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.

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.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Particularity of Christ: Resurrecting Jesus from Abstraction

So, I am realizing more and more that I am more of a post-Christendom theologian than a purely postcolonial theologian (though they are highly related). This is especially true because of my concern that the ‘Christendom Shift’ (the imperial favor Christianity received during Constantine that mutated its core essentials) has marginalized, distorted, and domesticated Jesus. This has been done first by changing the center of Christian teaching to be something other than the narratives of Jesus and his teaching as something to be followed and obeyed, as well as by creating theology that accommodates and justifies dominant society’s self-interest.

If one does not start with the narratives of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John) to understand who Jesus is, but rather abstract and dogmatic doctrines about Jesus’ salvific work, then Jesus can either accommodate anything (crusades, persecuting the Jews for 1500 years, waging war against other nations, colonizing continents, and slavery to name a few examples). If it is not an accommodated Jesus, it is skirting Jesus all together. People try to dismiss Jesus by going backwards to the Old Testament (an unfulfilled narrative by all Christian account) or past him to Paul (unfortunately Paul is most often misread through European eyes as writing theology books rather than contextualized theological letters). Either way, the end result is one not having to follow Jesus’ life or obey his teachings.

We need to recover the ancient practice of  early Christians who understood that Jesus’ life and teachings were meant to be taken seriously and followed. It’s time to let the abstract and domesticated Jesus of the West die, and let God resurrect the true and living Jesus in your lives. This is the Crucified One that actually spoke and lived in a manner that was supposed to be ‘the Way’ to follow. We need to go back to the particularities of Christ. What are the actual and concrete ways that Jesus lived? What did he specifically teach? Howard Thurman talks about recovering Jesus’ Jewish ethnicity, poor upbringing, and minority status as important aspects of Jesus’ identity. Furthermore, Black and Anabaptist theologians have been pointing the Church towards Jesus’ particularity in both word and deed. This is why they can boldly talk about Jesus as liberator (Luke 4) and peace maker (Matthew 5). It is in the particularities of Jesus’ teaching and life as recorded in Scripture that he is known, not through the memorization of human articulations of doctrines, creeds, and confessions which are inevitably more abstract than the Gospel narratives themselves.

1 John 2: 6 “The one who says he resides in God ought himself to walk just as Jesus walked.” (NET)

How to Follow Jesus and Love Our Neighbors Without Voting (Guest Post by Samantha E. Lioi)

(I am thankful to have a guest post by a new friend, Samantha Lioi. Things like Justice, Peace, and Community, are not just ideals to hold for her, but are integral parts of her life. I thought it would be helpful to have a countering perspective to the model I presented earlier, for which I have not completely sold myself on nonetheless. I’m thankful for my sister’s radical and anti-imperial witness in the midst of complacent and comfortable approach to politics. Enjoy! – Drew)

“Love does not enter into competition, and therefore it cannot be defeated.” Karl Barth[1]

 

The acts of love we must undertake as disciples of Jesus, the risen Christ, are much riskier than voting.  Using our voices—our real-time, audible voices—and standing with our bodies in the way of injustice (for ex., standing with someone at an immigration hearing, sitting with a family whose son was arrested on false charges, walking with a community whose right to exist is threatened by neighbors or armed corporations) is much different from thinking of voting as voice.  If we consider our vote to carry our voice, we must consider whether voting functions this way for members of society whose voices are routinely set aside or completely unheard.

 

I’m grateful for the written voice of my friend Nekeisha Alexis-Baker, whose family immigrated to New York City when she was in grade school and who is a naturalized citizen of the United States.  In explaining her choice as a black woman not to vote, she questions this idea of voting-as-voice, and points to what I find to be a compelling trend from the Civil Rights era.  “Between 1955 an 1977, acts of civil disobedience decreased, and the number of black registered voters and elected officials increased. In this period, legislation favorable to blacks also decreased, and economic positions of black people deteriorated.”[2]  It may be that direct action involving physical risk is much more effective in moving lawmakers toward justice than electing a representative we believe will enact justice or attempting to direct current lawmakers through our votes.

