On “Not Getting It” and God Outside of the Church

by Brian Walsh

In my last blog about the struggle of trying to live a life that recognizes the radical nature of faith in the face of the imperial realities in which we live I talked about humility. We need to hold our knowledge, our insight, indeed our radical vision, with humility. And that humility means that we need to have a graciousness and a generosity of spirit in our relationships with sisters and brothers who, it would seem, “don’t get it” when we talk about a Kingdom vision and way of life that is counter-imperial.

That is my first word on the subject. But it is certainly not my last word. You see, I recognize deeply in my own life the loneliness and frustration that so many folks give expression to in their correspondence with me. When the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association hosted a forum on Colossians Remixed our friend Tony Cummins from Trinity Western University summed up the problem well in his comments on the book: “Where do I sign up?” he asked. “Where do I find this counter-imperial Christian community?”

That is the most devastating comment of all. The vision is great. The reading of Scripture is liberating. The way of life is provacative and appealing. But where do I sign up? Where can I actually find Christians who want to live this way, dwell in the Scriptures this way, and be this kind of witness in the shadow of empire? These are, indeed, the questions that so many of us are asking.

Now the question is really a question of the church, isn’t it. Where can I find a “church” like this. And I’m going to come back to that in another blog, but today I want to suggest that we must not limit ourselves to the “church” per se, both because God is not limited to the church and because it is often not in the church that we will find a supportive community for an alternative discipleship.

Kind of odd, isn’t it. We might need to find a supportive community for alternative discipleship outside of the church amongst folks for whom language of “alternative discipleship” might seem quaint at best, weird at worst.

But this has been our experience. It wasn’t primarily in the Christian community that Sylvia and I learned about matters of food sustainability, ecological justice and the importance of locality when it comes to food production and consumption. No, it was at Karma Co-op in Toronto that we learned about this stuff. It was amongst a pluralist community of folks representing pretty much every religion of the world and probably most varieties of atheism as well, that we found friends who helped us to come to a deeper understanding of what a sustainable Christian life looks like.

They weren’t coming at these issues from the perspective of a biblically rich theology of creation. Nor were they concerned with justice because they followed the One who came to set the captives free. They had other sources for their commitment to ecological values, justice and community. But in God’s good grace they bore witness to us of ways of life that were alternative to the empire. And it would be the height of ingratitude and arrogance to assume that because these were not folks who were in the “church” that somehow God had nothing to say to us through them.

Food is one issue, the arts would be another. I’ve seen enough bad Christian art to know that just because a Christian is an artist is no guarantee that her art will be either aesthetically good or revelatory of anything that is of worth for a prophetic vision of life. And I’ve heard enough boring Christian praise music to know that if I want something that is revelatory, something that touches reality in the midst of its glory and its terror, then I’m often better off listening to Smashing Pumpkins, Leonard Cohen and Ani DiFranco then tuning into the local Christian radio station. [I know, I know, even that little list dates me, but you get the point.]

Well, how about learning about what the heck is going on in the world? We all know that the mainline media generally is the mouthpiece of the empire, but really, is Christianity Today going to give us the real goods on very much? Not likely. So we need to turn to the alternative press. We need to listen to the voices on the margins and even privilege them in interpreting the world to us. And while we will always want to hear these voices with spiritual discernment and biblical wisdom, we need to realize that we can find collaborators in shaping an alternative to the imperial mainstream in the strangest of places.

So my point here is simple. You feel that many of your fellow Christians “don’t get it”? Well, tempering this observation with the humility that I referred to in my last post, you are right. Many Christians “don’t get it.” Much of contemporary Christian life has been taken captive by an imperial imagination. So what do we do? Go wherever we can to find a liberated imagination. God will not be without a witness. God will not be without prophetic voices. And God will not be limited to the Christian community when he calls forth such witness, such prophetic voices.

Where you discern such a voice, such a witness, go there.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

6 Responses to “On “Not Getting It” and God Outside of the Church”

  1. len

    Reminds me of a comment Jean Vanier made about twenty years ago dreaming of communities of fidelity and tenderness (hesed).. L’Arche perhaps is one form.. but of the future he said, “they are coming.”

  2. NextReformation » faithful communities.. where are they?

    […] Brian Walsh blogs at “Empire Remixed,” […]

  3. dilys

    brian, thank you thank you thank you for your words of encouragement to stay open to influences of the Divine, even if they lie outside the church. i am learning to pay attention to them, sometimes as a counterpoint to the christian-cultural values that i’ve absorbed, forcing me to question why i believe what i do.

  4. Randy

    Thank you Brian for your affirmation of non-church community. Karen and I find the most community , a place where we value each other quite apart from our labels of priveldge or accomplishment and apart from labels of disability or of stigma, in Beyond Welfare. This is a specifically non-religious group of people gathering across class, race, sexual orientation, religion and other barriers to practice radical friendship and radical hospitality.

    My wife Karen is working with a team who received a grant to collect stories from the group and turn them into Readers’ Theatre.

    We have experienced similar things to yours around sustainable agriculture and local food as well.

    randy gabrielse

  5. Martin

    I’ve worked in addictions for 15 years. We have a saying called “the whisper stream of the street”. It knows. Those on the street know. They are the alternative press in my town. I learned in my recovery to listen to these prophets who speak out on behalf of the forgotten ones. The Sheol dwellers who are the ungathered ones…I love this post. I drank my way out of full time ministry and have returned. Sober thankfully. And, I remain alive in the non-church community and I look forward to imagining a community of generousity and hosptiality Thanks Brian.


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