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Review of a Radical Book — a Vision of Christian Action in Community

November 28, 2017

Don’t trip over the title. Counter-Imperial Churching for a Planetary Gospel is a very important book.  Author Timothy Murphy is aware that it is aimed at a relatively small audience.  But it’s an influential audience of progressive (and potentially other) church leaders and various thought leaders.

He repeatedly refers to the contents of the book as “this project”. The point seems to be that he is implementing the perspectives and practices he lays out and intends that others follow suit.  Many of his readers will be ministers and institutional leaders in progressive Christian circles generally and in Process theology circles more specifically.

I attended the same Process-oriented school of theology (Claremont) at which Murphy now teaches and am generally familiar with “Process” and what it tends to emphasize.  But he took me further and deeper.… I found his summarization of Process and the key points of some of its leaders clear and enlightening. (Not light reading but worth one’s effort.) It also lays an important foundation for his development of a “radical political theology”. He does a great job with a set of concepts simple in the end but challenging to explain in non-technical terms. (He does use some in-house Whitehead terms, but in a way that most educated lay people I think can follow, especially given his care with explanations.)

This aspect alone makes the book worth reading for those wondering what Process thought is and why it matters.  That is, if they come with some foundation in related areas such as theology, political theory, systems analysis, etc. Lacking this, I expect most would bog down and miss much of the real value in this work, value that is “real world”, not just theoretical.  Because of this, I’ll take the space to give some substance here, in order to deliver some of the value to lay readers.

Now, what does the difficult-to-remember title mean? It’s a very thought-out one, each term deeply developed in the book.  “Counter-imperial” expresses Murphy’s stance that God’s call, modeled in Jesus particularly, is to operate on another level from, and often in opposition to the typically oppressive and violent nature of systems controlling the world, often denoted as “Empire”.  “Systems” indicates that, while specific people need to be held to account for their actions, the problem is much deeper.  It includes their operating context, institutions, power dynamics, etc.  All of this is covered thoroughly in the book.

“Churching” clearly changes the noun, “church”, or “The Church” (as a theoretically universal entity) into a verb… something followers of Jesus (or others) do.  Murphy’s concept of churching is broad enough that an explicit tie to Jesus is not actually necessary although his concern is churching within Christian communities and individuals.

This churching activity is part of proclamation of a gospel for our planet.  Unlike the Evangelical mission, teaching about Jesus, assertions on things like his divine (or human) nature or concerns for our personal afterlife destiny (salvation) are not forefront.  They take only a background role.

Murphy also reminds us that “global” is a less concrete and Earth-and-life involved term, so he prefers “planetary.” And, rather than being only a broadly general concept, the “… gospel offers good news to the situations we find ourselves in”. (p. 185).  In the same concluding section, as throughout the book, he specifies what we may properly call “Christian” in it: “… the good news that Jesus brings or reveals.” This good news, in Murphy’s context, is all about this life, with no speculation on the nature of the next or connection of this life to the next beyond the idea of continuation of consciousness (or “eternal life”, as we often term it, in some form).

In good beyond-postmodern fashion (what might also be called “Integral”), Murphy locates himself in terms of both his views and his institutional affiliations (Disciples of Christ/Christian Church, United Church of Christ, recently the interdenominational Progressive Christians Uniting, and several other church involvements in addition to teaching at Claremont School of Theology).

In the preface, Murphy says he writes “particularly for those who like myself desire to hold together as inseparable both spirituality and social commitments. They are not merely two things that are held in tension or as a paradox.  Rather, they are inextricably bound together.”  He further explains this is why he often compares and contrasts authors who “… sometimes… would not be interested in each other’s projects. Yet somehow there is the sense that these thinkers need each other, that what they are saying is connected so thoroughly, even though they offer differing insights”. (p. v).  I applaud this appeal to cross-pollination, including across academic disciplines (little seen anymore).

