Slow and Local are Where We Must Begin.

A Response to Jamie Smith…

 

I have a deep appreciation for Jamie Smith’s work.  His latest book, Imagining The Kingdom, will most likely be one of The Englewood Review of Books’ (of which I am the editor) best books of the year for 2013, and his Desiring the Kingdom was one named one of our best books of 2009.  And yet I can’t help feeling like the brilliant young philosophy professor has created a straw man in his latest blog post for Cardus: Knitting While Detroit Burns.

 

This post is a response to Brandon Rhodes’s recent profile of Tacoma, WA’s Zoe Liveable Church on Christianity Today’s This is Our City website.  While Smith is sympathetic to much of Zoe’s story, he is concerned that it represents a knee-jerk reaction to the political and social triumphalism of previous eras (the Moral Majority of the 1980s, for instance):  “While we rightly eschew triumphalism, that doesn’t mean we abandon the task of reshaping social architecture at the macro levels, since those state and federal policies impinge on micro neighbourhoods like downtown Tacoma.”

 

Let me lay my cards on the table here at the outset… Not only am I an advocate for Slow Church, I am sympathetic to Anabaptist political theology (often making the case, for example, for why I choose not to vote). However, I personally don’t think that what we are calling Slow Church precludes the reality that our society is going to need some major systemic changes. (I won’t presume to speak for Brandon, Zoe, or anyone else.  Though I do hope that my friend and Slow Church co-author John Pattison will offer a response in due time. Part of the beauty of Slow Church, as I think of it, is learning to trust one another and collaborate together even when we have deep disagreements ).  A good deal of our depiction of Slow Church in the forthcoming book is rooted in our experience here at Englewood Christian Church on the urban near Eastside of Indianapolis (I have told our story at length in the recent ebook, The Virtue of Dialogue: Conversation as a Hopeful Practice of Church Communities).  Like Zoe, our social, political and economic engagement flows out of who we are as church among the particular neighbors that God has given us in our urban place.  Although a good number of us refuse to vote for theological reasons (political engagement is one of the issues that we are not of one mind on), some of these very same people have had the opportunity to enter into substantial partnerships with governmental agencies at the local, state and federal level, and even with global corporations, doing work that bears witness to the just and flourishing reign of God not only in our own neighborhood, but throughout the state and the nation. One of our dear sisters, who herself spent over seven years incarcerated, has become one of the leading advocates for prison reform and restorative justice in the state of Indiana.  Our pastor and his wife, who is the co-director for our widely-recognized daycare, have been leading advocates for early-childcare reform here in Indiana, testifying multiple times before the state legislature.  One of the co-directors of our community development corporation was slated to tell the story of our neighborhood at a recent Washington, D.C. event with President Obama (though I believe the president had to bow out of the event at the last minute).

 

I tell these stories not to brag about our church, but rather to emphasize that churches can be involved in necessary systemic change without necessarily having to seek the seats of power themselves.  Look at the biblical story of Daniel, who was an extraordinarily influential person in the Babylonian empire, and yet never did so by seeking the seat of power, or forsaking his identity as a member of the holy (i.e., set-apart) people of Israel.

 

I wish Andy Crouch’s new book Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (IVP Books, October) was available now, as I think it sheds some light on the concerns I have with Jamie Smith’s arguments.   I had the opportunity to have a delightful conversation with Andy about his book several weeks ago (which will appear in the next print issue of The Englewood Review of Books), and the primary argument of his book is a critique of the idea that power is wholly equivalent to violence. Specifically, he argues that there is a type of power – demonstrated by God in creation and resurrection, for instance – that is more original and superior to power that dominates and oppresses. Humans too, he argues can utilize this sort of power for the flourishing of culture, but Andy was very clear in our conversation that we need to be vigilant about the ways in which we might fall into abuses of power, particularly idolatry and injustice.  He said in my conversation with him (and this is a teaser for the forthcoming ERB interview):

 

I just read a collection of essays by Octavio Paz, a Mexican poet and thinker, in which he tells one story of the famous Mexican revolutionary, Zapata.  Zapata led a revolt, and got all the way to Mexico City.  He and some of his fellow revolutionaries walk into the presidential palace, and Zapata looks at the chair where the president sits, and he refuses to sit in the chair because he’s so spooked by it. I think true institutional change comes when we acknowledge that we might have to sit in that chair, and that also changes our relationship to the people that currently sit in that chair.  In every complex institution, someone’s going to have to sit in that chair, one way or another. So our job is not to get rid of the chair entirely, or avoid the chair. I think that leads to a chastened willingness to work for the good of the institution at its best, rather than a desire just to tear down the whole thing.  The truth is, if you tear down the whole thing you’ll be left with diminished capacity. Honestly, I’m sure some people will read this and think, “Wow, he’s just justifying power and justifying institutions,” but you have to understand how much I’ve spent my life avoiding the chair. I do sit in one of those chairs today, within an institution of an evangelical Christianity, but it took a long time for me to be willing to do that. It was through a process of repentance, actually, that I became willing to occupy that chair. I realized if I’m not a part of something bigger than myself, I’m not a part of as much flourishing as I should be.

