By Kyle Mitchell
*This is the ninth installation of a year-long series of posts from contributors all over North America each answering the question, “How would you define radical discipleship?” We will be posting responses regularly on Mondays during 2019.
The word discipleship reminds me that the way of the Jewish rabbi named Jesus is grounded in a posture of discipline and learning. For those of us whose native religious tongue is Jesus language, discipleship is the main way that we express our faith in the world. We never “arrive”, but are always growing, maturing, discerning, listening, and learning. We make the road by walking.
However, it’s easy to get off the path, and do the very things that Jesus spoke against, the opposite of beauty, grace, liberation, love, hospitality, and peace. The word “radical” comes from the Latin word that means root. Same word from which we get that small, spicy root vegetable – radish (which I love to grow!). Placing the word “radical” before discipleship reminds me to get back to the roots of my faith and the deep biblical, prophetic tradition that produced Jesus.
Radical discipleship acknowledges that the Jesus story was rooted in a specific time and place and spoke to a specific economic, historic, political, and social reality. Those of us who were taught that the Christian path was about escaping the realities of this world based on beliefs (orthodoxy) may be surprised to find out that the Christian path is about digging into the realities of this world based on practices (orthopraxy). The teaching of the incarnation (carne – from the Latin flesh or meat), that the divine meets us in flesh and blood, tears and urine, sweat and pimples, pulls us straight out of the proverbial clouds and re-places us in our literal neighborhoods and watersheds. As we begin to read the Bible through the lens of sacred story, we are empowered as we enter into ancient scripts that narrate God’s dream for justice and Shalom in the midst of dehumanizing empires where greed, control, and power battle against the liberating power of Steadfast Love for the final word. Throughout history, when the church loses sight of this goal, small pockets of faithful people have radicalized, returned to the Source of the prophetic tradition and become the voice crying out in the wilderness. In recent history, many have pointed to folks like Dr. King and Dorothy Day as a couple examples among many of what radical discipleship looks like in our time.
If radical discipleship was karate, I’d definitely have a beginner’s white belt. However, here are 10 keys of radical discipleship that I take away so far in my journey:
- A return to our eastern roots that privilege practice over western beliefs
- Critique of empire that dehumanizes people and destroys creation for profit
- Honors and privileges readings of scripture that would be considered alternative in white theological circles – think: black theology, womanist theology, queer theology, native American theology, etc.
- Acknowledges and repents from colonialism
- Champions justice over charity
- Finds its home in the prophetic and liberating Christian tradition
- Lives out faith on the margins
- Encourages truth-telling and vulnerability
- Re-places us in our watershed
- Recovers story, poetry, art and myth as transformational ways of expanding our imaginations
The exciting and challenging part of discipleship is that it is not static. It’s not a one-time born-again experience or decision, but a lifetime of repentance, recovery, changing our ways, having our eyes opened and re-opened time and time again. It’s a constant cycle of orientation, disorientation and re-orientation as we follow the Spirit in our own historical moment. We don’t read the Bible stories to copy them, but to become them in our own day – biography as theology.
Just as we acknowledge that the Jesus tradition was rooted in a specific historical moment, we acknowledge that we too are living in a unique historical moment. I acknowledge that I have an immense amount of privilege as a straight white dude living in the most powerful global empire the world has ever seen. Like Paul, scales have fallen from my eyes. White guy theology is not theology, but white guy theology. Surprise! What a joy and gift it has been to learn of so many diverse and beautiful ways of connecting to the earth and to Creator.
As a farmer, I’ve been particularly inspired by radical discipleship to have a watershed consciousness. This has brought me in touch with the lavish gifts of soil, sun, rain, and forest, cracking me open to the cycles, seasons, and communities of creation. As I grow vegetables and raise animals, I consider the billions of microorganisms underneath my feet, quietly going about their holy work in the soil. I seek to be a good neighbor to them by not leaving my soil naked and bare. In soil with no roots, there won’t be much life. And this is telling, that these tiny ones in the soil, brother earthworm and sister nematode, receive and give their life at the roots of plants. For in this way, I too receive and give life when I get back to the deep roots of faith.
Kyle, a Florida native, now lives in Ohio with his wife Lynea. It gets cold there, but that’s ok because the seasons are really great overall. They recently transitioned from the urban farming world in Cleveland to living and working at a camp and retreat center farm in the country. They grow vegetables and care for a whole herd of animals including chickens, goats, sheep and dogs.