Book Review: The Unkingdom of God, by Mark Van Steenwyk, part 2 (chs 1-3)

Before I scoot off to California, I’m reviewing Mark Van Steenwyk’s timely tome, The Unkingdom of God: Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2013). You can read part one of my engagement with this promising new book here. Mark is an editor at JesusRadicals.com, but more importantly (to my mind, at least) he is a cofounder of the Mennonite Worker community in Minneapolis, MN.

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In my last post engaging this book, I dealt with the Introduction, Waking from the American Dream. I suggested that this phrase was quite apropos for describing what is happening to a generation of younger Christians who are coming to embrace the radical gospel of Jesus on its own terms. In that introduction, Mark described his early attempts to follow Jesus faithfully, and how the church he attended mistook nascent discipleship for demon possession. Because he dared to take seriously Jesus’ invitation to the church to engage the world nonviolently, church leaders attempted to exorcise him of “the spirit of poverty” and “the spirit of rebellion.” At the end of his introduction, Van Steenwyk asks, “What was it that was cast out of me that day? And what was put in its place?” (19) The first three chapters of Unkingdom of God name “what was put in its place”: The Gospel According to the Empire (ch. 1); The Powers (ch. 2); and The Gospel of Plastic Jesus (ch. 3).

Chapter 1, “The Gospel According to the Empire,” begins with a fascinating illustration. Van Steenwyk found himself one day working as an evangelist at a carnival. He was supposed to ask people who came to his salvation booth two questions. First, Do you think you’re going to heaven when you die?; second, Why? If people didn’t give the “right” answer to the second question (because Jesus died to pay the price for my sins), then he was supposed to unload the gospel on them. If they accepted with a sinner’s prayer, he was supposed to mark them off as another soul won for Jesus. One of the visitors to his booth that day was the winner of a local beauty pageant. Van Steenwyk (then newly-engaged) reports that he spent most of the time trying not to stare at this girl’s breasts. “I was overcome with a strange ambivalent feeling of embarrassment, arousal, shame, and piety,” he recalls. “I was feeling shame largely because I was feeling arousal and piety at the same time . . . Here I was, newly engaged and trying to lead people to Jesus, and I was exercising nearly superhuman will to keep my eyes focused on her face.” (23)

Van Steenwyk relates how, miraculously, the girl accepted Christ as her personal Lord and Savior even though he was definitely an imperfect vessel in the moment. However, she soon returned with all the other beauty pageant contestants, and he was left to replay this same strange event–evangelizing while aroused–over and over again. I imagine it was a surreal experience. Van Steenwyk’s story of blended arousal and piety serves as a cogent metaphor for the Gospel According to the Empire–what happens when the church co-opts the standards of “making it” from the kingdoms of the world. This is the lesson he took from the event:

I never saw any of them again. The only record of my relationship with them was kept in my little evangelism notebook, which I was asked to keep, recording a tally of souls saved . . . [T]he experience left me feeling confused and a little ashamed. They were little more than numbers to me that day. I objectified them all–not just the young women who left me feeling impious. Is there any great difference between a young man who keeps a tally on his bedpost and one who keeps a tally in his Bible cover? Both render something deeply intimate into a transaction. Both turn people into numbers. Both turn people into objects of conquest. (24, emphasis mine)

Throughout the chapter, our author relates in survey form how the church moved away from its primitive roots as a counter-empire, or un-kingdom, to wield its own brand of imperial power. In so doing, we have intermingled evangelism with conquest and personal gain (think of the Crusades and the settling of America). The church has been as Van Steenwyk was that day in the salvation booth at the county fair: a confused people in the grip of both piety and arousal. Van Steenwyk observes that: “When the saving of souls is of ultimate value, it can become easy for other values to be pushed aside . . . And historically Christians have shown an ability to care for people’s souls while dismissing their bodies, their land, and their dignity.” (24) The obvious problem here is that God wants to save the whole person. As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, may your spirit, soul, and body be kept intact and blameless at our Lord Jesus Christ’s coming (1 Thes. 5.23). As the imperial ethos has experienced another permutation in the church, as the American Dream, we see this same attitude in the emphasis on “soul-winning.” There is not a great deal of difference here between the “soul winning” impulse and the mass baptisms of imperial Crusades and colonial conquests. In answer to the question of what was placed in Van Steenwyk when his discipleship was “exorcised” from him, it was this: “the animating force of the American dream. God loved me, and had a wonderful, America-shaped plan for my life. The Bible was a guidebook for good, clean living” (18-19).