 

 

Although I’m still undecided about whether Christians should sit in such seats of power, what I deeply appreciate about Andy’s comments here is the recognition that Christians should not be quick to seek after such seats. In contrast to what I seem to be hearing in Jamie’s post, there are a multitude of ways that Christians can bear witness to the transforming shalom of God’s kingdom, even at the highest systemic levels of our society, without having to sit in seats of power or heed the call “to bend governing to look more like it rests on [Christ’s] shoulders.”  I disagree, therefore with Smith, that “concern for the common good still requires a culture war.”  As I have argued in other places, if churches can be communities that nurture the practice of civil conversation in ways that such conversation flows outward from their life together, if we embody Christ politically in practices like compassionate listening and preferring others to ourselves, then perhaps we will begin to see the culture wars dissolve, as Christians lead the way in the public square toward peaceable civil dialogue that seeks the flourishing of all humans and all creation.

 

Finally, I have to emphatically object to Jamie Smith’s statement that:

 

And let’s be honest: Slow and local is a luxury. Because slow means waiting, and those suffering injustice can’t wait.

 

Our primary call in Christ is not to fix the world, that’s God’s job.  (And I would add, paraphrasing theologian Gerhard Lohfink, that God, unlike human revolutionaries of all sorts, does not seem to be in a hurry).  Our primary call is to follow in the compassionate way of Jesus, not turning a blind eye to injustice, but rather inserting ourselves into the sufferings of our neighbors and others, and bearing the injustice with them.  There is an impatience in our Western, industrial age that prefers to eliminate suffering rather than to enter into it.  The problem with trying to fix the world, acting for others instead of being and acting with them, is that – as colonial patterns of development have shown – we act too hastily and in casting out one demon, we create a vacuum in which seven more demons are spawned.   Following Eugene Peterson, I take Jesus seriously when he says that he is the Way.  Beginning with the descendents of a single couple, Abraham and Sarah, God’s work in the world has always been slow and particular, and when I use slow, I don’t think it is always a temporal descriptor, but rather primarily a descriptor of careful and attentive action. When I have persisted in a committed relationship for many years, with my wife for instance or my church community, some decisions can be made very quickly, banking on the intimate knowledge and trust that has been cultivated over many years of care and attention.

 

As the story of Zoe emphasizes, and as our story here at Englewood Christian Church likewise does, in our age marked by impatience, rootlessness, and a lack of attention, slow and local are where we must begin. Maybe after years of cultivating care and attentiveness to our neighbors, God will lead us into bigger works, but our haste in desiring such works – as Andy Crouch has indicated – will wreak its own sorts of violence, as we try to fix situations without a deep and intimate knowledge of them.  But if every church took seriously their call to follow in the patient and attentive way of Jesus, I think we’d all be joyously surprised by the poignant witness that would we bear to the peace and justice of Christ.

 

AFTERTHOUGHT: Although I have some ecclesiological qualms about it, the history of CCDA is a case study in the sort of politics I have described here.  CCDA was initially about working in particular neighborhoods, and still the vast majority of their work is rooted in neighborhoods, but as they matured they found that needed to be engaged in some systemic issues that were plaguing their neighborhoods, and have been leading voices on some issues, particularly immigration reform.

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Image: Englewood’s community garden, and in the background, the CommonWealth, a multi-million dollar, mixed-income development that we coordinated in conjunction with local, state, federal and corporate partners.

  • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

    Good Response!

    I was frustrated by the dichotomy that he was trying to force as well. I am glad there are impatient people in the world. Because they help keep big issues on the forefront. But the reality is that there are dozens if not hundreds of big important issues that need to be changed yesterday. But they aren’t changing. In part because things are complicated.

    One of the reasons that the slow movement is appealing to me is that you are not claiming that issues are simple. You acknowledge the complexity and know that slow is the only way to work through the complexity.

    At the same time I feel a bit torn. I am drawn to Smith’s understanding of complete systems that work all together and can be explained. (It is just prettier that way. I read a quote the other day that was something like “if the solution isn’t beautiful, then it probably isn’t the solution.”)

    But my anabaptist personality says that the real world isn’t beautiful. That only God can see and understand the beauty of the world as a whole and any time we try to have a complete system (similar to the reformed understanding that Smith works under) we cut out all the rough edges that don’t easily fit.

