Subverting White Discipleship and the Myth of an Apolitical Jesus, Part 1: 
Seeking the Shalom of Babylon

Two topics of discussion are said to be taboo in ‘polite company’: religion and politics. But since I don’t even know what ‘polite company’ means, this will be the first in a series on both. It will explore the intersections of being the church in America, how American racialized society forms our social imagination, and how that formation affects the perspectives of the privileged when it comes to political engagement and biblical interpretation. In particular, this series will critique the way white evangelicals—even some white Neo-Anabaptists—have developed the strange mythos that Jesus was an apolitical figure, so that ‘following Jesus’ also entails ‘avoiding politics.’ “White Discipleship” refers to the way following Jesus is unfaithfully conceptualized as more closely resembling Western, White cultural values such as individualism, white supremacy, and materialism than the biblical values of seeking God’s shalom and living out cruciform love. As witness against the myth of an apolitical Jesus and a malformed conception of discipleship, this series will be steeped in the historically-rooted biblical narrative of God’s covenantal faithfulness toward God’s people and God’s world-restoring mission that culminates in Jesus. Additionally, a diverse faculty of theologians, biblical scholars, and ministry practitioners from a wide cross-section of ecclesial traditions will be called to testify. Finally, this series is borne out of a twenty-year career in urban Christian community development in diverse and complex American cities such as New Orleans, Boston, and Los Angeles, as well as formal theological and ministry training in systems thinking, organizational learning, and the wisdom of the global body of Christ.

The Christian faith is an incarnational faith, rooted in human histories and cultures. Christian theology is formed in the context of the flesh-and-blood experiences of women and men, many of whom have suffered and died at the hands of oppressive regimes bent on snuffing out the powerful Jesus movement. In light of this, abstract pontification on ‘politics’ isn’t just inadequate, it’s potentially harmful.

The Bad News First

That is why this series begins with the people of God in exile. This concrete experience of political captivity, suffering, despair, and yet creative survival, forms the cultural, historical, and theological backdrop to much of the biblical narrative, including the New Testament. How will God’s people respond to being chosen yet conquered, a people who do not hold the levers of power in society, yet are empowered to be the people through whom God’s reign is revealed?

We begin in Jeremiah, chapter 29, verse 4 through 9:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.

For many American Christians, Jeremiah chapter 29 is famous for one thing only: God’s good plans for our lives, plans to bless us and not to harm us. But that portion of chapter 29 is preceded by a far less encouraging message. In essence, God delivers the bad news first: You will die in Babylon. You are not getting rescued. This was the opposite of what the false prophets were telling God’s people. They had a successful ministry of encouragement founded on escapist theology. “Don’t worry everyone. We’re getting out of here! It won’t be long now. Hang in there, stay separate and disengaged, we’ll be out of here in no time!” But the word God delivers through the prophet is a direct reversal (v.10).

This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place.

Seventy years? That’s a lifetime! The people who received this message understood exactly what that meant. They would never see Jerusalem again. And yet, the prophecy has explicit instructions for how the people of God in exile are called by God to live out their days in Babylon, an oppressive empire. The book of Daniel narrates what that faithfulness looks like.

Daniel and the Exilic Church

During the Babylonian exile, Nebuchadnezzar carried off from Jerusalem those he felt were “qualified to serve in the king’s palace” (Daniel 1.4). Counted among this group was Daniel, who becomes an important advisor to the king, a wise political leader. In the story, the king often turns to Daniel when he reaches the end of his own devices, and when the king seeks transcendent wisdom, not sycophantic platitudes. One of the reasons Daniel proves himself a trustworthy counselor is that he refuses to compromise the convictions of his faithful worship of Israel’s God, which wasn’t merely a set of beliefs he affirmed intellectually, but was his holistic identity and rhythms of life (e.g. prayer, kosher diet, etc.). However, Daniel’s faith brings him into conflict with the idolatry of the empire, especially when other political leaders seek to remove him and so set the laws against him. But Daniel remains faithful while serving the king and the kingdom of Babylon, even it means sleeping with lions on occasion.

