Theology

“Radical” review: 61-84

Interestingly, David starts off this chapter with another horrifying story.

In it, he relates how a pastor of a church he was speaking at responded to his to ministry in inner-city New Orleans and impoverished areas overseas:

David, I think it’s great you are going to those places. But if you ask me, I would just as soon God annihilate all those people and send them to hell. (62)

On this one example, David and I are in complete agreement. I would say “what the fuck is this shit,” but David is considerably more indirect than I am. He simply says “Wow” (63). After that reaction, though, our views of the situation diverge … as one would probably expect at this point in my Radical review. David looks at this pastor’s antagonistic and violent attitude toward global missions and argues that every Christian is commanded by the Great Commission to be a global missionary, because it says “to all nations.”

I look at that pastor’s violent approach to inner city communities and developing nations as one drenched with white supremacy and an uncritical adoption of American imperialism, colonization, and exceptionalism, along with a core-deep belief in capitalism as a moral system.

The problem is, David shares some of those problems.

He sees Christianity as an American export.

This perspective is, depending, both right and wrong. David has inherited a view of Christianity that’s very much entrenched in the western European articulation of it. All of that is exacerbated by British and American missionary movements and the indelible affect they’ve had on how American Christianity views itself. I don’t know about your experience, but in mine there’s nothing more pious than reading missionary biographies.

What those biographies failed to convey to anyone I knew was that American and British missionary efforts frequently went hand-in-hand with colonization. Many missionaries were more focused on westernizing people than they were in converting them (Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is an excellent depiction of this that pissed me off the first time I read it, back when I was still a fundamentalist). There are echoes of that in other situations, too– America and Canada have a sordid past with essentially kidnapping First Nation children and abusively forcing our culture onto them. This oppressive act was frequently justified to white people as “Christianizing” them (for a horrifying look into that point of view, there’s Janette Oke’s Drums of Change).

In another sense, modern American evangelicals are still engaged in the same exact thing. If you’d like to know more about that, God Loves Uganda (which you can stream on Netflix) talks about how our evangelical leaders have spent a lot of time and money trying to make countries like Uganda just as homophobic as us. For more on that, I highly recommend this piece by Bisi Alimi.

But, in a very serious sense, he’s also wrong. From his point of view, the United States doesn’t count as a mission field (“having a heart for the United States” is a “smoke screen” for lazy people, 75)– and woven all through chapter four is this concept that we need to think “globally” about the Gospel which, according to him, means taking our version of Christianity to other countries.

What he fails to recognize is that many other nations have deep Christian roots– but they don’t look like American Christianity, so he dismisses them. For example, there are Kurdish Christians with a religious tradition reaching back to the fifth century. Then there’s Jordan, which has one of the oldest Christian communities anywhere in the world, but were one of the targets of the Christian crusades. Ethiopian Christian history stretches back centuries– to long before they built a monastery in the sixth century.

When people like David conceptualize “the Christian tradition,” they’re most likely not including the traditions of Jordan, Ethiopia, Turkey, or India. They don’t look like American evangelicals, so they’re dismissed as “not actually followers of Christ” (76).

His view of “developing” nations is racist.

This chapter is not the first time this has come up– in every chapter up to now he’s spent a great deal of time making sure we understand how woebegone and beggared other countries are. People living in garbage pits, people without access to clean water, people who struggle to find food.

Except many people in American don’t have clean water. Ten people have died in Flint because of poisoned water, and many children there will grow up with permanent brain damage. But it’s not just Flint– St. Joseph has had unclean water for almost a decade (along with many other counties all over the South). Many children go hungry on snow days because the only place they can get breakfast or lunch is at school. America is the seventh wealthiest nation, but we’re barely capable of providing adequate healthcare to our population– more women die from pregnancy and childbirth in America than in any other developed nation.

