The Unkingdom of God: A Book Review

unkingdomOnce in awhile I review a book for Mike Morrell and Speakeasy.  I haven’t reviewed one in awhile, but when Mark Van Steenwyk’s book came available, it looked like something I’d like to dig into.  The Unkingdom of God is, essentially, a reflection of the practice of Christian anarchy shared through Van Steenwyk’s experience as a practitioner as a Mennonite pastor in Minnesota.

Unfortunately, I was not captivated by Van Steenwyk’s prose and skimmed through some portions I found to be somewhat repetitive even though I enjoyed the general thrust of The Unkingdom.  Throughout the book, I found myself unsettled by some of the author’s claims, though I usually realized that I was more put off by the fact that these are things I need to hear more than any issue I had with his message in particular.

A few years ago I went to a lecture by Irish, post-modern philosopher (and consummate critic of Western evangelicalism), Peter Rollins, and I distinctly remember him acknowledging his place at the periphery of the church.  He said something to the effect of, “I stand at the edge of the church beckoning her onward, beyond her complacency and inspiring her imagination.  I don’t expect everyone to stand alongside me.”  I’m sure he even acknowledged that it isn’t a safe place to be.  In the same way, at the Streaming Conference at Rochester College, back in October, the prolific blogger Richard Beck mentioned how he had really resonated with Rollins’ work on doubt and uncertainty.  However, once he began working with a prison ministry, he began to lose his resonance with Rollins.

I  say all of that, because I think Van Steenwyk’s work is similar (though not in content), to Rollins.  Van Steenwyk stands at the edges of the church and beckons the entire church to consider the implications of its complicity with the powers of the world.  In the tradition of the Israelite prophets, he asks the church, “Can’t you see who you’ve become?  Don’t you see what’s become of the mission of God?”  Interweaving his personal story of calling and transformation, Van Steenwyk does salvage conversations of Christian anarchism from the world of esoterism where so much of that conversation often remains, and asks the all-important question, “What if we actually tried that?”

He’s kind of like one of those annoying friends who just won’t let something go.  The kind of friend you need to keep you honest, and make you reflect – even when you don’t want to.  As David Fitch says in the Introduction, I don’t always agree with him, and even in my own anti-institutional leanings, I can still see an upside and the contributions of systems more than Van Steenwyk ever acknowledges.  In emphasizing their fallen nature, the author seems to forget that, as Walter Wink himself emphasizes, the powers and principalities are inherently good.  However, like that annoying friend who just won’t let it go without a concession, throughout his book, Van Steenwyk continued to nag me relentlessly to acknowledge the  injustices I so often ignore.  He emphatically calls the reader to a radical notion of community that we long for deep down, but see unable to allow ourselves to try.

While I haven’t read extensively in the area of Christian anarchy, what I have read often is so far removed from actual practice that it often leaves the reader inspired, but with no practical suggestions to turn toward in order to begin.  Mark Van Steenwyk does succeed in that, I believe – in remaining stringently practical throughout.  I found myself, throughout his book, reflecting on my current practices of “being a Christian” and he pushes me forward to break down more barriers, to overcome more insecurities, and, ultimately, to trust in God.  I think this book is a great offering for someone who maybe completely new to this radical notion of the kingdom, and who needs a kindred spirit to empower them to ask challenging questions.  For others who are better read in Wink, Stringfellow, and Yoder, this may be better set aside in favor of some other options.

Would Jesus Christ Have Gotten his Conceal to Carry Permit?

The gun control debate is dominating the blogosophere lately and this question has popped into my head a few times.  Really, I don’t have any really strong feelings about gun control.  I think there are too many guns in the world and I would like to see fewer of my Christian brothers and sisters talk about them as if they are sacred, but as it stands as a political conversation, I think the whole debate is muddied by politics, dirty money, and . . . well, crazy people.

