If we are going to follow Christ, we need to repent of our Christianity.
Granted, there is no such “thing” as Christianity–Christianity has always been a messy constellation of ideas and traditions. But, for the most part, few (if any) of those ideas and traditions remain untainted from the stain of domination. There may be a disembodied, utterly purified definition of Christianity that exists as some sort of Platonic ideal. But the closest thing to such Christianity is found in books or, perhaps, in intermittent glimpses.
My Christianity, like many in the US, is a strange mashup of Western Civilization, the teachings of Jesus, imperialism, and the American Dream. I have found that, no matter how hard I try, I am utterly incapable of extricating the Jesus-stuff from the other stuff. My imagination has been so formed by imperial forces that I can’t honestly say I know exactly who Jesus is–though I do believe I’ve encountered him.
Image provided by Mark Van Steenwyk. Used with permission.
Jesus’ way was an anti-imperial way. That is why it is so powerful as a co-opted force for empire. Those who conquer often adopt the mythologies of the conquered; it allows them to maintain status quo even as they give space for folks to speak of revolution. Jesus started something amazing; which is why it is so damn sad that his legacy is so steeped in violence, oppression, and shame. Undoing that violence, oppression, and shame–even within ourselves–ain’t so easy.
Whether we like it or not, even the most radical Christian stories have been appropriated into the mythologies of Western civilization. Even the most conservative and imperial voices that uphold Christendom can speak of Jesus’ revolution, just as folks can suggest that Rush Limbaugh is the heir Dr. King’s legacy. If we have been shaped by those mythologies, simply de-converting won’t heal the deep wounds in our souls. The ways that Christianity has developed to captivate our imaginations in service of Western Civilization run deep.
Repenting of our Christianity, however, isn’t as easy as simply “opting out.” Over the years, I’ve met a number of people who, when they realize the dark history of Christendom, simply walk away from Christianity, sometimes in the belief that their de-conversion gets them off the hook for sins perpetrated in the name of Jesus Christ. While I respect that some honestly migrate away from Christianity, I don’t believe it is intellectually honest to opt-out as a way of removing guilt. Even though I didn’t embrace Christianity until my teens, I have been shaped by oppressive Christian ideas and stories (though it would be more precise to call them quasi-Christian USAmerican Imperialism narratives) my whole life. In our society, white supremacy and Christian supremacy are interwoven cords forming a rope of oppression.
There is another way folks try to opt out. By laying claim to a more radical Christianity, many foolishly assume that they’ve changed sides. They jump from team “Empire” to team “Radical.” This is very much akin to a white person claiming they are, in fact, no longer a racist after taking a college course addressing racism (or participating in a racial reconciliation workshop). We do not remove conditioning by simply changing our views or beliefs.
In their effort to change sides, some attempt to join a Christian community that embodies some sort of counter-cultural stance. That was, I admit, part of my own rationale for becoming a Mennonite. But there is no group so thoroughly counter-cultural that one can cleanse themselves from their complicity simply by joining that group. All Christian institutions, practices, and beliefs are shaped adversely by the imperial legacy of Christendom.
The roots of empire go deep. Learning a new script takes a lifetime. If I am going to be faithful to the way of Jesus, I need to confess the brokenness of my Christianity in full recognition of how much it has shaped my identity. It is, for better or worse, part of who I am.
So, I don’t think it is honest to “opt out” by simply rejecting Christianity (that’s like washing the outside of a cup but leaving the inside filthy) or joining some radical Christian enclave. Instead, we need to repent of Christianity.
Repentance is, unfortunately, understood as an event rather than a posture. But when I say “repent” I mean to turn towards Christ and away from Christendom. I mean that we need to start walking towards health and away from dis-health.
We need to practice gelassenheit.
Gelassenheit is a word the early Anabaptists borrowed from the German mystics. It refers to a deep sense of yieldedness to God’s will. While the mystics generally understood gelassenheit to be an inner quiet that, it could be argued, resulted in a sort of detachment, the Anabaptist ethical emphasis understood it in a more extroverted way. Gelassenheit isn’t simply about an individual’s interior life, but their relationships with one another. It is, for the early Anabaptists, a way of relating to one another as a community.
