By Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, former moderator of the PC(USA) and the founding and former pastor of Mission Bay Church in San Francisco. In January, he will be joining the Seattle Presbytery as the keynote speaker for PresbyFest.
If this is the first time you have ever read my writings, getting you up to speed on my social and theological location might take a little too long. Suffice it to say that I know that my perceptions of what is radical or safe is colored by my experience as, not simply a life-long Presbyterian, but one who deeply embraces the theological and political foundations through which I have been formed.
That said, over the past decade, I have meandered in and out of conversations with and about the postmodern and emergent church, I have helped to found a congregation in hyper-spiritual and anti-religious San Francisco and I have dabbled in the bureaucracy of my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA. So as much as I would like to avoid the notion, when it comes to recent conversations about change that are going on across in the church, I have been around.
One of the things that I have noticed recently in many interactions regarding the nature of the church is an increased reclamation of what it means to be “radical” for Jesus. Liberal or conservative, there seem to be bubbles of “look how radical I am” forming that are dangerously close to becoming mutual admiration societies based on our collective non-conforming “eff you” mentalities. In an honest attempt to fight what the church has been, many seem to have claimed the position of eye-poker, provocateur and/or contrarian. While I generally agree with the positions taken about church, culture and life, I have wondered – and will no doubt get in trouble for verbalizing this – if those who preach a gospel of radicality are preaching the radical life that Jesus is in fact calling us to live. Yes, I do believe that Jesus calls us to speak truth to power, social and political, but sometimes, I wonder if we can embody this role so much that it becomes all of who we are. With good intentions, the overabundance of one tactic and gospel perspective begins to sound as if Jesus only wants radical transformation for the other… and we are the ones to deign how to do that.
I firmly believe that the radical call of Jesus shifts and changes as our life and circumstances change: day to day, year to year and generation to generation. Might the radical calling on our lives be to embody the complexity of divine expression that Christ holds in harmony… to borrow from Calvin: to be pastoral in our care of others, priestly in our connection to God, prophetic in seeking justice, and poetic in our imagination of what could be? When we allow “radical” to be too comfortable or defined by the current political and/or religious polemics of the day, I believe that we contribute to the ongoing division of the world and we fail to model lives of reconciliation between people, graciousness in the face of oppression and genuine love for our enemy.
Again, I am not challenging the meaningful and important issues that so many are fighting for, what I am pushing on is how we engage in these movements in a way that actually makes an impact. Jesus was certainly a radical, but I do not think he was a fanatic, so when we communicate a strict and narrow view of what Jesus wants and how he wants it accomplished, we lose legitimacy, damage relationships and work against the fruition of lasting change. Left or right, we deny the fullness of God’s expression when we hide in the comfort and security of our self-righteousness, and this clustering holds us back from possibly discovering something new in the ways we work for change.
What I am NOT saying is that we should scrap any sense of what it means to be radical and just “play it safe,” avoid risk-taking or justify spiritual apathy, but rather that we should each ask ourselves how “safe” and “risky” postures manifest themselves in each of our lives. Because I simply do not think being radical will be the same for each person, when we do this we can begin to value the breadth of the radical expressions of Jesus the Christ in the world. Every movement needs a variety of personalities and perspectives in order to be effective, but… when we value ourselves and others with narrow visions of what is faithful or Christ-like we present a weak vision of what it means to be the Body of Christ in the world. A stronger vision, and one that I believe will lead to reconciliation across ideological chasms, is one that includes the prophetic word, the pastoral touch, the priestly heart and the poetic mind… one not held above the other, but held in harmony as individuals and communities of faith.
Now that would be radical.