Daniel serves as a model for God’s people of what faithfulness and leadership looks like in the midst of exile. Dr. Mark Labberton, President of Fuller Seminary, has written a wonderful and highly accessible, short book on following Jesus today entitled Called. Throughout the book, Dr. Labberton contrasts the posture of the church’s engagement with broader society using two prominent motifs in Scripture:  “Promised Land” and “Exile.” The Promised Land church assumes privilege and power in society, it seeks uniformity, normativity, and prosperity. In contrast, the Exilic church recognizes its estrangement from the dominant culture, its counter-cultural calling, and the challenges that attend to being a minority community whose values may bring it into conflict with society. Dr. Labberton writes,

“The church in exile needs those who have vision grounded in the hope of the grace and love of Jesus Christ, who are gripped by a clear engagement with the world around us, who are drawn together with other followers and who are ready to exercise transformational leadership.

Such impact can come through institutional or personal initiative. It can be found when parents band with teachers to change a neighborhood school. It is evident when a person’s medical crisis is championed by a friend who leads others to rally in her support throughout her treatment. It’s seen when a peacemaking leader confronts racial hatred in a city by inviting people of goodwill and compassion to do something about it. It comes to the fore when someone begins to see and care about human trafficking or violence against the poor and invites others to join him in doing something to make a difference. Not all of these roles have titles, but all of them involve leadership. […]

In the Old Testament, Daniel and his friends are depicted as exiles who are given special privilege in Nebuchadnezzar’s house—a classic assimilation effort of the vanquished by the vanquisher. Time and time again, however, Daniel and the others demonstrate readiness to lead—and to do not just for their own survival or benefit but also for the sake of their rivals and oppressors.

Daniel and his cohort led and made a difference because they had hope in God’s capacity for change, combined with their own commitment to serve and engage.” (91-92) [1]

Like Daniel, communities of Jesus-followers are called to exercise leadership that engages the world around us, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and seeking the shalom of the cities in which we live as exiles. This is precisely how the apostles conceptualize the New Testament people of God. Neo-Anabaptist and ECC New Testament scholar, church planter, and pastor, Dr. Dennis Edwards, writes about this in his commentary on First Peter. He explores the clear parallels between Peter’s conception of the early church as “exiles” (e.g. 1.1; 2.11) in “Babylon” (cf. 5.13), and the biblical history of Israel in exile in Babylon.

“It may be that some of Peter’s readers were literally aliens in Asia Minor, possibly due to forced colonization. But this cannot be the whole story: Peter also uses the terms parepidemos and diaspora rhetorically to emphasize how his readers, like immigrants throughout time, are socially disconnected from the dominant culture. In 1 Peter, the Christian believers are alienated from a hostile society whose values are at odds with the teachings of Jesus.” (21)

“…the entire letter is framed with the concept that believers are an alienated community and simultaneously members of God’s chosen people. What has become clear to readers throughout the centuries is that the author focuses on believers who are alienated from the surrounding secular society, mainly because of their faith. Thus, believers face abuse in a variety of forms but are called to demonstrate their faith among, as the apostle Paul says, ‘a warped and crooked generation.’ (Phil 2:15).” (31) [2]

Like Daniel in exile in Babylon, the early church faced similar pressures to conform to the dominant culture or withdraw completely. But in First Peter, the apostle admonishes the church to “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (2.12 NIV) Dr. Edwards again calls attention to the biblical parallel of Daniel, adding Joseph in Egypt as well, and the more recent example of the Civil Rights Movement in America:

“The stories of Joseph (Gen 39-50) and Daniel (esp. Dan 1:1-6:28) illustrate what Peter teaches in 2:11-12. The two narratives are similar, as they recount the events of a faithful courtier serene a foreign, pagan king. […] Joseph and Daniel may serve as inspirational examples of Christians who work in environments where their faith makes them objects of special scrutiny or even scorn. Also, Joseph and Daniel illustrate that faithful workers can give a powerful witness when they honor their irreligious supervisors.

