If my math is right there are over 30 (nearly 40, if memory serves) posts on the Circle of Hope blog about “alternativity.” I now have a few posts as well in which I mention or allude to it. What is alternativity? Responding to the blatant racism of the current presidential administration (as opposed to the more subtle racism of some of the recent previous ones), Rod White, the Development pastor of Circle of Hope, tries to answer the question of “what do we do?” in response to the oppressive domination of “the powers” and the complicity of all too many would-be Jesus followers in that oppression. He says:
The answer comes from being the Body of Christ, not just a reaction or a resistance, but an alternative reality.
Scarcity is met with mutuality and generosity in the body of Christ. We will have to do better than to think about it. But we are trying.
Fear-mongering is met with trust in what God puts together, not in what the invisible hand creates. We’ll need to integrate our faith into the actions of our daily life more. But we are trying.
Foolishness is met with truth telling, just like Paul boldly states the new reality Jesus is making. We’ll have to listen to the Spirit directly and in one another and test it out, not just flee, resist and resent. But we are trying.
Alternativity is the word we use to sum it all up. We are trying to live in it. Deactivating Twitter is my act of defiance as much as self-preservation. Tackling the health care debacle is about perseverance as much as survival. Writing this little post, complaining about our terrible experiences, griping about Charlottesville, denouncing Trump, quoting Paul, insisting that there are better ways and that we are living them right now is how I keep myself on track. And I hope it has helped you, too. We have an alternative reality to build with Jesus, and it can’t wait for things to get better.
Circle of Hope has a habit of getting together face-to-face from time to time to “do theology.” The results of some of those conversations show up on their The Way of Jesus site (an incredible resource for Jesus followers worth plumbing the depths of). Thus, in May of last year, as primary season was winding down during the presidential election, they posted on The Way of Jesus a reflection based on their conversation about the relationship between God’s kingdom and the powers. They say:
When we do theology about elections we run into the line that has always separated Reformed Christianity from Anabaptist. The Reformed Christians can be called part of “magisterial” Protestantism, retaining the sense of “magisterium” that also marks Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox members of the Church. Alistair McGrath says that reformers like Luther and Calvin, who had a huge influence in European and American forms of the church, taught that, “The magistrate had a right to authority within the church, just as the church could rely on the authority of the magistrate to enforce discipline, suppress heresy, or maintain order.” In addition, the term magister relates to the emphasis on authoritative teachers. Often this is seen in the names of theological schools descending from magisterial reformers (i.e. Lutheran and Calvinist).
“Radical” reformers, who were later called Anabaptists, thought the church had fallen from grace and wanted to restore it. They traced the root of the fall to point of the fusion of church and society of which Constantine was the architect, Eusebius the priest, Augustine the apologete, and the Crusades and Inquisition the culmination.
When Constantine claimed Christianity, he turned the church right-side up, so to speak, from its former upside-down reputation. He consciously thought he was baptizing the empire. Perhaps his motives were good. Many Christians in his day, like the historian of the Church, Eusebius, thought he was the gift of God to end persecution and to honor the faithfulness of the church as it triumphed over the evils of Rome. Christians in Constantine’s empire extolled him as their champion. Bishops personally escorted him into battle against rival nations. The church quickly adapted to this new opportunity and used empire means to achieve Kingdom ends. The adaptation meant the end of God-ordained, missional non-alignment with imperial powers.
The Anabaptist’s disgust with Constantinianism is not about the sincerity with which Constantinian Christians use top-down, coercive, worldly power or about the goodness of the ends toward which they wield such power. The shift labeled “Constantinian” is the willingness of God’s people to deform their specific God-given identity by merging with worldly power structures and using top-down, coercive, worldly power to accomplish what God has given his people to do without such power.
How do they know that the Constantinian way can and must not be equated with “the way of Jesus?” Well, they look to Scripture, for starters:
Jesus demonstrably did not take the same route as Constantine, although he received the title king.
When the Messiah came, he distanced himself from the Jerusalem establishment (John 2:13–21).
Jesus did not reconstitute Israel land-based empire based in Palestine but prepared his people to be scattered across the world by his Spirit (John 4: 21– 24; Acts 1: 8).
Jesus unmasked the powers’ claims to be benefactors and self-consciously adopted the suffering servant posture (Luke 22:25– 27).
Jesus proclaimed a kingdom whose citizens are committed to peacemaking, enemy love, and transnational disciple-making (Matt 5: 38– 48, 28: 19).
Previously scattered Jews from as far back as Jeremiah’s time formed synagogues throughout the world that became central to the church’s missionary expansion (Acts 9:19-22, 14:1, 17:1– 3).
