the UNkingdom of GOD: Embracing The Subversive Power of Repentance by Mark Van Steenwyk – Book Review

The UNkingdom of GOD: Embracing The Subversive Power of Repentance by Mark Van Steenwyk

Mark Van Steenwyk has written a thoughtful reflection on the significance of Jesus and his in-breaking Kingdom as an alternative way of being in our society that is marred by evil forces, social structures, death-dealing oppression, and coercive violence.  the UNkingdom of God is a subversive and anti-imperial vision for a repentant life concretely following after Jesus, that doesn’t attempt domestication or try to mince words. The book reflects the radicalism of an Anabaptist vision, as well as a liberative and prophetic witness that takes seriously the abandoning of empire while walking humbly in the footsteps and Way of Jesus.

One of the most important things about the UNkingdom of God is the way that he exposes how America and Christianity have merged so profoundly, being so deeply intertwined, that it has merely become an imperial puppet and tool. This is primarily done through personal stories as he retells his own story of being indoctrinated with American Christianity, awaking from it, and then ultimately repenting from it. It is primarily his own lived experience being told, often humorously, that I believe will resonate with many that consider themselves Christian while also a part of the dominant culture. For example he begins in the introduction explaining his infatuation with America and its ‘Dream’, and how he responded when he heard the song “God Bless the USA” as he watched fireworks in the sky. He explains:

At this point, I could no longer sing along. With tears in my eyes and a sob in my throat, I broke down weeping. I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude and pride. I wept as the song played out, and I continued to weep as the fireworks began to fill the night sky. It was like a mystical experience.[1]

Clearly, Mark Van Steenwyk understands what it is like to be enthralled with America and American Christianity. However, he didn’t remain there. The goal of the book is to call people to repentance. And this is the particular strength of this book. I am not sure I have read a book that has so clearly and powerfully called people to repentance in a way that resonates with the way that Jesus did so. We are challenged to repent of our Christianity and how we have been unwilling to experience God because we have him figured out already. He names the issue. It is that “We think we are open to learning the way of Jesus, but our cup is already full of our own ideas.”[2] It is something that we are not conscious of, therefore, we go on engaging scripture and sermons as though we are growing in Christ, when in reality our cups are already full, so everything else just spills out. Steenwyk reminds us that “We need to empty our cups. We need to repent of the myths that crowd our imaginations. We need to repent of our Christianity.”[3] Ultimately, Steenwyk describes that we need to even release and let go of our image and understanding of Jesus before we can truly “be the love of Christ in our world.”[4]

Throughout the UNkingdom of God, we are challenged on a variety of fronts, because our Christianity is so deeply infected with empire. Steenwyk keeps a healthy track of societal power and explores the significance of “the Powers” in Pauline thought. He exposes the “Plastic” and consumeristic Jesus that we adopt in America that fits our sensibilities and values. And in response, we are offered an invitation to encounter Jesus through child-like mysticism and by experiencing an undomesticated feral God. It is a subversive vision that recovers Jesus from being employed by those in power and privilege, while also offering a pathway for all people to follow Jesus and sit at his table. Its communal focus along with all else that I have already mentioned, will certainly inspire a new way being the Church in the midst of imperial America that has often not been imagined given the most prevalent options that prevail in our society.

