Sunday, 18 May 2008

In Search of a Metaphor

How do we understand our Christian faith? What's it all about? Lots of metaphors have been used to try to capture the whole thing. One of the most popular at the moment is 'journey' particularly in emergent circles. And journey is very helpful in lots of ways. It gets rid of the 'in - out' way of thinking of much traditional evangelicalism. It resonates with many people's personal experiences that feel more like a journey than a sudden 'epiphany' or 'decision.'

And yet, it doesn't capture the political or communal aspects of the gospel for me. It is just all far too individualistic for me. What about Jesus' metaphor of 'the kingdom of God'? Its very political and communal and as Jesus said it, no one dare argue. Is the fact that it is so political the reason it is so out of favour in contemporary Christianity?

'Kingdom' is quite literally 'empire'. It is the same word used of Rome's empire. Jesus is calling it the empire of God. Yet, empire has pretty bad associations for us. It smacks of exploiting indigenous people groups, insensitivity to local cultures. domination. Yet, I think this was Jesus' point. Maybe the phrase 'anti-empire' sums up more precisely what Jesus was getting at. Yet, it doesn't have much of a ring about it, does it? Anyone got any better suggestions?

The main point, though, for me is to understand our faith with the political and communal dimensions that Jesus' phrase had in mind. For me, the whole Bible is about the kingdom of God and its antithesis : 'empire'. Sin is not just personal, but systemic. It expresses itself in any means or method of exploitation or control. 'Empire' is just one of many examples of exploitation and control. It also exists in cultural pressures - women have been subjugated in this way. It exists in churches - with controlling leaders. The imperial urge is everywhere. In response the Bible envisions an 'anti-empire' - where there is no control, exploitation. The Bible imagines an egalitarian, horizontal, reciprocal set of relationships; and it attacks any form of cultural, political, moral, religious or social control. Jesus announced that this kingdom has come.

In Mark 10 Jesus attacks control in marriages. Then, the controlling power of wealth. Jesus concludes, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you."

I'm not wanting to knock personal and individual spirituality. Or, the whole after-life thing. I just want to redress the balance.


rache said...

the imperial urge is everywhere - you're right - only last week it was suggested to me that as a doctor I am part of a professional group that is guilty at times of cultural imperialism (only in the patient's best interests of couse!). It seems the way we try to mitigate this professionally, and also perhaps more generally in our culture, is to empower people by having greater respect for their individual autonomy. This is all very well but too much emphasis on individual rights and freedoms seems flawed, certainly compared to a biblical vision. What does a Godly, relational response to imperialism look like in this day and age?

NB anti-empire - resistance, rebellion, insurgency?

mark said...

Cracking comment, rache. Doctors aren't the only imperialists. Teachers are accused of the same thing. There's a Hitler in every classroom (and its not always the teacher!) I remember being invited to a meeting I didn't really want to go to. To this day I have no idea what the meeting was about! I never plucked up the courage to say anything except my name and occupation. Then, half way through the meeting, whilst already feeling intimidated, the Lord Mayor (no less) pointed her finger at me and said "you are the problem." (i think she meant teachers generally, not just me).

I agree that a relational, rather than the individualistic 'rights' thing is needed. Is the trinity a good model for the kind of Christian community we need? - the trinity seems to combine the idea of distinct/seperate, as well as communal. A lot of communities morph into uniformity that seems to deny people's individual dignity. A lot of our culture so emphasis' individuality so as to distort our essentially inter-relatedness (our need to be dependent and put others first etc.) The trinity seems to combine the individual and communal.

DS said...

Brian Mclaren is well up for playing with the metaphor