The earliest Christians viewed themselves as aliens, exiles, strangers, and dispersed ones (Jas 1: 1; 1 Pet 1: 1, 2: 11-12) whose citizenship is in heaven as opposed to Rome or Jerusalem (Phil 3: 17-21).
Finally, then, they conclude that “We are pretty much descendants of Anabaptists and the pre-Constantine church.” Then, while offering some ever helpful reminders such as “The Bible can’t really be seen if it is read from an empire perspective,” they offer this nugget, which brings us back to alternativity:
The main way we respond to the ways of the world is to build the alternative: the Kingdom of God being lived out as the people of God, the church. We go to the system from the church and return to the church. We hope the grace we bring transforms and changes the world, but when we are not assured of that, we know who we are and where we come from and we preserve the possibilities of a better world by existing.
That’s it, right there. To the extent that we as the church and the Bride of Christ embody an alternative reality to the powers, principalities, and systems of this age, then we live into our prophetic calling to declare with our very lives, as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove wrote and I discuss elsewhere, that “the end of our story has interrupted us in the middle” (italics added).” Though we live yet “between the times,” we are to be an outpost of God’s kingdom come. Thus,
In the midst of violence, we bring peace.
In the midst of (perceived) scarcity, we bring abundance and generosity.
In the midst of fear-mongering, we bring fearlessness.
In the midst of so much foolishness, we bring wisdom.
In the midst of domination by the powers and principalities of this age, we bring alternativity.
Consequently, as Rod White writes in the title of another post that has been a touchstone for us in our season of “devolution” and “getting small,” “for the slaves of Christ, existence is resistance.”
Thus, I suppose it should come as no surprise that the Bruderhof has been on my mind of late. As our year of devolution and learning to be peacemakers winds on, and most recently as we’ve felt called to move on from Mill City Church and explore becoming part of Church of All Nations, I’ve found myself returning for inspiration again and again not only to Circle of Hope but also to the Bruderhof. They, of course, are the community of 2,000+ Jesus followers on several continents that not only resist capitalism in order to follow Jesus- as we feel called to do- but almost reject it altogether (collectively, they own some businesses, all the proceeds from which go back into supporting the life of the community). They were founded by Eberhard Arnold in Germany just as Hitler was coming to power, and today, nearly a century later, they live together in rural villages around the country and around the world, and even have some community houses in urban areas like the Bronx. Everything they do, they do together. They literally sell all their possessions and give any proceeds to the church, which is a requirement for any person or family that seeks to join the Bruderhof. Thus they live into God’s economy in a more real and tangible way than scarcely anyone else I’m aware of or could imagine. Since those who join the Bruderhof don’t engage in capitalism, they hold everything in common and do not earn wages. The necessary work for their life together is divvied up among the members, and each does his part. No man or woman is richer or poorer than any other. All belongs to all and is received from God as a gift for all. They practice communal discernment and decision-making, and hold one another accountable to Jesus and one another as they practice their way of life together. As they say of themselves here:
We are an intentional Christian community of more than 2,900 people living in twenty-three settlements on four continents. We are a fellowship of families and singles, practicing radical discipleship in the spirit of the first church in Jerusalem. We gladly renounce private property and share everything in common. Our vocation is a life of service to God, each other, and you.
The Bruderhof was founded in 1920 by Eberhard Arnold in Germany. None of us owns anything personally, and our communal property belongs not to us as a group but to the cause of Christ. Anyone who has decided to become a member freely gives all property, earnings, and inheritances to the church community. In turn, all necessities such as food, housing, and health care are provided for. Members generally work for and in the community, but none of us receives a paycheck, stipend, or allowance. In our homes and daily lives, we try to live frugally and give generously, to avoid excess, and to remain unfettered by materialism. In these practical ways we seek to witness that under the stewardship of the church, everything we have is available to anybody in need.
I’ve probably known of them, at least dimly, for a while, but their faithful witness lo this past century as a distinct community of Christ that stands in contradistinction to that of empire- whether that of Nazi Germany as they were being founded or the U.S. today- is striking and admirable. They are themselves an embodied word of truth spoken to power. So my dim awareness of them has come alive of late as I’ve been reacquainted with Eberhard Arnold, whom I wrote about here. On Circle of Hope’s Celebrating the Transhistorical Body blog, they remembered Arnold on Nov. 22 of last year. I was surprised when reading their post about him to be reminded that it was Arnold who said that “Truth without love kills, but love without truth lies.” This quote can be found in the header for Rod White’s blog and is one of Circle of Hope’s proverbs. I was also surprised, though in hindsight I shouldn’t have been, to learn that it was MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) that helped the Bruderhof escape Nazi Germany. For those who don’t know, “MCC is a global, nonprofit organization that strives to share God’s love and compassion for all through relief, development and peace.” Thus, they are the relief, development, and peacemaking arm of those from the Mennonite and other Anabaptist traditions, and Circle of Hope contributes a significant percentage of their tithes and offerings to MCC.
