Thursday, December 18, 2014

Neither Skinny Jeans Nor Pleated Pants: A Case for the Basin and Towel

I begin with a confession.  I have not read Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy.  I have followed the summaries and discussions (esp. David Fitch’s several-part blog posts) but I confess I may miss some nuance to Scot’s argument.

As I understand it, Scot is arguing that the old divide between “soul-winning” and “social action” (which I grew up with) has morphed into a similar divide in the key of “kingdom.” This leads to a situation in which some wear Skinny Jeans (the social justice crowd) and others wear Pleated Pants (the redemption crowd).  The former work for God’s kingdom outside the church in the world while the latter equate kingdom work with personal salvation and growth in the church. McKnight sees both sartorial choices as inadequate.  The whole debate needs to be reframed.
He’s clearly right.   He asserts that there is “no kingdom outside the church”; therefore, “all true kingdom mission is church mission” (115). McKnight is trying to marry the two into one, into what God has made one and we should never have sundered.  The church is the place where all this happens.
I have some concerns about McKnight’s formulation of the way ahead.  But I don’t want to focus on that.  I think there’s another issue that cuts deeper and more profoundly into what is at stake here.  I believe we need a fresh image of church.  McKnight has shown that neither pleated pants not skinny jeans will do.  Nor will one side exchanging their pants for the other’s do.  The fundamental impulses of both are legitimate but I do not believe they can be fruitfully integrated without a “extreme makeover” of the church itself.
I do have a proposal for a fresh image of church that I believe is capable to organically integrate both impulses.  I suggest that the character and mandate of the people of God in whatever form we meet them in the biblical story is a subversive counter-revolutionary movement.
-subversive because it does not seek to run the world and impose a way of life on others in a top-down fashion; rather it lives its way of life in its locality in solidarity with its neighbors wooing them to join in by the quality of its community and care for one another;
-counter-revolutionary because it to seeks to counter the effects of humanity’s revolution against God on behalf of God’s original intentions and design for human life or the closest approximation that can be achieved in any situation.  In particular, the fallen life inscribed in the patterns, systems, and institutions fallen humanity has constructed need to be challenged, critiqued, and changed through persuasion, consensus-building, and political activity (local preferred) where possible; and
-a movement, marks of which are a white-hot faith, commitment to a cause, contagious relationships, rapid mobilization, and adaptive methods.

God initiated this subversive counter-revolutionary movement with the call of and promise to Abraham and Sarah in Gen.12:1-3.  We meet this people in the remainder of the biblical narrative as  

                   -a family gathered by God (Gen.12-50)
                   -a fugitive people fleeing from Egypt (Ex.1-18)
                   -a nation chartered and inhabited by God (Ex.19-40)
                   -a wandering nomadic people (Num.11-Deut.)
                   -a united, and then divided, monarchy (Josh.-2Kings)
                   -a people destroyed and in exile (e.g. Daniel)
                   -a people oppressed in their own land (e.g. Ezra-Nehemiah)
                   -a people winnowed down to one faithful Israelite (Jesus)
                   -a church of Jew and Gentile indwelt by God’s Spirit (Acts-Rev.)
In each and every one of these forms God’s people are mandated and equipped to be God’s subversive counter-revolutionary movement.
Being subversive and counter-revolutionary, I submit, organically integrates both the skinny jeans interest and the pleated pants without losing the centrality of the church or a sense of being part of something larger than the church – the kingdom of God.  Obviously, I disagree with McKnight at this point.  This subversive counter-revolutionary movement is a prototype of God’s kingdom – a sign that points to it, a sacrament that embodies what it proclaims, and a servant that gives its life for the kingdom.
In short, we need to trade in our skinny jeans and pleated pants for the basin and towel of John 13 and sacrificially serve others in the community and the world.  Jesus has been installed as world ruler by his resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God.  The people of the world are his subjects (whether they know it or not), he is ruling over them even now and working out his loving purposes in and through them, he is present to the world through his Spirit focally in and among his people but also in the larger world as the Giver of Life (Nicene Creed) and renewer of creation. 

God’s people remain at the center of God’s work and purposes.  McKnight is right on here.  And he is right that the service to the world Christians offer ought to be rooted and nourished in the church.  We must be willing to say that we do what we do in the world in Jesus’ name and for his sake.  And that we have found the energy and impetus for such service in the new life Jesus has given us. 
As God’s subversive counter-revolutionary movement, the Spirit-filled people remain foregrounded as the agent of God’s redemptive purposes.  It also serves the world through meeting needs and encountering others wherever we may find them.  The servant’s robe we don as we take up the basin and towel is looser than the skinny jeans some of us wear and allows us to see God at work beyond the walls of the church and summoning us to join him there.  He is the king of the world already, and the people and conditions of the world are his realm now as well as ultimately.  The servant’s robe is also meaner than the pleated pants others of us wear.  We are not too proud to claim the church as our mother or to abandon it as it seeks, balkingly at times, to serve the world God dearly loves. 

Thus, I believe this image of church as God’s subversive counter-revolutionary movement can effectively integrate the different readings of “kingdom” McKnight has pointed to and yet also avoid some of the ways Scot attempts to resolve this dilemma.  

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