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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Understanding Drew and #Anablactivism

Yup… I just titled myself in 3rd person!

Well, I was honored to just be featured in Tyler Tulley’s The Jesus Event’s blog series “I once was raised… but now I’ve found…”. This is the first part, in a two part blog interview, in which I answer various questions around my own exploration, growth, and understanding of faith. Particularly, the questions center around the significance of being shaped by both Black theology as well as Anabaptism, which I have always been very open about. In this series, a greater picture of how I have navigated these two streams and their significance are unpacked. You will definitely want to jump over and check it out at the link.

http://thejesusevent.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/part-i-i-once-was-raised-but-now-ive-found-featuring-drew-g-i-hart/

 

 

400 Years of Blinders, Counterintuitive Solidarity, and the Epistemological Advantage of the Oppressed

“In being pushed to the margins of the system the repressed not only gain an alternative perspective–you see things from the underside that you cannot see from the top, especially the distortions of the system–but they also gain surplus energies and enjoyment that escape the powers that be in a twofold sense.” – Joerg Rieger[1]

Like clockwork our country cycles through event after event that sparks outrage over issues of race and racism in America. The responses to events like these are predictable, as many fall into their default positions, because people’s perceptions of what took place are equally shaped by race as much as the event itself that triggered the conversation. A slight majority of white Americans will deny and dismiss the outcry and experience of black Americans, claiming that it is emotionalism and an inability to deal with the facts. From their vantage point, only they are seeing things objectively. Their experience tells them that America is generally speaking a good, fair, and equal country. The continual outcry of black Americans, therefore, is a result of media manipulation and race card playing for sympathy. In the end, these White Americans apparently know and understand black experience better than black people themselves know it. Despite the fact that those who deny systemic racism most, are actually more likely to have less racially diverse networks than white Americans who also recognize the racial inequalities in America similar to African Americans (check out Divided by Faith).

And there lies the problem. White intuition and experience (limited by homogeneous networks) is signifying one thing while black experience is claiming an alternative reality. What are people who participate in dominant society to do when their intuition and experience contradict the experiences of oppressed people? It is on that subject that we must gain some historical insights from before we can offer a constructive path forward.

It was in the 17th century, that masses of Europeans bought into the myth of race as a justification for chattel slavery. Ironically, the majority of Europeans were not wealthy enough to purchase slaves themselves. In fact, many Europeans were themselves indentured servants in no better situation than most Africans. The motivation of wealthy Europeans who could actually afford paying for slaves was obvious; they could increase their production and labor while living a more luxurious life. But, what was the motivation for poor Europeans who could not afford to pay for slaves? It seems as though the main reason was simply the relative status offered of knowing that no matter how hard things were, they could count their blessing that they were not black! That is right, the relative social status of being a part of the new found ‘White Male Citizenry’ proved to be more important than linking arms with the people who actually had more in common with them economically in absolute terms. The invitation from the elite to participate in the relative psychological gain of white identity and social life outweighed the absolute realities these European men were living with. The privilege of Whiteness blurred the reasoning of these people, which while looking back now seems “self-evident” (to use modernity’s universalist language) that they were blinded by their desire for acceptance and superiority. It is also worth briefly noting that throughout most of slavery, the majority of White Americans did not think we had a racial problem.

Let’s jump forward to 1857 and the Dred Scott decision. It was at this point that the honorable and esteemed Supreme Court of the United States, dispensing truth, justice, and equality, came to the clear minded 7-2 decision that black people are not citizens and could never be citizens, and therefore did not have the right to sue for their freedom when moved into free states. This decision after the fact has been agreed upon by just about all legal scholars to be one of the most horrific decisions by the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, at the time, while still a boost to the Southern way of life and the larger U.S. slaveholding economy, it was not so obvious to most people who benefited from this arrangement that this was a poor decision. White privilege blinded people’s moral vision.

That was not the only decision that now as Americans we can all look back on and (almost) agree was a terrible decision by the Supreme Court. Consider Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896. It was in this 7-1 decision by our highest court, that racial segregation was decisively affirmed as legal and promoting equality. Looking back, most white Americans could agree that that was a terrible decision, but that was not the sentiment at that time.