Anyway, there is much affinity between Arnold/the Bruderhof and Circle of Hope. Both have Anabaptist roots. Both strive for alternativity, though in very different settings. Thus, on MLK, Jr. Day of this year, Rod White re-posted on his blog a piece from the Plough (the publishing arm of the Bruderhof) titled “Alien Citizens: Karl Barth, Eberhard Arnold, and Why the Church Is Political.” I urge you to go read it. Above I spoke of the Circle of Hope writer who wrestled with the implications of a Trump presidency not by saying that this administration is “bad” while some others were better and the alternative potential Clinton presidency might at least have been better than this Trump one; rather, they said that any secular administration can only ever be the latest attempt by the powers to secure their rule. Meanwhile, what we really need and are to strive for is the alternativity of the kingdom of God, a truth which would be no less true if Hilary were president. Similarly, in the piece from the Plough by Will Willimon, he writes about the questions surrounding how to respond to the Trump presidency. He says:
For Christians, these questions, while interesting, are not the most pressing. Jesus’ people participate uneasily in American democratic politics not because we are torn between the politics of the left and of the right, but because of the singular truth uttered by Eberhard Arnold in his 1934 sermon on the Incarnation: “Our politics is that of the kingdom of God”.
Because Arnold was a man of such deep humility, peacefulness, and nonviolence, in reading his sermons it’s easy to miss his radicality. How well Arnold knew and lived the oddness of being a Christian, a resident alien in a world where politics had become the functional equivalent of God. How challenging is Arnold’s preaching in our world, where the political programs of Washington or Moscow can seem to be the only show in town, our last, best hope for maintaining our sense of security and illusions of control.
Christians carry two passports: one for the country in which we find ourselves, and another for that baptismal nation being made by God from all the nations. This nation is a realm not made by us but by God; Arnold calls it a “completely new order” where Christ at last “truly rules over all things.”
As storm clouds gathered in Nazified Germany, and millions pinned their hopes on a political savior who would make Germany great again through messianic politics, Arnold defiantly asserted that the most important political task of the church was to join Paul in “the expectation, the assurance of a completely new order.” How quaint, the world must have thought; how irrelevant Christian preachers can be.
Rather than offering alternative policies or programs to counter those of the Nazis, Arnold made the sweeping claim that “all political, all social, all educational, all human problems are solved in a concrete way by the rulership of Christ. This is what glory is.”
This, again, is alternativity in a nutshell. And what a bold claim it is! Could it be that “all human problems are solved in a concrete way by the rulership of Christ?” Is it possible that to whatever extent humanity’s problems have not been solved is the exact extent to which we do not truly or fully subject ourselves to Christ’s rule instead of that of Washington, D.C.? Notice that Arnold says such problems are solved “in a concrete way.” This is no abstract theologizing in a blog post, as I may be accused of doing here. In yesterday’s worship gathering among the people of Church of All Nations (more about Church of All Nations later), the worship leader alluded to the recent trip by some 17 folks from Church of All Nations to the Bruderhof to learn from and fellowship with them. He said that their theology is a “lived theology.” In other words, they spend much less time talking about it than they do simply doing it. As they say in response to the question “Are Bruderhof members religious?”:
We are religious in the sense that our Christian faith is of utmost importance to us. That said, most Bruderhof members are not religious in the sense of highly developed or frequently displayed personal piety. We are extremely ordinary, and tend to speak less about our faith than some other branches of Christianity.
To live in a Bruderhof community you have to want to follow Jesus. Whether you call that being a Christian is not so important – but you have to want to follow Jesus and live the way he showed people how to live.
Much of the world thinks (so-called) “Christianity” is about believing certain things (giving intellectual assent to a set of propositions) and being sure to utter a single prayer at least one time to make sure you get your “fire insurance” and thereafter is about imposing your beliefs and morals on others through the power of the state (how very Constantinian!). What if we were instead known by our love for one another and those around us? What if our efforts were directed at living the kind of life Jesus embodied and taught us? What if we rejected not just empire and the politics of the powers but also the economics of the powers? In the face of the oppression of the powers that divides us into “haves” and “have-nots” be it via capitalism or any other worldly economic system, what if we shared everything and thereby made not only such oppression irrelevant, but also made irrelevant whatever worldly economic solutions the powers allow, again because we renounce the world’s economic systems and share everything? It is just such questions that the Bruderhof attempts to answer not primarily with their theology, but with their lives.
