Friday, July 13, 2012

Unkingdoms and "conversations that are neither polite nor free from confusion" (book review, "That Holy Anarchist")

Don't let the apparent oxymoron of "Christiian anarchist" scare you off; or cause you to call the heresy police on me (They already have my number).

Mark Van Steenwyck, author of  

"That Holy Anarchist: Reflections on Christianity & Anarchism,"  has struggled with just what to call the nexus:

Language will always fail to describe the strange relationship between the Way of Jesus and anarchistic political imoulkses.  There are some real downsides to identifying as a "christian anarchist.."  The stress naturally falls on one of the two words as though they are two separate things mashed together, unreconcilable into any cohesive whole.
I've toyed with alternative language...Even my own affinity for a phrase like "the unkingdom of God" is ofetn too confusing to be helpful in polite conversation. --p. 65

He adds a hilarious and too true footnote to that last line that is worth the price of the book I am about to review:

"I recognize that the best conversations are neither polite nor free from confusion."

On that note, let's move directly into my (im)polite and (inevitably)confusing review of the book.

In two words:

Highly recommended.

And for a a few more words (mostly his, with my comments), read on.
My approach will be  proceeding chapter by chapter, letting you in on some of my (literal) highlights, some of the author's  one-liners that are amazingly articulate.............. and how this all has got me thinking and wrestling.

To your surprise, I am not going to answer the obvious question that has already tripped you up: How does he define "Christianity" and "anarchism?"  I want you to buy the book, especially to see the section where he  so masterfully does (or doesn't?)      But start here, as it may in essence answer the tenor of both questions......... let it soak in:

Bottom line:

Christo-anarchism refers not only to the insight that Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God has anarchic (anti-domination) implications, but also the assumption that, only by nurturing practices centered on the presence of the Living Christ, can we move from domination to non-domination, from death to life, from oppression to liberation, and from alienation to love. p, 65

Chapter 1:   Jesus and the Unkingdom of God

The author admits he is not completely happy with the "Unking" and "Unkingdom" terns he has coined.  But I can't not incorporate them into my  teaching/preaching/St. Arbuck's repertoire (as I have with Tom Fuller's  "kingdomed"), as this  gets to the heart of the book, and to Jesus shape of subversion.  It may even be an attempt to push Donald Kraybill's "upside down Kingdom" beyond downside up./

A quote that is hugely helpful to those of us who love to talk about "subversion of empire;"
a quote that I would have given anything for LO Society's  Bob Lyon to live ling enough to  add his "amen" to; a quote that reminds us how careful and prayerful we are called to be, as we practice. the praxis of subversion:

Jesus reign isn't other-worldy.  It isn't apolitical.  It's just political in a  radivally different sort of way. Rather than  taking Caesar's throne  (or any throne, including the one Satan offered him) Jesus is saying that Caesar's days are numbered.  By saying "My kingdom is not from this world" he isn't saying  "My kingdom is only spiritual. so you don't have to worry.  Jesus' Kingship renders Caesar's obsolete.  It isn't a mere "trumping" as though Jesus is simply greater than Caesar; it is an entirely different sort of kingship.  (pp12-13)
We must ask "sort," kind," "form,"  "shape"  questions a whole lot more.
I fear we don't at all.

Van Steenwyk notes that early Christians were called (at least by Tacitus
"haters of humanity" for their  subversion.
Do I need to even ask why (a very different SORT of reason) we are called  "haters of humanity" in our day, and in my country?


Chapter Two: Definitions

See my earlier thoughts. But it's worth noting that "Christianity is even harder to define than anarchism." (p. 19)  and that "'anarchism' is the name given to the principle under whicha collectivity-a group of people-may be conceived without rule."  The "collectivity" language is nice, and may be another nod to Kraybill.

Chapter Three: Anarchic Impulses in Christian History

This chapter is a fascinating, concise  history  of  anarchic Christianity..  This exhaustive work has never been compiled before, let alone  presented in such a succinct summary. You will meet some  movements  you  have never heard of, but should've.

But here is an observation (p. 30) that floored me:

  "Most radical Christian groups either die out or go mainstream."

 God help us.

"We should try to learn from those groups that still exist but haven't mainstreamed.,  They may hold the key to sustainable nonconformity."

Sustainable nonconformity? 
Another phrase  worth far more than price of the book.
Question:  why doesn't that phrase compete for Christian book titles and buzzwords...compete with "purpose driven" and "12 easy steps" and "how to.."

Don't answer that.
Instead move to this provocative quote from Ched Myers.