Jump forward to the racial unrest of the mid 20th century, which climaxed during the Southern Freedom movement. We can all picture from the old black and white footage, black school boys and girls being hosed down against walls and sliding down the street while dogs are set loose on them during the Birmingham demonstration in 1963. Or how about remembering ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Selma, Alabama, where peaceful marchers were clobbered and beat senselessly. We all (mostly) can look back and say that racism was a huge problem at that time. Guess what, when polled in May 1946, about 7 out of 10 White Americans believed that “negroes in the United States are being treated fairly”.[2] This of course was in the midst of Jim Crow segregation, the terror of the KKK and the White Citizens Council, and the regular lynching of black people in America. That almost 7 out of 10 white Americans could think that black people were being treated fairly, questions the capacity of any oppressive dominant society to look even remotely objectively at a situation. Of course, for the black community the majority of them knew that they were being treated unfairly. That so many in the midst of racial segregation and oppression could think that things were fine and pretty much equal for all, at that time, must be seriously wrestled with for its epistemological significance.

What I have very briefly and quickly tried to do is highlight the epistemological blinders that most White Americans seemed to have had for about 350 years. That they were epistemologically impaired is a given today. Almost everyone, except for the very fringe of society will agree that the majority of white people got it wrong for the first 350 years. What we are considering now is the implications of 350 years of those within dominant society, to not be able to recognize, see, or know racial injustice in whatever new social manifestation it appears in their time.

Why does this matter? Well, as I mentioned, polls continually demonstrate that race tends to be a decisive factor in interpreting these highly charged racial moments in our country. Likewise, I have seen online and in person some people speak from a place of privilege in which they dismissed the experiences of race in American society as expressed by black Americans. Their own experience and intuition tells them that race is not a significant reality in this country. However, we must keep history in perspective as we consider current perspectives on race.

I guess, given our history, should we really consider it logical to believe that people, who benefitted from the racial system and have repeatedly been perceptively wrong for 350 years, now have suddenly gained an epistemological advantage over those whom they have historically oppressed? Even more implausible is to believe that at that exact moment that those in the dominant culture somehow suddenly got their act together that black people who have been epistemologically right for 350 years also instantly lost the ability to interpret their own experience now. To affirm that position seems to be the more emotional response not based on serious reflection of our past.

This is where I will employ some Christian white men to make this point for me. John Howard Yoder argued that those at the bottom actually have an epistemological advantage and what they know to be reality is closer to the real thing than the perceptions of those in dominant or privileged positions in society. In his words, “This phrasing points us to the awareness that the first question is not who should be fed or who should govern, but whose picture of things is correct. We speak of an epistemological advantage. To see things from below is a truer way to see things as they are.”[3] In light of the Trayvon case, some have seemed to think that since the courts ruled a verdict, that justice has spoken and the case is closed. This flows out of a naïve assumption that our legal system actually dispenses justice. Black people now that the verdict and reality often do not coincide. Yoder pushes this point as well. He states:

We are still part of the generation that believes that the wicked won’t really prosper, at least not for long, at least not if we do our job right. We believe that some of the people in power in Washington, DC, are on the side of the good; some of the oppressors’ hearts can be touched, and some people will give in a little, if just to get us off their sidewalks. That the wicked really prosper is a piece of world history and a part of the Old Testament witness, and a part of the Jewish and black experience, that we have not learned to take with deep seriousness in North America.[4]

What we are moving towards as a solution is completely counterintuitive. It is to trust the intuition of oppressed people over against one’s own gut and experience, which is proven to lead you astray when operating from a vantage point of dominance. Privileged people must do something very absurd and unnatural, they must move decisively towards a counterintuitive solidarity with those on the margins, while allowing the eyes of the violated to lead and guide the way.

In the end it is Dietrich Bonhoeffer that really understood the need to do that very thing. Coming from a very elite and privileged family it boggles the mind to think about the type of solidarity Bonhoeffer repeatedly sought after throughout his life. Whether it was in Harlem attending the famous black prophetic church, Abyssinian Baptist, while Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. was the pastor or his later participation with the Confessing Church in Germany as he defiantly confronted the violence being done against Jewish people, Bonhoeffer continually chose solidarity with the oppressed. This counterintuitive solidarity gave him new eyes to see and evaluate the world. Therefore, as he lived out his final days in prison before being hanged, he could write these profound words:

