Evangelism for the Ordinary Radical

Written by Brandon.D.Rhodes : August 17, 2008

“So, are you an anarchist?” my upstairs neighbor Jonah asked.  I had just told him about this website that dabbles in Christian Anarchy from time to time, and such an obscure topic had evidently snagged his curiosity.

“Well, no, not quite.  I figure if all that talk in the New Testament and our Christmas hymns about ‘Jesus is king of kings and lord of lords,’ and ‘joy to the world, the Lord has come: let Earth receive her king,’ is true, then those are massively political claims, far bigger than cute figures of speech to sooth the sin-sacked soul.  So, yeah, if I believe that, then that has big implications for my politics.” I then rambled on about embodying an alternative politic in community, not primarily pursuing state action — you know the rest.

Jonah had a slight grin arising from somewhere between hesitation and fascination.  Unsure of where to take the conversation from there, I quickly shifted our chat to the situation in Georgia, Hugo Chavez, and Mercosur.  The topic of Jesus and his kingdom didn’t return to the conversation.

As I left from there for a bike ride, my mind was flooded with questions about why I am still so bashful in talking to non-Christian about all this “Jesus as King” business. The spiritual-mystical side of Christianity and the gospel are easy to talk about, but the revolutionary and political stuff doesn’t come half as naturally to me when talking to non-followers.

The existence and love of God?  Sure.  Holy Spirit stuff?  Yep, I can contextualize that reality no problem.  I’ve even been known to talk about the Trinity’s implications for personal identity and community life to non-Christians before without much hesitation.

But this “Jesus is King” thing… it feels so hard to explain this.  A revolution/radical/counter-imperial framing of the biblical story and gospel puts a lump in my throat.

Maybe it’s because my journey into a radical Christianity took place mostly within seminary, where I can talk about this stuff at that level.  Heck, a couple years ago I even wrote a paper for an evangelism class about gospel-as-revolution.  While my theology has shifted somewhat since writing that paper, I still stand by it as broadly biblical.  Yet I see now that I wrote it with the hope of it radicalizing other Christians who read it.  It was my smarmy twenty-something way of tolling the bell of dissidence in a dispensational school.  But my language about a radical faith still only seems to make any sense to those with a basic sense of the biblical story.  My revolution-bent theology is entirely calibrated toward a well-read Christian conversation partner.  Who was I trying to evangelize: Christians or non-Christians?

Un-fixing the Chasm

I doubt I am alone in this anxiety.  It’s so hard to explain “Jesus-as-my-King” to non-Christian coworkers and neighbors.  My coworker Hazel asked me once why I practice abstinence: “Is that from, like, religious convictions?”  “Kinda,” I stammered.  “It’s really more political than it is religious,” I continued, before our work duties cut the conversation short.

For as post-Christendom, postmodern, and utterly New-Agey as many like Hazel are, I meet many of them who are ensnared by the Enlightenment-era lie that the spiritual and the political are entirely discrete and separate things.  It’s the founding dualism of the democratic West: that there is a chasm forever fixed between theology-spirituality-mysticism-religion-private and politics-ethics-sex-economics-public. Sexual ethics, goes the lie, finds roots in fearful heel-clicking to the religious magesterium by sheeply pew-fillers, not out of our affectionate allegiance to a living King of the Earth.  Folk like Hazel (and most American Christians, at that!) are struck with cognitive dissonance when we answer their questions about our spirituality or ethics with a political and this-worldly answer.

All the more difficult is explaining this gospel-as-revolution-of-Jesus business to them!  Before I can explain darn-near anything to anyone about the gospel, the kingdom, or the King, I will need to explain my divergence from the lie of political-spiritual dualism.

Un-polishing the Gospel

But the need for such throat-clearing in good-news-ing grinds sharply against my evangelical upbringing and present instincts. Good-news-ing should be sharp and clear and reasonably quick,” say those instincts, “Not bogged down with all this gobbldigoop about some far flung public/private dualism.  Dualism shmuialism, Brandon: Jesus is at stake here!

