(Full text available at Christian Century where it was originally posted). Having an opportunity to peak into the life of the early Church is always intriguing. Doing so is not for the purpose of discovering some pristine perfect community, which never existed, but it is helpful when considering the historical domestications of Church teachings around what is expected of Christian lives. While diversity existed in the early Church, there certainly are strong currents of overlaps that existed as well, like the fact that there are no examples of Christians participating in the military until about the late in the second century, and that even beyond that the official teaching was always nonviolence. That some shifts took place in the dominant ethical witness of the Church is impossible to argue against. While the churches embodiment of these teachings still would have been complex and dynamic in its pursuit and shortcomings of following Jesus, it is pretty clear that the Church teachers in the first few centuries sought to take Jesus seriously… Read the end of the post here.
I woke up in the morning to some interesting dialogue on Twitter. Apparently Scott Mcknight has a new book, which I have not read, and it is getting some attention for his polemics around “skinny jeans” and “pleated pants” Christians’ understanding of the kingdom of God. It is not those categories that was controversial, but rather his actual claims about what the kingdom of God is, or isn’t. This is not a review of his book, I do not plan on reading or reviewing the book, so you must go elsewhere for that. However, I did want to problematize the main point I saw in a review David Fitch, a friend and seminary colleague of Mcknight, brought attention to in his book. The claim Mcknight supposedly made was that the kingdom of God is the Church, and that there is no kingdom of God outside of the Church. That is an echo of Cyprian from the 3rd century, but applied in a new way, to the kingdom of God in this contemporary case, which needs brief responding to.
It should be no surprise that I see this read as both irresponsible and problematic as an interpretation. I will argue based on my reading of the Jesus narratives in scripture and with strong support from an early Church teaching, pointing to a different understanding of the kingdom of God than Mcknight does. Furthermore, by attempting to make such a claim, I suggest it diminishes the particularity of Jesus’ own poetic descriptions of the kingdom of God in the parables, the very content I assume Mcknight is mostly drawing from in his book to come to such conclusions.
Before the primary critique, it should be said that Mcknight is not completely wrong on everything. First, my take is that he understands that there are very real spatial realities to be considered when discussing the kingdom of God, though “geopolitical” is problematic because it moves us back to a place of dominating land and space. The kingdom of God is something present in particular spaces. Secondly, a kingdom inevitably does include both a king and a people in particular spaces. It seems that Mcknight does not want people to lose sight of the King and people that make for a kingdom. These points are not insignificant, and to completely lose sight of those things does cause room for other problems. However, we cannot draw a clean line from the realities of earthly kingdoms to that of the kingdom of God. It is precisely the fact that the kingdom of God, as it was revealed and announced by Jesus, surprised and shocked many, helping us understand that it must not be assumed or predicted ahead of time as though we can expect from general common sense what it would be. Rather, only after careful attentiveness to the gospel narratives, read alongside the least of these in community, can we begin to venture to say something meaningful about the kingdom of God.
One of the big stumbling blocks for McKnight seems to come out of him falling into ‘churchology’. That is, McKnight here is operating out of a weak Christology and Pneumatology in relation to his understanding of the kingdom of God, which inevitably slips him away from ecclesiology and into churchology. Ecclesiology is about being called out, to gather around Jesus the crucified One as his people, and to embody the life and teachings of Jesus together. On the other hand churchology takes for granted the presence of Jesus, as a matter of fact (for whatever theological reasons), and the alignment of God’s mission and will, with any particular gathering or institution. Churchology is dangerous. It is a new-Christendom for the 21st century, in which a community assumes that they are part of what God is doing in creation, just because they think so.Ecclesiology realizes how easy it is to lose Jesus along the way (Luke 2:41-52), to have him on the outside of what we’ve got going on (Luke 3:19-20). The kingdom of God is not automatic for a gathered people who call themselves Christian, nor is it confined by the limits of Christian gatherings.
Simply put, the kingdom of God is anywhere King Jesus is present in any particular place.The most important thing to remember about the kingdom of God is not the Church (though there is close association between the two) but it is Jesus himself. For this reason Origen famously described Jesus as “autobasiliea”. Jesus embodied the reign of God all by himself! That means that wherever Jesus is present, the kingdom of God has come near! Now certainly the Church should be a place that Jesus is truly present, a space in which people are reorienting their lives and social arrangements according to the reality of the Messiah. Yet we know that is not always the case.
Read the end of the post here.
