My foreword for the fine book by Sean Palmer, Unarmed Empire: In Search of Beloved Community. Sean, for whom I have deep respect, occasionally writes for this blog and he’s a teaching pastor at Ecclesia in Houston.
Sean Palmer is a story-teller, a Southern storyteller if you want to know the precise genre. He’s also a preacher who loves the Bible and I’d like to say he’s a born story-teller and preacher and Bible guy, but that’s not quite right. One has to learn these arts but I am willing to say that these arts run deeper than his baptism, and that’s saying a lot for a Churches of Christ preacher. That he’s black reshapes each of these arts, but you will have to read Unarmed Empire to see how that reshaping works but once you read it you will not only see it but you will rise up with me and call him (and us) blessed, even doubly blessed.
Sean Palmer is a pastor and the way the church acts – the way it despises the Other, the way it speaks of those unlike them, the way politics run deeper than Jesus, the way Americanism and nationalism and empire ideologies strike the chord that moves them, all these things and more – bothers him enough to do two things: First, he names the sins of the church and sometimes its perpetrators and, second, he names a way forward, a way out, not a way around and not a way under, but a way out of the chaos into the order of God’s kingdom where we see Jesus gathering around him folks who want to follow him by loving all.
Most importantly, Sean Palmer is a witness – to Jesus, to the church, to the kingdom, to honesty (about himself), to grace, to change, and to a courageous vision in the midst of empire. Here are some themes of Sean’s witness:First, he is a witness to an unarmed empire, which in his language is about peace and about the church being lambs among wolves. He will point his finger at some brutal immoralities but he points even more to the way, excuse me, to The Way who is the truth and the life. An unarmed empire is a beautiful expression and most of us will love the turn of phrase but once we get his point we’d perhaps not like to have heard it. Why? Because “unarmed empire” is a summons to live as God revealed himself in Christ and that means we have to drop our swords, and we’ve got lots of metaphorical ones. Which leads to a second theme in his witness.
Sean has a way of getting under my skin as he was searching for my heart. Jesus was an amazing storyteller and one of his best ones is now called the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Many of us read it with a bit of delight, if not Schadenfreude, for we love watching Jesus squash the Pharisee and raise up the Tax Collector. Our sense of approving Jesus excoriating the Pharisee we take delight in knowing we are not the Pharisee, but the moment that happens we have become the Pharisee. How so? We sit in judgment on him as he sat in judgment on the Tax Collector. Sean tells stories just like that and he intentionally gets under the skin and makes us nervous about where he might end up this time, and then we realize he’s not nit picking and he’s not irritating us on purpose. He’s trying to get to our heart and to get us to see the heart of Jesus. He does this well.
Finally, some people tell their story in such a way that you want to meet them. We Google their name and we find more books by them and about them on Amazon or in the library, and we make them heroes. I receive books like this weekly. But there’s something more in Sean’s witness: he tells stories in such a way that I want to meet his God. I want to encounter his Jesus. I want to read his Bible. In other words, his stories are tools to get us to see that what God is doing in this world is bigger than who we are. It is a story of grace that summons us to put down our swords and guns and fight for an unarmed king in an unarmed kingdom with unarmed weapons.
It’s enough that many may well want to go back to church.