Declaring the good news

16 ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.19 When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time.’
Matthew 10:16-19

What are we doing as Christians when we declare the gospel, the good news? Typical of historic Christianity has been the assumption that the gospel, as a message, as a relationship, even as the power of God (to put it in the Apostle Paul’s language), is something which moves from the Christian or church to the non-Christian or the world. It is hardly necessary to point out that the mission of the Church has been to declare the gospel throughout the world with either the implicit or explicit assumption that the world is insufficient (to put it mildly) before such a message is declared.

In an earlier article I have explained my criticism of this historic and orthodox approach.[1] So what then of the gospel? To refer to the Apostle Paul again, should we now be ashamed of the good news? I want to make the simple observation that when the good news was declared it was no respecter of personal or religious boundaries never mind possession. The gospel moved in any and all directions. The gospel moved for the Jewish religion and it moved against the Jewish religion, it moved for family and it moved against family, it moved for Romans and it moved against Romans. It moved from men to women, women to men, child to adult, etc. And this, of course, is to remain focused on the early Christian texts. It would be worth exploring the range of places and movements from which God’s deliverance moves in books such as Isaiah. While I may receive broad affirmation for such and understanding of the gospel in principle I do not find that such agreement makes its way into some of our formational documents on theology and practice.

This understanding of the good news can likely receive broad affirmation because documents such as our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective have become nuanced in light of the critiques of Christian missions and speak now not of declaring a particular message but of witnessing to the Kingdom of God and embodying the pattern of this reign (Article 10). I think such a statement leaves open in principle the sort of good news I am trying to describe. However, even here the signs and patterns of this life are indistinguishable from our understanding of the church. It is actually our statement on the church that fixes the direction of the good news as flowing from the church out into the world. “The church is the new community of disciples sent into the world to proclaim the reign of God and to provide a foretaste of the church’s glorious hope” (Article 9). With such an understanding of the church we cut ourselves off from the power of the good news that is neither fixed nor possessed; the power that is in excess of our forms and confessions.

I have found the recent work of Daniel Barber immeasurably helpful in clarifying how we can understand and articulate the gospel differently and think through the implications of such a change.[2] Recognizing the good news as basic to understanding Christianity Barber outlines some features of Christian declaration. Not attempting to be exhaustive, Barber gives some contours of the gospel. His description includes the call to enemy-love, jubilee inspired releases, and the over-turning of social orders (so far so good for Mennonite theology). This is a message against the powers of death while also calling for the construction of new relations and solidarities.

Barber criticizes historic Christianity because, as he views it, Christianity never understood the nature or conditions in which the gospel emerged and was expressed. Early in the church, Christians lost that sense of how the good news moved and emerged in and through the world moving with and against its early adherents depending on the context. When the disciples began to discern the contours of a need order and structure of power Jesus quickly overturns it telling them they must pass through the way of service if that is their goal (Mark 10:44).

The good news was problematic, that which made problems, in relation to the powers that were binding, dominative or destructive. What I mean to say is that according to Barber the good news names a relation or a difference (a differential relation as he would put it) and not a kernel or core of content. Declaring the gospel is not a matter of adequately translating the good news (which assumes a kernel of content) which has been the focus of much missiology. This notion of the ‘kernel’ or ‘essence’ of the gospel allows a group or individual to think in terms of possession. This is also the case in accounts of the gospel typically emphasizing a relationship with God. In these accounts it is a particular relationship which will be verified or affirmed by previously prescribed confessional or moral standards. One’s experience of good news, in these accounts of relationship are not sufficient unless the resulting relationship also conforms to a particular confessional understanding of God.

But if the good news speaks to the difference that can be made in relations of sin (death, bondage, abuse, etc.) then it remains undecidable in terms of content prior to the particular relationships in which it can be heard. The good news articulates possibility, it is the power of God for deliverance. We cannot assume to know precisely how and in which way it will move other as the difference that dominating powers work to suppress.

To speak of the uniqueness of the Christian declaration is to speak of a message that is articulated as the forms that are possible (as Jesus said in response to folks using family obligation to silence him in Matthew 12, ‘look these are my family members’). The good news emerges as the forms that are inadmissible to the established powers, the powers that attempt to fix the identities of a particular place in ways that do not allow for the possibility of change and deliverance. In this way the Christian declaration of the good news often does speak into different contexts with unique and antagonistic expressions. The good news does go out into the world. But in as much as it moves out into cracks and spaces of possibility in the world it does so in spaces of the church unsettling expressions that want to fix the limits of what the possibility of God’s power looks like. This cannot be determined in advance. The Christian must have the courage to speak against the world in as much as the Christian must have the courage to hear the messages that escape from the cracks in the world.

