Repenting of Christianity

Chinua Achebe’s classic novel Things Fall Apart centers around the life on Okonkwo, the powerful leader of his clan and their village, one of nine villages in the Umuofia region of Nigeria. Okonkwo is a fearsome warrior, well-respected among his people. His fierce nature sometimes comes out at the wrong times, injuring and hurting those he loves. His love for and protection of his people against outsiders is just as fierce.

Okonkwo and the people of Umuofia  one day come up against a force they are ill-prepared to deal with: missionaries. While the natives are curious about the missionaries, they assume that the white man and his god will soon disappear and leave Umuofia in peace. But then, things start to fall apart for the villagers. They give an unwanted piece of ancestral land called the Evil Forest to the missionaries, failing to understand that the land will be developed and possessed according to a set of imported principles that sees land as a commodity. Then rumor begins to spread that “the white man had not only brought a religion but a government.” The conflict reaches a climax when six villagers agree to a meeting with the missionaries, only to be tricked and then dragged, handcuffed, into a court. It is there announced by the court that the proceedings are taking place as they are done “in our own country…, in the dominion of our queen, the most powerful ruler in the world.” The novel from there hurtles toward its haunting ending, the village in tatters and Okonkwo living – and then dying – in desperation.

Things Fall Apart has endured in part because it helps to expose a myth, namely the myth that Western European missionary efforts can be separated from Empire-building. With powerful and complex characters and cultures like those of Okonkwo and Umuofia, Achebe shows us the heartbreak and destruction that Christianity has carried around the world as it paved the way for Western economic and political empires.

Such a myth is not the only one we have believed. The mixing of Christian faith and Western imperialism are so tightly intertwined that it is hard to separate one from the other. The idea of “dominion,” misread from the creation accounts, has destroyed our relationships as creatures with the land and water that sustain us. We believe that we can war our way into peace.   Our common divisions of liberal and conservative, right and left, mainline and evangelical, are merely different strategies for holding on to power, two sides of the same worthless coin. All of these myths have separated us from God, God’s creation, and from one another.

The power we struggle to hold onto is shifting anyway. For Christians in America, we are living in a time where our holds on cultural dominance are eroding. As Stanley Hauerwas has said, “God is killing the church in America, and we damn well deserve it.” We’re going to need some folks to help us see how God killing the church is Good News. And, we’re going to need some folks to help us replace our old, tired myths with a clearer Truth – a Truth proclaimed in the person of Jesus. Mark Van Steenwyk is one of those folks. In his recent book The Unkingdom of God: Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance, Van Steenwyk reflects on the power of repentance as both a concept for understanding Christian life, and at the same time a set of practices for living into the way of Jesus. He wants to help us name the myths that American Christianity has accepted, and then to repent of those myths and move in a different direction.

Attempting to name the myths that we have learned to function by is a dangerous task. The one who attempts it risks being labelled a “radical,” being dismissed as “idealistic,” and consequently ignored. This book is risky for that reason, but Van Steenwyk does not flinch. The inclusion of personal narratives that range from funny to moving to downright embarrassing helps to keep the reader engaged and attuned, even when it would be easier to look away. This is not mere theory, but real life.

One particular myth-revealing narrative involves a discussion of immigration, the naming of land, and the ongoing struggles of indigenous populations in North America. (This discussion seems especially pertinent given the growing crisis at the U.S./Mexico border going on now.) Van Steenwyk helps unmask the myths around “illegal immigration” and the displacement of native peoples by telling us how the scales fell off his eyes. The only fingers being pointed here are being pointed at the author. Faced with a conversion point, Van Steenwyk, along with his young son, rename a Minneapolis historic site with a more truthful name. They commit to continuing to try to see the world through the eyes of the oppressed, to the fullest extent that they are able. They commit to allowing their neighbors – especially their poor neighbors – to decolonize their imaginations for the sake of the Gospel.