A deeper voice than evangelicalism pesters me, too, for a more polished good-news-ing: the American Pragmatist in me says, “Oh, you can explain all that revolution hoo-ha once they’re in the fold and have Jesus in their heart.  Just give them a very basic pitch for now.  The political offense of the gospel can come later.”  There are times where that logic is apt.  The basic truth of God’s inescapable love, or of His broad intentions for the world, are enough (and to be sure God’s revolution fits most snugly within the framework of the love of the Triune God, not the other way ’round).  But usually, the gospel also carries a hard public edge in the New Testament.  Jesus’ upside-down kingdom proclamation and carry-your-cross invite rattled many.  And Paul’s claim that the true Lord of the world is, of all people, a crucified backwoods Jew was at least as pitiably, foolishly amusing as it was vulgarly offensive to the Greeks.  The array of good-news-ing given us in the Bible reminds us of the occasional brandishing of this gospel’s revolutionary and radical edge.  The marketing sensibilities of evangelicalism and American Pragmatism never get the last word on God’s gospel.

More than that, I take comfort in the various ways that the people we meet in the Bible tell the good news.  Some, like Isaiah, see it from a distance and describe it as the curse being undone (last bit of ch 55).  Others, like Jesus, describe it as the coming of the kingdom of God.  Paul says its Jesus crucified, or Jesus risen, or Jesus ascended and ruling, or Jesus crucified and risen and ascended and ruling.  Sometimes Paul says the cross is propitiatory, and other times it is the victory of God.  John scribes it out within the context of love, while other bits of the NT just call it a trusting, loving allegiance to Yahweh.

Sometimes it’s personal, other times it’s emphatically public.  Sometimes it’s fashioned to contrast with the Temple, other times with someone’s self-idolatry, other times with Caesar himself.  For me to get caught up by this lump in my throat about the political edge being in every single sharing of the gospel is as silly as trying to collapse all that diversity in biblical good-news-ing into one sharp formula. I’m doing the same offense to the gospel in trying to mold it after revolution as many evangelicals are in trying to hammer it into four spiritual laws or four circles on a napkin.  They’ve all got a purpose and a place.  God help me to see and celebrate this!

And that’s another beauty about the gospel: we can trust in its power no matter who’s telling it, how they’re telling it, or to whom they’re telling it.  When it comes naturally to me as God’s revolution, then I will feel gloriously free and secure in telling it that way.  When it bubbles up to a coworker as simply God’s inescapable love, and that revolution-skew is put off for later, the radical in me needn’t feel insecure and marginalized.

In the meantime, I ask Father, Bless me and my community with a fresh zeal for evangelizing about the Jesus Revolution that’s as fervent as that of any Obama fan, and as Spirit-filled as that of any mainstream evangelical.

Brandon Rhodes lives, works, writes, and worships in Portland, Oregon. He enjoys long conversations over coffee, yerba maté, and beer. He is also one of the co-editors at Jesus Manifesto.

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    Nice post. Thanks!
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    Interesting thoughts. Earlier this morning I was thinking about how our situation today is not all that different from the situation Jesus was in 2000 years ago. Sure there are big differences, but politically we are working from within a formidable empire that more-and-more seems to be emulating Roman values of greed, lust for power, and materialism. Of course Palestine was one of the fringes of Empire where zealots resisted with violence, much like the terrorists on the fringes of our empire. We, North American Christians are in the heart of the empire like the early Roman Christians.

    We may not face the level of persecution of those earliest Christians, but then again if we truly lived out the message of the Gospel I suspect American society would find it equally intolerable. Society certainly tolerates calling yourself a Christian, but it's much less tolerant of actually living like Christ. Even the most radical among us is probably still falling short, even if they seem radical by society's standards.

    Great food for thought. Thanks.
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    Brandon- hey its me jesse. Its time for me to get in on these conversations on jm. I like the way you explore the tensions of gospel sharing in this article. A co-worker recently asked me 'so what denomination are you?' 'I'm like a Jesus follower, wanting to learn how to love and live out faith as a community expression in the midst of the american empire, yaknowwhatI'msayin like the radical reformation anabaptists'.. 'oh okay jesse, sounds interesting.' I've felt that pressure to explain yea I'm a christian but I'm different than a typical evangelical because I can see the lie of the empire and this and that...
    but thats why I'm seeing it so vital to live the gospel in a community expression. Yea I can do my best to explain this Jesus is Messiah and this is what it means in America, but come taste what the gospel is in our community and in the context of convenant relationships. Come experience Jesus alive among us...anywho... I gotta come connect with old growth soon...its time to move that direction


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