Guns mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people.  I live in a part of the country where hunting is a huge deal.  Hunters love their guns.  I’ve never been a big fan of hunting and am not sure I could kill an animal with dry eyes, but I respect their rights to want to hunt (hey, at the end of the day it keeps fewer deer from my front fender).  I am also coming to better understand the urban culture of protection and defense better.  Professional athletes have largely opened our eyes to their need to feel “protected.”  My house has never been broken into.  I have never been held at gunpoint or knife point . . . so who’s to say that wouldn’t change my mind about everything.

IT’S OUR RIGHT!  IT’S ONE OF OUR LAST LIBERTIES!  These are the kinds of things I hear Christians saying and see them writing about in their public forums.  I put it caps because more times than not they seem to be yelling.  To say it is a passionate base would be an understatement.

But today, I conjure up the spirit of Charles Sheldon and his century-old quandary of “What Would Jesus Do?”  One of the chief problems of Sheldon’s question is that it sets us up to create a Jesus who looks a lot like ourselves.  None of us are very good at seeing Jesus at odds with our own personal beliefs and stances.  He lived in such a different time and era, this question often serves as a more of a red herring than anything significantly contributing.  But, when it comes to America’s love of guns, I think it is a valid question to ask.  Would Jesus get his conceal to carry permit?  Would he feel the need to protect himself just in case he was threatened?  If someone tried to kill him?  We need good guys to use guns to stop the bad guys . . . so the logic goes.

And this is where the Bible gets tricky.  We want to uphold Jesus as moral exemplar . . . while at the same time acknowledging that . . . well, he was Jesus.  So, we cut ourselves slack at times and provide caveats for following his example.  The prospect of more and more innocent Christians throwing their bodies in front of firing weapons is disgusting and seems to prove the aforementioned point.  Unless someone stoops to the level of the shooters, how will they ever be stopped?

I understand these questions, and I respect their motives.  And yet . . . it’s hard to see Jesus strapped with a pistol to the inside of his robe.  I think even the most robust Christian gun-lover would have to admit that – it’s hart to picture.  It’s hard to picture him raising his eye to the sight of an assault weapon.  It’s hard to see him defending himself when he was attacked . . . be cause he was attacked . . . and he DIDN’T defend himself.  It was part and parcel with his message.

John Howard Yoder and others talk of the power structures of our world being organized and ordered by God, but not necessarily meant for Christian participation.  Perhaps the only way to stop a tragedy like those that have happened in recent months is to fight force with force.  But this is not the way of Jesus.  It’s fallout from a Fallen world – and it is not meant for the Christian.  We must believe that Jesus’s death was not simply a one time redemptive event (thought it was that), but that it was also an example of what the new kingdom looked like.

I don’t have strong feelings at all about gun legislation.  I think that discussion exists as much to distract us from reality as much as anything.  My concern is for the tone and rhetoric used by Christians when speaking of weapons.  Perhaps asking Would Jesus have gotten his conceal to carry permit is too far afield and instead we should be asking How would Jesus talk about guns?  How would he talk about the “right to bear arms” . . . we all realize that that’s not in the Bible, right?

Life in a (THE) Swing State

If you’re following the political trail of the Presidential race, then chances are you are pretty tired of hearing about Ohio (and Pennsylvania and Florida) . . . but mainly Ohio.  Unless you’ve lived here during one of these very closely contested races, it is difficult for you to imagine the deluge of political propaganda that is thrown at us Ohioans.  Television, radio, Internet, door-to-door, posters, billboards, yard signs . . . it truly is incredible how important my vote has become.  One of the candidates is within a few miles of my house just about every week.  It’s a great opportunity for political education for my children – but what to teach them?

Really it’s just my son who’s old enough to pay attention to this election season and we’ve started fielding his questions – “Are we Republicans or Democrats?  Why are they saying those mean things about the President?  Are those things about Mitt Romney true?  Why do we have elections?’  and on and on we go.  While the challenges of explaining the electoral college to my seven-year-old go without saying, the real challenge I’m having is how do I help frame his reference through the perspective of a sovereign God who is control of everything – assuring him that no matter what happens, God is in control, while at the same time, encouraging biblically informed opinions and feelings about political matters.