Peter’s admonition to his community in 2:11-17 includes the idea that upright behavior—particularly when under pressure—will communicate a positive message to onlookers (vv. 12 and 15), including silencing ‘the ignorant talk of foolish people.’ The Civil Rights Movement in America illustrates Peter’s point and may serve as a more contemporary example of who God’s people witness to the world even when suffering.” (108-109) [3]

Far from Separatism or Quietism, the New Testament apostles’ use of the biblical history of exile as a model for the early church’s engagement with the broader pagan societies in which they lived serves as a powerful check against any tendency to equate Christian discipleship with political disengagement. Like Daniel and others who found themselves in exile in foreign empires, God’s people who are allegiant to Christ are also called to “seek the shalom of the city.”   

Seeking the Shalom of the City

‘Seeking the shalom of the city’ has been a central theme in American urban Christian community development for decades. This theme probably emerged around the time the CCDA (Christian Community Development Association) was forming, founded by (among others) Dr. John M. Perkins, a living legend and prophet. [4] John Perkins’ story is extraordinary and the ministry God has given him has fundamentally transformed communities across the country and around the world. Born the son of sharecroppers in the Deep South, Perkins’ brother was murdered by a police officer after a dispute over his transgression of Jim Crow seating ordinance at a movie theater. Perkins’ subsequently left the South in disgust, anger, and grief only returned many years later after God called him to found a racial reconciliation ministry in his home town of Mendenhall, Mississippi. John Perkins has been a prophetic voice for what’s been called “Incarnational ministry” ever since. His ministry philosophy is rooted in solidarity with the poor, racial reconciliation, and intentional interdependence. Out of this Christian community development movement has flowed countless ministries that have transformed neighborhoods and contributed to the flourishing of entire cities and even countries. Christian community development has likewise produced countless resources for ministry practitioners. A classic example is To Live in Peace by Dr. Mark R. Gornik (2002).

Dr. Gornik builds a compelling case for an incarnational model of Christian community development that not only forms a Christian community that reflects an alternative social order from the surrounding domination system, but also actively engages in the political sphere of the city for the sake of loving our neighbors. Dr. Gornik writes,

“The heart of Jeremiah 29:7—the command “to seek the peace of the city”—includes working to make practical improvements in the lives of families and the community. Peacemaking is a public responsibility. By this I mean not those things that are narrowly political (although, for example, voting is extremely important for inner-city communities) but faithful engagement with the larger issues that affect daily life, including public health and public services. This involves seeking to enhance life and to change neighborhood outcomes. To seek the peace of the city means that Christians are to be active participants—not spectators—working to bring alternative forms of urban life into being. Seeking the peace of the inner city therefore enjoins activity that enhances the social, physical, aesthetic, and economic world in which we dwell. It is transformational activity that responds to the context.

The diversity of ways that churches can actively seek the peace of their communities includes getting involved in local schools, beginning after-school programs, building reasonably priced housing for potential homeowners, and conducing public health initiatives. To seek the public peace of the city also entails working within the complicated web of city government, real estate, education, and finance, to name a few arenas. Public faith requires being in the mix and flow of a neighborhood’s associational life, including the myriad of civic associations, improvement groups, community boards, PTAs, and block clubs that are found in the city. It means laboring alongside other churches and religious communities, perhaps forming coalitions with them. And it also means that churches should find ways to work closely with community-based organizations and networks. This is the work of being salt and light.” (120) [5]

This is merely a small sampling of the wealth of biblical wisdom To Live in Peace contains for Christian political engagement, rooted in community development ministry. But this excerpt suffices to demonstrate a faithful application of the biblical motif of God’s people faithfully and messily engaging in the complex systems of the world around them—not withdrawing or disengaging. And yet, for millions of Christians in America, it is taken for granted that “politics” is a realm of society off-limits to God’s people. In part two of this series, the racialization of American society and the American church will be explored with the help of the classic book by sociologists Drs. Michael Emerson and Christian Smith: Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. [6]

  1. Mark Labberton, Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today (IVP: 2014).
  2. Dennis Edwards, 1 Peter: The Story of God Commentary (Zondervan: 2017).
  3. Ibid.
  4. John M. Perkins
  5. Mark R. Gornik, To Live in Peace: Biblical Faith and the Changing Inner City (Eerdmans: 2002).
  6. Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford: 2000).