Yet, there is one thing that I am not convinced is helpful. My problem is not a matter of faithfulness, but rather its contextual implementation. I question the choice of connecting Jesus with anarchism. To be honest, I actually have no personal problem with Mark Van Steenwyk’s proposal of utilizing anarchist thought to understand the subversive reality of God’s Kingdom as like something opposite of worldly empires and domination. So, if that is not a problem, then what is the problem? Well, I guess it is a strategic issue. Anarchism seems to me to be a theory rooted in Eurocentric ideology that is both foreign, unfamiliar, and possibly confusing to many that are on the margins of society in the U.S. Again, it’s not the implications of anarchism that I am questioning, but rather whether anarchism will practically be heard as a term on the margins that is inclusive of the political imaginations of racial minorities in pursuit of liberation. I think there might be other ways of getting at the same issues that are at least a little more rooted in the experience of racial minorities on the margins of American empire. I do think that our identifying linguistic categories matter, and ought to be chosen carefully. For example, postcolonial theory and critical race theory, and empire studies in general, leave space to address those same issues and to define Jesus appropriately as subversive and defiant to the authorities. Let me say one more time, I think Steenwyk is correct in his interpretation of Jesus, and technically, anarchism works fine in helping highlight those realities in Jesus, his Kingdom, and his Church. But from a contextual vantage point, I do question if anarchism is the most helpful term to use, if he desires to walk in solidarity with racial minorities. I am not settled on this, but certainly it is something I will reflect more on.

In conclusion, the UNkingdom of God: Embracing The Subversive Power of Repentance is a terrific piece of work. I have not read a better book on repentance. This is not a book for those that want to continue blindly with a diluted and domesticated Christianity. This is not a book for those that want comfort and wealth more than they want to follow Jesus. Nor is this a book for those that refuse to disentangle the logics of empire from their Christianity. But this is a book for anyone that honestly wants to follow Jesus with abandonment and encounter his presence afresh. The book calls us all into the ecclesial vision of Anabaptism as well as the prophetic and liberative presence often found in many black Christian communities. It is an easy and enjoyable read in one sense, and yet challenging and demanding in other way. It certainly is the type of resources we need to recover what it means to be the people of God within an oppressive and sinful empire.

(As full disclosure, I was given this review copy of the UNkingdom of GOD with the purpose of having it reviewed publicly on my blog. I am not receiving any funds and there is no expectation of necessarily receiving a positive review. These are my genuine thoughts.)


[1] Van Steenwyk, The Unkingdom of God, 12.

[2] Ibid., 76.

[3] Ibid., 77.

[4] Ibid., 80.

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23 comments

  1. Robert Martin · August 28, 2013

    DRAT! You got there first. I have the book at home and I’m itching to get to it.

  2. adamdickison · August 28, 2013

    I consider myself an anarchist and a pacifist. There was an article recently around the blogosphere (i’m sorry I can’t remember where, maybe from Tyler Tully??) that discussed how the pacifism discussion mostly comes from a privileged position of people who never actually have to face or resist violent oppression (specifically whites) and that the message doesn’t consider the context and experiences of those who actually do face those things (specifically blacks). This idea has been twisting my head and the truth of it has been coming to light for me (particularly, for some reason that I can’t articulate, in light of Trayvon Martin and Antoinette Tuff).

    I agree that anarchism is certainly eurocentric and while I’d love to say it focuses on the margins in an economic way (i.e. the economically oppressed) the truth is that it generally seems to be professed by the middle class rather than the poor. It also seems to be popular with people who were once accepting of government’s “good” motives and means rather than those who, because of their experiences, are inherently skeptical of it.

    anyway, i know you don’t focus on anarchist philosophy or anything, but I would be interested to hear more about how anarchism neglects the minority experience from your perspective.

    i’m looking forward to reading the book as well! thanks for posting your review!

    • Drew Hart · August 28, 2013

      Honestly, it would be hard for me to comment on this. The truth is, UNkingdom is the most I have engaged in anarchist thought ever. So, my issue, isn’t on the validitiy of anarchism from a philosophical point, but rather that it is just plain foreign to begin with. It is precisely its rarity that ought to cause some pause, but on its strengths and weaknesses? I don’t have enough to go on to speak to that. I would like to think that what Mark pointed to in his book, has a lot of common ground with my own approach, even if with minor nuances.

