Being Indigenous – Discipleship in the Land
New Monasticism is a response to an event, that event is the death of God. It is not a lifestyle choiceJohn Skinner Founder of the Northumbria Community.
John Skinners astute insight into the spiritual dissonance that is new monasticism observes two realities that must be acknowledged before I can begin to look at the exciting opportunity new monasticism presents us with. One is we have to be careful with the word new. If I learned anything from my early years as a Christian growing up in the British charismatic independent free churches, the over use of the word ‘new’ leads to an ecclesial hubris, stagnation of vision and ultimately a spiritual decline. It appears the only people who seem to profit from the sequential use of the words ‘new & church’ are the authors and publishers of the endless stream of books on ‘new models of church that guarantee growth’. To speak of ‘new’ in the context of monasticism, is to speak of a contemporary reality, rather than ‘new’ as an original thought or idea. As the sanguine writer of Ecclesiastes notes ‘there is nothing new under the sun’. For the adherents of new monasticism, we start as we mean to go on, recognising that we are seeking to follow God according to an ancient tradition. A tradition that is rooted in wisdom and the timeless pursuit of unity with God. We most certainly have not come up with a new idea.
Secondly, the notion of the death of God, conjures the apparent irreconcilable paradox of the Christian faith. ‘Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again’, is the confession of the Church. We cannot escape the facts of faith, that as Christians, we place our faith in a man who was executed by the world on account of his confession ‘I am the Living God’. Every generation since the crucifixion has had to struggle with this apparent paradox. Every generation continues to crucify Jesus in the name of their own interpretation of who God is, and every generation is challenged afresh to allow their construct of God to be put to death in order to be rediscovered and grow into the truth of what it means to be a disciple of the resurrected Christ. To follow Christ is to be arrested by an event – the death of God – and to be called to walk in the light of this bloody execution. This walk is the ‘the way of the cross’ and requires a total and complete surrender to the will of the Spirit of Holiness. The God that I believe in must die daily in my life, in order for the Living God to be resurrected again and again in my life. Humanity is the ‘imago Dei‘, not the other way around. This I believe strikes at the very heart of what new monasticism is all about. Our lives surrendered and encountered by the unadulterated authenticity of the living God. The quest therefore is to enter into the new humanity offered in Christ.
It is important to establish these two points at the beginning of these articles. To enjoin the wisdom of a good friend of ours Larry Littlebird, we are ‘walking backwards into the future’.
Over the next three blogs, entitled New Monasticism, I want to look at three characteristics that I have discovered signify an authentic Celtic new monasticism. They are;
- Being Indigenous – discipleship in the land
- The Imitation of Christ – just keeping walking
- Sense of Place – liminal community.
This is not an exclusive list, I know other exponents of the new monastic praxis will have their own unique insights into what constitutes authentic new monasticism. The above are my own reflections that have been formed over the last 10 years and have crystallised this last 12 months as I have worked with the Society St Columba’s rare breed sheep in the fields of Sussex.
Being Indigenous – discipleship in the land
If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work togetherLilla Watson – Australian Indigenous Activist
I am no anthropologist, but in my capacity as an advocate for justice in jewellery and a practitioner of new monasticism, I have had the privilege of working alongside indigenous people from the ruby mountains of Greenland, high deserts of Peru, jungles of Colombia and gold fields of eastern Congo. All these amazing communities have differences of culture, taste and local practices, but equally display a number of things in common;
- They converse with God as Creator and live as Children of God in the land
- They all have a clear sense of the land from where their people come from. The land and the people are in fact one.
- The injustices done to their people are still alive and crying out for justice, deliverance and reparation. This is why they cannot leave the land of their ancestors. The great evils of forced relocation and genocide demand a living witness.
- They have all been consciously oppressed and disinherited by political military empires in the name of economic progress (greed) and civilisation (the inference being indigenous people are not civilised). I would include the imperialised manifestations of organised missionary activity in this.
So where we stand is significant, in many respects it defines how people see us and understand us. This standing is not only a principled stand of conscience and/or theological identity, but also where we physically locate ourselves is an act of public communication, the non-verbal transaction that sets the example of leadership and subsequent discipleship. After all, did Jesus not say to us,
In the manner in which my Father has sent me, I am sending you. Therefore, go disciple the nations?Matt 28:18-19 – Aramaic Bible translated into English
The manner in which the Father sent Jesus was, as one of the people and to a land. To live among them as one of them. He was a servant, the ‘son of man’ who had nowhere to lay his head. He was poor, rejected, betrayed, despised, abandoned, as well as a folk hero, healer, popular speaker and moral teacher. In every way Jesus was the exemplar of the meek who will inherit the earth. This is the manner to which God chose to walk among us, and the manner and expectation of how the Father expects us to walk. As one of the people, alongside the people, to stand with the people, not as the custodians of some elitist message about pie in the sky, but as someone who struggles alongside the poor, as one of them, so our future is bound up with theirs.