It remains an experience of incomparable value that we have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled, in short from the perspective of the suffering. If only during this time bitterness and envy have not corroded the heart; that we come to see matters great and small, happiness and misfortune, strength and weakness with new eyes; that our sense for greatness, humanness, justice, and mercy has grown clearer, freer, more incorruptible; that we learn, indeed, that personal suffering is a more useful key, a more fruitful principle than personal happiness for exploring the meaning of the world in contemplation and action.[5]

This call for counterintuitive solidarity and trusting the historically marginalized and oppressed perception above one’s own is not easy. But I believe that Jesus’ own emptying of himself and taking on slave humanity models for us The Way forward. Jesus’ own solidarity performance is a call to discipleship and imitation as a way of being in the world. It is the cure for privileged blinders that leaves people’s own vision impaired and unreliable. The Spirit is pulling all of us to see things “from below” because that is where God has chosen to move, work, and transform the world (1 Cor. 1:18-31).


[1] Joerg Rieger, Christ & Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 9.

[2] Hazel Gaudet Erskine, “The Polls: Race Relations,” Public Opinion Quarterly 26, no. 1 (1962).

[3] John Howard Yoder, “On Christian Unity: The Way From Below,” Pro Ecclesia 9, no. 2 (Spr 2000): 175.

[4] John Howard Yoder, Glen Harold Stassen, and Matt Hamsher, The War of the Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2009), 195.

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Fortress Press, 2010), 52.

Pain Medicine: Trayvon, Simon of Cyrene, and Jesus #MennoNerdsOnLoss

For several weeks I have been telling people that Zimmerman would not be found guilty. Silly folks all around me had convinced themselves that the evidence would result in the outcome of a guilty conviction. Most thought 2nd degree murder was possible but figured that Zimmerman at least would be convicted of manslaughter. I insisted that American history from 1619 all the way up to the present had data predicting another, less satisfying outcome. You see, I wasn’t going to get my expectations up, only to be crushed like I knew folks all around me were doing. So I did what I have been trained academically to do, to analyze and interpret the data from a more objective stance. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been very clear that the Zimmerman case is all about race, racial profiling, intimidation, and senseless and unnecessary violence. Trayvon Martin, still a child, became another victim of white people’s gaze of suspicion that has been cast on black bodies. However obvious that was, I still knew that America (dominant culture) was (and is) unwilling to admit to itself that it is sick, and that same pathology is what killed Trayvon Martin.

So when I finally heard the verdict ( a bit late, cuz I was socially unplugged), I found myself deeply confused with my own response. There I was, the one trying to not get emotionally set up for devastation, and I broke down and cried. Simultaneously, an anger burned deep down to my soul. All I could do was look at my two beautiful sons and consider what type of world they would grow up in. However, I was also confused with myself and why at this time I felt so broken, even when I had been telling people this was the most likely outcome.

Well, I think, deep down, I wanted to be wrong. I wanted to believe that America was able to come to grips with the oppressive racism and the long history of black vulnerability in this land. I apparently had outwardly and intellectually rejected the idea, but deep down in the black community is an optimism (most often rooted in naivety from the dominant culture but sometimes flows from a deep spiritual hope) that would not accept the obvious reality and state of the collective racial dynamics in the U.S.. Either way, I had bamboozled myself and played the fool.

Many black folks (and other people who stand in solidarity with our suffering) are broken. Big cases like these are very important in the black community. They are significant because often they are used as symbolic thermometers to measure the racial climate that we are living in. A win in the suburbs of Florida is a win in Philly, Chicago, Detroit, NY, and L.A. . Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And so, Trayvon became our symbolic Sons, because we know that if someone can racially profile and hunt down Trayvon and not be found responsible, then all young black men are at risk of being gunned down because of white suspicion. Through the country, racial profiling is already an out of control epidemic, as black men are being harassed and stalked legally because of the xenophobic fear of black men among the dominant society. NYC right now is the most infamous for this right now, as the ‘stop and frisk’ program has been exposed as an unprecedented systematic tool of harassment aimed disproportionately at young black and brown men, whom statistics vindicate as having done nothing wrong. While many wrongly try to associate racist policy with the south, the truth is that throughout the country and especially in the North, black and brown youth are instantly seen as criminal and therefore are vulnerable to being grabbed, seized, searched, and often arrested without due cause.