Willimon touches on this in the Plough piece when he says, “As Hauerwas famously puts it, the church doesn’t have a social policy; the church is God’s social policy.” Indeed. I alluded above and have written elsewhere about our recent entrance into Church of All Nations. There are many reasons for this. I’d like for now to note that, as we’ve participated in a couple of worship gatherings and the simple community meals that follow and as we’ve listened to sermons and read articles written by Pastor Kim online, I’ve been struck by the lack of publicity at the very least regarding any sort of social outreach or justice related initiatives. I don’t mean to needlessly be critical of any other church we’ve been a part of or other churches like them, but the study in contrasts is, literally, remarkable. Whole swaths of “Christianity” out there adopt “missional communities,” for example, to marry the mission to somehow “be the church” through service and outreach to others, with community. It seems to me, though, that this is a marriage of convenience that is nonetheless necessary if you’re still trying to “do”‘ (or even “be”) “church” within the convenient folds of Christendom. If you don’t even realize the extent to which you’ve been compromised and perhaps literally “owned” by empire, then it’s hard to see how all your outreach programs and justice initiatives, as well-intentioned as they may be, merely perpetuate the rule of the powers, principalities, and powers over/against that of Christ and his kingdom. Meanwhile, instead of “having a social policy,” we’re supposed to be one. To the extent that we embrace alternativity by renouncing perpetual temporal power grabs in seeking to influence society through elections, to the extent that we embrace alternativity by renouncing violence in all its forms and, to the extent possible (ha, hear my compromising fearfulness?), resist capitalism and participate in God’s economy by sharing possessions and giving to those who ask of us- to whatever extent we do all this no “social policy” or program is necessary. From what I can tell so far, this alternativity is something that Church of All Nations is going for too. I’ll have a bit more to say about this below.
Returning for now to Eberhard Arnold, the Bruderhof, and Willimon’s Plough piece, I’ll say again that Arnold founded the Bruderhof about a hundred years ago. Like I and my family, Arnold became convinced that the Sermon on the Mount was to be lived, not just “loved” as some idyllic dream to aspire to. He likewise learned that living the Sermon on the Mount could not be done alone. Community was required. As I’ve said, you can’t follow Jesus alone, especially not if you’re trying to follow him down the narrow path of radical discipleship, through the narrow door of enemy love and participation in God’s economy. Thus, the Bruderhof was born.
Willimon’s Resident Aliens piece in the Plough has much to contribute to this discussion, and bears further quoting at some length. He writes:
Asked by The Christian Century to respond to the twenty-fifth anniversary of my book with Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, a dozen reviewers dismissed the book as politically irrelevant, sectarian escapism from the great issues of the day. None noticed that the book was meant to address the church, not the US Senate. Resident Aliens was a work of ecclesiology that assumed that when Christians are pressed to “say something political,” our most faithful response is church. As Hauerwas famously puts it, the church doesn’t have a social policy; the church is God’s social policy.
Many of our critics showed that they still live under the Constantinian illusion that the United States is roughly synonymous with the kingdom of God. Even though the state alleges that it practices freedom of religion, the secular state tolerates no alternatives to its sovereignty. Christians are free in American democracy to be as religious as we please as long as we keep our religion personal and private.
Contemporary secular politics decrees that people of faith must first jettison the church’s peculiar speech and practices before we can be allowed to go public and do politics. Many mainline Protestants, and an embarrassing number of American evangelicals, cling to the hope that by engagement with secular politics within the limits set by the modern democratic state, we can wrest some shred of social significance for the Christian faith. That’s how my own United Methodist Church became the Democratic Party on its knees.
Saying it better than we put it in Resident Aliens, Arnold not only sees Christ as “embodied in the church” but calls the church to go beyond words and engage in radical, urgent action that forms the church as irrefutable, concrete proof that Jesus Christ really is Lord and we are not: “Only very few people in our time are able to grasp the this-worldly realism of the early Christians.… Mere words about the future coming of God fade away in people’s ears today. That is why embodied, corporeal action is needed. Something must be set up, something must be created and formed, which no one will be able to pass by,” on the basis of our knowledge of who God is and where God is bringing the world. Our hope is not in some fuzzy, ethereal spirituality. “It takes place now, through Christ in the church. The future kingdom receives form in the church.”
In his sermon, Arnold eschews commentary on current events, as well as condemnation or commendation of this or that political leader, and instead speaks about the peculiar way Christ takes up room in the world and makes his will known through the ragtag group of losers we dare to call, with Paul, the very body of Christ. “It is not the task of this body of Christ to attain prominence in the political power structure of this world.… Our politics is that of the kingdom of God.”
Because of who God is and how God works, the congregation where I preach, for all its failures (and I can tell you, they are many) is, according to Arnold, nothing less than “an embassy of God’s kingdom”: “When the British ambassador is in the British embassy in Berlin, he is not subject to the laws of the German Reich.… In the residence of the ambassador, only the laws of the country he represents are valid.”
