Review: Radical Discipleship: A Liturgical Politics of the Gospel (Fortress Press, 2017)

[1] This is not another book talking about “lived theology” but actually doing it.

[2] The author draws upon key insights from especially Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as a variety of other recent theological voices (e.g., feminist), which will be familiar to many of us. We share many of her basic commitments –- e.g., that Jesus calls us to be disciples not simply believers, and that the gospel is always social and political, transforming not only individuals but also systemic structures and policies. Her incisive analyses of incarceration and homelessness, and their related causes, draws on what others have written.

[3] But what is distinctive is how she lives this out, and does constructive theology in the context of the Open Door Community in Georgia –- especially with those who are incarcerated, homeless and poor. She went there to teach theology to the imprisoned women, but heard from them theological meanings and connections that most academic theologians would not encounter. (Jurgen Moltmann came to witness what was occurring there.)

[4] McBride shares, “By placing my body in a new situation, in unfamiliar space, my mind has been renewed.” (145) “We have to place our bodies in situations of struggle.” (100) She dares to make herself vulnerable, e.g., by spending 24 hours of Holy Wednesday, living out on the streets, with and where the homeless live: “spending time on the streets is to follow Jesus (140); “The streets belong to the homeless even as they remain spaces of marginality, survival and exclusion.” (146) The homeless and housed have divergent relations to space (142).

[5] Over time, she also developed deep relationships with women who are incarcerated. As one woman wrote, “you have to seek a freedom that free world people know nothing about….when you live in this place as a person who is alive, not dead, then you are free.” (182,183)

[6] Some of the women prisoners McBride related to included those on death row, including one, Kelly, against whose scheduled execution there was significant rallying. In a high point of the book, McBride writes that the resurrection empowered resistance to Kelly’s death “penalty” execution, and energized an extensive organizing effort. The resurrection is a symbol of God’s triumph, when all seems defeated, over all the forces that seek to block community (95). Paul comes to know Jesus precisely by encountering him in the risen form of the persecuted. (190) While believers profess the truth of the resurrection, disciples participate in its power. (197)

[7] This is not “prison ministry,” according to the usual model that McBride critiques, operating with the paradigm of “us” ministering to “them.” The cross of Christ instead has the power to stop the victim-oppressor cycle and replace it with the politically potent notion of friendship (161). One of the women recoiled at any hint of “jailhouse religion” being used to bolster the dominant structure of the prison system by making it appear to be an institution of rehabilitation, where “bad” or “immoral” people can find God. (161). The act of reading religious texts has been used to control and discipline people for the vast majority of penal history. (209). Rather than a therapeutic or disciplinary approach, McBride advocates a liberating approach, since “God’s purpose is to break open prison cells and set the captives free.” (210)

[8] Some insights that particularly struck me include:

  • “redemption is performed” – it includes immersing ourselves in difficult and painful realities (p. 104)
  • encountering reality in the raw is holy because this is what Jesus did (106)
  • ordinary acts are infused with sacramental power (104)
  • the unity of the gross and beautiful is holy (105); even public bathrooms can be holy ground
  • homelessness is like a slow execution (138)
  • at the Open Door, eucharistic hospitality spills out into the streets and prison, ushering people into the beloved community (115).

[9] McBride draws crucial distinctions between morality and lament. “The church’s preoccupation with morality has suppressed our ability to lament.” (123) This bars us from hearing and receiving God’s judging word that exposes our complicity in the social sin that saturates our world. “Whereas lament is attuned to the audible and silent cries of the oppressed and despised, and drives us toward solidarity with them, a focus on “morality” creates distance and division.” (124) The religious desire to “be for God” often leads to being against our fellow human beings because it presumes the church is in a position as judge over society (125) In contrast, lament (protest to God) is the wellspring of hope, the force that pushes us to live into the promises of God. (127)

[10] McBride summarizes the liturgical framing of the book: “The discipleship community understands the inherent social and political character of the gospel, enters new situations and creates spaces that reduce distance between privileged and oppressed people, yearns for the great reversal (Magnificat) and enacts public repentance (Advent), performs creative nonviolent resistance to social evil and meets human need (Christmas), turns toward and welcomes harsh and raw realities with compassion and courage (Ordinary Time), laments and rejects moralism (Lent and Holy Week), participates in Jesus’ solidarity with society’s victims (Good Friday), engages others out of a disposition of trust, and witnesses to the power of life over death and liberation over oppression (Easter).” (p. 232-233)

[11] It is evident that McBride, who is current president of the International Bonhoeffer Society, has been inspired by and is carrying on and embodying Bonhoeffer’s theological emphases. We see this especially in the concluding chapter where she sets forth models of radical hospitality to illuminate what it means to embody being the church today. She emphasizes an approach that is not separate outreach programs but rather, the core of the church’s identity and mission. The central challenge arising from this book is: “what does hospitality to strangers look like in any specific community, or love of enemies, be they real or perceived?” (248)

[12] Writing from a relatively privileged position, McBride has been able to test her ideas in an area of the country where churches still tend to be strong and influential. The question is how persuasive this will be in other settings (such as Oakland CA where I live and pastor a congregation) where resistance and activism are challenging dominant powers, but are doing so apart from declining churches, and are led instead by those of other faiths, or who are not grounded in any faith tradition. Are the emphases of Bonhoeffer and King relevant in these contexts as well?

Karen L. Bloomquist

Karen Bloomquist, ordained in 1974, has served as pastor of Lutheran congregations in CA, NYC, WA, and after completing her PhD at Union in NY, has been on faculties in Chicago, Dubuque and Berkeley, as well as director of departments in the ELCA and the LWF.  She also has taught at seminaries throughout the world, and has authored or edited many publications. She currently is a theologian-at-large, and lives in  both WA and CA.