A (Proposed) Church Manual for Resisting Empire

Four books church manuals

Thanks to those of you who responded to my request for books on practical ministry of the church in a time of empire. Unfortunately, I was too vague to be much help in your being specific. So let me give more specific parameters.

In my request for books on practical ministry of the church in a time of empire, I have discovered that, on the whole, what I am looking for has yet to be written.

I decided to go to the library catalogues on-line to see what I could find. I went first to the Library of Congress and came up with nothing that you or I didn’t already know about. So I tried the British Library. Nada. Harvard Divinity School library. Nope. Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union library. Zip.

Am I looking for what not only doesn’t exist but never will exist? I think the answer is no. My reason for this is if I had been making a search for academic books on “church and New Testament and resistance and empire” 25 years ago there would have been practically none. If you look at the bibliography on my “Subversive Church” blog (https://subversivechurch.blog/bibliography/) you will find well over a hundred books that I have curated so far. If you note their dates of publication, very few existed 25 years ago. They have almost all been written out of the work of biblical scholars since then. If you had, for instance, written a book on Luke and the Roman Empire, it would have been the first one on that subject. The same goes for any of the N T books. Now, if you decided to write about the influence of the empire on Revelation, for instance, you would have to compete with more than a half dozen others completed before your efforts.

Books written to apply recent biblical scholarship to the nature and ministry have always followed after a number of years. These are usually written by pastors who have tried out this new paradigm in their own ministerial setting, and that takes time to happen. So I know I am pushing the envelope. But I’m old and I would like to see this renewal of the church at least begin before I “pop my clogs”, as the British phrase it.

But there are some clerical pioneers who have ventured out into the new century with ideas gained from what we have discovered from the first century followers of Jesus. So let me select some indicators from the four books I have selected by one professor, two ministers and one lay person who are blazing the Way. I shall list the books by publication date. You will note that the oldest of the four is only seven years old.

The Four Books

The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus, by Robin R. Meyers  2012
Faithful Resistance: Gospel Visions For the Church in a Time of Empire, by Rick Ufford-Chase , Annanda Barclay, et al. 2016
Jesus vs. Caesar: For People Tired of Serving the Wrong God, by Joerg Rieger   2018
Sacred Resistance: A Practical Guide to Christian Witness and Dissent, by Ginger Gaines-Cirelli 2018

About the writers/editors

Robin Meyers
Robin is minister of Mayflower United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma where he has served for over 30 years. He is author of seven books and is active in the Jesus Seminar as well of teaching courses on social justice in the philosophy department of Oklahoma City University.

Rick Ufford-Chase
Rick is a lay person in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and served as its youngest ever moderator some years ago. He has initiated a number of social justice religious organizations including the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, of which he is executive director. He is also co-director with his wife of Stony Point Center, a conference center of the Presbyterian Church in Stony Point, New York.

JOERG Rieger
Joerg is a German United Methodist. He taught at Perkins School of Theology and is teaching currently at Vanderbilt University. His field is theology as it intersects with current cutting edge social justice issues.

Ginger Gaines-Cirelli
Ginger, another United Methodist, is pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington D C, which is known for being the church of the Clintons and the George W. Bush family, as well as for its involvement in contemporary issues. Sacred Resistance is her first book.

Structure of A Church Manual for Subversive Resistance to Empire

The four books I am highlighting all point toward what I see as the manual the church needs in order to pursue a mission of subversive resistance in a setting of empire. While searching the Library of Congress for such a book, I was impressed with the number of books that have been written to renew the church in different ways and dimensions. There are several thousand of them! Most of them pointed to a need for some kind of spiritual renewal, helping plant new churches, and, God help us, on the Prosperity Gospel.

I have been thinking of what the manual I’m searching for would look like. Here’s my first draft.

I Theoretical/theological dimensions
For the first time in 2000 years of church history and, more particularly, in biblical research, the first century and a half of the church has had light shown upon it. We now have some inkling of what the first meetings of our early forebears looked like, what its structure was, where and when they gathered. That is what I have blogged about with the Dinner Church Movement. But here and for this manual, one needs to focus upon the world those followers of Jesus stepped into when they left their meetings- the world of the oppressive and exploitative Roman Empire. It would have been like the title of Rieger’s book, JESUS vs. CAESAR, Empire vs. Kingdom of God, status quo vs. counter-culture.

