Posted by: rogermitchell | December 5, 2011

ecclesia as counterpolitical activism

Over the last two years since I began this blog, I have made it increasingly clear that I believe the church as we have known it, and much of the theology developed by it, has been invaded by the powers of empire, and the testimony of Jesus damaged and displaced as a result. It is this standpoint that my research has explored over these last six years, and which the book Church, Gospel, & Empire, advertised on the first page of this blog, is all about. A number of crucial issues related to the future of the church follow from all this, which are the subject of initial exploration in Part III of my book, and which a variety of books, pamphlets, presentations, and practical materials including podcasts and this blog will continue to explore. It is my hope that just as my own perspective has been the result of the impact of previous work of both friends and strangers, more research and practical application by many will follow on.

But to begin with, it seems to me, one of the most pressing needs is to reconfigure and experience the ecclesia as what I am calling counterpolitical activism along the following lines:

1) the very etymology of the word ‘church’ in depicting a building for the enactment of public worship, carries the baggage of the 4th century conjunction of church and empire, and although it will no doubt endure in general usage, as it does so it will need qualifying frequently if we are going to continue to use it to refer to the kenarchic people of God;

2) the incarnation, that is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, was about the katargēsis (ultimate completion by abolition, emptying-out) of Law, Monarchy and Temple, despite the way that the Christendom style church has reinvigorated them and built the West on them;

3) it follows that the contemporary ecclesia must again be about the katargēsis of Law, Monarchy (or Republic) and Temple and the political organisation and operations of war and money that undergird them;

4) it further follows therefore that the ecclesia cannot be at all about any legal, hierarchical, spiritual authority mediating between a sovereign God and a subservient people;

5) that the promulgation of liturgies, prayers, forms of worship and spiritual exercises in a way that frames such relationships constitutes abusive and ungodly spiritual activity.

So rather than all this essentially imperial expression of religion we need to recover the ecclesia as a radical, counterpolitical kenarchic people. This being the case, the big question is, what kind of mutual fellowship between God and each other is necessary to the ongoing operation of the ecclesia?

It’s surely going to be only that which encourages us in mutual participation in the Spirit of God who’s incarnated in Jesus and our collaboration with him in outworking his desire for the multitude and the creation. The purpose of the next few posts will be to reveal more of this co-operative behaviour which is the consummatory and inclusive genus of being that Paul calls new creation. Together with the collaboration and comments of you the readers, I am looking forward to exploring its proper function and contemplating those relational connections that will facilitate and enhance its kenarchic role as gift to the rest of humanity.


  1. Well, I need this. I am discouraged today. I read about Durban and the behaviour of the rich countries, especially Canada. I read about China’s attempt to buy up large amounts of Iceland (Iceland said no) to gain access to emerging supplies of fossil fuels as the artic melts. I read about how CO2 emissions are up dramatically and in it all I despair. The rulers of this earth will go on and on until they destroy it all. They will pump out and burn every bit of fossil fuel they can find even if it destroys our water supplies (fracking and the tar sands), the lives of many, many people, other species, the land. It does not matter to those who rule imperialistically and have had their minds changed and deranged due to greed.

    The only hope is Jesus and his alternative – a reality achieved by giving up all for all. I can’t figure what that all looks like but I continue to read about militarized police responses to OWS protests and wonder if I am willing to put my body and its comfort (health?) on the line. Somehow, enough of us are going to have to refuse to play the game anymore for it to stop but those that rule will not give up easily or nicely. They never have.

    I read an article today (did I send it to you?) and in it Christopher Hedges wonders where the church is in all of this. He believes Jesus would be/is out on the line with the OWS protesters but interestingly, most of the church is not. Here’s the URL:

    Certainly, for those of us who claim to follow Jesus we face some difficult questions in the days ahead. In the meantime, I prep my students for their final exams in a world that no longer supports or has much to do with the kinds of things they pay to learn in their programs. They know it. I know it. We have long discussions about it all. More questions and discussions to come. . .

    • I sympathize. But we have a double difficulty here, and it explains why you might be getting tired of responses to these questions that are vaguely supportive but very light on content or ideas for coherent praxis. The double difficulty is that we lack precedent. With most of the other ‘gates’ we can trace back to social or political examples and discover where we strayed from the corresponding plot biblically. With the environmental question we have no historic precedent and consequently little theological foundation. All terribly insubstantial.

      I note that Bauckham has again written on this and from the looks of it produced a useful and for once quite comprehensive survey in Living with Other Creatures: Green Exegesis and Theology (Baylor 2011). The response from George Monbiot looks especially interesting.

