This post is from founding Friends of Justice board member, Charles Kiker.
A couple of weeks or so ago, Alan Bean posted on the Friends of Justice website a blog which he called “A New Kind of Christianity.” There’s something about the title which doesn’t quite set well with me.
I’m not sure what it is. I’m not a purist who thinks there can be only one kind of Christianity. I know that Christianity has evolved over the centuries into different forms. Even the early church was not in total agreement. And there evolved Augustinian-Constantinian Christianity, Catholicism of the Eastern and Western varieties, Reformation Christianity in all its multicolored hues, the Radical Reformation in its various forms, the rise of Christendom, Modernism, Liberalism, Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism, post-modernism ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
Maybe what I was feeling is that we don’t need just another leaf to tack on to the many branches of the Christian tree. (It should be added that Dr. Bean is not proposing a new movement in competition with the current world of Christianity.)
Christianity, in all or almost all its forms, is too much identified with Christendom, and we don’t need a new kind of Christendom.
Well then, what do we need? I think we need a new commitment to becoming and being followers of the Way. To do this we will have to read afresh the synoptic gospels and take seriously the teachings of Jesus, to become red letter Christians, as Tony Campolo puts it.
What are some of the ramifications of a movement of this kind? What will happen if we become more serious followers of the Way?
What will not happen if this movement becomes a movement, is that it will not provide a formula for building big churches. As Alan Bean correctly observes, “. . . you can’t build a megachurch or a popular movement on this kind of religious foundation.” I’m not sure you can even build a small church on this kind of foundation. I know you could not in small town places like my hometown of Tulia, Texas. I think it would be difficult even in large metropolitan areas like Dallas. Even if we could build such a church, I’m not sure we should. I fear the tendency would be to talk to each other, and maybe pat each other on the back about how we have a better understanding of the gospel than those poor benighted souls in the established churches.
Perhaps it will be better if we can provide a prophetic presence in established congregations in the established Church. But neither is that easy. There can be a strong social opprobrium approaching shunning against those who have a radically different understanding of what church is all about.
Radical followers of the Way will have a kind of innate Anabapist/Radical Reformation suspicion of the governments of this world “from the court house to the White House” in American parlance. A church that aligns itself with political movements or governmental institutions is a church that will have grave difficulty in having a prophetic witness to those movements or institutions. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was aghast at seeing the American flag in American churches. I am somewhat troubled to recite the pledge of allegiance at civic events, and am aghast to find it in the order of worship on patriotic weekends.
I humbly suggest that what can happen is that we can become what Jim Wallis calls approvingly and Glenn Beck and his ilk call disparagingly “social justice” Christians.
As social justice followers of the Way we will have a strong emphasis on the kingdom of God rather than an almost exclusive emphasis on going to heaven when you die. I have not done a concordance word count, but people who have indicate that the kingdom was the topic Jesus talked about most often. He taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven. (Italics mine.)
When Jesus died on a Roman cross instead of ushering in the kingdom, it provoked a crisis among followers of the Way. Was the kingdom just wishful thinking, or is it delayed until some end time? This crisis is reflected in the New Testament. When Jesus speaks of the kingdom in Matthew, the language is almost always “the kingdom of heaven,” rather than “the kingdom of God.” Many scholars believe this is due to the Jewishness of the Gospel of Matthew and its reluctance to speak directly of God. Might it also be a move toward transporting the kingdom to some ethereal realm? Mark and Luke do not share the Matthean reluctance to have Jesus speaking of the kingdom of God. John, writing near the end of the first Christian century, has almost totally spiritualized the gospel. But in the rare instances John’s Jesus speaks of the kingdom, it is the kingdom of God.
The Apostle Paul expected the imminent return of Christ to inaugurate the kingdom. And of course there is the Book of Revelation, with its apocalyptic encouragement of the coming victory of Jesus for those suffering under the Roman Empire.
But Jesus didn’t come, and after almost two thousand years the kingdoms of this world still oppress “the least of these.”
So, if we are to be radically concerned about what happens to “the least of these” in this world how can we be radically committed to a kingdom of God which is long delayed in coming? Unless the kingdom has come among us, as Jesus said.
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For in fact, the kingdom of God is among you. (Luke 17:20-21, NRSV)
Maybe that’s the kind of Jesus movement we can become, one which can not be definitively pointed out as the essence of the kingdom, but which nevertheless is or at least contains the essence of the kingdom, with its essence as a prophetic witness within Christianity, even within or among the kingdoms of this world.
Alan Bean says in his blog, “Religious people, white Christians in particular, must come to the grips with the spiritual wickedness in the criminal justice system. Can we stand up for the victims of wrongful prosecution?”
While I would not view this movement of followers of the Way as being focused exclusively on “spiritual wickedness in the criminal justice system,” certainly we must have our eyes, ears, and hearts attuned to the sights, sounds, and vibrations of injustice wherever it occurs, including injustice in the criminal justice system.