirms creation. It is the belief that God is making all things new, including His creation that He deems good. We could go as far to say that the strong emphasis here is a necessary reaction to much of the dualism in mainstream Western Christianity that has contributed to the Global crisis. “If the gospel is all about going to heaven after we die, then why bother saving the earth? It’s all going to burn up anyway!” From my perspective this line of thinking is absurd; however, it is a common eschatological belief that consumes many Christians, and a dangerous one.

This leads us to ask important questions about what our missional spirituality should look like; especially as we seek to form faithful communities in the midst of a culutre that largely perpetuates this global crisis. Here are two questions to consider:

In what ways can churches that affirm creation serve as a prophetic witness to the powers that be?

How might local churches “win the favor of the people” by participating in the good stewardship of creation?

Leave a comment for discussion.