      Scot MckNight has done a brief review of this here:

      There’s one point that he raises in summary that strikes me as potentially pivotal. I can’t explain why but it resonated and smiled at me and said “This is why and how it matters”

      MckNIght says “Bauckham sketches two other themes: humanity as within the community of creation (the horizontal in Psalm 104) and the praise all creation gives to God (the vertical in Psalm 19).”

      What spoke to me was the theme of the worship of creation, the worship that stones give, that hills give, that lambs and lions give. The doxology of creation just feels like a key to understanding somehow.

      • This is a talk by Naomi Klein on risk and how we approach the environment. She talks about the need for a new story/narrative. c.

  2. This is an excellent piece which I really agree with for the most part, but I think I would like to ask you more about 4 and 5. The abuse of power in the Church and its involvement with and propping up of cruel govts and dictators is, of course completely anti-gospel, but I think that we need to consider how , in re-forming worship, we avoid making ourselves, leftwing OR Rightwing, traditionalist or radicals, all powerful – the v temptation that dictators & corrupt govts fall into? I want to see Christ in the vulnerable, and I agree that some liturgical practices can be abusive, but we DO need to bow down before a wonderful, mysterious God who cannot be captured or contained by any ideology, & I do think there is a place for awe inspiring liturgies and even breathtaking buildings in our practice of our faith. I think there is room for tents and cathedrals in the Kingdom. I hope I am expressing this properly. I don’t want to come across as a conservative traditionalist, but I think we do need ecclesial authority in moral teaching and doctrine, and though that has been muddled up with abuse of power through the ages I do wonder if that is just part of the muddle of our humanity. This is just a 1st tentative response to your blog and so much of what you say makes sense…

    • Welcome Anne, and thanks for your considered reply. I was teaching an undergraduate seminar on Kierkegaard today, and he makes a clear distinction between a painful and an upbuilding sense of God’s greatness of character compared to our own. For him the crucial issue is, I think, whether this greatness is expressed in terms of domination by law which we are forced to accept, or expressed in terms of love that we are drawn to freely recognise and accept. Transcendent sovereignty is very different from transcendent love. The one substantiates empire and hierarchical sovereignty and the other elicits kenotic love and kenarchy. I think the same issue applies to liturgies and buildings. The distinction can be both subtle and subjective at times, but I think my warning stands in both cases. It is ecclesiastical authority that reinforces hierarchy, worship liturgies that induce law and obligation and buildings whose architecture evokes subordination that we need to avoid. But your reservations are important qualifications to take seriously. Thank you.

      • I love that sentence” ‘Transcendent sovereignty is different from transcendent love’. Thank you.

  3. So, now we come to it. Captains Courageous…

  4. Doesn’t it come down to who is serving who?


    • Thanks for the contribution Phil, but it’s a bit too simply put for me. Can you expand the point a little?

  5. I’ve been checking out the YouTube channel of this man:
    He’s often grotesque in his metaphors, he swears like a sailor on a bad weekend, but his crazy rants I think often (not always) have a point and its interesting that more people are getting it.

    I’ve been thinking about what Noam Choamsky said “Before AD 300 Christianity was a radically pacifist religion that’s why it was persecuted” and how far we’ve come from taking turning the other cheek seriously.

    I’ve been thinking how radical Christianity dilutes the concept of state, because ‘state’ is irrelevant to the point of nonsensical. In current political practice it is unforgivable for a state to not operate in self interest at all times. Doing so may get a states-person prosecuted may be executed in some places. This is the opposite on kenotic (selflessness).

    Radical Christianity cannot provide more soldiers, consumers, general co-operators as it dilutes the systems of the World it seeks to reduce debt in itself and others, it seeks liberation and the confrontation is at such a deep level it can’t be justly repudiated. For instance, it won’t attack a muslim for being muslim, but will not co-operate with a corrupt official and it will make a choice that doesn’t enrich the wealthy at the expense of the poor.

    These pacifistic attacks are at the foundations of the structures of the spiritual forces of darkness in the high places, by deciding to live this way we are saying we don’t want to fruit in the middle of the garden. We are choosing God, light instead of darkness.

    By not lending our moral support to the upcoming war with Iran, and speaking against it. By not agree to the government to accrue more debt – “for all our sakes”. By saying that the people of Iran are more precious to us than their oil and therefore being prepared to change our lifestyle because of less access to oil. It doesn’t feed the international monetary systems and therefore causing the shaking.

    Of course, that sort of interference will lead to persecution. But Radical Christianity leads to persecution, one follows the other.

