There are two fine books (now three, with a fourth to be published soon) by Bob Ekblad as well as valuable writings on his website www.bobekblad.com. The books are Reading the Bible with the Damned and A Christian Manifesto. Reading these two books and following up a number of the references proved to be a new start for me in a number of ways; he consistently undermines, subverts what he terms ‘the dominant theology’, the theology that fails to connect with the marginalized, those outside the mainstream, because it supports the powers that be rather than the kingdom of God. Bob does this in ways that still surprise me after reading the books repeatedly over a period of a few years (and meeting Bob), helping resolve issues that were deeply troublesome to me.The books therefore profoundly affected and affect me, going rather deeply into what the Gospel means today.
The first chapter of A Christian Manifesto contains something of a testimony. Bob comes from a Christian background; fairly early in his Christian ‘walk’ he took the line of social action, working with campesinos in Honduras, particularly on agricultural projects. While in Central America it seems that a certain amount of disillusion with the US was much increased by the way the administration was acting in that region. In Bob’s mind the establishment way of doing things was also associated with much of church life in the US, Pentecostal and charismatic churches particularly. He also undertook serious theological studies in the south of France. Returning to the US (Washington state), his ministry, which saw him always drawn to the marginalized , took him into prisons; he was becoming steadily more and more concerned about the lack of power in what he did. His formerly black sheep of a brother then persuaded him, much against his prejudices, to attend meetings connected with the Toronto movement and here he encountered the Holy Spirit in an entirely new way, experienced power, and all that he did took on a new dimension, particularly with healing. (A notable feature of ‘Toronto’ is that many of the more prominent leaders who were most affected had come from theologically well educated backgrounds.) Contact with that particular group has lead to an itinerant ministry to many places, notably a close connection with the Bakers in Mozambique. His time in France brought him into contact with Daniel Bourguet and it is references in his books to Bourguet that led me in that direction and the translation work detailed elsewhere on this site. Bob gives a really good account of all this in a series of 4 recordings, here: www.youtube.com
The two books are similar in content in some ways and mostly recount efforts to bring, relate, the gospel to ‘the damned’, those outside the mainstream.
“My primary objective is to present approaches to Scripture reading and spirituality that I have found helpful in my work with outsiders and alienated insiders. My hope is that these reflections will help sensitize and form Christians for the specific task of communicating good news to people often submerged in the bad news of poverty, social marginalization, addictions to alcohol and drugs, criminal activities, oppression by the state, self-accusation, feelings of inadequacy, and other difficulties. The ‘outsiders’ I envision are first and foremost fellow human beings who perceive themselves as condemned to poverty or permanent exclusion, beyond repair, unable to change, in bondage – in short, “damned”, or, as many I currently work with regularly say, “fucked up”. On the other hand I hope that alienated “insiders” or those unable to find a home in the church or to remain inside Christianity will find this book helpful”. (Reading…p.xiv)
Throughout the books he is dealing with “negative images of God”, endeavouring to communicate rectified versions. In this review I will touch on one or two to give a flavour. (Personally, I would associate very naturally with the picture of an “alienated insider”; as a 17 year old boy on the verge of heading off to Cambridge University, which is educationally as elite as you can get in the UK, I had occasion to sit among the drunks and derelicts of Edinburgh, where we lived, as a natural result of the way I felt, ‘a poor struggler’ as one man said to me. Although I had been born of the Spirit, I did not, for whatever reasons, see Jesus in the church or family life, and the only place for many years in which I ever really felt ‘at home’ was as far away from ‘home’ as you could get, among the poor people of El Salvador. The inversion of standard procedures in these books, Jesus as counter-culture, turning official ideas upside down, has been a tremendous help to me, in the first place, in being reconciled to God.)
Typically, Bob recounts a composite of visits to Skagit County jail where he talks to inmates, many of whom are ‘illegal’ Mexicans, and most have a history with drugs. A particularly memorable account is titled “Getting back into the Garden” and looks at the story of Cain. The standard take says Cain was a murderer and no good; God is against him. The inmates readily identify with this official version and, logically, have no hope that God will help them unless they can somehow reform, which, however they don’t really believe is something they can manage. Questions are asked – there is little ‘preaching’; it is an exploration. Little by little the inmates open up and as they look at the text, slowly the ‘official’ view is subverted; they come to see that God is very interested in Cain, interested in helping him; in fact there is little interest shown in Abel. They see that God is unaffected by Cain’s efforts to win his approval, and eventually they see that God’s concern is more with healing him than with judgment and some supposed subsequent restoration through enforced ‘repentance’. Not so stated on this occasion, but often these talks are concluded by previously suspicious men being open to prayer and expressing great interest in the gospel.