I haven’t figured out the answer to this one, but I have been getting a lot of “how not to . . .” illustrations from other Christians in the media, on Facebook, among other places.  This is such a complicated issue, and I don’t have the energy to get into the complexity of it, but there is one specific shortcoming that has been really highlighted in this year’s Presidential election.

When Barack Obama ran for the highest U.S. office in 2008, one of the conversations I found myself having regularly with Conservatives had to do with their fear of his “liberal” Christian connection to people like Jeremiah Wright and his membership within the United Church of Christ.  Were they even Christians?  I talked to more than a few Christians who had serious doubts about that – and that really concerned them.  They were fearful of the idea of social justice (a specific target of a particular Glenn Beck episode I remember watching), of the politicizing of the UCC, among other things.  What has been particularly interesting in this year’s election is how that narrative has changed.  Granted, I have seen a speckling of concerns over Romney’s affiliation within the Mormon Church  here and there by Christians, but it has in no way been to the extent that Obama’s Christian heritage was attacked four years ago.

Obviously, the narrative has been altered in order to best benefit the candidate chosen by the GOP.  This year, perhaps more than any other, highlights how sticky the situation becomes when a religious groups become bedfellows with a particular political party.  Romney’s people know they have to give great care to the public image of his faith convictions.  They strongly state publicly his personal moral convictions about personal matters of morality that will resonate with the broader conservative Christian base, but keep the particulars of his ties to the Mormon church on the back page.

I’m not too interested in having a discussion about the awfulness (or greatness or indifferent-ness) of having a Mormon President.  What concerns me is how easily politically engaged Christians allow themselves to be duped by the media and spinsters – often while they are decrying the impact of the “liberal media” at the exact same time.  Shaking your fist at the established media outlets can give this sense that “I have done due diligence of not getting fooled by those mainstream liars,” and have a comrade with everyone else who says the same thing.  It has become the new rallying cry and the new uniter.  At the end of the day, though, the fact of the matter is we still allow our political ideology to dictate our feelings about things rather than an overflowing faith conviction.  Christians watch political news outlets and listen to their radio programs and then sprinkle some Scripture on top and feel we have a completely biblically justified political position.  Perhaps it is unfair to disconnect the two . . . however . . . in order to be as supportive of a President whose faith is based on, what most conservative Christians, at least, would say, a myth while challenging the faith of an Orthodox (though liberal) Christian illustrates this point poignantly.  We’re allowing ourselves to be united over political arguments that become more and more distant to biblical foundations.  It is easy to deceive ourselves and think that God is of a certain political persuasion (though we’d never admit that) and end up demonizing others – after all, that’s what all these political ads in Ohio do.

As I seek to provide political guidance for my children, I am working to show them the folly of image and hype.  That very image and hype of President Obama that Republicans believed won him the election in 2008 was sorely lacking during the last debate, and, ironically, many Republicans found themselves basking in the same conversation – “He looked great!’

The Christian narrative is one of peace, non-violence, loving the other, considering others before ourselves, taking care of those in need, providing for those who need provision . . . these concerns are all overtly political – unfortunately, seldom does the Christian allow their political narrative to BEGIN here!

Book Review: Who is my Enemy?

We all have a tendency to consume media and interact with people who make us feel comfortable and conform to our current patterns of thinking.  Republicans watch Fox News and listen to Rush, Hannity, and Beck while Liberals watch MSNBC and listen to . . . well, no one since liberals don’t tend to do radio well.  We like to be pushed and challenged, to an extent, but we usually prefer that to happen in extremely sanitized ways.  We tend to write people off the moment they register on our “not-like-me radar.” Whether we admit it or not, our subconscious is on a constant quest to discern certain key words or phrases from those we are talking with or reading to know whether or not we should dismiss them or listen intently to them.  What kind of language do they use?  What key phrases do they refer to?  Who do they reference and quote?  We all have our circles of comfort.