Arnold’s sermon is a continually fresh, relevant rebuke to those who think we can do politics without doing church. Among many pastors and church leaders, there is a rather docetic view of ministry and the church. We denigrate many of the tasks that consume pastoral ministry – administration, sermon preparation, and congregational leadership – because we long to be done with this mundane, corporeal stuff so we can soar upward to higher, more spiritual tasks. Arnold wisely asserts Incarnation and unashamedly calls upon his congregants to get their hands dirty by engaging in corporate work: to set up, create, form, and learn all those organizational skills that are appropriate for an incarnational faith where we are saved by the Eternal Word condescending to become our flesh.
There’s so much to unpack here, but I trust I’ve already done some of that work and could do no better than Willimon, to be sure. I do want to highlight some things, though. Willimon notes that Arnold describes the church as being “an embassy of God’s kingdom” and reminds his readers that in an embassy the only “laws” that apply are that of the kingdom/state that the embassy is from. Thus, we are to live as if the authority of Christ and his kingdom “trumps” that of any secular power. Where the state tells us to keep the economy (and all its related wars) going by consuming ever more, Jesus calls us to sell our possessions, share God’s gifts which were given to all for all, and give to those who ask of us. Where the state devalues black and brown lives through its racially biased education, housing, employment, and criminal “justice” systems; and through the mass incarceration of people of color via the school to prison pipeline (in order to keep profits flowing to the prison industrial complex), we are to assert and live as if black lives matter.
I could go on, but I also want to echo Arnold in saying that “Mere words about the future coming of God fade away in people’s ears today. That is why embodied, corporeal action is needed. Something must be set up, something must be created and formed, which no one will be able to pass by.” Likewise, he said, “The future kingdom receives form in the church.” Doesn’t this sound a lot like “the end of our story has interrupted us in the middle?” Indeed.
Willimon goes on to allude to the Charleston church massacre and its aftermath. He says:
I know a pastor who began his sermon after the Charleston massacre by asking, “How come our Bible studies in this church have not been truthful enough, intense enough, for anybody to want to kill us? Church, we need to figure out how to be so faithful in our life together that the world can look at us and see something that it is not. Our little congregation is called to be a showcase of what a living God can do!”
It’s a profound question Willimon’s pastor colleague asked. Why don’t more people want to kill us? The “politics of Jesus” were sufficient to get him executed by the state, and he promised that we would be persecuted too. May I suggest that if we (European American) U.S. residents who want to follow Jesus are not being severely persecuted, it’s not because of the “freedoms” that U.S. soldiers are said to die for. Rather, I would argue that it’s because we spend most of our days pledging allegiance with our lives to the ideals, dreams, and aspirations that are symbolized in the U.S. flag, rather than to Christ and his kingdom.
So then, as I’ve been re-acquainting myself with the Bruderhof of late, I’ve been surprised to see what a vital presence they have. Despite the pastoral setting of most of their communities, they have not retreated from the world (because the Sermon on the Mount cannot be put into practice in isolation from one’s actual and metaphorical neighbors). They operate the Plough magazine and publishing house, which I’ve quoted at length above and am glad to subscribe to. They have a vibrant presence on social media, especially Youtube, where one can find a plethora of explainer videos and vignettes from their life together. Take this one, which explains who and what they are in their own words:
I also want to show you this one, titled “Living in Community is Not the Answer:”
This several minute long video by Melinda, a young woman from the Bruderhof, is a profound meditation on life in community and what it’s for, and on our relationship to the powers as we seek to embody alternativity, though of course she doesn’t quite put it that way. In the video Melinda is answering the question posed by a commenter, Christian, which he describes as a “haunting question.” Christian asks: “Is community an end in itself, the cause for dedicating your life, or is it preparation for the mission?” Melinda answers by saying that we are called to life together, but such life is not an end in itself. She says that “community is the vehicle by which we can help and uphold ourselves in our dedication to the cause” (of following Jesus, together). She concludes by stating essentially that the life of alternativity that we are called to must be a life together because we can not do it alone. She says that Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves means that we can not be richer than our neighbor and can not turn a blind eye when our neighbor struggles or falls into sin. She says, “Show me a way of doing all that without full Christian community, and I’ll consider it.” Then comes the coup de grace, as she repeats what I think another Bruderhof member must have said in responding to Christian’s “haunting question.” She says:
“I’m not sure why this is a haunting question. My haunting question for Christian is why he feels like owning his own stuff and living for one’s self is preparation for mission.”
