Inalienable, Eric Costanzo, Daniel Yang, and Matthew Soerens. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022.
Summary: The three authors propose that voices from the margins and the kingdom-focused vision of service to the neighbor, even the most needy, may be the voices that bring renewal to the American church.
It seems that a favorite current topic is the parlous state of the American church, at least the White evangelical church. Some other parts of the church in America, particularly the immigrant churches, are doing well. And that leads to the point of this book, that it is time for the American church to listen to those we have considered “on the margins,” whether from other countries, especially in the global south, or even marginalized communities in our own country.
The authors are a pastor who works among the marginalized in Tulsa, a missiologist who came here in childhood as a Hmong refugee, and an immigration reform advocate. They are people who were raised in white evangelical culture but have been listening to the voices of those on the margins. They contend that these voices have called their attention to “inalienable truths,” not from the American founders but the pages of scripture. They are truths that confront us with the “there is no other God” (a good translation of the Latin alius).
They center on four themes. First of all, the inalienable truth of the gospel is centered on the kingdom of God, the growing, global advance of God’s rule of justice, peace, and life in Christ. Our call is not one of trying to retrieve an ideal of national greatness but to press into what God is doing. To do so will require “de-centering” white leadership–a recognition that Christians are pursuing the mission of God’s kingdom from every part of the world, and one group, whites, do not get to speak for them. Rather than fearing the increasing diversity of peoples in America, we ought celebrate the increasing realization of God’s multi-ethnic kingdom in our midst.
The second theme is the forsaking of our American idols and embracing the image of God in our neighbors. The writers identify individualism, materialism and consumerism, celebritism, Christian nationalism, and tribalism and partisanship. The Instagram tag, PreachersNSneakers with pictures of the expensive footwear of celebrity pastors is reflective of several of these idolatries. There is nothing for this but lament and repentance. Instead of idols, we need to recognize God’s “images”–the diverse peoples of our community and world who are the real deal of which idols are counterfeits–people made for relationship with God, and as those fully alive through Him, reflecting his very glory. This includes the “others” we dehumanize (the first step to a Holocaust). The authors offer a chilling example of how the words we use can accelerate this dehumanization process.
Third, our brothers and sisters from marginalized churches teach us that nothing transforms like God speaking through the scriptures. While we have unprecedented Bible study resources, are we those who see and yet do not see, who hear but don’t truly hear or understand? Perhaps listening humbly and honestly to those from other cultures, to stop thinking we must be teachers and to place ourselves in the place of learners might help us hear afresh. When we do so, we will hear the concern of God for the poor, for those on the margins, and for the refugees whose number include Hagar, Moses, the refugee from Pharoah’s court, Rahab of Jericho, Ruth the Moabite, and the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.
Fourth, and perhaps most challenging is the call to mission. Many Christians assume this is either partisan, pursuing a political agenda from which religious renewal is hopefully the fruit, or apolitical–witness without advocacy. They invite us into the mission of the gospel of the kingdom that proclaims our hope in Christ in both reconciliation with God, and reconciling all things, including unjust structures in Christ. Witness and advocacy are not opposed but joined. At the same time, as we think of God’s global mission, we are in the age of the Great Collaboration, a time when we work alongside indigenous believers in bringing a contextualized gospel to those who do not yet believe.
This is a book of hope rather than hand-wringing. The reflection questions and action steps in each chapter evidence a conviction that we may change and there is good to be done. But it involves humble listening and to learn from the other rather than think that we have all the answers. Perhaps the devastating exodus and scandals of the white evangelical church have a silver lining of calling into question the things we thought were “answers.” The question is whether we will double-down, allying ourselves with those who seek a return to some form of mythical greatness, or whether we will lament and repent and listen to those on the margins who may be bringing a “Word of the Lord” to us to embrace the “inalienable truths” of the living God.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.