What I like about Lee Camp is that he tends to bring all of us to places of discomfort – probably one of the reasons a lot of people don’t bother with him.  Camp teaches at my alma mater, Lipscomb University, and is really one of their brightest and most audacious professors.   Having studied under John Howard Yoder at Notre Dame, Camp is on a lifelong quest to embody the pacifist, non-violent principles articulated by his academic mentor.  He says as much in his first book, Mere Discipleship.  There, he brings to life issues that are most often left to academic ramblings.  There, he teases out the practical implications of a Yoderan social politick in the life of the Christian.

Camp’s latest effort, Who is My Enemy?, is really a case study in following Jesus’ way of loving your enemy.  He begins by sharing his experience of delivering a lecture at a seminar on conflict resolution at Lipscomb University which addressed the relationship between Christians and Muslims.  Some of Camp’s comments, rightly or wrongly interepreted, set off a firestorm directed at Camp accusing him of everything from ignorance to cowardice.  This experience drove Camp to learn more about Islam and wrestle with Christians’ relationship with Islam (and Muslims, specifically).  The result is a jarring and, often, center-shaking work that all Christians should read – whether they think they’ll ever speak with a Muslim or not.

There is so much good in this book that I want to offer a few posts in which to share my reflections.  For full disclosure, I’m a big fan of Lee Camp and believe that he provides a very important voice among Christians, even though many people would be extremely troubled by his teaching (more on this later).  As a fellow Church of Christ-ite, he also represents my particular background underneath the Christian umbrella well.  While there certainly will be those who question Camp’s philosophy and some of his conclusions, it is difficult to ignore someone who actively pursues those who are different to humbly and peacefully engage in dialogue and share Christian love.  That may be what gives Camp’s words such power – a strong mixture of humility and Christian audacity.

Here’s a (not-too) brief first reflection . . .

One of the most compelling aspects of Camp’s book for me was rooted in an earlier work by William Cavanaugh in The Myth of Religious Violence.  We have all been taught that religions are insatiably violent by nature – at least in dealing with those who think differently than they do.  Their constant warring is largely to blame for many of our world’s problems.  In the West we are taught that Western civilization has solved the riddle to these problems: make religion a private concern.  That’s what has created our great nation of freedom.  The Muslim states, so we are told, have never figured that part out.

The question Cavanaugh raises in this pointed critique of what many take as “common sense,” is what constitutes religion?  How do we so easily assume that Islam is all tied up in the war-making rhetoric and actions of nations like Iran and Iraq, but Western nations like ours are freed of any religious integration?  Cavanaugh’s theory here is that “religion” was a creation of modern Western civilization.  Throughout history, there was no separation from religion and the rest of life.  Although we’ve tried with all of our might, it’s awfully hard to claim that the Bible makes any such claims.  Thus, the more we have attempted to make Christianity a “private religion” in our evolved Western state, the more we have neutered the Gospel as it was given to the first Christians.  The earliest persecuted Christians didn’t seem to think they had been converted to some kind of private personal piety, how could this have become the “common sense” articulation of the Gospel today?

Camp summarizes Cavanugh and makes the following point: “the ‘myth of religious violence’ posits that the violence of religion is unacceptable, but the violence of the secular state is either ignored or seen as legitimate.  The violence of religion is always necessarily irrational, but the violence of the state is seen as necessary for peacemaking.  Once this assumption is swallowed, the violence of the state is justified, overlooked, ignored, or even celebrated by Western Christians, all while believing that the solution is for Islam to become more Western.”  (113)  The end result is that the church has often become nothing more than what Camp calls a “lapdog for the state” and “chaplain for America.”