  3. Helpful review, thanks. Mark is amazingly hospitable, and I follow his work closely. The anarchist perspective is very difficult. He and I differ in how we understand Anarchism to work itself out in theory, but we agree more in practice, which is what I hear you saying as well.
    The difficulty lies in the fact that people left out of selectively granted privileges perhaps have a more realistic perspective of what is politically feasible. Extension of privileges to everyone might successfully eliminate distinctions, and can bring equality within the context of existing power-over institutions. Elimination of privileges as a route to ending inequality is not something that usually enters most people’s imaginations. This might be because people see the benefit that some have received (unjustly) from being privileged. What is not understood is that extension of privilege will not mean that everyone will benefit, but that no one will. For particular groups within society the goal has been to become privileged. So long as some are left out, the privilege still generates some benefit to those who can gain acceptance. But once the privilege is extended to all, it becomes useless.
    Worse than that, however. The privilege becomes a net drain on society. The costs of maintaining the institution and the intervention into social activities has a net negative effect.
    The extreme position of eliminating privileges understands this, and shows that the best possible world is one with equality and a reduction in the number of institutions.
    The problem is that it is nearly impossible to get those currently enjoying privileges to voluntarily abdicate them.
    Strategically, it may be better to extend privileges to all, and then, once they are ineffective at benefiting anyone, eliminate them. In one sense this amounts to feeding the monster of the state until it bursts. The other approach is to slowly starve the beast.
    What are we to focus on as believers? Should we advocate in the public forum for the extension of privileges, or should we voluntarily abdicate those privileges we enjoy? Maybe both. But the subversive way finds it very hard to encourage advocacy of institutions understood to be at root unjust.
    Practically, and praxiologically, there is no way to argue against abdication of privilege, and witnessing to the injustice of privileges. It is not clear that advocacy for extension of privileges can be any more effective than advocating for their elimination.
    This is very hard for people, especially today, the 50th anniversary of King’s march on Washington, to say what amounts to: “wait.” It is very hard to say to those outside of privilege that they should not try to gain admittance and instead wait for the privileged to see the injustice of their ways and voluntarily abdicate. Those of us who do enjoy privileges, some of which are not possible to abdicate, probably do not have the right to tell outsiders to wait.

  4. Ric Hudgens · August 28, 2013

    Hey Drew, Thanks for a thorough review of Mark’s book. I just sent in a review of it to the Englewood Review of Books last week for their fall print issue. I like your review better than mine!

    On anarchism: I consider myself a Christian anarchist I guessn (I’ve been a regular contributor to Jesus Radicals for the last few years); but I’m very sympathetic to the obstacle that anarchism is. The term is just too soiled by dynamite-throwers who called themselves anarchists and media heads who always equate it with chaos, destruction, and disorder.

    If I read Jacques Ellul correctly on Christian anarchism (and there’s no guarantee that I do!) what he was writing in his admittedly eurocentric context was that if we tried to tease out what a politics consistent with the teachings of Jesus might look like then the closest of the types available to compare it to was anarchism – and not totalitarianism, communism, socialism, representative democracy. That has always made sense to me.

    On the other hand some of my colleagues who also call themselves Christian anarchists sometimes seem more shaped by the modern, eurocentric tradition at times than by the discipleship tradition. The tail begins to wag the dog as it were. So I’m a “Christian” first (in whatever sense that term can still have any integrity after Mark’s book) and anarchist only by association.

    So given both the sullied stream of anarchist political theory and the common misunderstanding of the the term anarchist I’m beginning to use it less and less. I’m finding resources in “radical democracy” to be helpful (drawing on people like Ella Baker, Vincent Harding, Sheldon Wolin, and Romand Coles). That term also has its problems but in our own context it seems to speak more clearly and at least keeps the conversation from getting bogged down in distractions.

    Anyway, grateful for your review and for finding your blog. Look forward to reading more of your work.

