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Radical Discipleship: A Liturgical Politics of the Gospel

Jennifer McBride
Published by Fortress Press in 2017

At first glance, the subtitle of Jennifer M. McBride’s book, Radical Discipleship: A Liturgical Politics of the Gospel (Fortress Press, 2017) might appear to embody a dangerous category mistake. Liturgy and politics, although fine and necessary things in their own right, are not often paired together as adjective and noun; and this combination might suggest that McBride is proposing to politicize the liturgy, subordinating the Gospel to the exigencies of a political movement. Whether perpetrated by the right or the left, such take-overs lead nowhere good, tending to sacralize blood and soil or revolutionary elites.

But McBride is not proposing to politicize our liturgies; rather, she seeks to liturgize our politics. This makes liturgy the force that shapes our political responses. The element of liturgy that provides the underlying structure of Radical Discipleship is the liturgical year. She explains that “when Christians live a deeply liturgical life, when we structure our existence in the world through the seasons and events that walk us through the Gospel narratives from Advent to Pentecost, we are given the capacity to hear God speak to us in powerful and concrete ways.” Hence, her chapters focus on Advent, Christmas, Ordinary Time (after Epiphany), Lent and Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost, each one developing an appropriate theme – expectation, incarnation, sacrament, lament, atonement, liberation, and discipleship.

McBride brings two other elements to bear on her task, both of which lend concreteness to this abstract outline. The first element is her own experiences of social ministry and Christian community. While living in Atlanta in 2008, she began teaching theology courses to inmates at Metro State Prison for Women, and participating in the ministries to the homeless and prisoners of the Open Door, an intentional Christian community. Her deepening involvement in both enterprises culminated in the (ultimately unsuccessful) effort to gain clemency for one of her incarcerated students, death-row inmate Kelly Gissendaner.

The second element derives from her previous doctoral work in Religion at the University of Virginia under Charles Marsh and his Project on Lived Theology, “a research initiative whose mission is to study the social consequences of theological ideas for the sake of a more just and compassionate world” (www.livedtheology.org). There she gained a deep exposure to the thought of Christians who combined social activism with theological reflection, particularly Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr., but also figures such as Dorothy Day, William Stringfellow, Will Campbell, John Howard Yoder, Katie Geneva Cannon, and Jurgen Moltmann. 

The insights drawn from her theological sources fertilize the soil of the liturgical narrative to germinate the seeds of her experience that have been sown there. How this works can best be appreciated through a detailed focus on one chapter, “Advent.”

As children, many of us may have experienced Advent, if we even knew the name, as a cheerful December prelude of purchases and parties leading up to Christmas. If “expectation” figured at all, it was focused on the pile of presents under the tree, not on the dawning reign of God. The re-discovery of Advent as a liturgical season in its own right, with its own distinctive hymnody and lectionary, introduced a somber note into a season that our culture defined in terms of reindeer sightings and lullaby carols. The change was too much for some; thirty years ago, my own congregation lurched into a crisis over the pastor’s determination to sing only Advent hymns until Christmas Eve.

McBride views this affective dissonance as thoroughly a propos to the season. Without it, one might say, we are not being properly formed by the liturgy. 

“As a season of expectant waiting, Advent trains Christians to be a people who yearn, but the vital question is: What are we longing for? What are we waiting for? Or better, how do we become people who long for the right things, those things that correspond with what God promises to bring?”

She recalls how the devotional life of the Open Door community “expanded [her] longing and helped [her] see Advent more holistically as a season with social and political significance.” This occurred in particular through two Advent lectionary texts: Mary’s Magnificat, and John the Baptist’s preaching of repentance.

Exegetically, McBride emphasizes three points regarding the Magnificat. First, Mary “says yes with her body – she literally embodies the good news . . . . Her yes includes not only verbal assent but bodily participation in the movement of God.” Second, the Magnificat proclaims a “Great Reversal” that is as much social and economic as it is personal. She quotes from a sermon of Bonhoeffer on this text: “God is not ashamed of human lowliness but goes right into the middle of it. God draws near . . . to the excluded, the powerless.” Third, “God’s advent overthrows dominant social attitudes . . . : ‘He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.’” 

She makes these points concrete by extensive quotations from Kelly Gissendaner’s graduation speech from the prison theology program. It might seem scandalous to pair the Blessed Virgin with a confessed (and ultimately executed) murderer; but McBride does not apologize.

“When we reduce distance between ourselves and those who hunger for liberation from imprisonment and sentence of death . . . through friendship with fellow disciples and prison theologians like Kelly, we come to recognize the tangible consequence of the Advent proclamation.”