I know this is a bit jumbled (and long), I’ll try to engage in a little more succinct matter late this week.  I’ll end with this parable in which Camp further makes this point:

“A king went out to conquer, amassing great wealth and power.  There came to him a people who asserted that some other was king, whom they called ‘Lord of Lords.’  The king replied: you may freely worship this one you call, ‘lord,’ you may freely build your buildings and write your books and seek your converts to this one you call, lord,’ while I am your public king.  I shall make the laws, and you shall obey them.  I shall tell you what enemies to kill, and you shall kill them.  I shall give you a marketplace, and you shall seek to maximize your profits and keep all your profits, even at the expense of the poor, or the widow, or the stranger, and thence you shall pay taxes with which we shall wage war against all who threaten your freedom to worship your personal ‘lord.’

“And the people replied: We will gladly do as you say, O king.  Indeed, we shall obey your laws.  And we shall seek great profit and keep all for ourselves.  And we will kill your enemies, for you, O king, have allowed us to pray to our houses of worship, in the privacy of our closets.  Even more,  O king, because you have allowed us to worship thus, we will denounce all those who do not exalt you, and we will proclaim that you have granted us the right to worship, and we shall profess that any who do not obey your laws or maximize profit or kill your enemies are no servants of the private Lord of Lords.  We will hang your standard in our halls of worship, we will honor those who fight your wrars, and we will celebrate those who heedlessly maximize profit.  Oh, grand us such liberty as this, O King!

The king was pleased, and his new subjects served him well and were happy and satisfied.  (115-116)

 

 

 

 

Readings off the Map

In researching for my upcoming paper, I’m reading through a lot of scholarly work on the periphery of theological scholarship. Most folks who check this blog out will probably be pretty unfamiliar with much of this work. I know some of you will have difficulty stomaching some of it, but I think there is great reward in exposure to things we have difficulty understanding and that offends. Stemming from a pacifist perspective, consider the following excerpt from Walter Wink’s book, Unmasking the Powers. (By the way, this book is written with the Cold War as a backdrop, and it has been interesting for me to see the many parallels with today’s works reflecting on the war on terror.)

“This is why the American abolitionist and founder of the Oneida Community, John Humphrey Noyes, could write to William Lloyd Garrison,
‘When I wish to form a conception of the government of the United States (using a personified representation), I picture to myself a bloated, swaggering libertine, trampling on the Bible – its own Constitution – its treaties to the Indians – the petitions of its citizens, with one hand whipping a negro tied to a liberty pole, and with the other dashing an emaciated Indian to the ground . . . The question urges itself upon me – “What Have I, as a Christian, to do with such a villain?”
‘My hope of the millennium begins where Dr. Beecher’s expires – namely, AT THE OVERTHROW OF THIS NATION.’
I have quoted such an extreme view because it helps place in relief the most radical challenge of Revelation 18: its celebration of the fall of the richest and most powerful empire of the time. Are we then to entertain the terrible possibility that the salvation of humanity depends somehow on the decline, destruction or transformation of the United States as a sign of God’s sovereignty over the nations? Rome, yes, but – America? Never! The very suggestion of such a thing will strike many Americans as subervsive. And that reaction itself is an index of our idolatry. A godly people would react ot the treat of God’s judgment with fear, awe, consternation. They would know that no person and no nation is righteous before God. They would say, with Jefferson, ‘I tremble for my country when I remember that God is just.’ But Americans do not, on the whole, think that way. To the degree that they are religious at all, they actually believe that God is pleased, beholden to, partial to, and identified with our land.
This is not to deny that, in many ways, our nation may be a more desirable place to live than some other countries. Nor do I wish to ignore the many positive contributions it has made to human society. My point is simply that these contributions in no way mitigate the objective state of idolatry that has been the price we have paid for nationhood.”

Many of us who speak against the perils of our country take great offense and quickly dismiss us as “haters” or the like. I think the merit in Wink’s point here is that it must be possible for the Christian to live critically in the world she is a part embracing the good, but prophetically rebuking the evil.