Mennonite Church Canada has struggled with this understanding. The Being a Faithful Church (BFC) process has attempted to articulate the reality that the church must always be discerning, always be willing to reaffirm, modify, or even change its position.[3] However, the documents have assumed a sufficiency of understanding within the church; that the church is enough within its presently constituted body in relation to scripture and the Holy Spirit.[4] And so with respect to discerning matters of human sexuality and specifically with regard to whether those in same-sex relationships have a valid place in the life of the church the church continues to view itself as sufficient prior to sustained and mutual relationships with those individuals key to whatever issue being discussed. Our documents assume that we can judge the validity of another person’s faith expression prior to the work of paying attention to what might emerge in the space of relationship between two differing groups or individuals.

Through the BFC process Mennonite Church Canada has now recommended that we create space / leave room for testing alternative understandings of church practice with regard to our confessional statements on marriage. This is an understandable decision given our diversity and will hopefully accomplish the opportunity for a more textured expression of unity. The documents even ask church’s to consider how these alternative expressions might prove to be ‘prophetic nudgings’. These documents are trying to articulate how an alternate movement within the church may be opening an opportunity for a new understanding while also permitting release for individuals and groups who have been held in bondage by the church. These documents come close to acknowledging a form of good news that emerges in the spaces of difference. The work that remains to be done is to acknowledge that the boundaries of this discernment cannot be and never is fixed by the presumed sufficiency of our internal membership.[5] This is not to deny the forms, boundaries and institutional realities that we attend to, only that our commitment to good news will not abide by them. There are times when we cannot have the good news and our Bible.[6]

To be committed and attentive to the good news is to remain vigilantly attentive to those whose bodies and identities that have been fixed and made to align with the dominant powers. But what that message sounds like can only emerge within those contexts. In the passage quoted at the beginning we find the message of Jesus expressed against the dominant powers both in the Jewish religion and the Gentile council. Here Jesus advocates for a posture and not a confession. To the extent that you are oppressed by these powers, to the extent that you are able to be solidarity with these communities then you are already the medium of the good news, do not worry about what you will say, do not get drawn into the forms, rules, and confessions that these powers will set for you but allow your being a problem to the powers be the way that the Spirit, the power of God, will move.

This posture points to Barber’s insight into the Christian declaration as that which offers possibility, which exists as forms inadmissible to the present powers. This reminded me of an encounter I had about a year ago. At that time the indigenous community, particularly women, were working hard to gain public attention to the issue of murdered and missing women in their community. A group camped out in front of the legislative building in Winnipeg. I took the opportunity to stop at the camp and eventually met one of the women who was organizing things. It was clear that this group was not a politically savvy or strategic group. It was a group that simply insisted that the ongoing control and neglect of the bodies and identities of its women was wrong and that some alternative must be possible. They insisted by the sheer insistence of that their bodies be made visible after so many have been erased. And as she spoke she said that in midst of this process she simply had to trust that at the right time, the right words and the right teaching would be given. Do not worry about what you will say . . . for what you are to say will be given to you at that time. The good news cannot be determined ahead of time for it always speaks of what is possible in the face of the powers invested in the denial of such new possibilities. This declaration is no respecter of place, person, status, or confession.

The good news of the Christian declaration is nothing in itself.[7] It is not a kernel or core content to be moved out and translated into any context. The good news is the excess, the possibility, which emerges among those misaligned with the present powers. In this place we need not worry what we will say (though we need to be careful that we can also hear) because we cannot secure this message in advance but the dissonance of such misalignment will stir and declare an excess and a possibility. This is the good news, the power of God for salvation, to which the disciple will hopefully find increasing resonance but never possession.

[1] http://www.anabaptistwitness.org/2015/08/possible-treatment-for-the-allergy-to-missions/

[2] See Daniel Colucciello Barber, On Diaspora: Christianity, Religion, and Secularity (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011) and Deleuze and the Naming of God: Post-secularism and the Future of Immanence (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2014).

[3] For the most recent bundle of BFC documents see http://www.commonword.ca/ResourceView/43/13465.

[4] While the BFC documents attempt to give space for the activity of the ‘Living Word’ this is always caught within some notion of ‘scriptural authority’ and the sort of ideals these provide for theology and practice. This is seen clearly in BFC 5 which believes it holds the ‘ideals’ to human sexuality to which we should strive. These moves continually position the church as having sufficient control over the truth prior to contact with people and expressions outside its experience.

[5] In other Mennonite Church Canada documents I have only found an explicitly (even if partially stated) mutual or relational approach in the MC Canada Indigenous Relations: Purpose, Priorities, & Processes document which calls on the church to learn “ways to receive ‘good news’ from traditional circles/communities so that our Christian faith(s) can be refined and rooted in this land.”

[6] I have argued elsewhere that attentiveness to the Bible will also see how the Bible points away from itself calling disciples to more attentiveness to the world rather than ‘right interpretation’ (see for example John 5:39-40). See also “By what authority,” Canadian Mennonite 16.4 (2012) and “What are you looking at?” Leader 13.2 (Winter 2015-16).

[7] Stanley Hauerwas says as much when he says, “The good news the gospel is becomes good news through its reception by us.” Cited in Daniel Barber, Deleuze and the Naming of God, 135.

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