Whatever we say about the Kingdom of God it is not like any other kingdom we’ve seen. To say Jesus is Lord is to declare Caesar is not and to sound the death knells on empires everywhere. In The Unkingdom of God: Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance author Mark Van Steenwyk examines how the gospel is about far more than personal transformation. It exposes the lies of consumerism, the dehumanizing effects of the powers on communal life, and the myraid ways that ’empire’ or ‘Christendom’ poison the well. The good news is that real freedom from powers and structures is possible According to Van Steenwyk, Christ’s kingdom is an unkingdom where Jesus is unking (96). In Christ it is possible to live with a group of people (church) without being ruled.
If you haven’t guessed from the above description, Van Steenwyk is a part of two maligned and poorly understood groups: he is a Mennonite and an anarchist. As a Mennonite and therefore stands within a tradition which strives to be a faithful witness to Christ while looking suspiciously at the Constantinian drift in the wider culture. He is also an anarchist challenging the dehumanizing structures and powers at in our society. These converge in his vocation as pastor of the Mennonite Worker in Minneapolis, his work as an editor for Jesusradicals.com and as host of the Iconoclast podcast. The themes of this book were also addressed in an earlier book, The Holy Anarchist, though this volume is better executed and crafted.
Van Steenwyk has some challenging stuff to say and he says it well, but the thing that makes this book a compelling read is how he weaves his theological and sociological reflections together with his personal narrative. He tells of his early camp conversion and the radical streak he had which was effectively exorcised by the charismatic church he grew up in.. As a young teen he was a patriotic, cowboy hat wearing Garth Brook’s fan brought to tears singing ‘I’m proud to be an American.” Yet as his faith matured, Van Steenwyk began to question the evangelism-as-conquest approach of his Evangelical upbringing, and the highly individualistic gospel he had proclaimed. This set him on a journey to a more communal and political witness (or apolitical, though not in the apathetic, disengaged sense).
Van Steenwyk is astute at naming the insidious nature of structures and powers, controlling-myths that blind us, the false promises of consumerism, and the ways that religion, even Christianity, can be a enslaving power, rather than a wellspring of freedom in Christ. In the latter part of the book he invites us into practices which help us enter more fully into the Unkingdom of God: He invites us to encounter the feral God through experimenting with God, embracing our creaturleliness,and practicing silence (121-6); he summoned us to walk with Christ with a localized imagination, paying attention to what is in front of us, and learning from the margins (133-8). He calls us to discern the subversive spirit through open worship and consensus decision-making, the practice of naming powers and resisting, and ‘arguing with Jesus’ through engaging both scripture and what is rising in us in opposition as we read (145-9).
It is a testament to how good a book is, when upon finishing it, I have no desire to place it on the shelf–marked off as done and collecting dust. I’ve thumbed back through the pages several times already, re-reading passages I had underlined. There is so much here that causes me to examine again the way racism, unjustice to Native-Americans, the marginalization of children, the bankruptcy of political discourse on the right and left are the effects of empire and institutionalized structures. I also love how vulnerably Van Steenwyk tells his own story. Sometimes anarchists/anabaptists are dismissed as idealists who don’t live in the real world. Van Steenwyk shares the ways he has struggled to move from patterns that are selfish and accommodating to the dominant culture to a lifestyle that is more communal, more radical and ultimately more faithful to the gospel.
I need books like this. There are a lot of ways where I would be out of step with Van Steenwyk. I am challenged by and enlivened by the writings of Anabaptists and Christian anarachy. The former because it is part of my heritage, the latter because I have been a part of churches with an unhealthy authority structure, and in my own role as pastor have sought to lead in ways that were non-manipulative. Still I sit somewhat outside of both camps. Van Steenwyk call is to a faithfulness to the gospel and resistance to the powers. I can get behind both objections even if I demur from his conclusions at various points (i.e. consensus leadership, his handling of Romans 13, etc). I still happily give this book 5 stars and recommend it for anyone who would like an accessible and thoughtful take on the life of radical discipleship. ★★★★★
Thank you to SpeakEasy for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.