the now and not yet - why and why now?
WELCOME TO THE FIRST INSTALLMENT OF ANNO DOMINI.
Two years ago this vision was dropped in my heart to be an online meeting place, a gathering of voices for those seeking as I was, questioning, and courageously engaging with the issues of our time.
The dream was to create a space to challenge the hostile ways of thinking we as believers can fall into, to unearth the invisible stories which bind us to indifference, and to inspire us to imagine a different world as we contend for God's vision for Africa, our communities, and our individual lives.
In South Africa, the last half of the previous decade - marked by students movements such as #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall - was a watershed moment for many in the church and evangelical world, even as it rocked the nation.
It exposed the weak theologies our Christian faith was largely built on, theologies which couldn’t provide meaningful answers to a value-driven generation calling for racial, gender and economic justice. All the church could offer were placating prayers at best, outright censure at worst.
Captured by empire, the gospel message and her heralds sat firmly in place, concerned only with spiritual matters, saving their flock and ushering them safely into heaven.
faith and culture, art and evangelism, justice and Jesus.
Yet deep down I knew, we all knew, that this good news had to be for everyone. Though only certain identities were expressed in our worship, and specific lived experiences validated, we knew that this gospel is not just for a privileged few.
Yet, whilst journeying to discover whether these previously marginalised identities could find freedom in Christ I, like many, found the voice of the church faint, nowhere to be found. When present, it was in a foreign context - the American context - same, but different.
What of African theological voices? Who was shaping our alternative social imagination?
So a vision was birthed to create an online platform to fuse these themes which we sometimes put in silos - faith and culture, art and evangelism, justice and Jesus. Two years of labouring and a whole lotta stretching, here we are.
Over the past few years I have been privileged enough to find these spiritual guides - “interlocutors” who continue to aid me in my readings of the city, its systems, and the various mechanics shaping our world. This they do through a faith and discipleship lens, a reminder that who we read the city and the Bible with - matters.
Imagine the freedom I found when I realised spirituality can be fused with activism, that Jesus does care about justice, and that my social analysis doesn’t devalue my faith.
In fact, such social analysis is heightened by faith, and such an attuned faith can sharpen my ability to really see the world, challenge it, all the while loving it.
My hope is that you find that same freedom as you read, listen and watch some of these thinkers, creatives and scholars share their wisdom. May we be able to discern the times and critically engage in the public arena as believers in a God who incarnated himself and was attuned to the hard stories of his time.
spirituality can be fused with activism, Jesus does care about justice, and my social analysis doesn’t devalue my faith
WE LIVE IN A FASCINATING CULTURAL MOMENT. Dominant narratives are being crushed. Ours is the age of savage Twitter takedowns, and teens adopting activism to fastrack their Cool - oh, and sanctimonious celebrities all jockeying for the Most Woke award.
Ranging from absurd to comical, all this points to a growing admission of the contestable ways we’ve been socialised in this world.
Identity politics has shined a spotlight on the myriad of lived experiences resulting from the intersection of race, gender and sexuality. These identities, previously overlooked, are now being boldly represented, owned and storied by their own makers.
From Oscar stages to carefully curated Insta feeds, the legitimacy being given to such complex social issues of people and planet echoes the already growing call around the world for an alternate way of living.
The havoc wreaked by the novel coronavirus around the world is adding more pertinence to this issue.
Post-Covid, we all have the opportunity to retool the way we consume, live in community and do business in our global economy.
Millennials may have institutional trust issues and get charged with ‘slacktivism’, but we (and our younger cohort) are a purpose driven breed, calling out parochial attitudes and insular institutional systems in favour of models that centre people and their welfare at the core.
Though mainstream Christianity may have lagged behind on affirming these radical issues, for some, this call for a socially, politically and economically transformed world is nothing new.
This alternative reality has always been framed as culminating in the social vision termed as the kingdom of God.
A COUNTERCULTURAL NARRATIVE
We’ve read the parables before. “The kingdom of heaven is like...”. We’ve heard the sermons - win souls for the kingdom, cultivate kingdom culture.
These sermons encourage us to see beyond the trials of this life because this world is not our home, we’re just a-passing through. We know we’re destined for the kingdom, a city not made with hands and streets paved with gold.
Through tithing, serving or some other Good Deed, we are inspired to contribute to and advance the kingdom of God.
But what does that actually mean? What does this kingdom look like? Is it packed warehouses, theatres and homes lifting up holy hands in utter devotion? Is it giving financially or sending out missionaries so that the message of the gospel can be heard in some foreign land? Is it a heavenly realm filled with ethereal saints raptured after a life well lived?
What is the Kingdom?
What the world around us may tout as ‘progressive’ values was actually heralded by Jesus more than 2000 years ago.
I ask this due to the growing call by individuals and nations around the world for alternative systems. They may not know it, but there’s a Christian tenor to their social consciousness.
The gospel stories where Jesus lays out the values of this kingdom reads similar to the social transformation our culture is calling for. What the world around us may tout as ‘progressive’ values was actually heralded by Jesus more than 2000 years ago.
His imagined kingdom welded a sociopolitical vision which sought to disrupt the existing social order, the aristocratic kingdom of Rome and the temple.
