Mark Van Steenwyk, The UNkingdom of God (2013)
If we rendered unto God all the things that belong to God, there would be nothing left for Caesar.
Dorothy Day, on Mark 12:13-17
Yesterday afternoon, after the rare Southern California rain subsided, I went for a run down to Doheny Beach, formerly known as Killer Dana (before the Powers-that-be constructed a jetty for a recreational harbor back in the 60s). During my 30 minute sweat, I encountered two sets of couples, that I think offer a parable for two juxtaposed brands of Christianity on offer in USAmerica today. First, a man and woman in their 20s, perfect stride & all geared out in lycra, came flying by me on the street, talking about the New York City Marathon in conversational English. Sleek, strong, sexy and virile, they represent mainstream Catholic and Evangelical offerings that cater to middle-class respectability and pious spirituality. They follow a Jesus who saves souls, but has little to say about socio-political oppression & economic injustice (except perhaps when it comes to confronting sexuality that threatens "traditional" forms).
Moments later, I hoofed past a middle-aged woman in a wheelchair pulling her three-legged dog on a leash. I shit you not, the hairy tripod was on the move! Confined to the sidewalk, yet inspiring to observe, this pair animates the minority report of 21st century Christian America: an anarchist following of the prophetic Jesus, prodded to protest the power, possessions and privilege hoarded by elites and those middle-class folks Howard Zinn famously called "the guards of the System." In his recently released The UNkingdom of God: Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance (2013), Mark Van Steenwyk, armed only with the weapons of vision, virtue & vulnerability, outlines this oft overlooked Way of Empire-subverting Christianity. For Van Steenwyk, it is more than a portrayal. It is a practice.
A native of Western Minnesota who grew up in the throes of fundamentalist Pentecostalism, Van Steenwyk has been experimenting with this underdog, anti-imperialist faith witness for the past dozen years. He writes about what he has experienced. Citing the likes of Dorothy Day, Dorothee Soelle, Irenaus, Meister Eckhart, virtually unknown 15th century Anabaptists and plenty of others, he seeks to defend his bold claim:
I believe that the dominant form of Christianity, as understood by the majority of Christians throughout the ages, is inherently oppressive and will inevitably lead to empire. There are, of course, expressions of Christianity that resist imperialism. But a Christianity that is willing to use the sword will always nurture empire.This isn't just a post-Occupy-30-something trying to make up a version of Christian faith that jibes with the edgy and organic activism that has made headlines and introduced the language of the 99% into the mainstream. This is real theological work. But even better, it's readable and relatable.
A self-proclaimed gummy bear and karaoke addict, openly admitting his own socially awkward tendencies, Van Steenwyk makes anarchism amenable to everyone from the seminary trained to the single mom. Tackling controversial material that would make Sarah Palin & Billy Graham break out in hives, he makes an awfully compelling case for a non-hierarchical, non-imperial Christian faith "from below."
A real strength of UNkingdom is how Van Steenwyk turns Christian community into a laboratory, experimenting with simple-yet-demanding practices that lend the label "radical." This historic strand of prophetic faith confronts empire around every corner, yet healing from racism, nationalism, sexism, heteronormativity and the destructive effects of free market fundamentalism doesn't just happen. In a chapter title "Encountering A Feral God," he provides three actions that anyone can participate in:
(1) Experimenting with God: challenging us to read the Gospels seriously, calling out justifications we make and demanding actions steps that mirror the life of JesusVan Steenwyk opens up readers to reject the quest for certainty and to embrace an authentic faith that emphasizes the mystery of God and the value of humility and simplicity in our quest to intimately experience this wild Transcendence.
(2) Embracing our creatureliness: we are part of Creation and we take inventory of our relationship with food, "honoring the whole process from soil to kitchen to plate to stomach
(3) Silence: emptying our mind of all the ideas we have about God and everything else so that we can listen to what is Real
Van Steenwyk is at his best, though, when he puts Western Christianity on trial.
Why is it that when critics point out the ugly story of Christian dominion, so many Christians argue that those example aren't real Christianity? That when self-described Christians commit genocide, oppress the poor, subjugate women or simply act wickedly, they aren't real Christians; their actions have nothing to do with their alleged faith. And so, successive generations of Christians can avoid responsibility. We can distance ourselves from the sins of the past without having to examine whether or not the same genocidal/racist/sexist/classist tendencies are embedded within the fabric of our own Christianity.And he goes deep, diagnosing American Christianity as a mass movement of shame-avoiders. This denial is a pre-requisite for those following an American Dream. But, for those baptized into the UNkingdom of God, shame is the vital building block of a compelling faith in 21st century North America:
Feeling shame is an invitation to repentance. It is a recognition that something is wrong that manifests as self-anger. 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.And this revolution, as Audre Lorde once proclaimed, "is not a one time event." It is both a posture and a set of practices that form the UNkingdom of God to confront the American Dream with its "fruits of imperialism": formal education, wealthy, entrepreneurial skills, etc.
In the end, Van Steenwyk's incisive work has cred, not only because it is backed by biblical scholarship and historic witness, but because he is credibly living into it. His family lives at the Mennonite Worker "house of hospitality" in Minneapolis, creatively displaying the New Life that fellow Christian rebel Clarence Jordan claimed was our ultimate call:
The good news of the resurrection of Jesus is not that we shall die and go home to be with him, but that he has risen and comes home with us, bringing all his hungry, naked, thirsty, sick prisoner brothers with him.Like the three-legged dog of Capistrano Beach, anarchist communities are hurrying and hobbling their way towards Jesus. Mark Van Steenwyk's UNkingdom is a practical primer for so many of us who have become jaded with the sleek, sexy & sanctimonious forms of establishment Christian faith. Truly, this mustard seed Movement, if more accessible to those burned out and burdened by the baggage of their Christian upbringing, will grow into a tree where all of us radicals, mystics, prophets & revolutionaries can come and perch on its branches. Mark Van Steenwyk's UNkingdom is a terrific contribution towards this goal.