Of course, there will be many who remain unconvinced of American imperial designs. After all, we are not Rome; we have no Caesar. But Van Steenwyk cuts through those objections: American imperialism takes the shape of a neoliberal, globalized economy. To the extent that the church cozies up to this design, we are complicit in imperialism. Writes Van Steenwyk:

Our proximity to power and affluence gives us a strange perspective from which to read the gospel. The logic of empire is the expeditious, organized pursuit of security, prosperity, and control; and the best way to ensure these things is through domination. Our entire way of life depends upon this pursuit. Yet it is contrary to the life and teachings of Jesus, who foreswore security as he walked among the marginalized and challenged the civil and religious authorities; who offered people freedom and confronted those who sought to control others; who upheld and loved the weak rather than dominating them. We find ourselves trying to justify our way of life while worshiping the One who challenges our way of life. (28)

The end result is that, lamentably, the evangelistic vocation of the church has been corrupted. Instead of offering the liberating gospel of Jesus, too often we have used evangelism as a tool for cultural conquest and a mechanism of captivity. Thus:

[W]hen we speak of “evangelism” today, we are likely speaking of an imperial evangelism. Evangelism (and its well-traveled brother “missions”) has been a vehicle for imperialism . . . Even the most “contextual” of ministries will often carry imperialistic thinking . . . [M]ost Christians I know aren’t willing or able to challenge their embedded cultural context or examine their own power. It is acceptable to talk about cultural relevance in ministry, but seldom do we speak with honesty of cultural power. (39)

The key take away quotes from this chapter–ones that might lead us to wrestle with how our accounts of the Christian gospel have lost integrity due to an embedded imperial ethos–are as follows:

[A] Christianity that is willing to use the sword will always nurture empire. (27)

Look at the labels of your shirt and ask, “Would I be willing to live like the man, woman, or child who sewed this shirt?” (32)

Once notions of Jesus’ care for the marginalized and his insistence on enemy-love are swept aside, it becomes easier to imagine a world in which the church and empire work in tandem to suppress non-Christian peoples in order to (1) assert the sovereignty of Christ over false gods and (2) establish Christian civilization over pagan tribes. (35)*

If you think about it, there is a sort of warped logic to imperial evangelism. If the gospel of Jesus is: “repent for the kingdom is near” then the gospel of empire is, “repent for the empire is at your borders.” We have replaced a gospel of liberation for one of enslavement. We have substituted the gifts of the Spirit for consumer capitalism, and mutual submission for free-market democracy. (41)

In chapter two, “The Powers,” Van Steenwyk returns to the grand metaphor he built in his introduction: how church leaders tried to exorcise his discipleship. “Ours is a faith that has largely worked in opposition to its object. Christendom has, in its imperial journey, cast out much of its anti-imperial core like demons.” “Empire has injected its DNA into Christianity . . . It is nearly impossible to understand how deep the injection goes.” (43)

In this chapter, Van Steenwyk is walking on ground already well-trodden by the likes of John Howard Yoder and especially Walter Wink. Hopefully, Van Steenwyk’s work will be able to get this message out to even more of the church at large, so that we can better internalize it. Drawing on Paul’s language about powers and principalities as enemies of the gospel from Colossians 1-2, Van Steenwyk rightly notes that the term applies not only to demonic forces at play, but to human social structures that “manage” humanity. Empires and governments are powers just as surely as Satan is. The powers thrive on abstraction, i.e., “when we talk about the idea of people, not the concrete reality that is the person in front of you . . . We can get wrapped up in beliefs and ideas and somehow remain aloof from the things those beliefs and ideas point toward. We can care about poverty but not the poor woman on the corner. We can care about the idea of love but leave it fundamentally unexpressed” (44-45). These powers become rebellious when the move from serving humanity–for instance, by allowing for both critical distance and social cohesion–to becoming ends of themselves. We become captivated by them, and because they end in abstractions, they legitimize our captivity. “The powers and principalities work to keep us separated from one another . . . The only way to get otherwise good people to accept a world of war and exploitation and greed is for them to stay stuck in an abstracted way of thinking where such things are simply ‘the way things are’” (45).