 

It is important for Christians to ask the practical question, “What actions and collaborations with God and others will contribute to increased well-being for the weakest, most at-risk members of our society?”  It is equally important for us to realize this is a question about how we use our power, and when Christians think of power, we should think of the upside-down, unreasonable power of the cross and resurrection.  We are easily seduced by our belief in our ability to make things happen.  I do not want to dismiss effectiveness; however, I do want to remind us that the cross did not appear anything close to effective as a way of bringing deliverance to the Jewish people.  It was, quite obviously to all onlookers at the time, a defeat—a shameful, final defeat, the kind from which people turn away their faces.  I know you know this.  But we are human and we forget.  This is the Gospel we proclaim; this shameful, strange, violent death and the equally shocking rising of Jesus is, for his followers, the undeniable picture of our God, the God who dies in human flesh and the God who breathes life in places of death.  And voting for President of the United States of America, a participation in choosing who will have the highest seat of power in our government, does not immediately appear relevant to the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  It is often a way of claiming power over those with whom we are at odds (including other Christians), and it is a turning over of our power to someone more influential, to someone higher up.  Jesus surrendered his power only to the One who sent him, and drew his healing power from this One, and we are to imitate this way of living.

 

I have heard some say they fear that if we don’t vote, we who are most privileged (and I include myself in that category—in terms of racialized identity, education and access to financial resources) will disengage, because more often than not, our lives are not significantly affected by changes in the Oval Office.  But apathy and complacency among those most comfortable is a constant problem in every society, and as I observe our behaviors, voting does not address this problem.  We privileged one’s vote and feel we have done our duty.  Having voted for a man we believe will best support the nation’s common good, we can then disengage from the day-to-day struggles and lives of people who lack the social, financial, and cultural padding we enjoy.  If we take time at all to struggle with the questions around voting, perhaps we will choose to act, showing up in the flesh to work for widespread well-being.

 

Still, I admit it is sometimes true that getting certain people into office helps the immediate cause of vulnerable people.  And I have deep respect for those who choose to vote because their daily, direct work with vulnerable people makes it impossible for them to imagine not voting—especially when those vulnerable people—because of legal status or other barriers—have no possibility of voting themselves.  In cases like this, I understand that voting feels like the action with the most integrity, and there is a sense of acting on behalf of specific people, friends, with faces and stories one knows like one’s own.  At the same time, let us also admit that this situation and this amount of thoughtful deliberation is not descriptive of most U.S. Christians or their reasons for voting.

 

Whether we choose to vote or not, as the people of God we do not arrange our lives around the timetables of elections but around God’s year-round actions of reconciling love, remembered in the story of the Divine taking on flesh, growing up as an ordinary child, teaching, healing, dying, rising, and sending the Holy Spirit.  Nor do the decisions of elected officials limit the boundless plenty of the Creator, from whose open hand the desires of every living thing are satisfied.  Whenever and wherever the needs of God’s creatures are not filled, it is ours to partner with this ever-creating God to see that the plenty is justly shared.  This partnership is not dependent on voting or upon any other human institution, including church institutions.

 

The acts of love we must undertake are much more costly than voting.  Let us encourage one another in the risky, full-bodied love of the Risen One.


[1]              Quoted as an epigram in Lewis, Ted. Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting (Eugene, Ore: Cascade Books, 2008).

[2]              Nekeisha Alexis-Baker, “Freedom of Voice: Non-Voting and the Political Imagination,” in Lewis, Electing Not to Vote, 36, emphasis mine.

‘Tweener Jesus’ Visits the Temple: Luke 2:41-51

Now Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem every year for the feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. But when the feast was over, as they were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but (because they assumed that he was in their group of travelers) they went a day’s journey. Then they began to look for him among their relatives and acquaintances. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Jesus were astonished at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were overwhelmed. His mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” But he replied, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Yet his parents did not understand the remark he made to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. But his mother kept all these things in her heart. (Luke 2:41-51)[i]

This passage in Luke is a familiar passage to me. However, if I am honest, I never spent much time practicing Lectio Divina with it, but would typically run through the passage thinking to myself that someone should have called child services on Joseph and Mary. Yes, Jesus was a special child, the end, right? Well, there are some other things that have struck me more recently.

In reality, it is understandable that Jesus’ parents lost track of him, given that they were most likely travelling in a large caravan full of family and friends from Nazareth to Jerusalem and back, which would probably offer a certain amount of safety and security in such a pilgrimage. If Jesus was hanging out with his cousins (possibly playing tag) then his parents could have easily lost track of him. However, it is interesting that the text says that “they assumed” Jesus was in their group. I’m not always an allegorical interpreter (not that I have anything against such readings), but a more recent reading lead me to jump immediately to how we as so proclaimed Christians in America so often venture off with our plans, mission, goals, and conquests, all while assuming that Jesus is with us. It is as though we believe that whatever we do and engage in, Jesus will automatically endorse and stamp his approval of divine will on.  This can be seen in historical events like the colonizing of lands or in the materialistic and self-driven decisions we make as individuals in terms of career choices and accumulation of toys (big houses and fancy cars). We just chase our dreams believing that God just so happens to always want us to go do it.