Gelassenheit is about ridding one’s life of all obstacles to love of God and neighbor. As the early Anabaptist Hans Haffner wrote in his devotional tract Concerning a True Soldier of Christ: “When we truly realize the love of God we will be ready to give up for love’s sake even what God has given us.”
When I say we need to repent of Christianity, I am advocating that we let go of beliefs and structures and institutions and buildings and money and stories–everything that we put upon Jesus–and ask “Is this the way of love?” and “Is this separating me from God and my neighbor?”
What we need now, more than ever, is a new spirituality of gelassenheit. One that seeks to remove all of the obstacles to our love. One that understands the intrinsic relationship between love of God and love of others. One that will gladly set aside all things—even if it is a gift of God—for love’s sake.
This isn’t to say that we should embrace a simplistic, naive spirituality devoid of stories and structures. No, I’m advocating that we recognize such stories and structures as abstractions that must be yielded to God. Otherwise, they will become the idols we worship in place of God.
Confoundingly, the path to embracing Jesus while interrogating the structures built in his name is incredibly challenging. I cannot repent of Christianity without naming myself as a Christian. I am a Christian, I repent of Christianity. I must keep confessing this for the rest of my life. This is the path of repentance: to simultaneously confessing our faith in Jesus Christ while denouncing the ways we’ve used that faith as a weapon. It is a swirling dance where we are ever-turning away from Christian supremacy while turning toward the humble path of Jesus.
If we attempt to bring about social justice without a life of repentance, we will presumptuously carry our imperialism with us into the margins. When empire enters the margins, it is colonization. If we are going to be agents of God’s love, we have to yield our hearts to God for decolonization. This is, painfully, a life-long process. I don’t assume that I’ll ever be free from subtly colonizing habits and attitudes. And I certainly won’t ever entirely escape from the social privileges afforded to me by virtue of my status as an educated white USAmerican male. Nevertheless, out of love for God and neighbor, everything–even my Christianity–needs to yield.
Gelassenheit is a spirituality for those radically committed to Jesus anti-imperial path. Apart from such a spirituality, we are either left with religious dogmatism on the one hand, or Marxist materialism (the idea that we simply need to attend to human structures in our quest for justice) on the other. Neither actually repent of Christianity. The former clings to it so much that it remains willfully unable to embrace liberation. The latter assumes that it has moved past Christianity while still clinging to the internalized habits of empire without recognizing them as such.
In all things, may we give up for love’s sake even what God has given us.
Indulge me as I take a literary detour into Shusaku Endo’s Silence. Silence follows a Portuguese priest, Rodrigues, on a dangerous mission to Japan (during the Tokugawa shogunate). Rodrigues is sent to investigate the growing number of faithful apostatizing, particularly of Father Ferreira, a famous missionary. After a time in Japan, Rodrigues is treacherously turned into the authorities.
Rodrigues holds to a triumphant European Christ. In his faithfulness, he clings to Jesus even amidst torture; and even after apostate Christians are tortured in front of him. He remains pure even while everyone else forsakes Christ.
Rodrigues holds fast to his faith under personal torture. Eventually, he is told that if he doesn’t forsake Christ by stepping on a fumie many of the apostate Christians will be killed. Does he cling faithfully to the Christ of the fumie, or does he forsake him, therein saving others? In this act he is confronted with an entirely different understanding of Christ, whose voices speaks after a long silence:
The first rays of the dawn appear. The light shines on his long neck stretched out like a chicken and upon the bony shoulders. The priest grasps the fumie with both hands bringing it close to his eyes. He would like to press to his own face that face trampled on by so many feet. With saddened glance he stares intently at the man in the centre of the fumie, worn down and hollow with the constant trampling. A tear is about to fall from his eye. ‘Ah,’ he says trembling, ‘the pain!’
. . . The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’
The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.
Are we willing to forsake our image of Christ to become as Christ? Are we willing to repent of our Christianity in order to experience the love of Christ into our world?
Mark Van Steenwyk
If you want more from Mark (why wouldn’t you?!), then make sure you have a read of The UnKingdom of God: Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance. And while you’re at it, check out That Holy Anarchist.