By Will O’Brien (right), director of the Alternative Seminary in Philly, PA
*This is the 12th 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.
Many decades into a vocation of trying to faithfully engage in movements for social justice and peace, I am coming to sense more and more the powerful and radical truth in the simple phrase from the First Letter of John, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). I am utterly convinced that all systematic theologies, all ethics and morality, all spiritualities are subsumed into this daring assertion: God is love. All of the created order is a miracle of love. The human adventure over millennia is the struggle to know and live out our belovedness. The mystery of sin is ultimately the failure to love or to experience belovedness. Jesus the Anointed One embodies love and invites us to a path of love.
To grasp this deep mystery requires that we disabuse ourselves of the pervasive cheap and tawdry versions of love peddled in our culture. Love reduced to sentimentalism or individualistic emotions, irrelevant or even weak and worthless in the realm of societal systems and worldly powers. Even our theological and ecclesial discourse on love can be expressions of cheap grace. More generously, we might say, echoing Augustine, that the incomplete versions of love fall short but are also pointing us to the truest love of God. In its worst perversions, we speak of the Love of God while we engage in violence, racism, cruelty, and apathy on the face of human suffering.
Radical discipleship is most authentic when it is grounded in spiritual practices that draw each one of us closer to the truth of God’s love and our own belovedness. Granted that for most of us, this is a life-long effort, and our experiences are more often than not partial and distorted. But it is this experience of divine love that sparks a passionate and inviolable love for every person; we hear, as Jesus did at his baptism, the miraculous words, “You are my beloved child, on whom my favor rests” – and we know that this is true of every person.
The radical disciple, following Christ, then seeks to bring this good news of belovedness to all persons; to form communities that practice, imperfectly, this belovedness with each other; to heal all those who have been wounded, externally and internally, by violations of their belovedness; to challenge false values and oppressive systems that deny human belovedness.
The radical disciple acts with mercy and compassion toward all persons. The radical disciple also pursues justice – in the spirit of Cornell West’s powerful assertion: “Justice is what love look like in public.” We work for a society that is grounded in an absolute commitment to the belovedness of each member, each citizen.
Any society that is structured to insist that some persons are more beloved, more worthy than others, is a society founded on a lie. Any society that is OK with some people living in mansions and others in slummish public housing is founded on a lie. Any society that provides some kids with resource-rich, top-quality education and other kids with failing school systems is a sham. Any society defined by meritocracies of race, class, religion, ability, bank account, productivity or any other dividing live is an affront to the living God. Our political task is to name the Lie, resist the Lie, deconstruct the Lie – and most importantly, to actively create (albeit imperfectly) the counter-community wherein membership has only the a priori qualification of being a Beloved Child of God.
Jesus’ disciples actively resist the Lie by reaching out to those wounded and ostracized by the Lie. Those of us who come to radical discipleship from social arenas that reward the upper echelons defect from the Lie – just as we learn to see beyond the social stigmas to affirm the belovedness of those whom society has diminished and marginalized, so too must we liberate ourselves beyond the false social values that affirm our illusory value; our belovedness is most true when we are naked, free of our own accomplishments and social affirmations – including the deep challenge that we don’t have to be a great radical disciple to merit God’s love.
The goal of radical discipleship is captured in the beautiful phrase that Dr. King used to sum up his own vision: the Beloved Community. It’s a variation on the core Gospel image of the reign of God (or, in Liz McAllister’s lovely wordplay, the Kin-dom of God).
As people of God, as followers of Christ, we seek to live out, to witness to, to round our lives in the truth of the Beloved Community. This beautifully encompasses our spiritual practices, our community lives and relationships, our ministries, and our political activism.
It is Good News.