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 parts one and two of my engagement with this promising new book here and 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.
In the Introduction and first three chapters of The Unkingdom of God, Mark Van Steenwyk describes a phenomenon that grossly perverts the witness of the church–particularly the American church. In Van Steenwyk’s case, it involved church leaders literally staging an exorcism to cast out “the spirit of poverty” and “the spirit of rebellion” from him because he suggested that Christians take Jesus’ call for peace-making and mercy seriously. Having cast out these pernicious demons, what did these Christian leaders replace them with? An imperial gospel that encourages conquest and domination. A gospel captivated by the powers and principalities of the market and military prowess. A tame Jesus who wants nothing other for us to be happy, healthy, and better yet, wealthy.
The church had cast out the spirit of discipleship, and replaced it with the American Dream.
Van Steenwyk’s experience echoes that of many Christians. Our churches may not conduct literal exorcisms, as his did; but a good many have effective social controls in place to marginalize those who question why the gospel of authentic discipleship has been rejected in favor of a robust, conformist Americanism.
Faced with such a crisis, Van Steenwyk suggests that there remains a viable option for Christians who want to simply follow Jesus: “repent of this thing we call Christianity and seek to follow Jesus.” To clarify what he means by such a suggestion, he adds:
I am in no way advocating something as simplistic as becoming “spiritual but not religious” . . . There is danger in that of becoming a denomination of one . . . I’m advocating a much deeper sort of repentance–one that requires deep honesty . . . I’m not advocating that we walk away from the church and “go it alone.” Rather, I believe the church needs to repent of Christianity. We must confess our sins together–to name our complicity in systems of oppression. And we need to move forward into wholeness and healing together. (55)
Now, I am by both nature and nurture something of a cynic and a skeptic. I see the validity of Van Steenwyk’s challenge. He is remarkably right about the church’s need for corporate repentance for our participation in systems of oppression. I am afraid, however, that American Christianity, by and large, will fail to be convicted by such an invitation. Part of this is our liberal assumptions that lead us to believe that we are not, in fact, connected to an ongoing story–that we come into the world indebted to the past and with a debt to pay forward to future generations. We tend to believe, moreover, that had we been there, we would not have drowned Anabaptists, massacred Native Americans, or justified chattel slavery with Bible verses. Unfortunately, American Christianity often wants to cry out with the Pharisees of old, If we had lived in our ancestors’ days, we wouldn’t have joined them in killing the prophets. We do not pause to hear Jesus’ convicting response to those who make that claim: You testify against yourselves that you are children of those who murdered the prophets (Matt. 23.30-31). Van Steenwyk recognizes that this mindset obtains in much of American Christianity. Even so, I suppose that being a disciple at all requires hope in the near impossible.
Chapters 4-6 of this book are addressed to those who have ears to hear the invitation that the church would repent of Christianity in order to follow Jesus. Repenting of Christianity isn’t abandoning the church–it is the church rebuilding on the rock rather than the sand (cf. Matt. 7.24-27). Van Steenwyk begins, in these chapters, to present a constructive anarchist vision for such a rebuilding–there is no nihilism here. If we return to the illustrative tale from the book’s Introduction–where Van Steenwyk had his discipleship cast out like demons, and had it replaced with an Americanized gospel–as a metaphor for what has happened in the church, what Van Steenwyk is proposing is how we do the inverse: chase the American Dream from our churches like money changers from a temple, and replace it with a robust, untamed discipleship.
