What is Radical Discipleship?

John August SwansonBy Ched Myers, excerpted from “What Is Radical Discipleship? An Introduction to the Bartimaeus Kinsler Institute,” Ventura River Watershed, Feb 16, 2015

Radical Discipleship is NOT a dope slogan, or a mobilizing soundbyte, or a hip brand, or an ironic twitter handle. Hell, these terms aren’t even cool anymore. “Radical” is a term as unfashionable today as it was trendy in the 1960s. The notion of “discipleship,” meanwhile, is entirely shrugged off in liberal church circles, and trivialized in conservative ones. So let me explain why this is the handle of this Festival, why we insist on using the phrase. The etymology of the term radical (for the Latin radix, “root”) is the best reason not to concede it to nostalgia. If we want to get to the root of anything we must be radical. No wonder the word has been demonized by our masters and co-opted by marketing hucksters, and no wonder no one in conventional politics would dare to use the word favorably, much less track any problem to its root.

It is both curious and revealing that the notion of discipleship, in turn, is so marginal in our churches. Curious, because discipleship is so unarguably the central theme of the gospels. Revealing, because it shows how wide the gulf between the seminaries, the sanctuaries and the streets has become in North America. The prevailing expressions of faith Among Protestant churches—evangelical decisionism, mainline denominationalism and fundamentalist dogmatism—are each deeply problematic in a society that is mired in dysfunctional politics, delusion economics and a distractive culture. Faith as discipleship remains the “road rarely taken” here at the heart of empire. We have yet truly to reckon with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous warning, delivered under the shadow of fascism, that “cheap grace is grace without discipleship.”

More than a half century ago the great Swiss New Testament scholar Eduard Schweizer reiterated Bonhoeffer’s dictum by asserting that from the perspective of Mark’s gospel, “discipleship is the only form in which faith in Jesus can exist.” This theological challenge was subsequently advanced by Schweizer’s Australian student Athol Gill, whose teaching of Mark as a manifesto of radical discipleship helped animate renewal movements in the 1970s and 80s across the English-speaking world. I am a child of those movements. And so, in some direct or indirect way, are each of you.

Radical Discipleship is about nothing more and nothing less than laying bare the roots of the personal and socio-political pathologies of our imperial society and its dead-end history, even as we seek to recover the roots of our deep biblical tradition. And what tradition is that? It is the messianic movement of rebellion and restoration, of repentance and renewal, a “Way out of no way” that has been going on since the dawn of resistance to the dusk of empire.

This Way was birthed when Creator scattered humans from centripetal Babel in centrifugal liberation, and continued when Abram and Sarai bailed out of Ur and Moses & Myriam busted out of Egypt, and when Jordan’s waters rose up and Jericho’s walls came tumbling down. Though often beat down and always marginalized, this vision of truth-telling and reconciliation-dreaming was remembered when Elijah read the riot act to Ahab, and Isaiah sang a lovesong lament to the vineyard, and Jeremiah bought a field in the bear market of occupation, and Ezekiel saw the wheel within the wheel, way up in the middle of the air.

It was this tradition that animated John the Baptist to go feral, troubling Herod’s business as usual and then troubling Jordan’s waters to re-birth a certain Nazarene upon whom the old Spirit of the Movement came to rest like a condor. He rebooted the old movement afresh, accompanied only by clueless fishermen and faithful women of ill repute, by demoniacs liberated from imperial possession and peasants armed only with palm branches. Jesus faced down the Mammon system with loaves and fishes in the wilderness, remembering the old catechism of Manna; redirected our attention away from Temples and toward wildflowers and birds; raised up street beggars and brought down fatcats to co-inhabit the Jubilee common ground his mama had sung to him about as a baby. The Nazarene’s movement ground to a halt on a Roman cross, on which the imperial bill for the cost of discipleship came due; only to be rebooted again at an empty tomb from which the stone of impediment had been rolled away, so they say, so they say.

Which strange lacuna spawned a Pentecost insurrection of multicultural restoration and economic redistribution, a strange unleashing of tongues and pocketbooks that spilled out of a safe house attic into the streets in a popular theater of protest and proclamation just a few blocks from where Jesus had been lynched. These shenanigans of course earned official backlash, which only spawned a smackdown of restorative payback, in which the murderous chief head of security charged with strangling this inconvenient movement in its crib broke down in the middle lane of the Damascus Road, struck blind with visions of his victims. This chief prosecutor ended up defecting to the movement he sought to destroy, such that he had to be smuggled out of town in a basket like baby Moses, the hunter become the hunted. Which unlikely turnabout spawned little ecclesial communities of nonconformity and breaking bread and discipleship to Jesus throughout the empire, which we know about only through the tattered fragments of correspondence and liturgy and catechism that survive in what we call the Second Testament, today every bit as misunderstood and abused as the First.

These little communities spawned martyrs who rendered to God everything and to Caesar not much at all; and monastics who returned to the wilderness in the waning days of a decadent Roman empire in order to rediscover the evangelical disciplines of fidelity and poverty. The movement was remembered by Franciscan nuns and friars, who bound themselves to nature and to the poorest of medieval society;   and by 14th century communitarians who defied feudal canons of hierarchy and vengeance; and by 16th century radical Anabaptists who refused to participate in the bloody religious wars of Christendom. It was invoked by Baptist radicals and Methodist reformers, by Quaker abolitionists and Anglican visionaries in Europe and the New World, against the grain of colonial plunder and genocide. It was the ground on which 18th century “Levelers” stood in their struggle against the privatization of the Commons–“Since then this Jubilee, Sets all at Liberty, Let us be glad!”—and Luddites resisting the madness of factory culture in early industrial England, just as immigrant Wobblie and Jewish labor organizers would a century later in Guilded Age America.

Above all, this tradition was preserved for us all by 19th century African slaves under American apartheid, who knew who Pharaoh was and where the Promised Land was, and who journeyed there on an underground railroad, singing:

  • “Go down, Moses, way down to Egypt land…” and
  • “I looked over Jordan, and what did I see…” and
  • “Nobody knows the trouble I seen…” and
  • “Oh freedom, Oh freedom over me…”

These old Jubilee anthems came alive again in a 20th century Civil Rights movements that reached from Selma to Soweto. Indeed, a freedom song that was birthed in a Jim Crow jail was blown by the Spirit to cross-pollinate all the way to the Berlin Wall and Tianmen Square and the streets of Manila: “Deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome someday!!”

This vision animated as diverse a band of practitioners as Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Catholic laywoman Dorothy Day, Baptist preachers Martin Luther King Jr. and Clarence Jordan, Archbishop Oscar Romero and missionary nun Dorothy Stang (the 10th anniversary of whose martyrdom we commemorate this week). From immigrant agricultural laborers organizing with the United Farm Workers in California’s fields of wrath in 1968 to store-front Pentecostals in Appalachia sitting down in front of massive coal trucks during the Pittston coal miner’s strike in 1989, the church has been reborn time and again whenever it has remembered that it is first and foremost a movement for radical personal and political transformation accountable to God’s dream of justice and shalom.

All this we’ll refer to this week in shorthand as the struggle for “radical discipleship.” This conspiracy of life, hatched in a distant Sinai past, has ebbed and flowed ever since, right down to our time and place.   It lives among gay bishops and lesbian evangelists; Christian Peacemaker Teams accompanying those under Occupation in Baghdad or Bethlehem; Catholic Workers sharing life with the homeless; immigrant rights organizers celebrating Posadas sin Fronteras at the US Mexico border; and tree sitters defying pipelines. It is embodied by every addict who walks the Twelve Steps to recovery, by every sinner who makes that long march up to the altar of repentance, and by every activist who seeks to bring comfort to the afflicted with gospel compassion, and to afflict the comfortable with gospel justice. Because only those who know their captivity can carry on this Freedom story.

We stand here tonight, having gathered from the Four Directions, to remember, to celebrate, and to incubate another round of this long tradition of soul searching and struggle. “Since we are surrounded by so great Cloud of Witnesses,” as the writer to the Hebrews exhorts us, “let us too lay aside every weight and sin that restricts us, so that we too might run this race” (Heb 12:1).

For us—most of us persons of relative privilege and mobility—Radical Discipleship is a call on our lives, one that disrupts the chronos timetables of empire with a divine kairos moment for transformation.   This summons from the undomesticated God originates outside of civilization, but also from deep within a groaning creation and groaning communities of struggle. It challenges the entitlements and conveniences of the religion business as usual. And the disturbing, animating thing about this call is that it always is before us, like Mark’s Risen Christ who can only be seen on the Way in Galilee. No matter how long we’ve been in this or at this, we can never presume to have “arrived,” or known or done enough to be off the hook of this challenge, lest we think we “got this,” or worse, have “grown out of it.” We are ever invited to encounter Messiah afresh on the Way. But let us be clear, this One is almost always in disguise.

Which is why it is a good think to convene as a community of conviction around this radical tradition once in a while, as kindred spirits struggling to make it flesh in our time. So with all that in mind, here are three reasons why we at BCM thought it made sense to gather here, under this banner, at this time.

    1. On the practical side, BCM as an alternative platform for non-traditional gospel ministry has been going more than 15 years, but it’s hand to mouth, always a struggle. We thought if we could bring more of you to our valley, you might buy in a little bit more to a partnership with us in the work of animating radical discipleship between seminary, sanctuary, streets and soil.       We are a marginal but important voice in the ecclesial conversation, and we need your help to amplify the kinds of perspectives represented this week. We hope we will continue to walk together beyond this week.
    2. On the organizing side, we wanted to convene a space where our friends could meet our friends. We believe that movement-building is indivisibly relational, that no amount of social media sophistication can replace face time networking. As my friends at Jonah House taught me 40 years ago, “the most apostolic duty of all is to keep one another’s courage up.” We believe in curating spaces where radical Catholics and Anglicans and Baptists and Presbyterians and Anabaptist-curious types and Non-denoms and old and new monastics and seekers and post-whatevers and refugees from toxic Christian institutions can find and embrace each other as family. Not only that, but also to BE church together. Most of us spend a lot of time working the margins of our native or adopted traditions, and we know in our bones what it means to be demonized or tokenized, dismissed or invisible. It is important sometimes to come together to realize that we have more in common with each other that with our respective institutional affiliations (if any), and that we can be more than the sum of our diverse parts if we decide to build common cause. Here is this circle, you can talk freely and without apology about Jesus and justice, inclusion and discipline, grace and hard work, prayer and politics.
    3. There is a ceremonial side to this gathering too. To inhabit a deep tradition like the Radical Discipleship stream requires us to honor the past, to listen to elders, and to learn stories and histories.   We are delighted with the mix here, especially the different generations of the movement represented in this room, from old Palestine and disarmament heads to young permaculturists and Black Lives Matter activists. We’ve tried to reflect that generational mix in the various workshops. But let’s face it, we activist types do not celebrate enough. So above all, we are here to celebrate that which the dominant culture would render invisible. We are family, and our movement will not be disappeared.

Yesterday was the Feast of the Transfiguration: that gospel encounter with both raw wilderness power on the mountain, but also with the sacred story and the community of cousins committed to it. May our faces shine this week as a result of such encounters.

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