For Jesus’ parents, they are abruptly disrupted from this assumption with a moment of realization that Jesus indeed was not journeying with them. How devastating it must have been to realize your child has been left behind in the big city (remember, they are small time country folk from Galilee) and they have no clue as to where he is. As a father myself, I can only assume that they felt helpless, vulnerable, broken, and scared. It is no coincidence that they must go three days in Jerusalem, because for them the loss of their child is like torture and death, a psychological crucifixion.

After three days of searching, they finally decide to look in the Temple. Contrast the parents with Jesus. The parents are anxious and frantic while Jesus hanging out, seemingly un-phased by this familial separation. Like any Mom, after realizing that their child is fine, Mary digs into Jesus, disturbed with how their child could put them through such hell. Jesus simply says “didn’t you know” that I had to be “in the things of my Father” (it’s a more literal Greek translation than Father’s house or Father’s business). Again contrast the parent’s posture and approach with that of Jesus. The parents assume that Jesus is journeying with them. However, Jesus has aligned and arranged his life in line with, and around, the things of the Father. And there is a great challenge for us. May we surrender our will to the Father, rearranging our lives and decisions around the reality of the Messiah, and may we be joining God in his subversive in-breaking Kingdom in the world rather than seeking God to merely rubber stamp and approve our conquests.


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


Baby Jesus Presented in the Temple: Luke 2:21-39

At the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was named Jesus, the name given by the angels before he was conceived in the womb. Now when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (just as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male will be set apart to the Lord’), and to offer a sacrifice according to what is specified in the law of the Lord, a pair of doves or two young pigeons. Now there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon who was righteous and devout, looking for the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. So Simeon, directed by the Spirit, came into the temple courts and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what was customary according to the law, Simeon took him in his arms and blessed God, saying, “Now, according to your word, Sovereign Lord, permit your servant to depart in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples: a light, for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” So the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “Listen carefully: This child is destined to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be rejected. Indeed, as a result of him the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul as well!” There was also a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old, having been married to her husband for seven years until his death. She had lived as a widow since then for eighty-four years. She never left the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment, she came up to them and began to give thanks to God and to speak about the child to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. So when Joseph and Mary had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. (Luke 2:21-39, NET).

At the start of beginning of Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited[i], the argument is made that there are certain elements that are often neglected in western Christianity. Particularly Jesus’ Jewishness, poverty, and oppressed and dominated state are highlighted as being often neglected. Here in the passage in Luke chapter 2, we see all three of those elements of Jesus’ humanity witnessed to in the text.

Jesus is not only ethnically Jewish, but he is obviously raised Jewish as well. He is circumcised, and even presented in the Temple to God, all according to the Law of Moses. Despite many people’s desperate attempts to cast Jesus as a western figure throughout history[ii], Jesus is very much a Jew. Sorry for those who continue to perpetuate the devastating lie that Jesus is a western hero, representing and endorsing all things European, but that house is falling fast. We must continue to argue for Jesus’ Jewishness, because in that particularity of ethnicity we are revealed to the universality of Jesus’ Lordship. It is because Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, that we gentiles can be engrafted into that story and salvation.

Ethnicity is not the only concern in the text or for Thurman. We also see that Jesus comes from poor and humble beginnings. This could be easily missed, but Jesus’ parents are noted for offering two birds. The preferred sacrifice would have been a lamb, the two birds as a replacement was a specific prescription for those who could not afford the costlier animal[iii]. The fact that Luke notes that they opted for the pigeons is not by mistake, but to remind the hearers of the gospel that Jesus was a common poor man, like the masses of humanity that struggled to make it day by day. Sorry folks that push that Jesus was wealthy, it’s not true, he was homeless and had no place to lay his head.

Lastly, we must take notice of the messianic expectation that is leaping of the text. The devout are anticipating the consolation and redemption of Israel. There is a common feeling of continued spiritual exile and political and social oppression because of the continued hostile occupation and taxing from the Roman Empire. Jesus is born under these conditions himself, and must be seen as a colonized person. The desire for independence and God’s full presence and reign for the Jews was real, and thoroughly shapes Jesus’ own experience, life, and teaching. Sorry for the folks that imagine Jesus as a part of the dominant streams of society, but Jesus has more in common with postcolonial thinkers and freedom fighters than he does with those safely situated in comfort and security without any fear of political incarceration or execution because of one’s ethnicity and social position.

