The Unkingdom of God from Mark van Steenwyk

June 9, 2014

activism / books / theology

Last year at Wild Goose Festival I picked up Mark van Steenwyk‘s book, The Unkingdom of God. I’ve been a big fan of Mark’s writing for several years, and have considered him a friend for a few as well, so I was really excited. I finally got around to finishing it this January, and am just now getting around to writing a review. That is how fatherhood has worked for me, thus far.

But in spite of how late it is, it deserves a review.

Mark, of course, is a Christian Anarchist. It’s a lovely thing to see in Mark, his family, and in his community, and one I’ve always found compelling. For myself I tend to waver between just being a leftist vs going all the way to being an anarchist, but things like this make me more and more convinced his is the way I want to follow. But regardless, this particular book takes aim at Empire and Christianity through the lens of the gospel and anarchism. Yes, it takes aim at Christianity through the gospel.

I want to look at that first claim a bit, as I think it is the hardest claim Mark is making, and is probably key to the rest of what he has to say. I’ve been a follower of Jesus for more than half my life now, and for almost all of it I have tended to think there was a such thing as “real Christianity” in contrast to all of the other kinds of Christianity. There was the fake kind practiced by the Roman Empire, the Crusades, the colonizers of America, the slaveholders and lynchers of America, the Nazis of Germany, the hypocrites of modern America, and so on as one followed the trails of oppression and other kinds of sin through history. I figured, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, that those people weren’t really acting like Christians or maybe were not even Christians at all, and I just had to make sure I wasn’t like that.

Mark says this:

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.

I’m fairly certain that Jesus’ vision wasn’t to leave us nifty ideals in a book. His vision wasn’t a set of disembodied doctrines. Rather, it is something we live out. And if the majority of the ways it has been lived out have been enmeshed with a history of domination or oppression, then that is the Christian witness to the world. Yes, we can all point to some glorious idea in a book and say that is the real Christianity, but what good does that do anybody?

So while there may be a disembodied, completely pure definition of Christianity that exists as some sort of platonic ideal, the closest thing to such Christianity is rarely (if ever) seen in the real world. Our task should be less about defining an ever-purer utopian Christianity and more about embodying a tangible way of love.

And I’d say the rest of what Mark has to say rides on that. It’s really easy to write off the bad parts of Christianity as “not Christianity,” and then we don’t have to repent of our collective history, and the ways we have benefited and still benefit from it (just like any other privilege).

But if you can accept that Christianity is what it is, Mark is asking us to repent of that. Confess of complicity, name and work through shame, stop demonizing truth tellers, and get the completely new script of life that Jesus has always offered. It’s quite brilliant, and as a foundation of the book the chapter deserves to be read and re-read.

The rest of the book, I’d say, is an attempt to look at what exactly that script is like and how we live into it. It looks at the mysticism of children, takes a quick look anarchism as it works with the kingdom of God, how each person of the Trinity fits into all of this, how the Bible fits into all of this (quite well, if you are curious), and how we can practice it all. In short, as far as I can see it Mark attempts to present a nonviolently revolutionary, anarchist, communitarian, faithful to Scripture view of what God is doing in the world.

There’s talk of getting away from static rules and toward relationship with and learning from Jesus, both as it relates to spirituality (experimenting with practicing things Jesus said and did, or reacquainting ourselves with creation and food, or learning how to be silent and rest) and as it relates to others, especially in justice work. Mark is especially challenging here, saying things like:

Contemporary Christianity is filled with folks who believe themselves to be in “solidarity” with all sorts of oppressed people but somehow haven’t really changed their way of life or the nature of their social lives. We can’t challenge injustice by donating money or reading a book. We can’t combat racism simply by going to a conference. We don’t confront sexism by simply changing the pronouns in our writing and speaking. All of these things are perhaps essential steps in the journey. But they aren’t the destination. More needs to change than sentiment. We need to move from charity to compassion. Charity is the sharing of resources. Compassion is the sharing of life and the suffering we experience in life.

Do you see the difference there? Mark, if you aren’t aware, is part of an intentional community in Minneapolis, similar to a Catholic Worker house. In it, folks live together, make decisions together, serve God and each other together, and engage in resistance and advocacy in all the ways he talks about. It’s a brilliant place.

He ends the book on another level of this, with real hospitality for strangers and people society still calls unclean, and also bringing those people into our own communities so they are no longer strangers. These are two very different steps, but usually we can’t even do the first.

The table is a place without judgment. It is a place of acceptance and mutuality. It is a place where all of us come just as we are before God to experience God’s presence in and through one another. Jesus’ way of hospitality goes way beyond welcome – it is transformative. The ultimate goal of hospitality is tearing down the walls of division.

I’ve attempted to share bits and pieces of the book, in the hopes that it’s possible to see where Mark is going with this, why it is radical, and why it is at least as important and challenging as it is radical. I’d strongly encourage folks to read it.