In Mark’s Gospel account, in chapter 15 verse 21, we are told about a man name Simon of Cyrene who was observing the crucifixion process being carried out by the Romans. What was it about this North African man that fastened the eyes of these soldiers of the powerful Roman Empire onto him? Was it that he was darker than the others and therefore became more visibly ‘the Other’ to those Westerners? Was there an ethnic tension involved that brought undue attention to this man from Cyrene? Those things we can only ponder, but what we do know is that this man lacked protection and safety from the ever-reaching arms of the oppressive Roman empire. He was vulnerable and therefore was seized expectantly. Today, we remember Simon of Cyrene, who is only mentioned in this one verse and no where else, because he in many ways symbolizes the modern African diasporic experience. At mere sight, our bodies are the site of vulnerability in a foreign land, lacking protection. Therefore, we are seized. We were once seized for labor and we are now seized out of racial fear. And like our dear brother Simon, the end story of how it will all turn out is unknown, a hazy future that continues to haunt us. With such unknowns, we are left broken and often forced into death-dealing despair.

But for those that are hurting and struggling today, here is some pain medicine. God has and continues to hear the cries of the oppressed and violated. God, took on human flesh so that he once and for all could overcome the death-dealing and sinful forces that oppress and do violence to the poor, oppressed, and vulnerable. Jesus did not just take on human flesh, he took on Doulos flesh, in the Greek that is Servant/Slave flesh. Jesus did not come as emperor, governor, or as a part of the wealthy elite. Jesus did not come as one who benefited from the privileges of Roman society. No, Jesus was a poor Galilean Jew under Roman oppression, and who was under Roman suspicion and threat throughout his ministry (Luke 13:31), and ultimately died being accused of being a threat to the empire, dying a poor revolutionaries death, also known as crucifixion. That is to say that God took on the story of the vulnerable as a type of solidarity with those that suffer violence and vulnerability as way of life. God knows your pain and has joined in your struggle.

More than that, Jesus at the site where Rome exercised its legal and decisive power (blasphemously choosing to extend life or take life as though it had divine status, and as though Rome had the final say) exposed the powers of this world for what they are. They are stripped and unveiled as mere impostors. And so their greatest threat, death, which is supposed to be ultimate finality, doesn’t actually have the last word. Jesus conquered death and the cross through resurrection. And God invites us to be part of his Resurrection world that overcomes the violence and oppression of this current world and to participate in the world to come, where the vulnerability of young men like Trayvon (and our loved ones) will no longer happen.

And so, as we struggle today, let’s not struggle in despair, but in a hope for what is to come. A hope that stirs deep in our souls as we struggle for justice and peace with our backs straight and our heads lifted high, because God is with us and will vindicate us, no matter what the courts rule, the laws enforce, or how people respond. Today, we proclaim that Jesus our liberator, in solidarity with us, reigns and is victoriously marching us towards Zion.

This post is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog on the topic of Death, Loss, Pain and Grief, July 14-30, 2013. Check out our page on MennoNerds.com  to see all the other posts in this series.

Why do you call me Lord?: Praxis and Foundations

 

In America, it is common to hear people comment on how hard it must be to be a Christian overseas where persecution is rampant. Unfortunately, in response many begin cheering patriotically because of our so called American rights and our supposed ‘freedom’ to gather in Jesus’ name. While we could explore the faulty label and deployment of the word freedom in relation to American life we will forsake that explicit task for today. But there is something to say about reflecting on the nature and character of people’s faith in places where there is an inherent cost in claiming the name of Jesus and the absence of such opposition here in America. To be considered a Christian in many places demands deep conviction because their decision comes with a high cost or risk in their society. On the other hand, here in America, if someone pursued the most powerful position in the American empire (the Presidency), it is still strategically wise to identify as Christian if one desires to have an ‘effective’ campaign. What I am pointing to is the manner in which Christian rhetoric and association in America provides social, political, and economic space (for some) to move, gain prestige, obtain resources, and be considered a good and respectable citizen within American boundaries. Some may read this as positive but here it is not diagnosed as so. Instead, the end result is an expression of Christianity in which our adherence is cheap, easy, and comfortable; a life contrary to a life of following Jesus, as defined by Christ himself (Luke 9:23). 