The world where Jesus walked and taught, was defined by power and uneven resource distribution. This world of privilege and power obviously wrought an oppressive hold over the non-elite, the peasant villagers who formed the bulk of Jesus’ audience.
Jesus' stories of justice for everyone (including one's enemy), welcoming strangers, cancelling debts and commitment to neighbourliness was a challenge to Rome, the fake purity of the temple and the very prejudices of the peasants themselves.
His stories upended the presumed assumptions of how society was and should be organised, calling for a complete social and political transformation.
It was social critique at its purest.
This socio-political vision championed the cause of justice, inclusion, and centering the stories of the marginalised. Aren't these our cultural ideals?
This is not to minimise the mystery that is the kingdom. There is no way we can pin it down and say it is exclusively this, or utterly that. It could well be breaking ground to establish a new ministry, as it is planting trees. Expanding the kingdom could be as personal as how I spend my money, to mass public gatherings intent on saving souls.
It is a mystery - on earth, as it is in heaven. Here, but hidden.
Now, and not yet.
SCRIPTURE AS ALTERNATIVE IMAGINATION
But are we open to the idea of the kingdom of God as a sociopolitical vision? Are we able to use Scripture not only for personal deliverance but as a source of alternative imagination? What do we do with verses such as Isaiah 65?
To me, this passage transcends the individualism and over-spiritualisation we tend to make of the Bible, and instead speaks to institutions and systems we can point to in our public life - healthcare, the economy, land - giving us a glimpse into an alternative world where the most vulnerable are centered.
“See, I will create new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.
I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.
“Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years;the one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child; the one who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed.
They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands.
They will not labor in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the Lord, they and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.
Isaiah 65: 17-25
In this world, infant mortality is crushed. The elderly live out their days without fear or famish. This passage recognises the importance of enjoying the fruit of one's hands, a contrast to vocation that is stripped off its value to make people thrive.
In this passage we are reminded that enterprise isn't meant to destroy family, economy and ecology. Work is sacred. It is human that all should eat the fruit of their labour. None should “labour in vain".
This passage depicts a positive connection to land, an economics rooted in enoughness, instead of fear and scarcity. There is no pyramid in sight, no ‘trickle down’ system that exploits, leaving many with nothing much to show for their efforts.
This is true justice at work.
BEYOND A PRIVIATIZED FAITH
Isaiah 65 symbolises a new heaven and a new earth, yes; a culmination of the ages where all the spheres of life - economics, politics, faith, animals, land, people - are integrated.
But the challenge is whether we as people of faith really believe it. Is it for us - now? Can this be the reality we shape in our current dispensation, even as we wait for its full maturity in the coming of the ages?
Or maybe it's just for the nation state of Israel? We could relegate this passage for ‘at the twinkling of an eye’, or we could use it as a source of prophetic imagination, a gateway to creatively and collectively imagine our world different.
Could these creative visions compels us to partner with God in bringing this vision to life - now, even as we wait for the not yet?
If our discipleship doesn't touch on economy or land, if we as people of faith can’t critically think about the world around us and the systems we participate in, not only will we continue to believe and worship in insular ways that prioritise me and mine, but we will remain ill-equipped to engage in the world around us, ineffective in an ever inquisitive world.
With God shut away in our personal, private corners, we’re free to give in to the corrupting powers of our consumerist culture, allowing our gargantuan appetites to be god, centering our needs at every cost.
With a faith robbed of its creative energy, we fit squarely into the kingdom around us, subservient to empire, and this Christianity loses its potential to be a transformative force in culture - transformation our world is desperately searching for.
If it can be acknowledged that part of Isaiah’s vision of the new heaven and new earth can be for us now - then I’m mandated by faith to actively work toward it.
If this vision does not speak of a far off, apocalyptic event but an immediate reign of God grounded in the present, then I’m stretched beyond a personal, privatised faith to one that is bold enough to stand before these giant systems, name them, acknowledge my own complicity and slowly begin to disinvest.
SO ON THAT NOTE, over the next few weeks it will be my honour and privilege to introduce you to remarkable friends and seasoned scholars whom I’ve invited to join me on this first installment of ANNO DOMINI.
Together we will draw from the countercultural narrative of the kingdom of God in our imaginings for social justice and true reconciliation.
From investigating our views of eschatology and disrupting our understanding of this kingdom metaphor, to questioning God’s economy and turning inward to how this kingdom calls for a courageous personal transformation, this is your personal invite to join in on the ride.
It might be bumpy and messy at times. Indeed, the Jesus way is rarely one of ease and comfort. It’s usually a divergent path which prompts us to get our hands dirty with the cultivation work essential for a flourishing garden.
We don't pretend to know it all, and I will never assume that here is where you will find all the answers. Instead, the idea is that we find co-wanderers to grapple and contend with, as we seek to see God even in the tragedy of a broken world.
To use another metaphor and a favourite of Jesus’, my role as usher is to simply draw you into this glorious dinner party. It may get loud with cheers of passionate understanding and fierce debate.
Like in Jesus’ parables, it will be a dinner table where everyone is welcomed, where the marginalised are dignified, and their stories amplified.
Take your place and feel free to explore the tensions, confront your doubts and challenge your assumptions. Invite others along, and lets together enter into this mystery as a community.
May our worlds be upended and dominant narratives redefined.
In and through us, may thy kingdom come.