July 21, 2011 / Perspective
Author Matthew Dickerson explores the use of food in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, and why food is the defining feature of the Hobbits’ culture.
November 12, 2015
Kristopher Norris and Sam Speers. Kingdom Politics: In Search of a New Political Imagination for Today’s Church. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015.
For decades, theologians and philosophers debated whether Christian religious convictions were admissible in public discourse. On one side, theologians touted the publicly accessible nature of Christian truth and its relevance for democracy; on the other, theologians proclaimed that the narrative-embedded particularity of Christian truth meant that ecclesiology—not politics—should be of foremost concern. Fortunately, such voices have given way to others who refuse to choose between a theology of integrity and an insufficiently theological politics. For these thinkers, the question of whether Christians can engage in public life is beside the point; the more interesting question is how Christians already are—and always have been—going about their political participation. Kingdom Politics makes a fine contribution to this growing body of ethnographic, lived theology, and practical theology literature. Its case studies of how five Protestant congregations in the United States understand their political witness will be of interest to church leaders, laypersons, and academics alike.
Setting out to find “a new political imagination for today’s church,” the authors visited five congregations: Saddleback Church, an evangelical megachurch in Orange County, California; Solomon’s Porch Community, an emergent church congregation in Minneapolis, Minnesota; First and Franklin Presbyterian Church, a progressive mainline community in Baltimore, Maryland; Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Indiana, the former home church of the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder; and Ebenezer Baptist Church, the black Baptist congregation in Atlanta, Georgia, that first produced and was then pastored by Martin Luther King Jr. Using a lived theology approach, which seeks, in the words of Charles Marsh, to claim “the patterns and practices of everyday life . . . as an essential part of constructive theology,” the authors pay particular attention to how each congregation conceives of its relationship to politics.
Each chapter focuses on one of the congregations, describing and discussing the congregation’s worship, leadership, and missions. The authors then categorize the model of politics present in each congregation: Saddleback’s model of political engagement is “mobilizing the local church to change the world” (45); Solomon’s Porch’s, “growing an organic community” (75); First and Franklin’s, “cultivating public activism” (102); Prairie Street’s, “committing to community” (129); and Ebenezer’s, “living their story” (159). The authors cull from each congregation a variety of practices from which other churches can learn (summarized in easy-to-read charts at the end of each chapter). These include, for example, “intentional exploration of the meaning and purpose of the church [to] clarify [its] mission” (46), “dialogical sermons” (75), “What’s at Stake in the Election?” educational sessions (103), partnering with nonchurch agencies (130), and scripturally grounded political activism (161).
This diversity of case studies and political practices is one of the book’s strengths. Norris and Speers paint a rich portrait of Protestant American Christianity and the manifold possibilities for its political witness. Although the authors champion a Christian political witness that holds together worship of the “King” and pursuit of Jesus’s “kingdom” (and identify Ebenezer Baptist as the best example of such a politics), they do not delineate a determinative vision of “kingdom politics.” Rather, they consider a range of approaches and carefully weigh the strengths and weaknesses of each.
Particularly noteworthy is the way Norris and Speers go about their study. Indeed, another of the book’s strengths is its conversational, narrative style. Each chapter’s analysis unfolds against the backdrop of Norris and Speers’s own dialogue on their investigative adventure. Their study narrates not only their research into these congregations but also their own disagreements, uncertainties, and questions about what they have observed. They are transparent about their backgrounds and biases, aware of how their perspectives influence their analyses, and willing to be challenged by what they learn. In the chapter on Ebenezer, Norris illustrates this openness by confessing his uneasiness with direct political activism, only to reconsider after Speers suggests “that as two white people from churches laden with political privilege—and therefore the luxury of keeping a great distance between church and politics—we have a hard time understanding this context” (147). Such honest, thoughtful analysis marks each chapter of the book, all of which features vivid description and is written in an accessible style, appropriate for its nonacademic audience and reflective of the authors’ convictions about the power of narrative to shape Christian political actors.