II Ecclesial internal dimensions
A The congregation: How does the local church change itself from being an unwitting agent of empire to self-consciously returning its nature and mission to that of the pre-Constantine religious movement of the earliest century? What will its manifesto be (like Meyers spells out in The Underground Church)? (1)

B The new denomination: A Movement of Movements
How will the local church not be overwhelmed with all the issues that come with attempting to subvert empire with kingdom ethics? Ufford-Chase gives us a taste of this variety in his Faithful Resistance, where he touches on such issues as Confronting Empire at the Border, Dismantling White Supremacy, Reimagining Ecological Theology, Learning Nonviolence in a Multifaith World, and Resisting the Seduction of Silence on human rights matters. And these are just a few of the issues ‘out there’.

It seems to me the answer comes in refocussing and restructuring that connectionalism we refer to with the word ‘denomination’. The difference between denominations, which once existed, is no longer the case. My denomination, the United (sic) Methodist Church, is coming apart because our conservatives think that their liberal co-religionists are no longer brothers and sisters. So where do we go to find our connectivity? Perhaps Sacred Resistance shows us the way (sacredresistance.net). Not to ride off in all directions at once, their  Sacred Resistance Ministry team chose three issues (2) to focus on and then looked for movements doing that mission and connected with that movement..

III Missional external dimensions
The last part of the manual would help congregations know about different movements already working on counter-culture issues to connect with. Or it would help them to organize such movements when one does not exist. I’ll flesh Part III out when it is clearer to me.

(1) Manifesto for the Underground Church (from Meyers’ book)

“Those who wish to accept the invitation to join the Underground Church movement can figure out ways to build the Beloved Community in their own time and place, but in particular they will be urged to consider making some or all of the following seven changes in what it means to be truly radical.

1. As often as possible, the Underground Church will celebrate communion by serving an actual meal, before or after the service. It will be provided and served by the members of the community, who bring food and share with all those who come, especially the poor.
2. Membership in the Underground Church is not by “profession of faith” but by the profession of trust in the redemptive power of unconditional love, revealed to the community through the mystery of the incarnation and sustained by that love, not by creeds and doctrines demanding total agreement.
3. Worship styles and music in the Underground Church are to be intentionally diverse, joyful, and meant to bring worshipers into an experience of the divine. Individual communities will decide what music and liturgical forms are most meaningful to them, and the creation of services that reflect both more traditional and less traditional approaches to worship is encouraged. No musical snobs, please.
4. Members of the Underground Church will be committed to mission projects that mark the community off as countercultural and anti-imperial. We will be committed to nonviolence, radical hospitality, collective generosity, and the ministry of encouragement.
5. The Underground Church will give special attention to the stranger, the forgotten, the weak, and the dispossessed. When the Empire marks off certain groups of people as scapegoats or as “enemies,” we will make certain that there is room for them at the table and, if necessary, protect them from persecution.
6. The Underground Church will create its own economic system in the community by requiring a pledge of financial support from all members to support the operation of the church, while encouraging individuals to contribute additional funds to mission projects that they are particularly passionate about. We will not rob Peter to pay Paul; we will pay Peter first so that in the work that truly matters, we can fully fund Paul. We will loan money at no interest and bear one another’s burdens.
7. The Underground Church will seek to work together with all others who share the conviction that it is more important to be loving than to be right. We will not insist that others agree with us on all matters theological—only that we offer each other the benefit of the doubt, mutual respect, and the chance to become the rarest and most precious of all things: a community that declares its loyalty only to love incarnate, not to Caesar.”

(2) Foundry’s three issues for sacred resistance

•opposing governmental actions that tear families apart
and bar entry to this country to immigrants and refugees
solely because of their religious affiliation;

• resisting policies that exploit and destroy natural resources
on the planet we are charged with protecting and
that put short-term economic gain for a few above the
long-term health and survival of the human race; and

• standing up with our voices, our bodies, our money, and
our time to the policies and people who would deny
human rights on the basis of sexual orientation, gender
identity, race, ethnicity, or income level

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