    • Hi Justin,
      Chomsky is right of course. But where did you find such a blistering quote? A new one on me!

      • There you go

        It’s a really deep interview.

  6. You know until recently I never really understood why Israel sinned when they asked for a king.

  7. Hearing Noam talk (He’s not a Christian), this and other interviews, he reminds me of the brother that Jesus talked about, The one that said “I will not go into the vineyard!” Then later he went anyway. The man says he’s not a Christian then goes ahead and does things that Christians should be doing.

  8. I have come to believe that some people can come to know Him, even though they don’t know His name.

    • Thanks for the definitive “sons of peace” video links Justin!

  9. Okay Roger, a question. I get the kenarchic thing when it comes to war. Obviously loving one’s enemy precludes dropping bombs on him or her. And I get not supporting the nation state and militarized police forces, caring for the poor, rejecting the imperial church. But how do those who follow Jesus deal with the environment? How do we care for creation? We can do individual acts such as grow food, live lightly, choose a car-free, tv-free life. I do all that. But in light of the attached article by Chomsky from Truth-out today, what are we called to do? Just wondering where this should be leading me and am open to suggestions, from anyone. Because when it comes to care for the poor, for children, for others (species), obviously climate change is a far greater threat to all of us than war. So how do we respond? C.

    • Thanks for keeping us to the point on this Cheryl. I’m sure that we need to dig further into the testimony of Jesus on the environment and apply it to the contemporary crisis. I will try and give some examples over the coming days.

      • Okay Roger – here’s my bit of revelation today. If we are going to understand the OT through the kenarchic act of Jesus demonstrating to us the reality of God’s love. Then we have to interpret the Genesis command/suggestion/promise that humans have dominion over the earth as meaning that we, like Jesus, would give of ourselves, totally, to care for this planet, the land, air, water, and all the other wee and large critters. Yes? That godly dominion must mean loving care to the point of self sacrifice. Did I get it right? And of course our economics, other activities, and relations with other humans would all contribute to this planet care and flow out of it. So an economics based on the premise of continual growth is impossible (good-bye capitalism). Or a cultural attitude that the earth exists to meet our needs, rather than we are called to meet its needs would not suffice. If you look at the Genesis call/promise/command through Jesus a whole lot of stuff we do without thinking gets challenged. c.


    • Hi Cheryl for me I think that they are all conjoined. For instance the problem with ‘money’. You can’t have cities without money because in cities people live away from the land etc… If people lived in smaller communities they could possibly all contribute something to the production of food, even if they are not all farmers. Doing this and NOT for the purpose of creating cash crops would reduce the need for the intensive farming practices that are used today also, living in small communities could potentially reduce – not eradicate the need for constant commuting. Essentially just scaling things down.

      I also think that there is STILL a pressing need for bible school students to take the lead, and I really mean take the lead in all of this. To be involved in social action, counter political action that does not fight against flesh and blood but spiritual forces. People that can understand why.

      • Justin: I take your point on the advantages of small communities. But honestly, trade has always involved more than food. People have to wear clothes, have shelters, and tend to enjoy other items as well. Not all communities are equally blessed geographically or in terms of material resources and so trade happens. And trade involves travel. And travel means you want to reduce the load of goods carried (though goods still have to be transported). For that we use cash – whether its shells that we like or coins minted from precious metals.

        And I would just challenge your thinking a bit. Much research has found that dense urban habitations might well be the most sustainable and have smaller ecofootprints that smaller, more rural communites. Why? Because unless you are also going to go the Amish route (travel by horse), living in smaller towns and rural communities involves heavy use of fossil fuels. A city person can get all their stuff done on foot or by transit if the city functions well. A country kind of person cannot. So many researchers who have examined these questions have found that cities, ultimately are more sustainable. However, I think that means we need to shift significant amounts of food production into cities, on roofs for example. If more of us inhabit dense, well functioning cities, and grow much of our food within them, then we can leave more habitat and space available for other species. And we can manage water better. Farming as currently managed is the biggest waster of water on the planet. And we are currently extingushing an awful lot of other life on this planet due to our propensity to claim, take over, and destroy the habitat of other species, leaving them insufficient space to breed and live.

        So while, I love the idea of small farms dotting the countryside. And would even love to establish a cooperative venture I realize that we cannot do that for the 7 billion (and growing) population of the world. We have to find other solutions.

        I find your thoughts about Bible school students interesting. I attended a bible college for a short time. It would be quite an interesting challenge to get such students (they tend to be conservative and defer much to authority in terms of a self selecting group – unless that has changed since my time) out and protesting. I would delight to see it. Are you organizing something?