This inter-connecting Murphy does is one of the values of the book.  Should one want to explore any of several innovative scholars on issues related to his themes, he gives helpful summaries and many endnotes.  He points out both what he likes and finds helpful and what he doesn’t, with a sense of fairness and appreciation…. After all, one of his key themes is listening to and appreciating differences.

In fact, the third chapter, following a meaty Introduction and “Proclaiming the Planetary Gospel” (Ch. 2, touched on above) is “Practicing Differentiated Solidarity”.  This scholar-speak means basically that we can and should stand in solidarity with others who have significant differences from us. The search for common ground is important but not at the expense of recognizing and respecting differences.  Often common goals (such as fostering counter-imperial communities) can be approached from very different starting points and with different methods. Not knowing or grasping context is often the key to why we so often fail to move in solidarity with others, including other Christians.  When it comes to “churching”, Murphy repeatedly emphasizes that there is no general or universal pattern for how it should look.  Churching is localized, in widely varying contexts, while it also reaches out to new and different contexts.

In this chapter, Murphy describes the work of Joerg Rieger and Kwok Pui-lan, who develop the similar concept of “deep solidarity”.  He says the term “differentiated solidarity” was “coined by the feminist political theorist Iris Marion Young” though utilized a bit differently.  As to Rieger and Kwok, it “includes yet also transcends their economic model.” (p. 69).  He remarks that they “primarily focus on the class solidarity of the 99%” and his use of the term “… extends beyond that context to wherever one sees and is moved by oppressive actions (which quite often include class dynamics)”. (p. 70).  A key point of Counter-Imperial Churching regarding these two and related appeals for broad, inclusive solidarity is this: the mutual interest of all…. We are all interconnected, in more ways and more powerfully than we tend to realize.

The first three chapters have covered two of Murphy’s three-point outline of the activity of churching: kerygma (proclamation) and koinonia (fellowship).  Chapter four comes to diakonia (service), titled “Political Influences in the Struggle for (and Struggles of) a Radical Ecclesiology”.  For readers unfamiliar with churchy lingo, “radical ecclesiology” is the concept of being (or doing) “the church” truly at the root of things.  It’s thinking and acting on the most basic of the attitude-and-action-oriented teachings of Jesus.

Here are a few bullet points from this crucial and potentially most controversial chapter of the book:

  • “Mainline” Christian liberalism should more thoroughly critique itself, expand its consciousness. It is still too enmeshed with the blinded nationalism of civil religion. (However, I might add, less so than the “religious right”.)
  • A “grassroots democracy of direct participation” is possible.
  • It’s possible because “… the multitude [potentially everyone] can become a force of counter-globalization that avoids Empire’s controlling functions”. (p. 97).

The book is basically about how Jesus-followers, especially in groups locally or regionally, can and must lead this force.  God is behind and within it but is not restricted to the efforts of these people, who mostly self-identify as Christians.

At the same time, Murphy is very specific in educating readers.  He wants us to see how systems of oppression are set up and operate; how political (governing) processes are a part of but not the totality of injustices; how movements must be more self-aware and sophisticated for broad effectiveness.  In these important details, he is addressing mainly thought leaders who often are activists as well, or certainly can influence “the multitude” of activists.  The book is mainly one of scholarship (vs. popularization) in terms of this.  In this vein is also his coverage of many other thinkers and approaches to “counter-imperial” action for the good of humanity.

As to the service aspect of churching, the counter-imperial approach “… requires being able to say boldly who you are and show how you are confronting the systems that ignore people’s value.  Otherwise, you are functionally irrelevant, both to your context in American society and to the planetary gospel that needs proclaiming in your setting”. (p. 115).

Note that this goes beyond the also-important service of meeting immediate needs and supporting hurting or marginalized people.  Is it controversial and dangerous in some sense? Murphy implies “Yes” throughout the book.  And is rocking the boat with “political theology” needed? Yes, because “… there can be no clear division between the secular and the religious, as they are co-constituted in their very constructions”. (p. 115).

In the sixth chapter, Murphy tackles the vast subject of approaches to ecclesiology (or “The Church”) as they contrast with or contribute to his own vision and what he seeks to promote among Christians concerned with good news for the whole planet.  He deals mostly with three theologians: Jürgen Moltmann, Marjorie Suchocki, and Marcella Althaus-Reid.

While departing from the highly influential Moltmann, Murphy affirms Moltmann’s purpose of encouraging “… moves away from large organizations to small-scale communities… [with] a shift from church as ‘religious institution’ that cares for people into more of a real community in, through, and with people”. (p. 118). Murphy critiques the tendency of Moltmann, typical of most orthodox views of the Christian church, to reassert “… too quickly… a universal unity at the expense of particular expressions of the good news”. (p. 120). The idea is that a planetary gospel is essentially the collection of many, many localized efforts and communities.  It is not a single message or movement spread throughout the world.

As to the work of process feminist theologian, Suchocki, Murphy is basically in agreement and support.  The process foundation of forward-focus and becoming, with the impetus of a God of true love (uncontrolling being a crucial feature), he sees as vital.  His main critique is Suchocki’s willingness to leave it to others (such as himself and many local act-ers) to be specific in reforming church traditions and institutions in needed directions.

One of these directions, for Murphy, is to stop being so concerned to be “decent” (or supportive of the status quo). He likes Althaus-Reid’s (who is Argentinian and female) steps toward what is often considered “indecent”, particularly in sexual identity and sexual ethics. Not an “anything goes” approach but rather one that removes boundaries for inclusion and supports the struggles of the marginalized, including those marginalized for the nature of their sexuality and its expression.  For example, he quotes her saying that her “particular” (vs. universal) church “… is constituted by ‘Queer dissidents in search of paths of holiness through social practices of justice in sexual, religious and political areas of their lives’.” (p. 153, footnote 166).

The last chapter is “Living Out a Counter-Imperial Ecclesiology”. How does one, with one’s faith community, go about this churching thing? Even here there is substantial material.  One aspect may be useful to younger or somewhat evangelically-leaning readers: Murphy’s comparison of his concepts to the nature of the emerging church movement (ECM). He says of his approach, “Like the ECM, it challenges the use of traditional religious space and time. It seeks active participation among worship attendants, such as the use of prayer stations. It is more decentralized than pastor-driven churches and is open to forms of postmodern philosophy…” and self-emptying thinking (p. 160). However, on the movement’s shortcomings, he says “it misses its privileged place in globalizing”. (p. 160). It is privileged places of class, wealth, etc., and their support of oppressive systems which are particularly attended to in Murphy’s churching model, whether the support is knowing or unknowing.

One could say the book includes a call to become more informed, more world-aware.  As he says in New Testament fashion, “we are in the System, but not of the System”. (p. 161). Historically, Christians and Christian institutions have usually bowed to or even imitated systems of the world rather than stood against them.  In this final chapter, Murphy emphasizes again how counter-imperial churching is not just against Empire and its evils… it is locally and practically proactive.  One example he cites is Urban Mission in Pomona, California. Only one of its centers is for worship. It went about assessing “… the spiritual, physical, and social needs of the primarily working-class Latino community in which it found itself.… With multiple bi-vocational ministers, one focuses on healthy eating and ecological living, while another specializes in ministries of re-entry and restoration for the formerly incarcerated, and another leads engagement with the real needs of the community.” (p. 174).

I found this defining statement particularly cogent: “Churching is not a refuge for the lost, a place for private solace, or a community of the saved separated from the remainder of the world.  It is a means by which divine values and desires are reflected and revealed for the world”. (p. 177).

Note: Thanks to Process Century Press for kindly providing me a copy for review. This has not influenced my thoughts regarding the book.  

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