In real life, as in Achebe’s vision of Umuofia, the Christianity of Western Europe and USAmerica is enmeshed with imperial power.  Because those who live with privilege have such impoverished imaginations of how to live into the Good News, Van Steenwyk has a bold suggestion: repenting of Christianity. By this, he does not mean abandoning the Way of Jesus. Instead, he means confessing the brokenness of our religion. He is “advocating that we let go of beliefs and structures and institutions and buildings and money and stories” that we attach Jesus’s name to, and “ask ‘Is this the way of love?’ or ‘Is this separating me from God and my neighbor?’” (77). What Van Steenwyk wants to invite us to is the “embodiment of a tangible way of love” (71).

Moving in a different direction is the essence of the biblical notion of repentance. The Hebrew word translated as “repent” means “to turn around.” The image is a powerful one: When walking in the wrong direction, one turns around and walks back in a different one. This is an earthy, physical, creaturely image. Repentance is not thinking different thoughts or believing different ideas. It is moving in a different direction, planting oneself in different soil. It is acting differently, making a different set of choices. Repentance requires a set of practices that can help us live into a new way of thinking and being in the world.

The Unkingdom of God discusses some potential practices that can unmask the myths we have believed. These are not offered as prescriptions, but simply as examples of how one local community has attempted to live more deeply into the way of Jesus. The most memorable of these practices are exemplified in Van Steenwyk’s discussion of his young son. The book is at its most hopeful when Jonas, age five, is an active part. He is both teacher and student. He is perhaps the clearest embodiment of the fresh imagination that The Unkingdom invites us into. Van Steenwyk says, “ the kingdom of God breaks into our reality through the lives of the seemingly insignificant”(91). Walking beside Jonas and his dad, we too can turn around and move again into the way of Love.

 

 

Greg and Helms Jarrell

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We are founders of a community of hospitality in west Charlotte. With the help of our neighbors, we are learning to love God and others.

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  • Jonathan Waits

    While there are certainly a tragically weighty number of anecdotal reports of Christian missionaries doing more harm than good, the great preponderance of evidence suggests unavoidably that countries which had a heavy presence of missionaries have citizens today who are freer, better educated, economically more prosperous, have lower infant mortality rates and so on. Books like Van Steenwyk’s or The Poisonwood Bible have tended to advance a biased, historically-atypical account of the impact of Christian missionaries on their target cultures. The fact is that the worldview being advanced by those missionaries (which helped to create Western civilization rather than being created by it) was objectively better than the worldview of the native cultures in which they were ministering in a number of different respects and the respective cultures where it was advanced and the world as a whole are better for it. Where there were abused perpetuated there certainly needs to be repentance, but the tone of this blog suggests that these cases were far more common than they were not. This is simply not the case. Let me direct your attention to a blog I wrote a few months ago (http://www.baptistnews.com/blog/missions/you-mean-they-werent-so-bad-after-all-2014-03-06/#.U9zRD_ldUxE) reviewing a Christianity Today cover piece about Robert Woodberry’s powerful research along with his actual dissertation on the subject (http://www.prec.com/). I also fail to see the connection between this misinterpretation of colonial-era missionary history and the current border crisis. Could you draw this connection with a little more detail?

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  • Ralph Hanger

    “a myth, namely the myth that Western European missionary efforts can be separated from Empire-building.” this is a sad comment which has some anecdotal evidence and in many cases has proved too true. However, it does only pick on one side of mission work – one which is tied up with power, with money and colonialism. Fortunately, there has always been another side which has gone about its work of proclaiming Christ and showing His love to folk without the trappings of Christendom. This has often just gone on quietly, without hitting headlines. There are those today who are also concerned to bring the Gospel without the dangers of foreign money and power. Some of these are linked in an Alliance known as the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission. here there is a belief that the Gospel can be forwarded by cross-cultural personnel using only local resources and local languages. A visit to http://www.vulnerablemission.org will introduce you to a community who are committed to such ministry.