Despite the authors’ laudable epistemological humility and their refusal to identity any one vision as the correct one, I did often wonder what the authors mean by their title phrase “Kingdom Politics.” Their use of this phrase is meant to highlight Christians’ allegiance to Christ and the “inherently political” nature of the church so as to recognize that “ordinary church practices are politically significant” (9). But the book does not discuss this concept in much detail, nor does it explore Jesus’s parables about the kingdom of God. Readers looking for a more detailed account of what the authors imagine kingdom politics to look like—apart from their central thesis that it combines “developing members’ ‘personal faith’” with “social justice” (3)—or how it might be operating at a normative level in their analysis will be disappointed. Although a refusal to detail a precise vision of kingdom politics is consistent with Jesus’s own parabolic ambiguity about the kingdom, the centrality of this concept demands more attention.
Also helpful would have been an acknowledgement of the limits of kingdom language. As a Social Gospel-oriented Baptist, I myself am inclined toward this language, but those of us with a penchant for kingdom talk would do well to keep in mind well-founded critiques of such language. Mujerista theologian Ada María Isasi-Díaz, for instance, argues that kingdom language privileges a hierarchical, elitist, male conception of community. She proposes kin-dom as an inclusive alternative. I agree (and I suspect the authors would too) that this coinage is better representative of the reality we might take the phrase to describe. For a book that proclaims the inherent politicalness of all church piety and practices, it seems oddly unaware that such naming is itself a political act with political implications. Indeed, I might have restricted my critique on this issue to a simple suggestion that the authors acknowledge such concerns in a footnote, but I see this problem as representative of other issues in the book.
First, although the book represents itself as a study of how congregations understand their political witness, it is more aptly described as a book that explores how predominantly male church leaders reflect intellectually on the political nature of their congregations’ ecclesial practice. This is not necessarily a problem; given the book’s stated audience—“church leaders and those interested in the ways churches think about and engage in politics” (10)—it is useful to understand how church leaders understand their congregations’ activities. The authors do of course speak with laypersons and analyze what they observe during their own attendance at corporate worship and other activities, but the balance always seems to tip toward their interviews with church leaders. In other words, the hierarchical implications of kingdom language reveal themselves in the authors’ unintended concentration on official leadership structures.
This is a shame because the best parts of the book are the authors’ own perceptive descriptions and compelling analysis of the worship and other church activities they experience. The book opens, for example, with the story of a “Braveheart-style” Eucharist administered at Solomon’s Porch by community member “William Wallace” who “picked up a communion baguette from a nearby coffee table, and, brandishing it as a sword, began his nearly three-minute performance complete with Scottish accent and dramatic eye contact with his ‘bemused’ soldiers” (2). This reader was busy rolling her eyes—ready to dismiss this “practice” as sheer ridiculousness—until Norris and Speers offered an illuminating analysis of how this particular celebration of the Eucharist carries potent political implications: it teaches the congregation that the “divide between sacred and secular is blurred” and “by breaking down the typical hierarchy between clergy and laity, members learn that everyone has something to contribute . . . . instill[ing] a value for egalitarianism that extends beyond the walls of the church” (8). The study is at its best in moments like this, when the authors’ generosity of interpretation and intellectual insight point out potential political ramifications of seemingly insignificant or silly things, providing a sense for the kind of ecclesial-political imagination of which churches—in all their diversity and complexity—are capable.