Chapter Four: Anarchic Impulses in Christian History:

The “Fall” in Gen 1-11, then, is not so much a cosmic moment of moral failure as a
progressive “history” of decline into civilization—exactly contrary to the myth of
Progress. Its polemical perspective is plausible when correlated with various
aspects of the Neolithic “rupture” hypotheses noted above. The biblical primeval
history thus should be considered not only as “mythic memory,” but also as
perhaps the first literature of resistance to the grand project of civilization—rightly
warning against its social pathologies and ecocidal consequences.  -p. 35 in the book, and context  of Myers' article at this link

Or Vam Steenwyck's observation (following  Kraybill's taxomomy) that "In the wilderness, [Jesus} is tempted politically, economically.." (p. 39

And what is the temptation toward?

" assert his messiah-ship"  (p. 39)

Hey, wait! This is precisely what Western evangelicals need Jesus (and Scripture) to do.

But Jesus doesn't only not do it..

....but in a sense, doesn't even do it indirectly... even that would be caving into demonic temptation.

If that tripped you up "impolitely," read it again...and then read some NT Wright and get over it. (:

Yes, I believe with all my heart and faith that Jesus is Messiah.
It's clear that Van Steenwyck does, too.
But until we see that how/if he "asserted" that is a major issue, we haven't even started the important conversation: 

 "The temptation concerns  the sort of reign Jesus should we pursue."

What sort of reign and kingdom /churchdoms) do we pursue?

Do ever even think to think about asking that question?
Add it to your list, along with this one, for another random (?) example.

And don't get me started on the author's quote of Ellul's  (p. 44) regarding the
"intrinsic nonlegitimacy of institutions " (No, Ellul's one liners are never misunderstood as heresy(:  See this)

Oh, I have mentioned soundbites worth the price of the book.
The book is priceless for the insight on Jesus inaugural sermon in Luke 4.

I have long noted how "when quoting Isaiah 61, he omits that portion whuch speaks of the Lord's vengeance."  (p. 40)

That's radical and subversive enough.

But the observation  (in a footnote, no less...where many bombs are hidden): "the context makes this clear: The miracles Jesus references in his sermon involve the healing of Gentiles" (emphasis mine)

"Provocatively, Jesus seems willing to include oppressors in the kingdom."

That's why Kingdom is not just upside down, but UnKingdom.

Do I include oppressors in my kingdom?
If not, what am i doing with a kingdom anyway? Time to "undo" it.

Chapter Five: Tensions

 The evangelical approach of preaching the opposite of a counterfeit is...counterintuitively.. not the right strategy:

I don’t believe that it makes any sense to say “God is such a big King that he obliterates all other kings…therefore, I’m an anarchist.” Rather, I would say “The way in which God sustains and shapes existence…and calls us to be in deeper relationship is the opposite of how Kings function…therefore, I am an anarchist.” To quote the late Dorothee Soelle:
Obedience presupposes duality: one who speaks and one who listens; one who knows and one who is ignorant; a ruler and ruled ones. Religious groups who broke away from the spirit of dependency and obedience cherish different values such as mutuality and interdependence…The main virtue of an authoritarian religion is obedience…God’s love and righteousness are less important than God’s power…why do people worship a God whose supreme quality is power, not justice; whose interest lies in subjection, not in mutuality; who fears equality?” 1
Jesus is an unking. I worship the one who calls me friend. But I don’t think it would be accurate to say that I “obey” him in the way that servants obey masters. That is just a first step–a metaphor. Just as most green anarchists believe they should respect, cherish, and affirm nature, I am called to worship and love the source of life. Semantics? Not to me.  (p. 33)

Even in the context of trying to offer an apologetic for Christian anarchy, "The temptation is to try to force it" (p. 58.
It always is.
And it never works.

Or it does work, and that's the problem.

Could be that "trying to force it": is  a testation, and the core one, at that.
Chapter 6: The UnKingdom of God is Here:

Perhaps the highlight of the entire book for me was his suggested (not blueprinted or formulaic) practices.   They must be read slowly, and considered.   If we really catch that "to be mystics is to experience reality" (68),   we are ready to engage.
By the time you are done with this book, the author hopes you will sense

..a  shift away from seeing Christian Anarchism as a set of beliefs and ideals, as well as a shift away from seeing it as a category or a faction. Rather, I want to see it as a way of interpreting and a set of practices first and foremost. Certainly, likeminded communities are bound to network and organize around common ideals and convictions. This is important and good. But in that networking and organizing, I believe our focus should be on engaging the Living Christ.As a friend of mine once told me: “All we have to offer the world is the Presence of God.” I agree. And I believe that Presence tears down walls of alienation. And that is, in so many important ways, an anarchist project.


So buy the book.

Even though an early version of it is online.

                    Even though the  first four chapters are  embedded below

                                                 Buy it, at full price, precisely because, as you will find on page 3..

                                                                   "This book is not copyrighted."


How Christlike...and that?

That Holy Anarchist

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