In chapter 4, “Repenting of Christianity,” our author recounts the time he formally renounced Christ. In his late teens, stuck in a dead-end job, living in a housing project with his dying mother, Van Steenwyk felt absolutely God-forsaken. He went to his room one evening and stared at the ceiling, uttering all sorts of blasphemy. “If God had forsaken me,” he recalls thinking at the time, “I would forsake God.” After an hour of “unprayer,” Van Steenwyk fell silent. But no catharsis had been achieved. Our author then recounts a mystical experience in the wake of his rejection of God:
I felt the presence of Christ. It wasn’t accompanied by joy . . . Christ had come to commiserate. In those moments, I knew he felt as I felt. He seemed as fed up, as angry, as depressed. He was with me in the midst of my grey season . . . Jesus said, “Let it all go. Forsake it all. But you can’t forsake me, because I haven’t abandoned you. You can reject everything–the church, your theology, everything, but I’m still here” . . . My life continued on in the same sad way, but something small had shifted . . . By forsaking Christ, I had found Christ. Or to be more precise, he found me . . . That day, when I yelled at the ceiling in defiance, was the first time it had ever occurred to me that the Christ in my imagination might bear little to no resemblance to the living Christ. This was–and still is–an unsettling notion. But I have become comfortable with being unsettled. That is, I believe, the nature of faith. (67-69)
For Van Steenwyk, repenting of Christianity means being something of an iconoclast. It means tearing down idols of our own making that keep us distant from God and Christ–and other people. It even involves a revolution in the language we use to describe our experience of God. For instance, how often have we viewed ourselves as clinging to God? Yet Van Steenwyk helpfully points out that even this comforting speech can frustrate our communion:
God is found in the letting go of God. We cannot cling to God. Rather, we find that God clings to us. In our clinging, we continue to insist that God exist in a particular way and do particular things. This makes God our slave and, as a result, we remain enslaved to our God-thoughts. (69)
Of course, there will be those who protest, “Well, why do we need to repent of Christianity? Why can’t we just repent from bad Christianity?” Van Steenwyk smartly replies that historic Christianity, so often enmeshed in cultural narratives of violence, dominance, and suppression, is the only experience of the church the world at large has had. Repenting of Christianity doesn’t mean abandoning Christ or the church; it means putting a compromised and confused construct that has more often separated people from God to bed. Christianity, Van Steenwyk rightly reminds us, is an embodied religion. There is no disembodied platonic ideal of Christianity out there somewhere. “And so,” he writes, “we find ourselves with a dilemma”:
Most of us can point to a loving ideal–a disembodied utopia of Christianity–but for most people throughout history Christianity has been complicit in bringing injustice . . . Jesus has become a tool of empire . . . Whether we like it or not, even radical Christian stories have been appropriated into the mythologies of Western civilization. We live in a society where the largest military machine in the world can erect a monument to Dr. King. We live in a world where a president can name Jesus Christ as his favorite philosopher and, shortly thereafter, launch two wars. (72)
In short, what if clinging to Christianity means that the church loses its ability to witness to Christ? Van Steenwyk poses just such a question in this chapter: “Are we willing to forsake our image of Christ to become like Christ? Are we willing to repent of our Christianity to be the love of Christ in our world?” (80). Perhaps the reader will vehemently disagree with these options; maybe there is a Christianity that faithfully witnesses Christ. But before you poo poo the question, I would at least beg you to be honest about the history of Christianity. Such honesty about our history is at the heart of what Van Steenwyk names “repenting of Christianity”:
Repentance isn’t dwelling on shame. It is working through the shame. By confessing the truth while rejecting lies we can begin to see a way forward . . . When we work through shame it becomes revolutionary . . . If we can open up space to examine that shame, talk about that shame and confess that shame, we are on the path of repentance. And when we collectively repent as our response to collective shame, we are on the path to revolution. (75)
I tend to believe that a major reason we are hesitant to repent of our Christianity–to collectively work through the shame of our history–is that we frankly do not know what it will be replaced with. We do not know how we will experience God if God is not mediated to us through familiar and comfortable channels. It is to this matter that Van Steenwyk turns in chapter 5, “On the mysticism of children.” It may very well be that Christianity has rendered for us a Jesus who is so tamed, so silenced, so attuned to the status quo, that he might as well be dead. Van Steenwyk would have us live out our repentance by embracing Jesus–the Jesus who announced to him the night he was ready to turn his back on God that he was not forsaken; the Jesus he experienced “as fed up, as angry, as depressed” as he was–who is alive in our hearts. “If I claim that Jesus lives, then he must live in me,” writes Van Steenwyk. He continues:
We can condemn the brokenness in the world around us. We can long for a new world–one full and complete and happy. But if the seed of that new world is not in us–is not in me?–what hope do we have? Jesus is dead if he is not alive in our hearts. (83)
Our author uses the often-sentimentalized Matt. 18.3 to ground this chapter: Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. For Van Steenwyk, this passage has everything to do with how we perceive our world: children, he observes, “make strange, unexpected connections between words and ideas” (83). As we grow up, social convention tends to formalize our associations in normative ways. Our author recognizes that this is not necessarily a negative outcome. “Children need to learn how to navigate the world in ways that keep them safe, respectful to other people, and patient in the face of challenges.” But Van Steenwyk also rightfully observes that there is a downside to much that is done in the name of socialization:
Not all of our social conventions are wise or true. As we grow our . . . aesthetics aren’t the only things that get shaped by our society. What was once an imaginative possibility becomes an impossibility. This is . . . disastrous when we disregard . . . childish notions: like the belief that everyone should be able to live in a home or the belief that coins are just shiny toys or that the boundaries drawn on maps are just pretend . . . When Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it,” he is likely talking about the need for disciples to embrace the vulnerable posture of children . . . But I often wonder if, perhaps, Jesus also understood that the naive, innocent minds of children are uniquely able to believe in divine impossibilities like the kingdom of God. (84, 86)
And what does it look like for us to be able to recapture “naive, innocent minds . . . uniquely able to believe in divine impossibilities?” Van Steenwyk recounts an instance where his young son tossed a coin into a wishing well. The boy’s wish? “That Jesus could be alive.” Van Steenwyk reminded his son that Jesus is alive. His son replied: “Jesus is dead in the buildings and in the cities and in the outside. But he is alive in our hearts” (83). Later, when he asked his son what he meant by that, the boy told him, “Jesus is everywhere, but he is alive in our hearts.”