It’s an incisive rejoinder which I, putting myself in Christian’s place, do not have a good answer for. So, as the Bruderhof was on my mind, and given my knowledge that some folks from Church of All Nations were at the Bruderhof over the past week, I looked for a Church of All Nations (CAN) sermon to listen to last Sunday when we couldn’t make it to their worship gathering because one of us was sick. I chose this sermon, titled “Saved from What?” I already knew enough of CAN and Pastor Kim to know that this would likely touch in some way on radical discipleship as an alternative to the “traditional” USAmerican presentation of the gospel that I’ve described at length on this blog, including above. I wanted to hear it and expected to view it as something of an answer to another recent sermon I heard about what following Jesus means. That is, I had a pretty good idea that this sermon would be about alternativity. Gratefully, I was not disappointed.
I was surprised, however, as the sermon, from May of this year, was in Pastor Kim’s words, “essentially all about the Bruderhof.” Pastor Kim speaks at length about the call to community and alternativity as embodied and practiced by the Bruderhof, and holds it up as something to be strived for by CAN. As Kirsten and I sat listening to this, when we heard him mention that the sermon was largely about the Bruderhof we looked at each other, a bit stunned. We had spent much of that day reacquainting ourselves with them. Arnold had already risen up as a guide to our next steps in our journey of “getting small” that we keep talking about, and again I’ve written about that. I had likewise been pleased to find all the resonance between how the Bruderhof embodies alternativity and the way Circle of Hope strives to do so in a very different, urban context. And I knew that Church of All Nations currently (at the time, a week ago) had a delegation visiting the Bruderhof, but I did not expect this sermon from May to be largely about them too.
We’ve had several moments in our journey over the past year in which we felt like it was very hard NOT to say that God was somehow speaking to us. Several times we heard the same piece of scripture, for example, from several different, diverse sources, all coming to us at the same time, a time in which we had ears to hear that bit of Scripture anew. This moment as we listened to Pastor Kim preach online about the Bruderhof felt at the very least like another one of those bread crumbs along the trail we are to follow. It was confirmation that we were paying attention to the “right” voice(s) at the “right” time. Imagine my delight, then, when I came across this article online, written for the Plough by Pastor Kim, no less, for the upcoming issue. Bear with me as I give you the whole thing below, because it’s worth it. It’s not really that long, and if you’ve read this far, I appreciate it, for starters, and you’ve shown yourself to be committed to seeing this through to the end. I’ll have just a few words to add of my own below. Pastor Kim writes:
In October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther ignited a movement in the Western church that would lead to the Protestant Reformation. It was a bold response that captured the people’s yearning for comprehensive reform of a church that seemed to have lost its moorings. In modern times it has become apparent to more and more Christians that the church seems to be obsessed with its own institutional survival, which is akin to a dog chasing its own tail. What kind of reformation do we need today for the church to remember its identity and pursue its mission?
Every few months at Church of All Nations (CAN), we offer a class for visitors who want to become members of our congregation, and by extension, of the church catholic. In the class we discuss discipleship, membership, and the theological concepts at the core of our community. But the majority of class time is devoted to a two-thousand-year overview of the Christian story. Why do we spend so much time discussing history? We see no other way to know who we are as a church, and where we are going, apart from knowing how we got here.
It doesn’t take long for our new member candidates to see that our congregation, though part of the mainline Presbyterian family, draws its inspiration from the radical reformers persecuted as “Anabaptists” by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists. The Anabaptists’ clear identification of church–state collusion as idolatry made them a threat to both the Catholic Church and the fledgling Protestant movement. At CAN, our commitment to costly discipleship doesn’t come from Reformed catechisms and creeds, but from the way that the Confessing Church emerged to challenge Nazi rule in Germany, and the daring witness of Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer – their courage, “real world” theology, and pastoral insights.
Today, we are seeing growing impatience with the institutional church’s accommodation to temporal power. Younger generations, no longer willing to give the church the benefit of the doubt, are driving the mass exodus out of the Western church, which they see as a primary source of pain and abuse in the world. But for those who have not given up on the church as a vessel of God’s grace and transformation, the contours of a new reformation are beginning to surface.
Our congregation, for instance, is trying to root itself in the anti-imperial gospel community that Jesus inaugurated in Galilee. We hope to be heirs of an unbroken tradition of radical faithfulness to the God of Israel. Though the church has given in to the temptations of empire throughout her history, we are encouraged by the long and continuous witness of uncompromising faithfulness to Jesus as well.
What can we learn about reformation today from the early church? The Gospel of Mark opens with John the Baptist proclaiming “repentance and the forgiveness of sins.” John was consciously harking back to the traditions of Moses and Elijah, legendary leaders of Israel who practiced the dual roles of prophet and pastor. They boldly entered the courts of Pharaoh and King Ahab and demanded justice. They re-taught the people how to live as family, how to practice hospitality, and how to rely on God for their daily bread. John the Baptist had a simple message: The kingdom of God is just around the corner, so you better get your act together. At the core of his teaching was an ancient biblical ethic of mutual aid and restorative justice: Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; whoever has food must do the same.