Popular Christian expression and sentiment here on our part of the globe are found deficient, leaving many in a terrible position because they are being bamboozled and hoodwinked in their own identification before God. On one hand we have many who call Jesus Lord within the United States but on the other hand it is hard to find anyone who practices what Jesus taught or are willing to live alternatively in the world with Jesus as their foundation. Loving one’s enemies, not hoarding possessions, confronting evil, lending without expecting anything in return, making solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed, sharing the good news of God’s alternative Kingdom with the poor, doing justice, being merciful, and confronting empire and evil forces to the point of laying down one’s life are not compatible with American life or reasoning. Yet the absence of the markers of a Christian life has not even slightly worried  or bothered the self confidence  of self proclaimed Christians in America.

While Christianity in America is on a decline, it certainly has not gotten to the point where Christians are disenfranchised for their faithfulness to Christ (despite popular sentiment from many American evangelicals who complain about Christian victimhood from contexts of comfort, wealth, safety, and security). What a miserable condition we find ourselves in. We all believe that we are Christians and are followers of Christ and have been conditioned by our Christian leaders to believe that everything is fine and that there is nothing to worry about. At the same time, there is no fruit of discipleship (defined by the life of Christ rather than American standards of what is expected and reasonable for our 21st Century American lifestyles). We think that somehow the call to proclaim Jesus as Lord meant that we just had to verbalize the words but didn’t have to truly reorient our lives thoroughly around the reality of the gospel of Jesus Christ and his inbreaking Kingdom. This misunderstanding was something Jesus was fully aware of, warning his followers that true surrendering to Jesus’ Lordship demanded practicing what Jesus taught and emulated as the foundation of our lives. Here is Jesus’ teaching from Luke 6:46-49:

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do what I tell you? “Everyone who comes to me and listens to my words and puts them into practice – I will show you what he is like: He is like a manbuilding a house, who dug down deep, and laid the foundation on bedrock. When a flood came, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the person who hears and does not put my words into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against that house, it collapsed immediately, and was utterly destroyed!”[1]

            It’s time to move beyond empty words and cheap adherence. May we make Jesus’ life and teachings the foundations of our lives taking them seriously and putting them into practice as we yield to Christ thoroughly in our own life. When we step back and revisit where it is hard to be Christian, it is recognized that the domestication of Christianity in America provides a near impossible context to follow Jesus because we are completely enslaved to our way of life and logic. Thankfully, all things are possible with God.


[1] Biblical Studies Press., NET Bible: New English Translation., 1st Beta ed. ([Spokane  Wash.]: Biblical Studies Press, 2001).

John Howard Yoder: On Withdrawing to the Artificial Suburbs

While discussing the various Jewish sects during the time of Jesus, John Howard Yoder, zones in on the communities that produced the Dead Sea scrolls, most often referred to by Biblical scholars as the Essenes. However, he turns its application to what he sees as artificial and synthetic suburban life. He says the following:

The days of real rural withdrawal are fast passing, but the synthetic countryside we call the suburb, with its artificial old swimming holes, artificial expanses of meadow, and artificial campfire sites, set up to maintain artificial distance from the city’s problems, still represents some people’s vision of what to life for… But Jesus, although his home was a village, found no hearing there, and left village life behind him. He forsook his own handicraft and called his disciples away from their nets and their plows. He set out quite openly and consciously for the city and the conflict which was sure to encounter him there.[i]

What do you think about this statement from Yoder?  Are the ‘burbs’ a synthetic and artificial attempt at escaping the ugly systemic realities of the city? What was the relationship between White Flight and Evangelical Church flight to the suburbs while the great migration of poor, suffering African Americans from the rural south and to cities was taking place?


[i] John Howard Yoder, For the Nations: Essays Evangelical and Public (Eugene  Or.: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2002), 173.

Book Review of ‘Power and Practices: Engaging the Work of John Howard Yoder’

Power and Practices: Engaging the Work of John Howard Yoder

 

It is 2013 and John Howard Yoder’s writings are still the most influential Anabaptist works around. However, people are not (all) asking the same old questions that were being asked when Yoder first arrived on the scene, nor are many satisfied with merely rehashing old conversations with the Niebuhr brothers’ works. Instead, Yoder’s relevance has been seen worthy of venturing into new territories, using his insight and wisdom to wrestle with tough questions and issues facing our current society. The question is how can someone like John H. Yoder be utilized today to engage our most pressing concerns? That’s precisely where Power and Practices: Engaging the Work of John Howard Yoder is helpful.

