Muscular Mission

Review by Jesse Zink

For many years the athletic company Nike used “Just Do It” as its advertising slogan, often super-imposing it over a picture or video of a finely toned athlete who had just performed some in­credible feat. It’s a seductive slogan. Why can’t you just do it already? Everyone else is.

The theology of the Episcopal Church’s 26th Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, might be called the Nike theology of mission. The “it” in this case is an expansive understanding of the work of God in Christ in the world: environmental preservation, health care, education, provision of water, shelter for the poor, (locally sourced) food for the hungry, a just economy, and much more, all wrapped up in an idea Jefferts Schori continually returns to: “the cosmic dream of a healed world — shalom or the reign of God” (Gathering at God’s Table, p. 206). This is the feast of God, to which all are invited and all have enough. The Nike comparison is one she explicitly embraces: “The mission is simple: go out there and just do it” (Gathering, p. 175).

There is much to admire in the vision Jefferts Schori sets forth. It is rooted, as she reminds us with frequent Biblical quotations, in the visions of Old Testament prophets and Christ’s teachings in the Gospels. Like the prophets she explicitly seeks to emulate, these books demonstrate a clear concern and commitment to those whom society routinely excludes. Jefferts Schori is likely the first Presiding Bishop to have written a book that mentions the dangers of heavy metal pollution in drinking water (The Heartbeat of God, p. xiv) as part of a larger point about the ways in which environmental degradation harms the poorest most heavily. It is a reminder that the attentiveness God shows to humans in the Incarnation is something we also are to model in our lives and ministry.

It is not stated explicitly but it seems likely that the short, punchy chapters in these books began as sermons. Seen in this light, Jefferts Schori is in the tradition of Karl Barth, to whom is famously attributed the idea that a preacher should have a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. The freshness and currency of the references in these chapters — Occupy Wall Street, independence for South Sudan, fiscal debates in Washington, D.C. — give them a welcome liveliness. These books are a reminder that episcopal ministry takes place in the real world and that homilies are the primary place bishops develop theology. Christians actually do want to hear how their faith influences what they encounter in their daily lives, and these chapters begin to answer those questions.

The primary answer — and the theme that unites these books — is mission. “Our part in God’s mission is to hold up the reign of God as our destination,” Jefferts Schori writes, “to get up, go out there, and go after it, together with as many others as we can convince to go with us” (Gathering, p. 92). There is a constellation of words she frequently associates with mission: task, job, do, work, labor, obligation. The subject of these words is, very frequently, us, her audience. We are the ones who are to do the work of God in the world, to just do it already.

There is something deeply true about this. But it also comes with a danger. Sometimes these chapters sound as if the Christian life has been reduced to one more task on a checklist of action items. Particularly in a world in which so many people are “crazy busy” — clergy not excepted — I found myself wondering how these sermons would sound to a churchgoer who is already overstretched in trying to provide for and raise a family. What place can I take in God’s mission if I do not have the kind of expendable time the Presiding Bishop’s program requires? I longed to hear a message not just of exhortation but of Christian consolation.

Reducing mission merely to action — task, job, labor — has another danger, best posed by thinking again about the Nike slogan. “Just Do It” is fine for things we can do, but what about when we, well, just can’t? The Christian tradition provides not simply a program for addressing the challenges of the world — those were as common in the ancient Near East as they are now — but also addresses our inability to accomplish such programs. This is why mercy and grace, repentance and judgment, are central concerns in Christian doctrine. But those themes are largely muted in these books.

It is not that Jefferts Schori is silent on human fallibility. Sin, she writes, “is mostly about self-absorption…. Our fundamental problem as human beings is over-concern with self” (Gathering, pp. 128-29). This is expressed, in part, in our competitiveness, demonstrated by the apostles who jockey for position at Jesus’ right hand. Jefferts Schori thinks “we can learn that competition isn’t really necessary” (Heartbeat, p. 108). This is a hopeful view, but coming as it does from a Presiding Bishop who has executed a legal strategy in relation to departing dioceses that she has elsewhere described as preventing the emergence of “competitors” to the Episcopal Church, it rings hollow. Competition may not be necessary, but it does not seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

More importantly, it is not clear that this understanding of sin addresses the full panoply of obstacles to the realization of shalom. Thus, when she quotes Paul’s exhortations in Romans 12:9ff. and asks, “Are we willing to love each other, serve God with what God has given us, and be hospitable?” (Gathering, pp. 121-22), it sounds as if the only obstacle between us and God’s peace is our willingness to just do it already. This is where just becomes not merely seductive but pernicious. It is not that we lack the willingness to do good; we lack also the ability to pursue it. “I do not do what I want,” St. Paul writes earlier in Romans, “but I do the very thing I hate” (7:15)

The sense one takes away from these books is that sin, if it happens, is something that other people — that is, people not in her audience — do. The danger of such a view is that it is not many steps away from thinking, Isn’t this situation awful, but aren’t we great for addressing it? But this is a simply an updated version of the missionary triumphalism Jefferts Schori elsewhere rightly deplores. “Healing the brokenness in the world around us” (Gathering, p. 116) is our calling as Christians, but we cannot do that without honestly acknowledging the brokenness within us.

The implications of this are played out in the theology of baptism, a word Jefferts Schori mentions frequently. It is a sacrament of “commissioning,” one in which we hear God call us beloved as God called Christ at his baptism. But this can, at times, make baptism seem like it is just more work. That we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection is only briefly mentioned. But this, surely, is the key point. It is in following the path of kenosis, vulnerability, and crucifixion that we can begin to become agents of God’s reconciling love. If the world is going to change, Christians believe, it is we ourselves who are to change first.

The critique here is not of the Presiding Bishop’s fidelity or orthodoxy. The reader is left in no doubt of Jefferts Schori’s strong, lucid, and passionate faith in God in Christ. Rather, the argument here is that the Nike theology of mission constitutes only a part of the good news the church has to proclaim, the what — shalom, the feast — but not the how — repentance, forgiveness, transformation. Our work in the world is not independent of our personal, living relationship with the one through whom all are made new. I doubt the Presiding Bishop would disagree. But the impression these books leave is otherwise.

The strongest of these chapters comes when Jefferts Schori reflects on Christ as a crosser of borders. We, too, she writes, are invited into this same boundary-breaking model of ministry. “The work of Christians is to keep migrating, keep crossing the boundaries, for then we will indeed begin to find our way home” (Gathering, p. 152). We may not know how to get to where we want to go, we may not be able finally to make it there, but we do know at least that following in the footsteps of Christ, we can move beyond the stale status quo and into a new future. That is reason for Christian hope.

The Rev. Jesse Zink is a former Young Adult Service Corps missionary and author of Grace at the Garbage Dump: Making Sense of Mission in the Twenty-First Century (Wipf & Stock, 2012).


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