Jesus opted to be baptized into the radical wilderness movement that John had faithfully stewarded for years. The Gospels give us a portrait of a scandalously loving and spirit-filled messiah who healed those plagued with evil spirits. He dared feed the hungry whose common lands had been gobbled up by massive estates. He taught the Galileans how to live with one another like Moses had originally taught them. God’s law was to love one’s neighbors as family, to not scheme about tomorrow, to not give in to the strife and petty jealousies that fracture communities and make them easy to divide and conquer.
When Jesus died, his followers experienced his presence among them. The brutal execution of their Lord could have ended the movement. Instead, they saw that Jesus refused to counter violence with violence. When the women reported an empty tomb, they took it as a sign of Christ’s vindication. The story of the resurrection and ascension of the Lord to “the right hand of the Father” became a rallying cry for those who knew Jesus in his life. Jesus had stayed faithful to the Father, the God of his ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, even on pain of death. Rome had done its worst, its most terroristic act, and Jesus turned the whole spectacle on its head with the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” For the disciples, death had truly lost its sting.
Paul, the “strict constructionist” rabbi who sought to protect the integrity of Pharisaic Judaism by any means necessary, was also a privileged Roman citizen. He was interrupted on his way to Damascus by the stark presence of the resurrected Messiah. Blinded by the Lord’s presence, Paul went from being the chief enforcer of temple law to “least of the apostles.” As an alternative to Caesar’s patronage in the imperial familia, Paul could now offer a place in the loving family of God, the body of Christ.
For most of its history the institutional church has been both the master and servant of Western empires.The church has been a force for good in countless ways, and it is right for Christians to celebrate that heritage. But an honest accounting also requires us to admit that for most of its history the institutional church has in alternating ways been both the master and servant of Western empires. Is there another way? Can modern disciples truly follow the Way of Jesus over the American Way?
The church continues only as the next generation accepts the call to be Christ’s body, and his hands and feet to the world. As a pastor in a mainline church for twenty-five years, I have noted the dwindling numbers of young people in the local church. The children of boomers see the church today as complicit in, and co-opted by, the ways of the world. They have little interest in perpetuating the Constantinian arrangement in which churches produce loyal foot soldiers for the empire du jour.
The Protestant Reformation and the Radical Reformation were supposed to inaugurate a new era of integrity and faithfulness for the church. But today we see that, whether a congregation is Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Quaker, Mennonite, or Presbyterian, they are overwhelmingly white, old, and declining. Such is the fruit of the Reformation after five hundred years.
The church I currently serve was founded in 2004 with a demographic of mostly Korean- American immigrants raised in this country, roughly twenty-five to thirty-five years old. In recent years, CAN has become a slightly majority-white church, although our members still hail from over twenty-five nations and cultures. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that two-thirds of our congregation is made up of twenty- to forty-year-olds. Ministering to a mostly millennial congregation has given us some insights about the future of the church in a postmodern context.
What is it that our young people don’t buy anymore?
- Uncritical patriotism and American exceptionalism (“my country, right or wrong”).
- Unexamined white supremacy, both the nativism of the Right and the paternalism toward people of color by the Left.
- Unfettered consumerism at the expense of global fairness and environmental sustainability, and endless consumption as a personal coping mechanism.
- Rugged individualism and the subtext of the American dream – the accumulation of enough skills and wealth so as to be completely independent.
- Christian denominational sectarianism, parochialism, and triumphalism in the face of religious pluralism.
Young people today are desperate for what only the church can offer:
- Our young people are searching for their vocation. Many are educated enough for a job or career in the present order, but are desperately searching for a calling.
- Our young people hunger for healthy relationships, to meaningfully and deeply relate to another human being (half grew up in divorced or single-parent homes, and others in dysfunctional households).
- Plagued with loneliness, isolation, and alienation, our young people are seeking enduring Christian community that functions like a diverse yet intimate family.
- Our young people are looking for stability in a highly mobile world, and concreteness in an increasingly virtual and socially networked existence.
- Our young people desire authentic faith. They are prone to agnosticism or even raw atheism, as they see little evidence of a God that makes a difference in the religious institutions of the day, namely the local church. If local churches would respond evangelically to these needs, they would open the possibility of spiritual renewal for this searching but confused generation.