I am supposed to be reading about Constantine and his relationship to the bishops in the 4th century. H. A. Drake turns the discussion away from merely looking at Constantine and his actions, and whether or not he was genuine or not, you know the old Constantine scholarly debates. Instead, he looks at the Bishops and their role in the emerging form of Christianity, and their complicity in shaping a coercive Christianity. This is so important. For me, the issue of Constantinian Christianity (as Anabaptists often describe it) has less to do with Constantine, because heck, he is an emperor. Christian or not, he has imperial interests. Nothing surprising about any move or decision he makes.
What I am much more interested in is moving the discussion away from Constantine, to towards the way that the Church apostasized itself by displacing Christ as central and allowing Constantine to take that place. One must go no further than looking at Eusebius’ Church History to see that many Christian leaders were seeing Constantine rather than Jesus, as the new David. That Constantine presided over councils rather than the presence of Jesus, and the imperial edicts mandating and coercively enforcing orthodoxy following that council is not surprising when the way of Jesus is no longer normative. In fact, as people have noticed, even images of Jesus began to change after that point. Jesus himself begins to no longer be portrayed as a humble man, but as an imperial figure in art post-Constantine. The imperial figure, then is centralized, has the right to make calls on orthodoxy, and enforces those boundaries, reigning supreme over the Church. It is the Bishops and the Church, and their gazing on “Christian” emperors that give them this power. It is a choice to fix one’s eyes on Jesus or the imperial figure.
Yet, can we really make huge distinctions between the past and the present, like we are above such problems? While no Roman Imperial Image reigns over us today, hasn’t the center still been occupied by something other than the Jewish anointed, crucified, and resurrected One? Certainly in America, that dominating figure since the 1600s has been “the White Male Figure”. The supremacy of the White Male Citizen as the standard to be measured against runs at the heart of the American experiment. When it was “self-evident” that all men were created equal, didn’t it really mean all “white men”? Were not black people subjugated to the status of property? And finally, wasn’t Jesus himself recast and refashioned into a “white male figure” which remains on the walls of churches and homes even today?
When people want to learn about theology, there stands “the White Male Figure”. The White Male Figure has occupied the center, playing the role of the theological police for everyone else. Though western and American forms of Christianity have participated in some of the most atrocious and violent acts within Church History, the White Male Figure claims clarity and objectivity, accusing other ecclesial traditions without that violent baggage of actually being the violent ones or of transgressing faithful witness. Speaking from a position of power, those labels stick and stigmatize marginalized Christian groups. The White Male Figure, sees himself as apolitical, but in actuality, every statement, every accusation, involves strategic power moves and claims, that re-affirm hegemony and shut out dissenting voices.
Given the longevity of western Christianities tradition of exalting the White Male Figure as the standard of perfection and the model for citizenship and discipleship, it becomes the norm to see the White Male Figure at the center. Once people are accustomed to that norm, it is no longer seen as a violent practice, but instead, the one that points out this form of domination is the one accused of participating in violence. It is the irony of people becoming mal-adjusted to injustice and white supremacy. In fact, to even call out white supremacy in relation to mythic “White Male Figure” is in itself seen as heretical and anti-Christian.
However, what must be understood is that as long as the “White Male Figure,” in its mythic and legendary glory, stands at the center, then that inevitably means that the Jewish Messiah and Lord over all creation, Jesus the Victorious One, does not stand in the center. The Jesus that has been manipulated to look like, think like, and bolster the agenda of “the White Male Figure” is not the Jesus found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but is an imposter and enemy of Jesus. The Living and Resurrected One does not take the mode or disposition of the oppresser, but rather his disposition is found in his being crucified by earthly authorities that found him to be a threat to the status quo. Two moves are necessary for the Church to get back on track:
- The Church must decentralize “the White Male Figure”: Unlike popular opinion, this is not an attack on “the White Man” but instead it is a humanizing project. The “White Male Figure” standard demands people to be apathetic to the racialized other, to gaze on them with contempt and see something other than someone who God found to be worth dying for in the person of Jesus Christ. When one succumbs to playing this role, it is unfortunately them that become monstrous, being enslaved to the elemental forces of this world and the dominion Satan. Only through being transferred from that dominion to the Kingdom of the Son in which humanity can do “life together” through the Spirit in solidarity and mutual sharing of love, can the humanizing project be accomplished. This means that those that have stood in the center must step off the table as referee and are now free to sit around the table sharing and embracing God’s beloved as equals, no longer enslaved by the logics of race and white superiority.
