Reading Unarmed Empire: In Search of Beloved Community, I thought of my mother.
One time when I was a kid I was at the grocery store with my mom and she saw a bunch of those “Chip Clip” things for sale. You know what I mean — that plastic fastener thingy you clasp onto your open bag of chips so they won’t go stale. My mom commented that she’d been putting clothespins on her chip bags for years, and didn’t even think that she might be able to sell that idea. I thought my mom was a genius, until I realized that a lot of people were probably doing the same thing — with a clothespin or a paper clip or whatever. Everyone identified that there was a problem. Everyone knew the bag needed sealed up tight. But only one person had the good sense and fortitude to go through the process of patenting their solution to a problem so many people had observed.
This book made me feel kinda like that, and I suspect it will for you, too.
What Sean Palmer communicates in Unarmed Empire is something that is going to cause you to nod your head in subconscious agreement as you flip from page to page. He gives language to truths you’ve only experienced as hunches or frustrations. It’s like he is communicating something you assented to already, realities that have been stirring in your heart and confounding your thoughts, but that you didn’t have a way of adequately communicating yourself.
What you’ve been thinking just needed a courageous thought leader to put it all in print and offer it up to the public. That’s what Sean offers us — confirmation that these hunches and frustrations are shared, and together we can put language to it and then advocate for the solutions he proposes.
What Sean says, some of us have only been willing to think in privacy of our own restless minds. Something doesn’t quite add up. Our theology about being the church and our church experience are a little incongruous. They haven’t always added up. What if things were different…
On the whole, the Church in America has valued it’s power more than it’s presence. Generally, we’ve held tighter to our beliefs than we have to one another. These realities are ones that have led Palmer to pound out this fine work, challenging us to think more deeply and live out that depth in the context of Christian community.
It’s a simple equation, in his view.
Real People + Real God + Real Life = Real Church
This is his thesis, if you will, as he challenges the antithetical way in which many of us often “do” church.
We are a masked people, following a watered-down deity that we’ve fashioned in our image based on our preferences. We are meandering through life, supposedly more “connected” than ever — yet feeling more isolated and depressed than at any point in human history. This hypocrisy and distillation and phony way of experiencing community leads to a church experience that causes many to opt out from a church experience altogether.
Even those who fully participate in the life of a church find that it lacks meaning. Something’s just…well…off.
Palmer’s book begins with this tension, and ends with this convicting statement:
“From beginning to end, the story of God and God’s created beings is one of community, not individuals.”
All the things that make us who we should not be — individualism, nationalism, us vs. them, religiosity, racism and sexism and all the rest, our political affiliation, etc. — topple over as the author makes a strong, theologically-backed, beautiful argument for Church-as-it-ought-to-be. By itself, that call is not new. Leaders have been calling for that for centuries, putting their clothespins on their rumpled up chip bags, doing the best they can.
But I’ve never read a book that summarily called out offenders of all sides more fairly. And I’ve never encountered a book that daydreams so wonderfully about the way things ought to be.
This book isn’t just another prophetic critique. Palmer also offers us a path forward via a responsible treatment of Scripture and intellectually honest thought leadership. It so beautifully and thoroughly identifies a problem you’ve seen but been unable to articulate. But it doesn’t stop there. It also identifies solutions to these problems with skill and thoughtfulness. That is what sets this book apart. It doesn’t just name an obstacle, it empowers us to leap over that potential stumbling block.
There are a lot of practitioner-level books out there, the equivalent of a do-it-yourself manual for “doing” church. But this is a theological, personal, authentic story of how to be the church. It is practical without being simply pragmatic, and it will resonate with the individual who has a high view of the Kingdom of God.
We are more than a club. More than a political action committee. We are more than a gathering of like-minded individuals. That’s not community. That’s cliquishness. Our beauty, yes, but also our mandate is found in the fact that we are broken, dissimilar, heart-sick people who need one another and need the same Jesus. It’s time to lay down our weapons of ideals and identifying marks and be together. To love one another.
I don’t want to sound hyperbolic, but this book made me feel the same way inside that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together made me feel. So while there are a zillion more things I could say in an effort to convince you, allow me to make one simple suggestion.
You need to buy this book. Read it, chew on it, and discuss it with your community.
In doing so, you may just become the kind of community you’ve been searching for, the one that’s been there all along.