In Power and Practices, young and emerging theologians place Yoder in dialogue with various issues and voices that Yoder himself never did. More so, they offer a much more critical, opposed to blindly affirming or unrelentingly negative to his thought, approach to dialoging with Yoder. With this stance, these insightful authors are not afraid to agree with Yoder on one point, while pressing him or ultimately rejecting his thoughts on another point. This book, then, offers both a rich theological perspective people can engage with while also offering a way of taking someone like Yoder (or theologians we value) and learning how to inherit and receive from them wisely.

This is concept of inheritance is beautifully covered in the first chapter of the book by Chris Huebner. Huebner utilizes Yoder’s own thoughts and approach to inheritance as a starting point to glean how we too can receive from a theological giant like John Howard Yoder. Ultimately, he points us to a way of engaging Yoder that is not about preservation but rather produces new conversation and dialogue. In fact, to not do push Yoder beyond his own limits, is unfaithful to Yoder’s own approach, says Huebner. “Given Yoder’s dialogical and ad hoc approach to doing theology, it might even be suggested that the more a reading of Yoder strives to be faithful in a literal way to repeating and capturing his main claims, the more we ought to approach it with caution” (24). With that, Huebner pushes us to consider Yoder’s dialogical significance today, and not merely as something that must be held to, just because.

Following Chapter 1 there are a variety of authors tackling a plethora of issues. Philip Stoltzfus takes Yoder to task on two fronts, his portrayal of a Violent God communicated through the language of Yahweh’s Wars (despite a portrayal of a nonviolent Jesus), as well as what he saw as missteps in theological approach that led to such inconsistencies. Andrew Brubacher Kaethler argues that while Yoder called for patience in ecumenical dialogue and challenged the oversimplified caricatures of the Radical Reformation, he himself was guilty of those same attitudes when he portrayed Scholasticism. Some other topics of interest are Branson Parler on Yoder and the Politics of Creation, Richard Bourne establishes election along with Yoder’s eschatology and exile while in conversation with Foucault and moving towards a more political posture. Paul Heidebrecht problematizes Yoder’s understanding of engineering, and how, when understood right, can be a helpful metaphor for theologians. Paul Martens contends that Yoder’s body of work is not consistent, ultimately moving away from the Christological particularity he is known for, and Andy Alexis-Baker challenges those that too quickly have tried to utilize Yoder in support for global policing.

For me the chapter that intrigued me the most was Nekeisha Alexis-Baker’s Freedom of the Cross. Alexis-Baker places John Howard Yoder in conversation with Womanist theologians. She is primarily interested in Yoder’s understanding of the concrete Cross of Jesus. She mediates between Delores Williams’ concerns around Black women’s surrogacy and subjugation and how the glorification of the Cross perpetuates it and Yoder’s contention that the Cross ought not to be domesticated into a symbol for all or any suffering other than being crushed by the powers from an expected result of nonconformity which derives ought of following Jesus’ radically political life. From Yoder we are challenged with the idea of ‘maximizing freedom’, while also left struggling with the term ‘revolutionary subordination’ that we inherit from him. She offers the Church the concept of ‘Creative Transformation’ in context with “seeking to maximize people’s freedom by confronting that social order’s injustice” as a careful yet powerful articulation that takes serious Yoder’s wisdom and the discernment of Womanist theologians. This is done while not avoiding the need to dialogically wrestle with both sides; bolstering points where appropriate and nuancing arguments as needed. Ultimately, Nekeisha Alexis-Baker ends with a political and liberating understanding of the Cross that empowers Black women and demonstrates Jesus continuing solidarity in their lives.

If you have read any of John Howard Yoder’s work at all then you will definitely want to read Power and Practices. If you want to consider how to engage the work of any significant theologian then Power and Practices is for you. This book communicates and demonstrates the responsibility of each generation to take serious the task of inheritance and reception, not by a shallow preservation but an active and critical engagement. I highly recommend this book for Yoderians and Young theologians alike. I know already that it will find a useful place in my own studies, thought, and writing.

Power and Practices is available for purchase here.

(As full disclosure, I was given this review copy of Power and Practices 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.)