I’ve been reading through Emmanuel Katongole’s absolutely phenomenal book The Sacrifice of Africa, and it strikes me that much of what he says is needed for the African church is also needed for the American church.
Reflecting on the African church’s tendency to “sit on top of” and live in the social imagination of the nation-state, he states that the church needs to realize that it is an alternative social imagination. Rather than offer assistance to the politics of the nation-state, the church is to become its own politics rooted in the power of the kingdom of God, rather than power as “dominance and invincibility.”
So how to take steps in this direction? According to Katongole, it may well be impossible if we insist on staying in the centers of power where the dominant social imagination is acted out and affirmed constantly. Instead, we must move toward the margins, “overlooked places and communities,” where the emptiness of the empire’s rhetoric can be more clearly seen.
But marginality does not simply refer to physical geography; it also includes leaving behind the dominant story of power and violence that has shaped African social history. As we have seen, this story easily sacrifices the lives of the “small people of God” in the name of the big stories of modernity, progress, civilization, and African identity.
Marginality, therefore, is about imaginatively relocating away from such a story and its dominant performance in order to stand within a different foundational narrative — the story of God’s own relocation (as Word Made Flesh) — and from within that story rediscover the small, often discarded gifts, tactics, and signs of a different order. These are the gifts of a “different world” — a world shaped by a different story and performance, a world which, rather than sacrificing the small people, offers them a new reason to live, and thus invests their bodies differently in the world, thereby transforming their daily world of cabbages, goats, simsim, music, love, pain, suffering, and death into a sacred reality and holy ground of God’s saving work. Such a world does not have to exist as its own self-sufficient empire or on its own territory; it may open up in the “wild spaces,” that is, in the cracks of the dominant performance of nation-state politics.
This idea of the church being a new politics springing up right in the midst of the old is exactly what we’re seeking to do at The Table, our church plant in Indianapolis. I like thinking about it as “Church in the Wild” (riffing off a Jay-Z and Kanye West song).
Within the “wild spaces” where we see cracks in the foundation of the violent politics of the nation-state, we can be a new kind of community, with a new social imagination for how to be together, how to pursue flourishing together.
We don’t need the permission of a government or the blessing of an official or a license from the state to do this. It starts at the Eucharist table (which tells the story that funds the alternative imagination) and flows out from there into our kitchens and neighborhoods and work places. We learn to be honest with each other and tell the truth to one another and forgive one another and name our desires and confess our sins and be faithful and sacrifice for each other.
And it has to be played out in the most granular aspects of our life together. It can’t just be rhetoric that makes for inspiring sermons. It can’t just be saying the right words and hoping it will “automatically” happen in the rest of our lives.
It has to reach our everyday interactions with each other. That’s where politics is lived out. We have to dare to be a “church in the wild,” trusting the power of the kingdom to manifest itself if we refuse to take up the power of coercion and violence. And that takes granular, everyday discipleship, where we’re trusting God to meet us in our badness and weakness to proclaim good news to us and invite us to live a better story.
I think what Africa needs is what America needs, too. We’re learning how to do it in small ways, which I think are probably the only ways that really “work” in the long run anyway.