“The more I read the Bible with people on the margins, the more I see the poverty of the church’s proclamation, which is often irrelevant to people on the streets…..With our message of forgiveness of sins or even salvation by grace, too often we treat hurting people like physicians who only know how to prescribe one drug for every illness….God the judge is ushered in to pronounce pardon – a spiritual acquittal with no immediate bodily repercussions…The notion of sin as sickness and God as spiritual healer in profoundly biblical…” (p 56)
A powerful account concerns the Tierra Nueva project in Honduras which Bob and family continue to visit. (There are a number of at times harrowing tales of what the people endure as well heart-warming accounts of healing.) The campesinos face a basic problem, that of scratching a meagre existence from a hostile environment – the weather, the land, disease, corruption, adverse absentee landowners….Their traditional culture suggests that God is essentially immanent, within nature, and that they are therefore fighting a God who is fundamentally harsh; unfortunately the doctrine they have been taught about the Bible more or less reinforces this view; further, well meaning ecologists are then likely to condemn them for their agricultural tactics….Whatever happens, they lose! Not so long before this visit Bob had been studying Psalm 8 as part of a master’s thesis and he comes thoroughly prepared ‘theologically’. Those he is involved with sit down with him and they examine the psalm together, slowly uncovering the liberating truth that far from being immanent, God emphasizes of himself that he is transcendent, separate from nature,that he has given the earth to men, that he will work with people, and that his work, his praise, is performed ‘out of the mouths of babes and sucklings’, not high up authorities. Taking this in is really a tremendous discovery and one that hugely changes a destructive mindset. Further, the help from outside is practical as well as theological; agricultural techniques, a market for coffee, healing for the sick…..This is a wonderful model of the gospel at work.
There are so many good things said. The reflection that we are all God’s children can be a very nice one; we know that there is a possible objection to this, but the working assumption that ‘we are his offspring’ is very helpful for people who are ready, with a little help, to identify with the crucified God. The men talk about drugs, how they can spend two weeks awake on methamphetamine; Bob comments that he ‘affirm[s] the longing in the men for a full energized life as a sign of a desire to be fully empowered by God’s Spirit.’ Another account is of the man with a prominent tattoo “Fuck the world”! Bob picks up on this – clearly it is the expression of a very important sentiment – and he essentially affirms God’s solidarity with it! (This a good point to mention a book by Bob’s friend Chris Hoke, Wanted; he talks about the same man.) There isn’t much in the books that doesn’t tend to subvert legalism and affirm God’s love as unconditional. Passages discussed in a vital way include John 3, the Exodus, Mark 2 – the man with the withered hand, Isaiah 42, Hagar, Jacob.
All this is very good as I have said; it involves bringing Jesus into people’s lives; what matters to me though is that the thinking behind the practice cuts rather deeper. Personally, I have grown up so to speak (starting in 1958!) trying for much of that time desperately to lead the life I read about in the Bible. Church life has generally been highly unsatisfactory. The church has become progressively more and more irrelevant to society at large; it only seems to touch individuals. I have seen so many things that claim to faithfully represent Jesus, but also fall so far short. All my Christian life I have heard people going on about ‘revival’ as being the answer, but this is consistently a statement of no practical use at all and seems to me quite simply an admission that we haven’t a clue what we are doing. In brief, the western church to which I am used has seemed to be heavily compromised, and this issue forms an important point of discussion in Christian Manifesto; I am going to add a lengthy quotation which I think speaks to the heart of things.
As a preliminary, here is a very interesting point made in Christian Manifesto about demonization; Ekblad talks about demonization through a national spirit in the USA subsequent to ‘9/11’ (11/9 really; the 11th of September) where people pledged allegiance to something quite different to the Christian manifesto, ie the American flag and a number of associated attitudes…..
“Effective advocacy for people on the margins is possible only as we step over the line from overidentifying with the system, joining in the ministry of Jesus. This move is possible only as we renounce the false security offered to us by the ruler of this world and step into a life marked by increasing allegiance to Jesus and the kingdom of God.” (Manifesto p.92)
I don’t think that there is too much difficulty dealing with that. A little further is something that I think hits very hard into what is happening in our churches.
“When followers of Jesus see themselves too much “according to the flesh” (as a citizen of their particular nation, member of a religious denomination, ethnic group, sexual orientation, or political party), they can easily fall into either justifying their ethnicity, nation or orientation, or agreeing with accusations against themselves and seeking to right the wrongs. The Accuser, rather than the Defender, ends up setting the agenda for people’s actions, unless we are continually remembering our identity as beloved son or daughter by adoption and living according to the Spirit. Whenever people live in agreement with their natural identity, they give the Accuser permission to harass them with their shortcomings according to their identity in the flesh when our focus becomes righting the wrongs of our country or ethnic group, we step under the gaze of a judge whose demands for restitution are infinite. Voices of accusation will make sure we know that we are never doing enough. Finally, any headway we do make toward justice will end up serving the powers. magnifying the creatures rather than the Creator.
It seems to me that ‘righting the wrongs of our country’ is in fact exactly what we western Christians seem to have in mind when we talk about ‘revival’; we see society in decay, in a parlous state, and we want to see that put right, and the answer we propose is ‘revival’. And so, “we are never doing enough”; the result – the institutional despair, the loss of hope of changing society, that permeates church life despite the wonderful things we see happening in the lives of individuals within the church. We reach a few individuals, but in society as a whole, we are simply off target. Quite where this leaves me I am not altogether sure at present, except, consistent with the Ekblad books, and with the particular context of this quotation, desiring to draw closer to Jesus in his baptism and his way of ‘ministry’, dying to other ways. Where Bob ministers to those who are easily identified as marginalized, in so far as all people are alienated from the life of God, all people are in this sense marginalized; Bob’s books are therefore a very significant step towards that gospel which, removed from the theology which so easily becomes prevalent in churches, is fully baptized into Jesus’ death to the world’s ways, and so able to offer a real, viable alternative to society as a whole.
The two further books mentioned above are At the beautiful gate, a look at the joint ministries of Peter and John from their calling to the healing of the man outside the temple, seen as models for us; and Guerrilla Bible Study (preparing and facilitating revolutionary encounters), which pursues the analogy of guerrilla warfare, recruiting followers for a revolution. Of these, more later.