    • erbks

      Thanks, Adam… I’m not sure that Anabaptists would say that the world isn’t beautiful, just not a neat and simple beauty (like that of a mono-culture farm), but more like the diverse, rugged and sometimes-terrifying beauty of creation….

      • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

        I think the difference is that in the reformed vision of the world the beauty is in the form. In the anabaptist vision of the world, the beauty is in our inability to fully comprehend. As you say, the mono-culture farm and the wild.

        Similarly to my view of Smith’s last book. I really liked his conception of the christian life as liturgy. I agree with his point that we cannot knowledge ourselves into be Christians. It is a practice and grace movement.

        But I was frustrated because his system also essentially meant that the local church that I feel called to be a part of (one that primarily exists as an evangelistic body) cannot fit into his conception of church.

        So his view of what the church is is beautiful. I can see its beauty. But it isn’t real. It is a complete system. But it doesn’t account for the many that do not fit into that system.

        It does seem as if they are incompatible views of the world. It is either one or the other. But you cannot really fully subscribe to both.

    • James K.A. Smith

      Isn’t it a bit weird to suggest I am forcing a dichotomy when the argument explicitly ends by emphasizing BOTH/AND?

      • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

        You are right. You did say both/and. But I didn’t see Zoe’s original piece saying either/or either.

        Having reread both since my original comment. I think both piece agree more than disagree. I think Zoe’s piece is more both/and within the same body (although maybe not within the same person). And you probably won’t disagree with that.

        But it does feel like there is a difference in emphasis.

  • rdhudgens

    I hear two kinds of both/and responses here. A Kuyperian both/and (from Jamie) and a Gandhian both/and (from Chris). I vote (!) for the latter.

    • erbks

      Dang, Rick, the more I think about it, the more I think you hit the distinction on the head in these few words! And HA! about voting….

      • rdhudgens

        Of course one should not forget theologian Franz Bibfeldt’s famous book Either/Or and/or Both/And!

  • James K.A. Smith

    I appreciate this constructive response, Chris. Rich Mouw always said Anabaptists and Calvinists were close cousins, and his long friendship with Yoder attested to that. In the Reformed tradition, I am often identified with the “antithetical” side of the tradition, which is what makes me very sympathetic to–and close to–Yoder, Hauerwas, et. al.

    The only point I’d press here is that I think you’re missing an element of my post. You say:

    “In contrast to what I seem to be hearing in Jamie’s post, there are a multitude of ways that Christians can bear witness to the transforming shalom of God’s kingdom…”

    But I’m just not sure what you’d “hear” that since I explicitly affirm the “slow-is-beautiful” point, but then emphasize it’s BOTH/AND. And my worry is that “slow” church folks are actually the ones giving up on the AND. (And you also don’t note the citation of MLK, who WAS concerned with changing law/policy.)

    Maybe I should write a book that riffs on Daniel Kahneman’s bestseller and called it Faithfulness, Fast and Slow! ;-)

    I also did not–and would never–say “our” job is to “fix” the world. I’m actually a persistent critic of just that sort of Reformed “activism” which I think amounts to (ironically) a cultural Pelagianism and is really post-millenialist.

    Anyway, just a couple of thoughts. Thanks for the helpful pushback.

    • http://www.justinmayfield.org/ J_May

      Good response to the response. And funny insight: “that sort of Reformed ‘activism’ which I think amounts to (ironically) a cultural Pelagianism”

    • erbks

      Jamie,

      I’m sure that as you indicate, we share much common ground.

      Maybe I wasn’t the clearest — as I was writing super-late at night! — but my response was intended to promote a robust notion of Slow Church that is more than the caricatured Anabaptist sectarianism. Are you familiar with Phil Kenneson’s excellent little book in the Christian Mission and Modern Culture series, BEYOND SECTARIANISM? I think I am advocating something similar to what he advocates there, that a sort of sectarianism is necessary for a time for the identity formation of church communities (and I would argue to help us become more attentive to God’s gifts in our sisters, brothers and neighbors) BUT we can’t stay in that sort of sectarian adolescence forever.

      And, of course, AGREEING with you that these things are a both/and, I wanted to engage you on the question of HOW we engage systemic injustices (immersing ourselves in culture wars vs. bearing witness in distinctively Christian ways). And this is point on which I thought Andy’s cautions about power were helpful (whether or not you agree with him…)

      I’m curious, given that “those suffering injustice can’t wait,” how you propose that we respond? My mind lept from there to “fixing,” but maybe I’m making some false assumptions?