“An empire,” writes Van Steenwyk, “is a nexus of principalities and powers–a center of massive spiritual collusion” (47). Furthermore–and this is important–an empire, as a collusion of powers and principalities, is animated by its myths. These myths are “the unseen structures by which we navigate our lives . . . And if the myths of our society are in service to the powers, then we find ourselves in a difficult situation” (50). Indeed, even if we seek to break free from the powers, and reach out to others as concrete people rather than abstractions, the myths that feed into the powers may well frustrate and distort our outreach. “Usually, when someone musters the mojo to do something,” our author observes, “they use the systems already in place to address injustice, assuming that they offer the only way to remedy the world’s problems . . . [T[hey accept the system as it is on its own terms" (49). Thus we may observe American Christians who are deeply moved by the plight of actual poor people, but they may assume that the only way there is to address the inequity is the invisible hand of the free market. As one of my favorite old alternative groups, Fishbone, sang in their song "Unyielding Conditioning": "We've all been claimed by our worlds."

And so here we are--the power that is empire is a flexible creature. It knows how to absorb and assimilate to survive. And it has absorbed and assimilated the church. It has taken the church into itself, and the church has taken the empire into herself. What to do? Our author suggests that one option is to renounce Christ and the church. One can renounce Christ and embrace the empire--or one can renounce Christ and wage war against both church and empire. There is a second option that our author suspects many Christians take: willing apathy. "You can set aside Christianity as a clean ideal that helps you cope." Or you can take a third option: "simply believe that it is enough to be 'aware' . . . and take comfort in knowing that you are one of the few Christians who really 'get it.'" I suspect that this is probably the most popular route for liberal or progressive Christians. There is a fourth option, as well: renounce imperial Christianity and follow Jesus. Van Steenwyk offers that this is "the least popular and most messy" option (54-55). That's the stuff of repentance.

But in order to embrace this first option, we Christians must divest ourselves of our share in what Van Steenwyk refers to as "Plastic Jesus" (chapter 3). This is the sentimentalized Jesus that can be molded to fit the ideal of any empire. The American consumerist, like any good imperial citizen, balks at the real Jesus:

We don't need lunatic Jesus turning over the tables of the money changers. We don't need judgmental Jesus who wilts fig trees. We don't need reckless Jesus who hangs out with unsavory people. No. Jesus exists for our fulfillment. He loves us and has a wonderful plan for our lives. And I already have an idea about what that wonderful plan is. He can help me with it if he likes . . . Instead of knocking over the tables of the money changers, Jesus is yet another product at their table. He becomes a trinket. He exists to make me happy. In other words, he is yet another tool that I can use to secure the American dream. (61-63)

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Deluxe Miracle Jesus ™

It may be that the American empire has done the best job of all during the last 50 years or so at forming a safe Jesus in their own image. How so? Because once upon a time, following the real Jesus–not the empire’s Jesus–meant that you had to be courageous most of all. Nowadays, we are more likely to buy into the imperial Jesus not because we are too chicken, but because we are too comfortable.

*This justification is of course, responsible for forced conversions in the Roman empire; the Crusades; and for the genocide of indigenous peoples during the colonial era. The empire was able to seize upon the Canaanite genocide tradition of Deuteronomy and Judges to produce theological justification for those practices. This is all the more lamentable, since the missional vocation of the church is based on Matt. 28.16-20–a text which  subverts the Canaanite conquest tradition. See Kenton Sparks, “Gospel as conquest: Mosaic typology in Matthew 28:16-20.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68 (2006): 651-63.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Unkingdom of God, by Mark Van Steenwyk, part 2 (chs 1-3)

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Unkingdom of God, by Mark Van Steenwyk, pt 3 (chs 4-6) | neoprimitive

  2. Pingback: Book Review: The Unkingdom of God, by Mark Van Steenwyk, pt 4 (chs 7-9) | neoprimitive

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