In Britain today, we have Church leaders who have forgotten the manner in which Jesus walked among the poeple. Imitation (as we shall see later) is the only model for Christian discipleship that Jesus leaves us with. Congregations are made in the image of their leaders. The leadership of the Church in Britain struggles with authenticity, primarily because it does not believe that ‘the way Jesus did things’ actually works. Its leaders (whose dwindling congregations believe they should emulate) do not stand with the people, they do not wash cars in public car-parks, farm the land with impoverished farmers, stand on the building sites with ex-convicts or those expelled from school. Nor do they fish the seas, or clean public lavatories because this is all they know or can do.. They are professional Christians who expect to be paid for their Christian service, rather than workers who lead from the ground. These leaders have abandoned the people to a world system that has no capacity to bring hope or freedom. They dress in the robes of ecclesiastical tradition or put on suits and ties to impress the wealthy and maintain tradition. Indeed, some even live in their suits and ties, inhabit the culture of the worldly and powerful and believe that in making huge sums of money, they are influencing the course of the nation for God.
They stand on populist platforms and preach a message of how Jesus will lead us into a revival, exhorting the congregation to greater sacrifice, and more soulish worship, whilst retiring to the VIP lounge to sip wine and share anecdotes with others who share in the benefice of the elitist evangelical system. They live in meetings where they plan social projects to help alleviate the suffering of the poorest and talk of justice as if a national law or policy change was the fulfilment of the call to ‘seek righteousness’. This is where the overwhelming majority of leadership in the British Church stands, far removed from the people, who have quite understandably abandoned their congregations because they see the hypocrisy of a well intentioned yet maladjusted dogmatic ideology and historical institution.
Instead of being shepherds living with ‘the smell of the sheep.’ This is what I am asking you — be shepherds with the smell of sheep.Pope Francis
What the Pope neglected to say in this call to action and identity, most likely as he has limited experience of shepherding sheep close up, is that to smell of the sheep means you will smell of their shit.
We need leadership in the British Church that abandons the platform, the high altar and ecclesial comforts and resides again in the communities of the marginalised and forgotten landscapes of Britain. A leadership that rediscovers its rightful place in the land as humble servants and embodies the Jesus mantle of the Beatitudes in communities. Then I believe the people of the land will turn once again and trust in this beautiful message. This is what it means to be an indigenous new monastic, to be at the vanguard of reawakening the people to the reality of God the Creator as servant amongst them. To live like the people and stand alongside them in their economic and social vulnerability.
Discipleship can only be outworked in the land where we belong. In order to know the land to which you belong, all you need do is ask, ‘In what soil do I wish to be buried, or, whose winds shall my ashes be carried on?’ When you can answer this question, then you know where you belong. To speak of discipleship in the land is to affirm a Godly covenantal heritage that is distinct from the construct of nation state and its designation of citizens, subjects and land as a commodity to be owned and governed over. The nation state cannot and never will be able to embody the ideal of the Kingdom of Heaven (John 18:36) Jesus mission was focussed on the establishing of a new humanity under God the Father that transcended all national, ethnic, racial and gender boundaries – this new expression of humanity became known as The Body of Christ. It is a Kingdom established in the hearts of its adherents and expressed through service to the land and its people in partnership with the Spirit of Holiness.
In our contemporary context, given the advanced twilight of the western hegemony, or put another way; ‘as the western neo liberal ideology eats itself and everything else to death’, the question of what and in whom do we trust is becoming an increasing source of desperation and hope. If you cannot trust the political and religious institutions that have so defined the era of modernity, what can you trust? One of the most damaging and confusing manifestations in the Church at the moment is the idea that there is such a thing as a Christian nation and the conflation of nationalism and God’s blessing. To place ones’ faith in the economic ideologies, political structures, or the constitutions of a nation state is an idolatry and a denial of the message and witness of Jesus. Pilates discourse prior to the execution of God revolved around an understanding of who is the custodian of truth, God or the Empire. Jesus’ own nation and religious leaders submit Jesus to the Empire to be executed on the grounds of sedition, blasphemy and claims of Kingship (John 18:35-38). The American or British political construct can no more represent the Christian faith, than a dog can be a sheep. Or put in its starkest contrast, the bible and the flag are mutually exclusive.
As new monastics we are challenged to reassess our allegiances and our understanding of who and where we place our trust. Our point of departure and return, our home, is the breast of Jesus. The Aramaic Bible in English reads John 13:23 as follows ‘But there was one of his disciples who was supported in his bosom, for whom Yeshua had great affection’. Our allegiance is to The Word of Creation who is the source of all life (not just human life) and our service is to the integrity and well-being of the land and its people in the place where God has placed us. To become a people of the land, the migration from the idolatry of nationalism begins with the realisation that we do not belong to the world and to avoid the love of the world (John 15:19). To walk towards Christ is to walk away from the world system. How we walk is in the imitation of Christ.