"Power has ruined America. Not only on the liberal left. Now it seems to have done the same for the religious right" (p.1) With these words, David Alan Black begins the first chapter of his latest book, The Jesus Paradigm. Black minces no words. The church's desire for power and influence has compromised the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Black not only sees this compromise for power in the church's involvement in American politics, but he sees it in the very way most churches structure and organize themselves. The church is not the serving church it should be because it is structured as a top down enterprise, completely unlike the upside-down kingdom that Jesus modeled for his disciples. The mission of the church is also compromised because its bureaucracies along with its bureaucrats get in the way. Black writes, "The fight of faith to which we are committed is not a battle against Christianity. It is a battle to free Christianity from the shackles of Christendom, to smash our idols, and to establish a church that is once again characterized by poverty of spirit" (p. 3).
Dave's answer to the problem of the church in America is what he calls the "Jesus Paradigm." "The expression alludes to the way Jesus concluded his earthly ministry... Whenever he [Jesus] speaks about being glorified-- being 'lifted up'-- he always refers to his death... Today Jesus is calling his followers to continue his mission of radical, sacrificial love in this world" (p. 7).
Black, whose ecclesiology is radically Anabaptist, criticizes most churches for their "clericalism," where the clergy are given special sacerdotal privileges. He believes the church has also been idolatrously focused on its physical structures instead of directing its resources toward mission, and he argues that the church in America is more interested in being accepted by the society and influential in Washington DC, than in fulfilling Jesus' direct command to make disciples.
There is so much that I like about Dave's book. Many times I was cheering on his call for Christians to embody the suffering love of Jesus, and at times I was squirming at the implications of taking his argument seriously. I must admit, as we all must admit, that there is an ingrained bourgeois element in Western Christianity that we like and do not want to throw away. We are like the rich young ruler who walks away from Jesus because he refuses to give up what is so dear to him, even though it stands in the way of his entering the Kingdom. One of the best sections of the entire book is entitled, "The FDR-ing of the Church" (p. 67-69), in which Dave suggests "American Christianity has so closely allied itself with the government of the day that the transcendent Gospel has become submerged in the world's values" (p 68).
I am a Wesleyan Methodist whose ecclesiology can best be described as a hybrid between Anglican and Anabaptist theology. There are times where those two compliment each other very well; there are other times when they struggle together in tension. I felt that tension as I read The Jesus Paradigm. I find much in Dave's book to be appealing, and though I am sympathetic, I am not completely with him on his ecclesiological bent. Let's just say that my Anglican/Methodism is rearing its ugly head.
It is not my purpose to engage in a detailed critique of Dave's ecclesiology, but just let offer two matters for consideration. Throughout the book, Dave uses the political/apolitical distinction. I fundamentally agree with what Dave means when he employs that dichotomy, but I do not care for the terminology of Jesus or the Kingdom of God being "apolitical." As I have recently said on this blog, it is not a matter of whether or not Christians are involved politically; it is a matter of how Christians are involved politically. Although Dave refers to being apolitical as not falling into the Christendom trap, I am concerned that most readers will instead hear that the church is politically irrelevant. Anyone reading The Jesus Paradigm should be clear that is not what Dave means, but sometimes people latch on to one term and interpret everything through the lens of how they understand that word. This is not a critique of the substance of Dave's argument because we fundamentally agree. It is a question verbiage.
Second, as a Methodist and a believer in infant baptism, I find Dave's argument against it as something in need of a response. Without getting into the biblical issues at this point, let me say that Dave is quite right to note that infant baptism has been used historically in the practice of statecraft (as one's initiation into state citizenship) in an unfortunate way, and that in more than a few quarters the practice has degenerated into a sentimental administering of a divine life insurance policy. But it is entirely possible to give a politically subversive account of infant baptism, in which the practice itself is a not-so-subtle claim directed to the state that it cannot have the total allegiance of our children. Moreover, some have made interesting attempts to highlight the moral implications of infant baptism with, for example, the rejection of abortion. What I am suggesting is that this issue is more complex, and the answer is found (in my view) not in the rejection of the practice, but in its reform.
If one is looking to read something that will simply affirm one's faith as it is, something that will not call one to self-examination and repentance, then this is a book that is best left on the shelf. But if one is serious about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and if one wants to follow Jesus' example and if one is willing to engage a writer who will raise thought-provoking questions, then The Jesus Paradigm is a must read.
In the book, Dave offers this prayer, "Lord, make us saltier so that we might make others thirstier" (p.136).