    • Drew Hart · August 28, 2013

      Thanks for engaging Ric.
      You know, I haven’t read Jacgues Ellul or any anarchist philosophy so I cannot engage in any significant fashion. However, I guess something that I have been wrestling with in my own intellectual growth that may apply here is this; every philosophy and social science has its shortcomings. I certainly utilize critical race theory and postcolonial theory a bit, but I have been pumping my own breaks a little bit. Not in that I use them, but making sure that they always remain in service to Christ and not the other way around. I imagine that the same blurry line exists when engaging in anarchist thought. Vincent Harding is excellent and Cornel West often comes from a similar angle with radical democracy. This ties into the prophetic tradition for him. I would probably say the same thing, so long as the the philosophical tool remains subservient to Christ, I think it is fine. In the Black Church, the emphasis of those influences are usually much softer, even if they aid the development of thought. Not sure if that was helpful or not??? Probably not 🙂 Glad you found my blog nonetheless!

  5. Pingback: the UNkingdom of GOD: Embracing The Subversive Power of Repentance by Mark Van Steenwyk – Book Review » Young Anabaptist Radicals
  6. Mark Van Steenwyk · August 28, 2013

    Thank you, Drew. I wholeheartedly accept your gentle challenge about “anarchism.” I often think that Christian Anarchism is liberation theology for white men…it is a helpful way to starting to do the “self work.”

    But it has huge limitations. My problem isn’t so much its associations with violence. I am suspicious that, unless someone is really tempted by the feasibility of revolutionary violence, their pacifism is simply a laissez faire acceptance of the status quo. Jesus’ way of shalom was a real alternative to insurrection, but he seemed willing to be “counted among the lawless.” So too, Mennonites need to understand the real desire for revolutionary violence around the world and not stand in judgement over it. Pacifism should be costly.

    My bigger concern is with how anarchism can serve as a barrier for solidarity work. I like Ric’s engagement with “radical democracy.” Most terms out there are inadequate…how does one easily refer to a politics of anti-domination, a spirituality of liberation, and an economics of mutuality?

    • Mark Van Steenwyk · August 28, 2013

      Oh, and my last name is “Van Steenwyk” not “Steenwyk.” I tend to hate the useless “van” part of my name…it is just a Dutch word that signifies “from.”

      • Drew Hart · August 28, 2013

        And I am terribly sorry for butchering your last name. That is embarrassing. If I was thinking clearly, I probably would have picked that up. My apologies. Anyway, thanks again for dialoging. Based on my reading of your book, I think we have more in common than we have in difference. You have really put together a creatively powerful narrative calling people back to Jesus.

    • Drew Hart · August 28, 2013

      Mark,
      Thanks for engaging the review, I really enjoyed the book. Your thoughts on Christian Anarchism as “liberation theology for white men” is an interesting perspective. I really have not engaged anarchist thought much, so this is all new to me. Seems like you have already begun wrestling with the issues I struggled with in your book, in terms of the usefulness of anarchism if solidarity with the oppressed is the goal.

      I am not sure that there is any perfect political or philosophical perspective that is going to carry the full weight of anti-domination, liberation, and economic mutuality. However, I think that find communities and traditions that have embraced much of that is much easier. Part of the reason I really find Black theology and Anabaptism as necessary dialogue partners, is because they together are provide insight on all those things. Anabaptism finds renewed significance as it finds concrete solidarity with the oppressed and its liberative and prophetic community. In the end, that is more important than having all the political and philosophical perspectives appropriately set to critique the empire. I am not suggesting to not utilize those things, but rather that, even more important than those things is the solidarity found with those on the margins of the empire. I don’t know, I am just riffing a bit, but I think you might get what I’m vaguely pointing to.

      All that to say, I found your overall invitation to repentance very compelling and certainly complimentary to much of what I believe. Even if it drew from anarchism as a significant dialogue partner.

      • Mark Van Steenwyk · August 28, 2013

        I think it is important for folks like me to engage in the larger liberationist conversations. My decision to focus on anarchism had a lot to do with the emphasis of letting go. The sort of “downward mobility” narrative is important for folks in dominant culture to come to terms with their power; but there are some serious drawbacks to stressing that narrative among, for example, squatters in Lima, Peru. My own journey toward liberation has been one of naming my enmeshment within empire, letting go, and relearning. Anarchism has been helpful for those first two–naming and letting go. But the work of relearning has required listening to communities and voices from outside of the dominant White American strains.