      • Cheryl: Hi Cheryl thanks for your reply, I have to ask, can’t we find a midway? I don’t believe in the permanent eradication of trade altogether, but the scaling down and personally I still have a real problem with the idea of money the way we have it today it is so problematic.
        Two of your points that I have to agree on:
        1) People in rural areas tend to have to travel greater distances therefore use cars more often.
        2) Bible school students can be very conservative and aren’t prepared to challenge the status quo.
        With regards to point 1) does it have to be like that? Do we have no choice? If we as a society were to ruralise our populations (which I don’t believe they would do because it reduces financial dependence) we could also actually provide public transportation options in rural areas which either currently don’t exist or are absolutely rubbish.
        With regards to point 2), not being one myself and not being a bible school student in the past, I think that it’s a bit of a shame, if you study The Word, then you should exercise The Word, not just to say join us, but (and as well as) to stand up for what is right, I don’t mean prayer in schools fort of thing (which could often just be meaningless recitation by unbelievers) but things like saying stop bombing people, joining the voices saying help the poor and look after the sick.
        I still believe that it’s all conjoined, once I met a LOVELY conservative Christian from the USA. The sort of person who would give you their right arm if you asked for it, genuinely beautiful people, I mean that! But He also worked as a lawyer for Monstanto. Don’t know if you’ve ever seen the film Food,_Inc. if you haven’t, wow, check it out.
        Finally, currently I’m not trying to organise anything or even participating in anything apart from these discussions myself at the moment. I’m still at the point of working out what I believe in and why and going from there.

      • Justin: I’m not defending money, except that trade tends to require some sort of exchange medium beyond the actual goods and services to acct for people who do not want to raise chickens for a living. In terms of rural life – please we need to be careful not to romanticise it. Rural people are no less dependent upon the system than urbanites. Most rural agriculture is government subsidized in one form or another, water is cheaper than it should be (and terribly mis-used) because govt’s allow that and make their money other places. All of rural living is subsidized in some way. For example, roads are subsidized more heavily by govt’s than all public transit. So cheaper living, smaller ecofootprint living, less dependent living is not found in the countryside (off-grid living on a self-sustaining farm excepted) but in dense cities. And with a world population that is growing from 7 billion today to 9 billion tomorrow and projected to become up to 13 billion, we don’t have enough land for everyone to live in the country. And of course, other species would just be totally wiped out with that kind of situation. Farming already accounts for significant and ongoing loss of habitat for other species with the resultant extinction.

        So sure, some people are called to live in the country. I used to be one of them. Others are desperately needed in the cities. I left the profession of riding barn manager and riding instructor to move to the city just to do urban church work 20 years ago because it was clear that was where people are. If we want to see the Kingdom realized, I suggest that it has to be realized in the city as the world is urbanizing at a very fast rate (farmers cannot make enough to live and again, there is a lack of land available, and water). So we need a new vision of city, one that incorporates green spaces, farmed spaces, productive spaces, other species, spaces that promote empathy and trust between inhabitants like. . . . oh, yea, like the vision at the end of Revelation. We need that kind of city.

  10. Thanks Roger for opening this up. I really feel this matter needs fresh radical insight . The Holy Spirit is clearly identifying the issue of “what kind of mutual fellowship between God and each other is necessary in the ongoing expression of ecclesia”
    I feel for many of us that we have had to disconnect with so much of what we see as “church” that we feel an isolation which apart from connecting with a few individuals leaves us feeling there has to be more than this.
    I hope that this issue does not get rushed but that it will set in motion root and branch action.

  11. Cheers Roger on latest post. We are desperately needing new language to say both what we are and what we are not, and I’m appreciating your help in that. I know some folk I regard as ‘Christian’ who would vehemently deny that they are because of what the term evokes, both for them and others. I can’t do that because it’s false for me (though I’m only just over the line from the deny-ers!). But I know that to say I’m a Christian sometimes feels like an apology, dribbling embarrassingly down my chin (and church? Let’s just not go there….!!) I’m passionately, desperately looking and waiting and doing the best I can to discover what these ‘relational connections’ and their ‘kenarchic role’ is going to look like and feel like. I’m on a long journey out of church (as was and is), but in the hope of finding a gleaned and redeemed humanity out there somewhere (that is to come). Here’s hoping!

    • This is the difficulty, Phil… imagining the story before we understand it. If we try to define things too soon, or by abandoning true roots as if we could achieve something by this, we will create caricatures. I sometimes feel that the Emergent movement, as a self defined thing, has frequently spoken too much and too soon. A caricature of the self-emptying would be a fraudulent form of self sacrifice. A bit like the Cambridge Footlights sketch of the Wing Commander sending a young pilot into battle with little expectation of his return and the officer saying “Son, it’s time for another futile gesture”.