Mary, after all, was “a Nobody from Nowheresville,” not to mention a pregnant single woman in a patriarchal society. For privileged Christians to be (again in Bonhoeffer’s words) “caught up in this action, the reversal of all things . . . [and] become actors on this stage,” such reducing of distance is essential.

Here McBride forges a link between Mary and John the Baptist, who proclaims that “participation in this new order . . . necessitates repentance in accordance with the kingdom established and made known in Jesus.” This repentance is not so much an individualistic agonizing over private sins; instead, it is a hopeful participation in the church community, which understands, as Bonhoeffer puts it, that “only where Jesus judges sin can he bestow new righteousness.” Repentance is, in fact, equivalent to discipleship; in McBride’s words, “As they inhabit repentance, privileged disciples find entrance into beloved community as well, and are given a vocation of incomparable worth.”

This process of transformation is personal as well as social, and these two aspects are not in zero-sum opposition to each other, as they are often understood in individualistic or collectivistic cultures. Instead, they are intertwined aspects of a single reality. To explain this concept, McBride has recourse once again to Bonhoeffer, citing his difficult but important idea of “vicarious representative action.” Just as Christ took upon himself responsibility for human sin, so his disciples are called to responsible action for others – not as those who claim a superior holiness, but precisely as fellow repentant sinners who identify wholly with sinful and forgiven humanity.

Alongside Bonhoeffer, McBride places the Catholic personalism of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, noting how its emphasis on the intrinsic worth of the human person leads to a commitment to the “common good” rather than the pursuit of individual advantage. Similarly, Martin Luther King’s version of personalism challenges the individualist worldview that is our dominant ideology by insisting that the core of the Gospel is not the salvation of unique souls, but rather the creation of a “beloved community.” As McBride summarizes, “When we ask Jesus to come into our lives at Advent, what we await, according to the biblical witness, is change in society and in ourselves.”

McBride then applies these theological ideas to the two social issues that engaged her in Atlanta: incarceration and homelessness. Regarding the former, she notes how our retributive mass incarceration system leads to de-humanizing conditions for inmates, fails to rehabilitate offenders, and ultimately undermines the community at large. Citing the work of activists like Bryan Stevenson and social scientists like Michelle Alexander, as well as her own experiences at Metro State Prison, she argues that “the greatest barrier [to dismantling mass incarceration] is that most of us do not see those in prison as human beings who bear God’s image. We do not see . . . . In our blindness, the Advent message resounds: Wake up! Be alert!”

The issue of homelessness similarly boils down to a failure of vision. Our individualistic interpretive grid leads us to assume that personal factors are the root cause of homelessness. Citing the work of Laura Stivers, McBride insists that structural issues such as “lack of affordable housing and extreme poverty” play a more significant role. Rather than assuming that teaching homeless people to make better choices will solve the problem, we need to see how we ourselves are unknowingly complicit in perpetuating it.

As to solutions, McBride proposes that we explore the Restorative Justice model of criminal justice reform, and a Housing First approach to homelessness. These strategies have been implemented with some success, although they are not without challenges of their own. But perhaps most importantly, they help us envision the great reversal that Advent celebrates, and prepare us to “build right relationships with those who are oppressed as we reduce distance through practices of peace.” This transitions to the subject of her next chapter, focused on the season of Christmas, which explores the Incarnation in relationship to peacemaking.

Each chapter proceeds in this fashion, weaving together liturgy, activism, and theological reflection. The drama of Kelly Gissendaner’s clemency appeal forms one through-line, while the insights and challenges of the Open Door’s model of intentional community create another. Despite the profound influence of the Open Door on McBride’s thinking, she ultimately concludes that its current model of ministry, which relies on acceptance of voluntary poverty by its resident volunteers, is unsustainable. In the final chapter, “Pentecost: The Birth of the Discipleship Movement,” she sensitively explores both the achievements and the failures of the Open Door, and examines other models of intentional community that might be more sustainable within a congregational context.

Radical Discipleship is an important book, which should speak equally to theologians and to laypeople who seek to develop a this-worldly spirituality and practice of the Christian faith. Its structuring around the liturgical year makes it ideal for study groups. The experience of ministry that she brings to the book is rich and authentic. Her knowledge of Bonhoeffer, King, and her other theological guides is deep and nuanced, so that they function not just as inspirational cut-outs but as fully dimensional thinkers. It is a worthy addition to the canon of lived theology.

David Timmer

David Timmer

David Timmer recently retired from teaching Religion at Central College in Pella, Iowa.

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