“But earlier you said he was dead in the cities and buildings and in the outside!” I retorted.
He replied, “He is dead in those places because Herod tried to kill him and bad people killed him and put him on a cross.” (82-83, 90)
The kid saw something true. As Van Steenwyk reminds us, “In every moment, in every place, it is possible to encounter God–to see the world made new, to name the truth and push back lies. But it is also true that there are places and moments of de-creation–where death begins” (90). In the world of men like Herod and Pilate–in the Pentagon and on Wall Street, in homes where children are abused, whenever a woman is violated–we find places where Jesus is dead, at least to the perpetrators of evil. It is up to those of us whose lives have been claimed and whose worlds have been made new by the living Jesus to speak and live the truth that Jesus is alive. In a world that houses death and de-creation and names them as truth, the church exists to proclaim the divine impossibility that is the kingdom of God.
It turns out, however, that one of the key reasons that the kingdom of God is one of those divine impossibilities is that it does not conform to human conventions of kingship. This is what chapter 6, “Jesus and the Unkingdom,” is all about. Van Steenwyk observes that, “Christ’s kingship is inconsistent with the traditional structures of power; and for this reason Jesus tells Pilate that “My Kingdom is not from this world” (John 18:36). How unfortunate that this verse is yet another part of our story that has been co-opted by the powerful to justify their violence. Van Steenwyk smartly recounts the dominant popular interpretation of that passage: “Jesus rules some magical sky-kingdom, while princes and emperors can dominate flesh and land” (93). But to so interpret this verse is to commit an anachronism:
[W]hen Jesus said his kingdom wasn’t of this world, he wasn’t understood by Pilate or by the Jews or by his earliest followers as talking about the afterlife or some abstracted spiritual truth. Based upon the lethal response to Jesus . . . the “kingdom of God’ was understood as a challenge to Caesar and his reign. Their two kingdoms clashed.
The kingdom of God that Jesus announced and embodied is what life would be like on earth, here and now, if God were king and the rulers of this world were not . . . The social, economic, and religious subversions of such an unreign are almost endless–peacemaking instead of warmaking, liberation not exploitation, sacrifice rather than subjugation, mercy not vengeance, care for the vulnerable instead of privileges for the powerful, generosity instead of greed, embrace rather than exclusion. (95)
Granted, there are passages in our Bible that could be used to suggest that a reign of God would mean war, subjection, vengeance, and exclusion. But what is determinative for Van Steenwyk–and I would suggest should determine any account of the kingdom of God–is the qualifier “kingdom of God that Jesus announced and embodied.” There is no room there for violence, subjugation, and exclusion. The unkingdom that Jesus brought us is “an authority to end authority. His power is a subversive power that . . . tears down mountains and lifts up valleys” (95).
But in order for us to inhabit this unkingdom we must reclaim the childlike imagination that rightly persists in “the belief that everyone should be able to live in a home or the belief that coins are just shiny toys or that the boundaries drawn on maps are just pretend.” And this may very well mean that we will need to repent of our Christianity, as historically Christianity has been implicated in the displacement of peoples; the service of mammon; and the justification for wars over boundaries–not just the ones on maps, either. The ones that tell us that it is okay not to love others as they ought to be loved.