Torture

I have several topics of interest I hope to post about in the next week or so – health care being at the top of the list and what I had intended to blog about today, but then I read the editorial that Cal Thomas had in today’s paper about torture. I have to be honest, I have been way out of touch with things in the media lately (that must account for the peace that I have felt over the past few days), and have just heard a piece here and there in regards to the big debate about torture and all that has come with that. Just another partisan battle for the ages.

I guess it’s because I am a glutton for punishment, but for the most part, I expose myself to more conservative media personalities and outlets than liberal ones. It seems to me that listening to folks you agree with all the time doesn’t do much to help your critical assessment of the world, so I listen to people who drives me nuts. In that spirit, I spent a few minutes over lunch a bit ago watching videos from conservative discussions on the topic of torture mainly from Fox News. I suppose what surprises me (and disappoints me) most in these discussions is to see publicly confessed Christians (Cal Thomas is a Presbyterian from Washington D.C., and I also saw Glenn Beck following his same lines of argument – he’s a Mormon) offer the party byline when it comes to overt matters of morality.

It would be my hope that something like the possible torture by the United States government would help expose the idolatrous relationship that so many Christians have with their state. Much of the time the patriotism that has invaded the faith of so many Christ-followers sits idly by as they pledge allegiance to their flag, sing the National Anthem before their sporting events, and sport their “God Bless the USA” bumper stickers on the back of their SUVs – seemingly harmless events. I’m the first to say that seeing one’s faith through the cataract of post-Constantinian Christendom, the aforementioned actions are difficult to give much critical attention to. This realm of life espouses such incredible passion and fervor that seldom do these issues ever leave the level of passion to a place where critical self-examination can take place.

Perhaps you don’t see the harm in pledging your allegiance to a flag. Maybe you believe the United States is the great hope of the world (an aside note: I just finished reading Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil which does a great job of illustrating how the “Captain America complex” has dominated the pages of American history where her politicians, leaders, and public-at-large has seen the America in the role as super hero: never guilty, but falsely accused; never the provoker, but always the provoked; never fully appreciated for what she means to the world; always working from the omniscient presence – “I’ll save you even though you don’t realize you need saved.” They do a fantastic job of showing how this fautly logic has driven the country’s foreign policy since its inception and how the current chlallenges faced in the “war on terrorism” are the same challenges that faced the U.S. in the Cold War, Vietnam, and on back through history) but surely the sight or thought of your nation’s government toturing criminals delivers you a bit of an ethical quandry.

Charles Sheldon suggested we ask, “What would Jesus do?” That, apparently, only applies to personal matters of morality. We allow governments to operate under their own rules of engagement. It’s different for them, right? Well, that’s the thing: a lot of folks are having to ask that question now. Is that right? Jesus would never torture anyone. Jesus was tortured. How can we sit back and, even for one moment, for one criminal, allow an exception? When does the Bible ever teach that the end justifies the means – especially when we are at war?

I’m tired of conservatives telling me that I just don’t understand. Sean Hannity told me I suffer from a pre-September 11 mentality. I’m the dumb one. I’m the naive one. It’s one thing for liberals and conservatives to banter this stuff back and forth. It’s entirely something else when I Christian can idly stand by and join the conversation without maintaining their sense of uniqueness – holiness.

My plea for conservative Christians is to acknowledge that fighting violence with violence will not work – it never works. Our government has promised us that greater force is needed to fight off the enemies so that peace will prevail . . . again . . . even though it hasn’t worked before . . . even when we dropped two atomic bombs and killed thousands of innocent people in Japan. The terrorists killed 3,000 people in the United States, and we have killed more than ten-fold in civilians in two other nations. When will it end? We should expect this faith in the empire from those without hope, but from people with faith in Jesus? Those pulling triggers and dropping bombs will always be closer to the soldiers killing Christ than the innocent one on the cross.