Many professional religious leaders are working tirelessly for the church’s “renewal,” hoping that a new reformation might save the institutional church from demise. But people today are not interested in institutional score-keeping like membership, attendance, budgets, and square feet. If the only motivation for reformation is preserving a middle-class lifestyle for the clergy and preventing the sanctuary from turning into a condo, then people are saying, Let the temple be torn down, for Jesus can raise it up in three days. Amen, so be it.
We firmly believe that, after five hundred years, the Protestant Reformation is giving way to another tectonic shift in what it means to be church. A new reformation is coming indeed.
One element of that reformation will be learning to live together in intentional Christian community. Our congregation has been forming households of unrelated people almost from our beginning, and now we have multiple community houses that are structured, ordered, and thriving. We were making steady progress, or so we thought, until we began to learn about the Bruderhof way.
We were blown away by this community that goes back almost a hundred years – the lifelong commitment to the community, the common purse, working for businesses that are owned and operated by the overall community, the care of its members from cradle to grave (if they choose to stay). CAN is in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, a highly urbanized area, and cannot as yet match these characteristics. But we have been inspired by an actual community that has done it and is living out the Acts 2 way of being church – of sharing all things in common in an age of individualism, greed, loneliness, and despair.
For us, a radical reformation in our time demands that the church live into its vocation as ecclesia, meaning the “called-out ones.” Christians are to be called out of a sick society built on the evils of racism, sexism, militarism, exploitation, and destructive competition. We are to create a new community of love. This does not mean withdrawal from society or indulging sectarian impulses. Church of All Nations is in the middle of an urban and suburban landscape, and hopes to witness to God’s love for the world, right here where we are.
With this goal, we seek to pool our people’s resources, talents, ideas, and labor for the common good. We want our members to feel that their work is rewarding, that the fruit of their labor is being shared justly, that they work together, live together, play together, and worship together because it is very good and pleasant when kindred live together in unity. We will have to participate in the broader economic system, but we will not allow capitalist dogma to influence our internal economics. We will draw people from our immediate context of great brokenness, but our mission will include the casting out of imperial demons and the healing of bodies and souls so that we can relate rightly to our God, our neighbors (human and non-human), and God’s good green earth. We aspire to create an urban village founded on the love and teachings of Jesus Christ our Lord, a type of Bruderhof in the city, and to share God’s abundance with an impoverished world.
Is this part of the next reformation, or just a pipe dream? We’re not sure, but we are grateful for the witness of the Bruderhof, and pray that Christians can live together in harmony as a counter-witness to a world falling apart.
Pastor Kim offers a compelling vision, does he not, of a kind of Bruderhof in the city? Is it any wonder that we feel drawn to CAN just now? We can’t escape the haunting questions asked above by the pastor colleague of Willimon and by the member of the Bruderhof. Why, exactly, is it that that the way we not only study but live out Jesus’ teaching in the Bible has not “been truthful enough, intense enough, for anybody to want to kill us?” Why haven’t we more fully figured out “how to be so faithful in our life together that the world can look at us and see something that it is not?” Or, as the Bruderhof commenter challenged, why do we “feel like owning (our) own stuff and living for (ourselves) is preparation for mission?” Quite simply, it’s not.
Thankfully, we do have the witness of the Bruderhof, whatever unavoidable shortcomings their life together may entail. I can’t help, though, but wonder if Pastor Kim is aware of Circle of Hope. Their life together has shortcomings too, but they’re the only urban church I know of that is really going for alternativity in the way that Pastor Kim seems to want to be a part of, and I and my family do as well. From the very intentional way they go about being the church together through cell groups and a network of congregations that form one church, to their frequent witness and action against the powers in solidarity with marginalized groups, to their willingness to boldly renounce capitalism and violence and share the resources they develop freely (see here, for example, or read about how they share resources here and the power that unleashes here), to their Bruderhof-like subversive use of the world’s economic system to generate resources for their life together (go here and here, for example)- all of this seems to me to be an embodiment of what a “Bruderhof in the city” might look like. Like CAN, Circle has folks that live together in community, so much so that Rod wrote a resource for them as they do so way back in 2004. CAN was a “sponsor” of the Carnivale de Resistance that we attended last year, which I wrote about here and for which our former Circle of Hope pastor Joshua was a member of the Carnivale team. Naturally, Circle of Hope has a Carnivale de Resistance support team, and the organizers of Carnivale spoke at a CAN conference a few years ago. Circe also has a Watershed Discipleship team and as a community has been profoundly influenced by Ched Myers. Meanwhile Ched, of course, also came to speak at that same recent CAN conference. I could go on, but for now suffice it to say that there’s much resonance among Circle of Hope, the Bruderhof, and CAN. Therefore, with Circle of Hope and the Bruderhof as inspiration, I and my family are glad to enter into the life that CAN is having together. We pray that we will ever more fully embody, together, the alternativity that we are called to. Lord, let it be so.