      Peace, Chris

    • adam borneman

      Jamie,
      I think I know what you mean by cultural Pelagianism, but could you clarify?

  • bubsblurbs

    Another point that I find interesting regarding fixing things. I’ve recently finished reading Daniel Sack’s Whitebread Protestants, and one of the things that hit me with the book is how we’ve done a really lousy job of fixing things.

  • adam borneman

    Isn’t it a little troubling/telling that the radical vs ordinary, kuyper vs anabaptist, transformationalist vs R2k, hauerwas vs leithart, blah blah blah etc ad nauseam discussion is basically a conversation dominated by middle upper class white men who seem to know whats best for the communities they want to yarnbomb? Actually, JKA Smith’s point about the luxury of “slow” is a good one. In other words, what does King’s “Why we can’t wait” have to do with urban gardens? I live in B’ham, where racial and economic disparity remains a serious problem, and yet droves of locals have gotten excited about “Radical,” have moved down town so they can “save the natives” (as one of my african american urban minister friends recently said). And of course all its done is annoy the #$%$# out of urban pastors who have been ministering in the projects for decades. Yarnbombing is quite the privileged activity it seems. Instead of planting churches under the auspices of free trade coffee shops, it would probably be more prophetic and effective to find an existing church, submit oneself to minority church leadership, worship and serve at churches where you’re not in charge, where you don’t pretend to know whats best for poorer communities, love people, pray for people, and go to the voting booth every time its open.

    • Patrick Bowers

      Good point, but it is also a particular question which is answered differently by those in urban churches with a history of 100 years and one with a history of 10 years. I am not saying the conversation or questions are entirely different, but they definitely coming from to different rootings. A robust dialogue is needed between congregations that exists. In most urban places new churches don’t need to started due to migration of generations, those coming need to submit to the current churches and share in what God is doing in that place.

      Also, what about those areas which no longer have any presences of a church in an urban setting? From the article, you get the feeling Zoe doesn’t have any other churches near by them.

      • adam borneman

        Sure, the conversations and needs are always different, but you wouldn’t know because that “robust dialogue” isn’t happening in most cases.

        A quick googlemaps search (if accurate) shows that Zoe is actually in the most churched area of Tacoma. Perhaps they are in partnership with the many, many nearby Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist, Episcopal, and other non-denominational churches? If so, great.

        • Patrick Bowers

          It is true, most churches are remaining sectarian. I mourn it every day.

    • rdhudgens

      “it would probably be more prophetic and effective to find an existing church, submit oneself to minority church leadership, worship and serve at churches where you’re not in charge, where you don’t pretend to know whats best for poorer communities, love people, pray for people, and go to the voting booth every time its open.” Yes. Yes. Amen.

  • http://www.justinmayfield.org/ J_May

    Good response. I think particularly, when it comes to an issue like abortion, for instance, and many other things, law can help, but ultimately, the only sustainable solution is lives changed and communities of care that help emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and, very pertinent to this discussion, practically support people in landing on the righteous side of tough situations.

    I know a woman that I partner with here in Downtown Tacoma, for instance, that has 3 children from two dads. She’s a phenomenal mom. Like amazing. But years ago before her 3rd child, she was dating someone else that was less mature than the other two dads. I remember him confiding in me that they had an abortion. It broke my heart. I wonder how different that situation would’ve been if she had a strong relationship with God and a community of care around her that had her back to the point that they’d help raise her kids? She probably wouldn’t have even been sleeping with the guy to start with.

    In the meantime, it’s necessary to work out policy for extreme systemic injustices, but it will only be a temporary reprieve. And as you said, Chris: systemic change will also be liable to create a vacuum for 7 more demons as we make sweeping change that affects systems too complex to be understood abstractly.

  • http://practicingresurrection.wordpress.com/ Bill

    This is an excellent post, making some extremely important points while leaving room for reasonable differences of opinion.

    This is what struck me the most:
    churches can be involved in necessary systemic change without necessarily having to seek the seats of power themselves.
    I would argue that if we hope to be instrumental or effective in bringing about systemic change, we must clearly disclaim any interest or desire for seats of power. Otherwise we can expect to be viewed with great suspicion and mistrust, making the whole excercise counterproductive.

  • rdhudgens

    Chris, I’m continuing to think about this series of exchanges between Brandon, Jamie, and yourself. I’m drafting a longer response but just wanted to kick in a comment about sitting in the chair of political power. It seems to me that it would be in keeping with your slow church ecclesiology for someone to serve in that way IF their local community had helped in discerning whether to run or not and continued to help them in discernment all along the way.

    • erbks

      Yes, Ric, I agree and am certainly more open to that option than I would have been 5-10 years ago. Definitely looking forward to your response. Will be glad to share it…


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