        Part of my work–as someone who self-describes as an anarchist–has been to interview (via the Iconocast…
        http://www.jesusradicals.com/iconocast) a variety of non-anarchist voices to have a richer approach to undoing oppressions and embracing human liberation. My hope is that folks with a similar journey can begin to engage in conversation outside of the usual places–like Greg Boyd or Shane Claiborne–and begin to listen to voices like James Cone, Waziyatawin, Cornel West, Anton Flores, and more.

      • Drew Hart · August 28, 2013

        Yes! I love it. That is the journey I want to invite folks to join. Renouncing whiteness and then walking in solidarity with the oppressed in a posture of humility and learning.

  7. Esperanza Peck · September 1, 2013

    Tolstoy takes the viewpoint that all governments who wage war, and churches who in turn support those governments, are an affront to the Christian principles of nonviolence and nonresistance . Although Tolstoy never actually used the term “Christian anarchism” in The Kingdom of God Is Within You, reviews of this book following its publication in 1894 appear to have coined the term.

  8. sbf6 · September 2, 2013

    Forgive my ignorance on this subject matter and what might appear to be “hostile” comments for that is not the intent.
    If my life is a gift from God why should i renounce that which i have no control over, my pigment? While it had been used as a barrier, that is not how i have used it. I understand the argument to be that i have passively benefited, yet again why the need to renounce how I was born?

    • Drew Hart · September 2, 2013

      When renouncing whiteness is discussed, it is not a call to reject who God made you, if anything it is a return to who you are in Christ. Europeans became and put on “whiteness” as a unifying political project in America in the 17th century as a way of practicing supremacy over racialized others. It is the identity and practice of racial dominance (whiteness) that needs renouncing, not your ethnicity and appearance. I know this is a bit confusing, because we tend to think of ourselves in light of these racial categories, but of course we know it is in reality a social construct that was fabricated to do harm to those with dark skin and for the benefit of those from European heritages. I think in Christ, who stood with the marginalized, it is appropriate for Christians to disentangle themselves from such an unholy alliance. Hope that is helpful.

      • sbf6 · September 3, 2013

        Thanks Drew that was helpful to have a better understanding, sadly (again, I will take the ‘blame’ of my ignorance) though it raises more questions, if you permit me to ask:

        1) Surely those that are in power seek to stay in power, and yes I can see where “whiteness” was used to practice supremacy. Where I am still ‘blind’ is where that is still being used today whereby the need of “Christians to disentangle themselves”. In other words where is the Christian church still employing (suggesting deliberate action) ‘whiteness’ for the practice of supremacy or maintaining power?

        2) Census statics is showing the trend that shortly the dominate culture or ethnicity will be of color, at least in numbers. Not speaking of reverse discrimination, but how does the cycle stop so that a new dominate culture doesn’t attempt to recreate the problems of the old?

        3) Lastly, you mentioned in your reply that Christ stood with the marginalized. Of that, there is no question. However, Christ stood with people. Period. His love was for and is for all, no one got ‘special attention’ (in other words, extra or more of). He gave the same amount of Love to all, and He never left any group or individual the same after. He didn’t just identify with the marginalized and left them in the same place, but called them out of the margins creating a new identity in them.

  9. Nekeisha · September 4, 2013

    Morning Drew 🙂 Just a brief note to say that I would be interested in dialoguing further with you on the utility of anarchism as a concept in marginalized community spaces. I am a Trinidadian immigrant who self-identifies as Black, Anabaptist and anarchist (among other things). I know that anarchism is a pretty loaded term that calls to mind young white men dressed in black or that is often heavily associated with white male thinkers of European descent. At the same time, anarchism has been a very helpful political framing for me in conversation with the other faith/theological, ethical commitments that I hold. And since anarchism is, at it’s base, a call to resist all structures of oppression and to build structures for liberation, I don’t want the analysis it can offer to be lost because of its (perceived?) foreignness. Full disclosure here as well: I helped create the Jesus Radicals network that engages anarchism and Christianity online and through our annual gatherings, and I am friends with Mark 🙂

    • Drew Hart · September 5, 2013

      Hey Nekeisha, thanks for chiming in, its a needed perspective in this dialogue. I actually was aware that you identified as anarchist already, and so when I was writing the review of this book and struggling with that portion, I was wondering how you came to adopt that framework. Would love to hear more about your own experience that lead to that.

