Equipping God's People to Create Missional Culture

An Interview with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove about his new book “God’s Economy” Part IV

God's Economy Book CoverJonathan thoughtfully answers some difficult questions that I pose to him in this fourth and final part of my interview with him on God’s Economy. If you haven’t had the chance to read this whole series, part one, part two and part three are available.

JR: I loved your thoughts in the chapter “Gracious Politics: How to Live Under Occupation” as well as hearing how Pat, Debbie and you have practiced a gracious politic. You fairly warned us that the government in Jesus day put him to death and so we shouldn’t be surprised if our government doesn’t want to listen to our gospel economics. Yet you also hint to the hope that conversion is possible from wall street to the white house. I too sense the scripture holds out the promise of the redemption of the “powers”, and as Newbigin has said, “A Christian neither accepts them as some sort of eternal order which cannot be changed, nor seeks to destroy them because of the evil they do, but seeks to subvert them from within and thereby to bring them back under the allegiance of their true Lord.” What do you have to say to those who feel called to serve in the government in local or national politics? How can they join God in the renewal of all things, including government, all the while knowing the whole kingdom now and not yet deal?

Jonathan: I love the Newbigin quote—we subvert the powers for their own good. I often say that we need a good demonology lest we demonize people. In the same vein, I think we need a good theology of social engagement lest we dismiss all institutions as “the Man.”

Every institution that has not imploded does some good—whether that’s the local city council or Castro’s regime in Cuba. We ought to be able to celebrate and participate in the good wherever we find it. If the image of God is stamped on human beings, then we can look for that image in all things human. And even in the midst of terrible injustice, we can recognize people as human beings. A friend who worked full time to resist the Iraq war during the Bush administration told me he was convicted to pray for George Bush by name every morning. It seems small, but I think that’s so important.

If we practice celebrating what is good, I think we’re actually better suited to lament the things that are not of God. In relationship to the governments of this world, Martin Luther King said God’s people are called to serve as a “conscience to the state.” We cry out for the poor and oppressed. But we also speak up for the sake of the oppressors. Injustice is not good for any of us. The wages of sin is death for us all. So our prophetic action is also for the sake of the common good.

Now, between celebrating the good and crying out against evil, how might Christians serve within government? It’s an important question. I don’t think we can say outright that it’s not possible. But we better acknowledge from the start that it’s incredibly difficult. No church should leave one of its members alone to do it. I love it that the Church of the Nazarene in Chiapas, Mexico assigned a fulltime minister to one of its members when he became governor of the state. They just figured he’d need that much prayer and support if he were going to survive that lion’s den.

JR: The five tactics that you share with us in your book (Subversive Service, Eternal Investments, Economic Friendship, Relational Generosity and Gracious Politics) give us practical ways to live out a new social order in the pattern of Jesus, and I appreciate your call for us to be peacemakers in the tactic of gracious politics. What words do you have to share with those who choose to serve in the military in light of Jesus’ gracious politics? Does a Christian have any role in the military?

From the very beginning of Christendom, Christianity at its best has served to restrain the violence of governments. That’s what the whole just war tradition is about—followers of the Prince of Peace using language that this world understands to say when it’s not OK to fight. During the Middle Ages there was lots of violence. We know about the atrocities of the Crusades and later of the Inquisition. But we often forget the Truce of God, which said you couldn’t fight Friday through Sunday or on any holy days. Monks, nuns, and priests couldn’t fight. Women and children couldn’t fight. They didn’t get rid of violence, but they sure did narrow it down.

The trouble with Christianity in the US military is that it’s lost its prophetic edge. Most chaplains consider it their job to keep morale up. Which means they don’t have any resources to say when it’s a bad idea to fight. I do know some chaplains who’ve helped soldiers through the CO status process. That seems to me a crucial service to offer in the midst of an unjust war. But it’s hard to keep your job with the US military if you’re doing that.

What about soldiers who are building schools in Afghanistan or officers who feel like they’re building peace in a way that’s not possible through other institutions? Again, I don’t think we can say outright that there’s no place for faithful discipleship within any human institution. But when you work for the greatest purveyor of violence in our time, it’s not going to be easy. I pray for the troops every day. I pray that they’ll survive, for sure. But I also pray that their service to this nation won’t cost them their souls.

JR: Besides the five tactics that you mentioned in your book, is there another important tactic that you have thought deeply about that you didn’t get a chance to mention in your book?

Jonathan: Once you begin to listen to Jesus as a tactic organizer, a lot of what he says rings true in a new way. I focused on his teachings concerning money in this book. But, yes, I think about other things he said this way too. Since we’ve been talking about violence, “turn the other cheek” comes to mind. It’s hard for a soldier to get his head around a saying like that. But Jesus wasn’t talking to soldiers. He was talking to folks who got slapped by soldiers (to backhand an inferior was an insult in that culture). By turning the other cheek, peasants living under occupation would actually have been standing up for themselves—asserting their equality by challenging the other to offer something other than an insult. Jesus is always inviting us to be creative, to step out of the expectations, to live in a way that doesn’t make sense if the gospel is not true.

JR: What is the most important concept you want readers to take from God’s Economy?

Jonathan: I’d like people to know they’re free to say no to “economic necessity” so they can say yes to the beloved community of life together with God and all our neighbors—however strange they may seem to us.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a graduate of Eastern University and Duke Divinity School. An associate minister at the historically black St. Johns Baptist Church, Jonathan is engaged in peacemaking and reconciliation efforts in Durham, North Carolina, and directs the School for Conversion, an alternative seminary that hosts courses around the country. He is a sought-after speaker and the author of several books including New Monasticism. The Rutba House, where Jonathan lives with his wife, Leah, their son, JaiMichael, and other friends, is a new monastic community that prays, eats, and lives together, welcoming neighbors and the homeless. Take a minute tocheck out his website. Feel free to order God’s Economy, you will be enriched and challenged.


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