David has this concept of evangelicalism being beset by concerns with “first world problems” like padded pews and projectors, but is blinded by American exceptionalism and a shallow, “single-story” view of Africa and Asia (which, just to be clear, are continents, not countries. Looking at you, Jen Hatmaker, with your “African” this and your “African” that). America, while wealthy, isn’t that spectacular, and other nations aren’t all shanty towns and open sewage. Just do an image search for Abuja or Vientiane or Ulaanbaatar.

He sees wealth as God’s blessing, and therefore as a reflection of God’s glory.

The principle argument of this chapter is that God created everything in order to glorify himself. People worshiping God is the “final, ultimate, all-consuming, glorious, guaranteed, overwhelmingly global purpose of God in Scripture. This is the great why of God.” He exists to be glorified, we exist to glorify. End of story. Then we get a letter from a church member who had recently come back from a short-term missions trip to Guatemala, which he uses to conclude the chapter:

After spending a week around precious childen who eat a small cup of porridge a day, the question I have come back to Birmingham asking God is why he has blessed me when others have so little. And this is what God has shown me:

“I have blessed you for my glory. Not so you will have a comfortable life with a big house and a nice car. Not so you can spend lots of money on vacations, education, or clothing. Those aren’t bad things, but I’ve blessed you so that the nations will know me and see my glory.”

… That is why God has given me income and education and resources. God saves me so that that nations will know him. He blesses me so that all the earth will see his glory! (84)

“Blessings” is a shorthand in evangelicalism for “money.” God gave this woman money instead of children who are starving because giving her money glorifies him. She had the money to go to Guatemala on a likely ineffective and ultimately harmful short-term trip and that means God was glorified dontcha know!

Yeah. Sure. That makes sense.

The problem is that David has spent this entire chapter quite literally railing against the concept that some people are “called” to be missionaries while those who aren’t are supposed to do what they can to financially support the missionary effort. And then he concludes his chapter with someone basically doing exactly that.

I’m confused.

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  • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

    One thing that bothers me about this flavor of Christianity is that it seems to think that worshiping God happens in a vacuum. There is worshiping God, and then there is every other pursuit of life. It leaves out the idea of integrating God into your life so that you work, rest, spend time with family, do your bills, read a book, ect, ect, and worship God through and within these everyday activities. What happened to “the glory of God is Man fully alive”?
    It just seems so provincial to me for people to think that Americans know how to worship God, and other people don’t. Do they not know that Christianity started in the Middle East and most of Europe was a relative latecomer to the party? Not to mention that this continent has only a few centuries of Christian history.

    • This. So much this. And when Christians talk about how you need to “put God first” and make sure you love God more than your job, your family, etc… why on earth would those things be separate things? You love God BY loving your family, BY doing well in your job, etc.

      Same thing with “spending time with God.” Bizarrely, this phrase ONLY seems to mean “praying or reading the bible alone.” What? Isn’t God everywhere?

      • The new way to talk about the praying/reading the Bible alone thing seems to be “to spend time in the Word/with the Word”. Which I actually really love, because it’s far more accurate and the lover of all things language in me adores the idea of bringing back the concept of the sacred “Word”.

  • Pauline

    I would love to explore any non-American brand of Christianity- it seems more down to earth.

  • notleia

    Can I say it again? Just….UUUUUGH, white male Calvinists.

  • Guest

    I’ve never heard an American use the term First Nations before. Was that just because it was used in the same sentence as Canada or was it some other kind of conscious choice on your part? Just wondering.

    • It was because I was also including Canada. If I’m only referring to those from the US, I typically use Native American, but there’s an added benefit to using First Nation for a primarily American audience: it’s a rather in-your-face-reminder that we literally conquered this country and stole their land.

      • Guest

        I appreciate how intentional you are.

    • Do Americans not use that term? Huh, I didn’t know that.

      • I’ve seen some Americans use it, but it’s the term officially used by the Canadian government. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Nations

      • Guest

        Americans more commonly say Native Americans. I also see people use specific tribe or nation names when that’s applicable.