Therefore, when we talk about the incarnation, life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we must allow these aspects of Jesus concrete existence to shape how we begin to perceive, imagine, and come to know Jesus. And it this Jesus that we are also called to follow, imitate, and risk life for. May we all find the courage to follow Jesus radically as we also link arms with the underdogs of the world in our own contexts and communities.


[i] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited. (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1949).

[ii] J Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford ;;New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[iii] Biblical Studies Press., NET Bible : New English Translation., 1st Beta ed. ([Spokane  Wash.]: Biblical Studies Press, 2001), bk. Leviticus 12:8.

Emptying Whiteness: Engaging In Absurd Christian Social Performance

The reality of whiteness affording privilege in America continues to be a touchy subject in our nation. While many (not all) would agree that minorities are marginalized and discriminated against, somehow the idea of some necessarily being disadvantaged does not automatically translate into privilege for those who enjoy dominant places in American society. The truth is that to be considered white, and to have obtained whiteness in America has always, and continues to offer privileges.  Consider this finding, in which various ethnic minorities went to the courts to legally battle for white status before the law in the early 1900’s.

Court decisions on white status were based on a mix of supposedly scientific criteria and the common understandings of the day, leading to a mess of contradictions. Syrians were deemed white in 1909, 1910, and 1915, but no in 1913 or 1914. Asian Indians won white status in 1910, 1913, 1919, and 1920, but not in 1909, 1917 or after 1923. The persistence of immigrants in suing for whiteness is evidence of the financial and social benefits that came with white status. After all, no one sued to be considered Asian, much less black.[i]

Beyond the absurdity of the fact that the criteria for whiteness was so arbitrary that people went back and forth being deemed white and then once again recognized as a person of color, we must also consider its broader significance.  Very quickly, even in the 1900’s, immigrants realized that there were serious social benefits that went along with being recognized as white in America and therefore they fought for such status in the court room. Whiteness then clearly affords benefits to those who arbitrarily fall into the right side of the haphazard pseudo-scientific racialization of people groups.

Now if race is a racial construct, which has the sole purpose of racially dividing society to benefit some while disadvantaging others, then whiteness from a Christian perspective must be dealt with. To be European, is to talk about one’s ethnos, a people group and ethnicity recognized by God. To be White, however, is to embrace and utilize man-made racial hegemony and social domination. Whiteness equals oppressive societal positioning. Following Christ however, necessitates a rejection of privilege and oppressive lifestyles. Remember what Paul said:

You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8)[ii]

For the Christian, an emptying of whiteness and a taking on the form of marginality is a necessary social performance that must be enacted to faithfully have the same attitude that Jesus had. The fairly obvious theological conclusion has been avoided and skirted around for a long time, because in America, despite our peculiar calling, we have decided that it is best to take advantage of all our privileges and opportunities. The concept of rejecting any privilege runs counter to American values and norms. Only a radical awareness of the Lordship of Jesus over all things could and would lead someone to rearrange their lives in ways that currently reject social, political, and economic benefits. Hopefully, the end result will be the humanizing response of European men and women who stand with rather than on top of their darker pigmented brothers and sisters.


[i] Meizhu Lui and United for a Fair Economy, The color of wealth : the story behind the U.S. racial wealth divide (New York: New Press : Distributed by W.W. Norton, 2006), 250.

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

The Hoodie (Revisted and Expanded): Racialized Gaze and Trayvon Martin

 About 2 years ago my wife and I stopped for pizza way up in the Souderton/Telford area (philly suburb outskirts). We were in the area already and had received a strong recommendation for this particular place. As we walked into the restaurant, we immediately received stares from everyone in the facility, adult and child alike. Once seated, my wife who is white, and who tends to not always pick up on glares from others as quickly as I tend to, immediately said to me “whoa, did you feel that!”, and of course I responded by saying “uh, yeah, of course I did”. Our presence there was disruptive to whatever norms that were typically played out in that building. It was summer time, and I was wearing nothing but a T-shirt and shorts. And my black skin was bare, on display, and held social meaning beyond ethnic difference. I could not hid or cover myself from the racialized gazes that looked at me and projected meaning onto my black body. I honestly do not know what exactly was running through the minds of the people who rudely stared at us as we came in and took our seats. Was I perceived as a threat or did I appear suspicious? Was it taboo to be an interracial couple in their minds? Or maybe it was just my hyper-visibility as other, and different. I will probably never know precisely what those stares meant, other than that they were not welcoming glances. My body had once again become an object to be observed and interpreted, which was not my first experience with this, nor my last, but yet certainly a memorable one.