      It is difficult too at present because of the fragmentation that has occurred in the last few years. There are a lot of very puzzled and lonely people asking similar questions. But I think there are analogies that can help us in the workplace and on the street. About ten years ago the bit of the body to which I was attached attempted to take over and restore a disused provincial theatre. This certainly involved a lot of emptying out, mostly of bank accounts. And it was experienced as a sacrifical act by many, although few were really sure what the vision really was, or rather, which of the many visions would survive.

      We went into that thing in a state of disarray, with conflict between ‘leaders’ and ‘laity’ alike. But we were moving into a town with a long history of social conflict and division across lines of poverty and wealth. I remember calling for a new form of witness, saying that surely, as the body, people would know whose we were by our way of resolving conflict, by our way of maintaining kindness in the face of disagreement, by our love, in short. My concern was that we were moving into a very public place, and that the community would know us by what they saw us doing long before they would be willing to hear what we had to say. This was a place with a lot of very high walls and very small doors, which spoke to me of a new imperative, the need to embody and demonstrate what the gospel could do in shaping and inspiring community.

      Some wonderful things happened, but mainly well outside of that building. We did badly, overall. We lost our right to speak, strangely, I believe, because we failed to enjoy the opportunity presented to us. It was eaten up by old assumptions and old habits of behaviour. But many of us learned that the first task had to be devotion to the people of that place and that our ways of being together were the core of the gospel for those trapped on the sink estates.

  12. Thanks, Chris. I’m much happier being part of submergent than emergent church. I want to be the complete opposite of church building or planting, with its barely disguised colonial mindset, (which so marked out the back-end of last millennium with its futility). It seems to me that, even with the best will and motive, when we begin to build something, we’ve already cursed it, polluted it with our empirical ambitions. And we can usually feel it begin to whither and become dead weight (sorry, mixed metaphors) once the first burst of hey-we’re-really-going-to-change-things-this-time enthusiasm fades – though denial is a powerful thing, of course, providing vital energy to keep the doomed enterprise moving forward (I mean, we’ve started so let’s finish this). That’s my experience (and there are plenty of biblical and historical precedents). I no longer even think to look for intentional church of any shape or hue. We can intentionally build community without building intentional communities, can’t we? Maybe we’d still rather build a shelter than be ourselves transfigured. If we can’t go for broke and really try to pour all we have out naturally and unrequietedly (is that a word?), marry the land where we are and its people, become unmistakably one with it and losing ourselves in it, we haven’t a hope in hell (or anywhere else) of seeing anything truly, wonderfully, divinely human emerging!… don’t you think?! Bless.

    • You brought a smile on a Monday morning!

      One of the things I love about what I see is the people emerging. So many have dropped the costume of the high calling and are enjoying the modesty of simply being authentic. For many this has involved a journey through what others insist is loss or waste but once honestly faced it becomes somehow more real. They might suddenly ‘know’ a lot less than they thought they knew but are far less defensive about those things because they are held with a simpler assurance.

      The hunger for community remains though. But now it is couched in terms of family and neighbourhood not in terms of territory.

  13. Authenticity, yes!! Authenticity with simplicity the electricity of the community of inclusivity spawned by the Gospel (well, as you say – it is Monday morning!!). Phil

  14. My absolute favorite part of your blog entry is “ecclesia cannot be at all about any legal, hierarchical, spiritual authority mediating between a sovereign God and a subservient people.” Once we see this for what it has been throughout history, we can see it everywhere. I love how you provide the grid for evaluating community, family, politics–any relationship really. Once a person believes they can mediate, it immediately creates hierarchy and that disengages the faith of others. To honor people enough to invite a response catapults us into union with Christ and each other – protects faith. This is where we have gone soooo wrong in Western culture. We impose our time limits and/or our views on folks’ choices and then because we have “mandates” for our calling, we dominate the situation when our patients runs out. Only the victory God gives is worth having and any other kind of victory is just plain wrong.

    Additionally, I wonder if our mediating between each other from a stratified position sets up the same disengaged mentality that folks eventually accept as normal (and then don’t take care of the environment, reengage culture as public servants, think for ourselves, soar into creative genius, etc…)? Our task as the body of Christ is to reject this tendency in all of our relationship. We cannot lift ourselves up as the “answer” or “fixer” – Only when Jesus is lifted up can men and women find him. It seems a little crowded up in the space made for him.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: