A Post-Evangelical Pilgrimage, Part II

MLKBy Tommy Airey

*This is the second post in a three-part series exploring more compelling ways to follow Jesus.

On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.
Martin Luther King, April 4, 1967

In a conversation we were having on a prairie highway about 30 kilometers north of Saskatoon, Ched Myers, predictably, got pedagogical. “When we become jaded or wounded, one of three things happens,” he exhorted.

1. We blame others and stay in denial, inflicting our pathologies on to others.
2. We bail out or burn out, escaping into a myriad of copings.
3. We traverse the road-less-traveled: we do the hard work of personal inventory.

Over the course of the past decade, as my Evangelical categories crumbled in the face of experience, theological reading, deep dialogue, prayer and social analysis, I’ve struggled through all three of these phases.

Eventually, through the emotional, theological and spiritual adventures of marriage, seminary, home church, 12-step recovery & a move to inner-city Detroit, I’ve become grafted into an entirely different perspective of what it means to follow Jesus, deeply compelled by a minority report of North American Christianity, taking its cue from monastics, contemplatives, prophets and poets that harkens back a hundred generations to Gethsemane. As some of these leaders aptly note, it seeks to pitch a tent at the intersection of the seminary, the sanctuary and the street. This “radical discipleship movement” looks something like this:

-Activism as prophetic solidarity, advocacy and protest
-Bible as an alternative manifesto that scripts us into daring possibilities
-Cross of Jesus as the inevitable culmination of the audacious life of Jesus
-Discipleship: imitating Jesus’ life & teaching…which leads to death (to ego, to status, to body)

Radical disciples commit to policies and practices that, above all else, seek to end imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

Their prayers and protests confront U.S. military expansion, war, drones and torture, as well as neo-liberal colonial policies that have devastated the developing world.

They privilege the voices of women and people of color.

They are committed to making social analysis a spiritual practice.

They perform creative acts of “public liturgy,” taking their worship to the streets to condemn what is demonic and enslaving.

They are contemplative, inventoried & prayerful.

Radical discipleship, as a movement, is far from a faith-based utopia. It has plenty of baggage, filled with quirky people (like me) with less-than-quaint addictions (like mine). Yet, what it sets out to do is audacious, biblical and compelling. And this, of course, easily leads to burn out and despair. However, this movement, at its core, feeds off communities of nurture, forgiveness and healing.

Although it risks over-simplification, it does help to go back 50 years. Evangelicals cherished Billy Graham. His crusades were legendary, converting millions to the “cause of Christ.” Radical disciples, meanwhile, took their cue from Martin Luther King, especially the daring experiments of the last two years of his life. Although most Evangelicals readily claim King today, huge percentages of Evangelicals, including Graham, refused to march with King in the 60s. If contemporary Evangelicals understood what King was actually calling for—he was vociferously anti-capitalist—the vast majority would refuse to march with him today if they had the time machine to pull it off.

There always has been and always will be vital issues of justice that require Christians to speak up. When we do find our voice, it will likely lead to alienation from well-adjusted friends, family members, donors and highly-respected congregants. Graham refused to speak out specifically against race discrimination and terrorism. The 19th century Evangelical Charles Hodge of Princeton refused to speak out against slavery. Of course, if Graham and Hodge were outspoken white allies, it would have risked betraying the very base propping up their popularity, power and privilege.

The gaping hole in the Evangelical narrative, over the course of the past century, is that its been highly allergic to naming and resisting systemic injustice. This condition rides tandem with its steadfast commitment to everything personal: eternal salvation, pietistic commitments and a relationship with God the Transcendent Patriarch. The Bible is self-evidently interpreted, utilized as a proof-texting encyclopedia of timeless truths, and/or as God’s love letter to individual “believers.” Complexity and nuance are sidelined, as is the hard work of social analysis. Meanwhile, the victims of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy become charity cases, subtly blamed for their apathy, attitudes or addictions.

The radical discipleship movement is not simply progressive political cake with a thin layer of Jesus frosting. It is thoroughly and unapologetically theological. As a radical Anabaptist serving at an Episcopalian church in innercity Detroit, I’m proud of our commitment to “family values” and being “biblically based.” This community reads Scripture consistently, critically and carefully. We also read it humbly, as Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann once wrote,

The Spirit will not be regimented and therefore none of our reading is guaranteed to be inspired. But it does happen—on occasion.

I am inspired by Evangelicals who are bucking the trends and pledging allegiance to pushing their tradition to constructively engage with imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, bolstered by a serious and literal following of the red letter teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. This is heavy lifting, requiring massive amounts of courage and nurture. There is a tender space in my heart for these leaders. They have my deep appreciation. And my prayers.

Since the 4th century, there have always been well-funded versions of a masculine, triumphalist Christianity that make ultimate claims, dismissing all minority reports as illegitimate. 21st century North American Christianity is no different. Many of the disillusioned have become post-Christian pilgrims, ditching the faith altogether because of its penchant for violence, power, colonizing and oppression of the most vulnerable. This is understandable. But there have always been less-documented versions of The Way that continue to take up the dubious challenge of “making a way out of no way” in the face of systemic crises. An invitation beckons for all and sundry to throw in.
*We’re not quite done with this conversation. Next week, we will explore 10 key practices of this Movement.

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