Since college, I have learned and mastered the importance of manufacturing a public image when I go out. Yup, that’s right, I intentionally choose clothes to wear to manipulate how I am being perceived by others, particularly by the dominant culture. What you must understand is that I do not have a choice, as a young black male I must always know how I am being perceived by others, and play into that, to not know could prove detrimental. For example, since graduating college, most people probably conjure up in their minds an image of me in which I am wearing jeans, a button up shirt, and a sports coat. However, when I was in college, my uniform of choice was most often a hoodie and jeans. I loved and continue to love hoodies. There is something familiar and comfortable about a hoodie for me.  The hoodie for me goes beyond comfort, and begins to transcend into my own self awareness of identity, formation, and social place and posture in the world I live.  The clothes I wear, in many ways, has as much significance to me as space does for Willie James Jennings in The Christian Imagination. My hoodie communicates to me, reminding me of who I am, how people perceive me, and how I defiantly respond to the racialized gaze.

One of the most encouraging things that happened during my last year as a student, was when two separate white female friends of mine on campus admitted on separate occasions that they were afraid of me when they first met me freshman year. They also admitted that it was ridiculous for them to have felt that way, because after all I was Dru, and everyone who knew me loved being around me. My only caution was to make sure that this revelation would be applied to humanizing all black males rather than making me the exception to the rule.  I actually applaud these two young women for their courage to admit to me what I had known I was experiencing more broadly throughout my time there as an undergrad. The racialized gaze that interpreted my young black male body in a hoodie as dangerous and suspicious until proven otherwise, is not merely a Christian College problem, but it pervades the racialized American experience, in that black male bodies are always seen as more threatening than their white counterparts. The same act performed by differently pigmented people, especially when hoodied up, is interpreted as two completely different acts. This is the case even when merely walking down the sidewalk of one’s own Christian College Campus as a Bible major.

This narrative has been lived out over and over again with different characters. Hoodie or no hoodie, there is a gaze which has been racialized to see dark skin and make it opaque, in that it cannot be hidden. The visibility of dark skin on human bodies in America immediately makes one the other, but not mysteriously other. Nope, the dark skin is believed to be known, understood, and mastered. Dark skin can be interpreted not only as uniquely visible but uniquely suspicious and threatening. The racialized gaze imposes this storyline on unfamiliar bodies. The hoodie allows one to shut out those who gaze at you while also making one hyper visible and apparently more readable in the minds of the dominant culture.

Trayvon Martin’s last moments become transparent when we are honest about the racialized American experience that plays out over and over again. Zimmerman saw an unfamiliar black body and based off of his own words, he reinterpreted Trayvon as suspicious. Trayvon, just a child, adorned in his hoodie both blocked the direct gaze of Zimmerman and yet nonetheless became more victim to Zimmerman’s racialized gaze. Zimmerman believed that Trayvon was “they”, the other, who “always get away”, in reference to his belief that young black men had recently committed crimes in his neighborhood. Trayvon’s presence then is a disruptive presence for Zimmerman, and so he believed that he must be removed out of his gated community. Zimmerman took on this responsibility himself, convinced that he knew Trayvon. Zimmerman could not see a child terrified for his life before him because his racial gaze impaired his vision.

Let’s be honest, while I believe Zimmerman is guilty of murder and our justice system needs to respond accordingly, he did not create the racialization that is in our country, but rather he is a byproduct of hundreds of years of racism in this country. Since the 1600’s, people of European descent in America have been gazing upon the African, seeing only 3/5’s a person, uncivilized labor, inferiority, and danger in those beautiful black bodies. This impaired vision is societal. The hoodie in black urban communities in many ways is a response to the racialized gaze. We covered ourselves up and defiantly hid ourselves from view. We controlled who saw us and who didn’t. Yet the racialized gaze only grew. The hoodie reminded us simultaneously of the stereotypes projected onto us by the dominant culture andalso the rebellious spirit born out of the urban hip hop culture. It taught us to resist. So, the hoodie for me then has interwoven well with my embracement of the subversive prophetic tradition and my anabaptist leaning. Consider how Jesus often utilized and borrowed the revolutionary terminology of the Zealots, calling people to take up the cross. So too can we as Christians employ the hoodie with it’s hip hop subversive spirit to begin to challenge the criminalizing gaze that is fixed on black bodies in America. We can ALL cover ourselves with symbolic hoodies from the racialized systems and stereotypes that disrupt justice, by resisting with a faithful prophetic witness against hegemony, tyranny, and oppression in all forms as followers of Christ. 

I Am Trayvon!