By Greg and Helms Jarrell
Chinua Achebe’s classic novel Things Fall Apart centers around the life of Okonkwo, the powerful leader of his clan and their village, one of nine 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 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 spreads 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 court. It is there announced 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.) 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 the U.S. 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?’” What Van Steenwyk wants to invite us to is the “embodiment of a tangible way of love.”
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, aged 5, 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.” Walking beside Jonas and his dad, we too can turn around and move again into the way of Love.