  • Greg Jarrell

    Thanks for the comments and links. Sorry I’m a little slow in responding. Ralph, I will check out the Vulnerable Mission group. I would push back a little on your comment to say that I don’t think mission work has multiple sides, of which some can be left behind. When we go elsewhere to proclaim the goodness of God, we invariable take with us our whole selves, including – for those like me who come from a white, Western context – the trappings of Christendom. There is no way to leave that behind. Thus, as I think Van Steenwyk’s book helpfully points out, the necessity of naming the myths that we carry with us and repenting of them. Without naming them, they still carry undue power over us, and therefore over the people we want to serve.

  • Greg Jarrell

    Jonathan, I read with interest your post you linked to. Thanks for your response. Certainly we disagree at the most basic level – the notion of a “target culture,” as you say, is itself a result of the imperialist mindset I think we (USAmericans) all have, and that we would do well to shed. As someone living cross-culturally among a historically oppressed people, I’ve been told clearly by my neighbors that they want no part of being a “target population.” This is exactly the type of language, as well as the set of practices based around this language, I think we should be repenting from. I certainly would not argue that Western missionaries have done no good in other places. Clearly that has been the case, and certainly the research you point to indicates that. However, I would assert that the process by which those results are achieved matters. It may be the case today that Native Americans are ” better educated, economically more prosperous, and have lower infant mortality rates” than in 1492. I think we should ask them whether genocide, disenfranchisement, and destruction of their native communities is a worthwhile price to pay for those results. It may be the case that Black Americans are “better educated, economically more prosperous, have lower infant mortality rates” than before their ancestors were brought to the Americas in chains. I think we should ask them whether enslavement, Jim Crow, redlining, and mass incarceration are worthwhile prices to pay for those results. And then, I think we should take their answers seriously.

    It is not clear to me that the worldview that would institute such practices – no matter how well-intentioned they were – is objectively better than any other worldview.

    • Jonathan Waits

      Greg, thanks for your feedback. I appreciate your note that speaking in terms of a “target culture” can come across as culturally insensitive. Still, I would argue that the vast majority of the missionaries today who give up time, talent, and treasure to go live among a single people group with its own culture in order to bring the Gospel to them in ways they can digest do not simply drop in out of nowhere and start working. They carefully and prayerfully research and prepare ahead of time so that they can begin having the greatest impact as soon as possible. Whether or not the language of “target culture” is insensitive, is this not what has happened? On the other hand, the raising up of indigenous leaders to reach their own people is being recognized as a very effective–and less culturally destructive–way of advancing the Gospel.
      I too would agree that the process matters. Where missionaries have done more harm than good, this should be a point of repentance. At the same time, Christian language has historically often been thrown around to serve as a justification of very much secular ends. I would even concede that many committed Christians have been swept up in these questionable goals lending credence to the notion that Christianity itself was the problem. However, I would argue that the problem in these instances was not with Christianity itself, but with professed Christians ignoring some of the most basic commands of Christ in pursuit of more secular ends.
      When it comes to Native Americans, they were certainly mistreated in numerous ways. Yet the folks who were often the most committed to actually bringing the Gospel to them were the ones who most advocated for their being treated as image bearers rather than as something subhuman. The historical fact is that Europeans were coming West whether the church came with them or not and the native cultures here had no way of stopping. The church’s involvement in the process almost certainly made things vastly better than they would have otherwise been. For instance, when the first Spaniards arrived in South and Central America looking for gold, the Pope himself advocated vigorously for the natives being treated well. These efforts were ignored, but the church was not part of the problem, but the solution.
      Ultimately for this and other reasons for which there is not space in this format, I would argue that of Christianity we need not repent. Rather, if there is repentance that must happen it is on the part of those who simply used Christianity as a guise for achieving non-Christian ends. Praise the Lord that we serve a God who has over and again demonstrated that He is not limited by the errors of those who profess to follow Him in the advancement of His kingdom. Thanks again for your feedback. I greatly appreciate it.