- The Church must centralize the Jesus of scripture and encounter the Resurrected One. This is a human and fleshly Jewish Jesus. Jesus of Scripture (who is synonymous with the Real Living Jesus that we can encounter and follow) moves on the margins, making those spaces the Main Stage of God’s mission. This Jesus must be followed. What is interesting when we encounter this Jesus, is that he opposes the option of both the Imperial Figure & the Dominating Figure for his followers. Check Luke 13:31-35, Jesus is on the move among the broken and oppressed but Herod wants to kill him. Jesus prophetically unveils Herod’s mythic foundation as a ruling figure to be respected, by naming his problematic praxis. He calls him a “Fox”! Let’s be clear, in Jewish tradition and Jesus’ usage there, it is clear that Jesus is not complimenting him for being smart, but rather that he is in actuality small, deceptive, and a predator. Likewise, when Jesus’ own disciples aspire for greatness, like that of Roman rulers, Jesus cuts that mimetic desire off as an option and says “not so” for you. He explains that the Gentiles dominate and “lord over them”, but his followers instead are called to be servants in the way he himself has served the least and the last of society. In following Jesus and centralizing him in the Church, God’s people will find an alternative response to racialization and white supremacy in our society. Right under the nose of our racist society a space is created for “Beloved Community” and “Life Together”. And from that solidarity, a prophetic movement that is a light to the dark corners of our world can begin.
But do we have the courage to follow Jesus faithfully in this way, or will “the White Male Figure” remain centralized in our Christian communities and movements. The challenge before us, given our long history of faltering, is great, but our God is able!
Most people know that I have been shaped deeply by two Christian traditions and allow those streams to intersect (harmoniously at times, while other times with a bit of tension) in a dialogically manner. Those traditions are Anabaptism and Black Church theology. The reason for this engagement mostly comes from the reality that those two traditions are serious attempts at recovering a more faithful Christian witness in the world because the Western Christian witness, in a variety of different manifestations, has been implicated in a centuries long violent and oppressive civil religious mechanism, doing the ideological work of its empire. Given that Black theology and Anabaptism emerge from communities that directly and drastically suffered from the unJesus-like mode of being of Western Christendom, they are best suited to disrobe empire from Jesus and return us to ‘the way’.
There is an early Christian document, way before Constantinian Christendom took root, called ‘The Didache’. Upon a closer reading, I noticed that this early Christian writing had theological and ethical elements within it that are characteristic of both Anabaptism and Black Theology. As you will see, the first passage is the actual opening of the document. It basically is a rehearsing of Jesus’ ‘Sermon on the Mount’, which has always functioned as a hermeneutical key for Anabaptist scripture reading as well concrete expectations that God’s Church would live and be shaped by. The second passage comes from chapter 5. It poignantly and prophetically warns against those that would participate in oppressive acts against the vulnerable and turn against the poor in favor of the rich. If that isn’t an Anabaptist and Black theology-like challenge, then I don’t know what is. It should be of no surprise though, because ‘The Didache’ is clearly taking Jesus’ life and sayings seriously, which is a significant source for Anabaptism and Black theology. Be sure to give me some feedback, do you see it too?
(1:1-5) There are two ways, one of life and one of death; and between the two ways there is a great difference. Now, this is the way of life: First, you must love God who made you, and second, your neighbor as yourself. And whatever you want people to refrain from doing to you, and must not do to them. What these maxims teach is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies. Moreover, fast for those who persecute you. For what credit is it to you if you love those who love you? Is that not the way the heathen act? But you must love those who hate you, and then you will make no enemies. Abstain from carnal passions. If someone strikes you on the right cheek turn to him the other too, and you will be perfect. If someone forces you to go one mile with him, go along with him for two; if someone robs you of your overcoat, give him your suit as well. If someone deprives you of your property, do not ask for it back. (You could not get it back anyway!) Give to everybody who begs from you, and ask for no return. For the Father wants his own gifts to be universally shared. Happy is the one who gives as the commandments bids him, for he is guiltless! But alas for the one who receives! If he receives because he is in need, he will be guiltless. But if he is not in need he will have to stand trial why he received and for what purpose. He will be thrown into prison and have his action investigated; and he will not get out until he has paid back the last cent. . .
(5:2) Those who persecute good people, who hate truth, who love lies, who are ignorant of the reward of uprightness, who do not abide by goodness or justice, and are on the alert not for goodness but for evil: gentleness and patience are remote from them. They love vanity, look for profit, have no pity for the poor, do not exert themselves for the oppressed, ignore their Maker, murder children, corrupt God’s image, turn their backs on the needy, oppress the afflicted, defend the rich, unjustly condemn the poor, and are thoroughly wicked. My children, may you be saved from all this!