the UNkingdom of GOD: Embracing The Subversive Power of Repentance by Mark Van Steenwyk – Book Review

(This post was originally posted at http://drewgihart.com/2013/08/28/unkingdombookreview/)

Mark Van Steenwyk has written a thoughtful reflection on the significance of Jesus and his in-breaking Kingdom as an alternative way of being in our society that is marred by evil forces, social structures, death-dealing oppression, and coercive violence. the UNkingdom of God is a subversive and anti-imperial vision for a repentant life concretely following after Jesus, that doesn’t attempt domestication or try to mince words. The book reflects the radicalism of an Anabaptist vision, as well as a liberative and prophetic witness that takes seriously the abandoning of empire while walking humbly in the footsteps and Way of Jesus.

One of the most important things about the UNkingdom of God is the way that he exposes how America and Christianity have merged so profoundly, being so deeply intertwined, that it has merely become an imperial puppet and tool. This is primarily done through personal stories as he retells his own story of being indoctrinated with American Christianity, awaking from it, and then ultimately repenting from it. It is primarily his own lived experience being told, often humorously, that I believe will resonate with many that consider themselves Christian while also a part of the dominant culture. For example he begins in the introduction explaining his infatuation with America and its ‘Dream’, and how he responded when he heard the song “God Bless the USA” as he watched fireworks in the sky. He explains:

At this point, I could no longer sing along. With tears in my eyes and a sob in my throat, I broke down weeping. I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude and pride. I wept as the song played out, and I continued to weep as the fireworks began to fill the night sky. It was like a mystical experience.[1]

Clearly, Mark Van Steenwyk understands what it is like to be enthralled with America and American Christianity. However, he didn’t remain there. The goal of the book is to call people to repentance. And this is the particular strength of this book. I am not sure I have read a book that has so clearly and powerfully called people to repentance in a way that resonates with the way that Jesus did so. We are challenged to repent of our Christianity and how we have been unwilling to experience God because we have him figured out already. He names the issue. It is that “We think we are open to learning the way of Jesus, but our cup is already full of our own ideas.”[2] It is something that we are not conscious of, therefore, we go on engaging scripture and sermons as though we are growing in Christ, when in reality our cups are already full, so everything else just spills out. Steenwyk reminds us that “We need to empty our cups. We need to repent of the myths that crowd our imaginations. We need to repent of our Christianity.”[3] Ultimately, Steenwyk describes that we need to even release and let go of our image and understanding of Jesus before we can truly “be the love of Christ in our world.”[4]

Throughout the UNkingdom of God, we are challenged on a variety of fronts, because our Christianity is so deeply infected with empire. Steenwyk keeps a healthy track of societal power and explores the significance of “the Powers” in Pauline thought. He exposes the “Plastic” and consumeristic Jesus that we adopt in America that fits our sensibilities and values. And in response, we are offered an invitation to encounter Jesus through child-like mysticism and by experiencing an undomesticated feral God. It is a subversive vision that recovers Jesus from being employed by those in power and privilege, while also offering a pathway for all people to follow Jesus and sit at his table. Its communal focus along with all else that I have already mentioned, will certainly inspire a new way being the Church in the midst of imperial America that has often not been imagined given the most prevalent options that prevail in our society.

Yet, there is one thing that I am not convinced is helpful. My problem is not a matter of faithfulness, but rather its contextual implementation. I question the choice of connecting Jesus with anarchism. To be honest, I actually have no personal problem with Mark Van Steenwyk’s proposal of utilizing anarchist thought to understand the subversive reality of God’s Kingdom as like something opposite of worldly empires and domination. So, if that is not a problem, then what is the problem? Well, I guess it is a strategic issue. Anarchism seems to me to be a theory rooted in Eurocentric ideology that is both foreign, unfamiliar, and possibly confusing to many that are on the margins of society in the U.S. Again, it’s not the implications of anarchism that I am questioning, but rather whether anarchism will practically be heard as a term on the margins that is inclusive of the political imaginations of racial minorities in pursuit of liberation. I think there might be other ways of getting at the same issues that are at least a little more rooted in the experience of racial minorities on the margins of American empire. I do think that our identifying linguistic categories matter, and ought to be chosen carefully. For example, postcolonial theory and critical race theory, and empire studies in general, leave space to address those same issues and to define Jesus appropriately as subversive and defiant to the authorities. Let me say one more time, I think Steenwyk is correct in his interpretation of Jesus, and technically, anarchism works fine in helping highlight those realities in Jesus, his Kingdom, and his Church. But from a contextual vantage point, I do question if anarchism is the most helpful term to use, if he desires to walk in solidarity with racial minorities. I am not settled on this, but certainly it is something I will reflect more on.

In conclusion, the UNkingdom of God: Embracing The Subversive Power of Repentance is a terrific piece of work. I have not read a better book on repentance. This is not a book for those that want to continue blindly with a diluted and domesticated Christianity. This is not a book for those that want comfort and wealth more than they want to follow Jesus. Nor is this a book for those that refuse to disentangle the logics of empire from their Christianity. But this is a book for anyone that honestly wants to follow Jesus with abandonment and encounter his presence afresh. The book calls us all into the ecclesial vision of Anabaptism as well as the prophetic and liberative presence often found in many black Christian communities. It is an easy and enjoyable read in one sense, and yet challenging and demanding in other way. It certainly is the type of resources we need to recover what it means to be the people of God within an oppressive and sinful empire.

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