Second, the analysis is limited at times by an overdrawn conceptual scheme that privileges the authors’ interpretive tools at the expense of the congregations’ own self-understandings. Here again, the kingdom perspective seems to have resulted in a top-down approach. On one hand, the scheme of King and kingdom and dualisms like “social transformation” versus “spiritual formation” or “piety” versus “politics,” provide pleasing conceptual handles for the book that are part of its noteworthy accessibility. On the other hand, these dualisms often feel imposed on the analysis. Rather than allowing the congregations’ self-descriptions to challenge the academic categories Norris and Speers bring to the study, they often force the congregations into these conceptual schemas. One instance in which this is apparent is in the Saddleback study, where the pastors resist the language of politics in favor of “mission.” The authors worry that “operating with such a thin view of politics causes the church to separate spiritual formation from its mission to address the world’s social problems” (44), but Saddleback’s preference for mission language doesn’t seem to have thwarted their ambitious efforts to address major global problems like poverty. Norris and Speers’s analysis in this chapter clearly demonstrates the benefits of bringing the tools of academic theology to bear on what they learn at Saddleback, but surely one of the virtues of a lived theology method might be to allow the communities’ own vocabulary and ways of naming to challenge the existing academic categories and theories. Saddleback’s hesitancy to describe its work in term of politics might challenge theologians to explore the possibilities of categories like mission that often go underutilized in academic theology.
Third, in this instance, and others, the conceptual rigidity with which Norris and Speers approach their subject actually limits their interpretive purchase on the variety of ways these congregations might be offering a new political imagination. The framing of the book’s central question, “What is the mission of the church in the world?” for example, depends upon a church-world dualism that already excludes certain conceptions of the church’s political witness—most prominently, accounts that do not presume a church that already exists over against some world. I am thinking particularly of accounts that understand the church’s very identity to be constituted by its engagement with “outsiders,” as political theorist Romand Coles has argued of John Howard Yoder’s ecclesiology and as theologian Nathan R. Kerr argues in his call for a shift from the “church-as-polis” model to a “mission makes the church” model.
Something like a “mission makes the church” model seems to be happening in First and Franklin’s political activism and in Prairie Street’s commitment to forming a multicultural community and partnering in missions with nonchurch organizations, but it goes unnoticed because the authors’ conceptual lenses obscure this possibility. Instead, Norris and Speers worry that because First and Franklin’s members don’t always “connect the church’s social work to specific spiritual or theological underpinnings” (99) and because Prairie Street does not insist on partnering with others “who share the reason . . . and not just the end goal” (174) for their missions, these congregations risk “cultivating ‘morality without doxology’” (129). At these points, I felt myself longing for the analytical sophistication of studies like that of Mary McClintock Fulkerson, whose Places of Redemption: Theology for a Worldly Church was able to appreciate the simultaneously “Christian” and “worldly” character of traditional ecclesial practices as well as the “Christian” and “political” import of nontraditional ecclesial practices, such as churches’ ordinary daily activities, which she calls “homemaking practices.” But such an appreciation requires an approach that explores not only how ecclesial practices are political but also how the myriad other practices of Christians’ daily lives impact their ecclesial practice.
These are perhaps academic quibbles with a book that does a fine job of charting the way churches navigate their relationship with the political and of highlighting powerful ecclesial practices with important political implications. My criticism here is merely an indication of my interest in joining the engaging conversation that Norris and Speers have initiated—a sign that their decision to incorporate their dialogue with themselves and with each other into the narrative has done its work, inviting readers into a stimulating and thought-provoking conversation. In fact, the book’s most powerful vision of Christian political witness may just be that performed by the authors themselves as they embark on their research journey eager to learn from those of different perspectives and open to the joys of collaboration.
 Marsh quoted in Norris and Speers, Kingdom Politics: In Search of a New Political Imagination for Today’s Church (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), 10; all subsequent references to Kingdom Politics will occur in the text.
 Coles, “The Wild Patience of John Howard Yoder: ‘Outsiders’ and the ‘Otherness of the Church,’” Modern Theology 18: 305–31; and Kerr, Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009), 169.
Karen V. Guth
Karen V. Guth is an assistant professor of theology at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is the author of Christian Ethics at the Boundary: Feminism and Theologies of Public Life (2015).