      As for me, I think I tried to be generous in my review, leaving room for anarchism to possibly be a helpful dialogue partner while still questioning whether its formal identification is going to be a stumbling block for most minorities. I think that is my first concern. Secondly, I still wonder if there aren’t other frameworks like liberation coupled with postcolonialism that at least are more rooted in minority traditions yet still are committed to tackling various forms of oppression.

      Now, it may just be that some might find anarchism to be a more comprehensive framework, but ultimately, I am a bit less concerned with anarchism and postcolonialism (they are second matter issues for me) and more concerned with our conception of Jesus and the nature of his Kingdom or UNkingdom :). From my various engagements with Samantha Lioi, your piece in Power and Practices, reading UNKingdom, and also having the opportunity to sit and chat with Joanna Shenk for a couple hours (who I believe falls in that same camp as well???) I would have to say that I probably agree 95%, and certainly respect each of you. So I certainly won’t through it out completely. But is it necessary? I don’t think so. Is it something I feel compelled to pursue at all, no. And probably more to the point, is it something that fits in well with, say black urban socio-political consciousness, and the struggle towards freedom? I don’t see it, but I have a feeling you might have a more compelling perspective on that. All that to say, thanks for offering a counter perspective which certainly has my interest peaked. Would love to hear more of your journey both into anarchism, but also more broadly how you have mediated black and anabaptist orientations. Peace.

  10. Jeff McLain · September 24, 2013

    I look forward to reading this book. We are bringing him to Lancaster on October 18th, I hope to purchase the book and get to it, before he comes in to town. It looks like a good read, and I am glad for a few book reviews I’ve read, including yours.

  11. Joanna Shenk · October 14, 2013

    Hi Drew,

    Can’t believe I just found this review now. I’m definitely late to the party.

    I was quite interested to read your review and the comments. Your questions related to anarchism are helpful to me. You are correct that one of my identifiers is anarchist. And my education about anarchism has been due to my work with Jesus Radicals (primarily with the Iconocast) and through my friendship with Mark and Nekeisha, and others who are part of the Jesus Radicals network.

    Last year I wrote an article for Geez magazine about anarchism and Anabaptism. Did I share it with you already? I’d be curious to hear what you think. Here’s the link:
    http://www.geezmagazine.org/magazine/article/guest-column-i-cant-easily-dissociate-from-oppressors/

    Like I say in the article, anarchism for me is commitment to undoing oppression in all of its forms. I’ve never thought about it as a thing particular to white/privileged people, and that’s probably because Nekeisha is the first person I think of, when I think of anarchist role models. 🙂

    It is true though that the majority of people at the Jesus Radicals gatherings that I have attended have been white. And this is something that we recognize as JR organizers. It’s also one of the reasons why we created the Iconocast, to a have more diverse and robust conversation about Christianity and anarchism.

    Like you, I have not read Jacques Ellul (or much anarchist philosophy/theory). For me claiming anarchism is most helpful in terms of accountability–how am I continuing to embody a life of solidarity with its commitment to undoing oppressions?

    In some cases I choose not to use the term. Sometimes this is because a group of people already has a deep understanding of power and privilege. Actually I think I most consistently use the term in explicitly Christian spaces, since North American Christianity is so wrapped up in empire. I find it a great way to invite conversation and offer mutual challenge related to being a part of the unKin(g)dom. Just like we’re doing here.

    Your questions have got me thinking…

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