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No detours around the Kingdom

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The Upside-Down Kingdom, 40th anniversary edition
Donald Kraybill
Herald Press

Truth changes lives. Truisms sell stuff. An Anabaptist bestseller, Donald Kraybill’s The Upside-Down Kingdom is nevertheless the former.

The 40th anniversary edition is not just a reprint Kraybill explains in the preface. Keeping the core intact, he updated scholarly research and attempted to respond to the changing times.

But the qualities that made The Upside-Down Kingdom an enduring bestseller still recommend it.

The evocative title perfectly tells the book’s message. Beginning with Isaiah’s mountains made low, then Jesus’ persistent juxtaposition of Jew and Samaritan / rich and poor / slave and free / man and woman, the story of the gospel’s disruptive message is spread out before the reader.

The title constantly (re)orients the reader to the counter-cultural and counterintuitive nature of the gospel. Following Jesus is not about “business as usual.” The Kingdom Jesus taught about is “upside-down” by any standard.

This is not a truism. This is a truth that requires serious pondering.

A journey upside-down

Kraybill takes us on a journey to understand what “upside-down” means. It begins with a careful, scholarly walk through the Gospel. This book fills an important middle zone between a basic-but-serious reading of the Bible and in-depth biblical scholarship that wrestles with the historical and cultural context.

Mainstream evangelicalism has a glut of popular books in this zone – Anabaptism far less. Anabaptism may well be a perspective whose time has come – but it remains poorly understood, even – and often – by those who have been immersed in it. The Upside-Down Kingdom is a great primer on Anabaptist biblical theology.

Because it is written from the instincts of a master teacher, The Upside-Down Kingdom has a clear structure and logical progression of the argument.

As one should expect, the content is accessible, yet carries the full weight of careful biblical and early church scholarship. The reader who takes this “course” will gain solid material.

And from there, they will have a foundation to advance to further study.

I was struck again by the importance to the story of Jesus of the cultural and political background of Roman, Jewish, and Palestinian history of the Gospel period. This background puts the teachings of Jesus into an illuminating setting that all readers can appreciate.

“Fixing” hard sayings?

Every thesis has a counter-thesis, and the idea that the Kingdom of God is upsidedown is no exception. For nearly 2,000 years, people have attempted to make Jesus “right-side up.” Most famously, these solutions “fix” the straightforward “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” and “if someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also” (Luke 6:27–29).

These statements by Jesus are extremely problematic for any follower of Jesus. What, after all, does one do with the apparently necessary use of force required to restrain evil in the world?

Those questions did not escape my Sunday School class, but in good old Anabaptist fashion, we were told, “Jesus cannot be clearer. No use of force. There is no allowance for it, either on the playground or in civil society.”

The matter of violence was just one of the “problems” of Jesus’ teaching.

Hence Anabaptists had a lonely existence in Christendom.

In Chapter 1, Kraybill examines the six detours around Jesus’ words that have become part of the fabric of the church. These are not strawmen but living, thriving ways to get around Jesus’ words, while appearing to give him lip service. The rest of the book is the detailed counterargument to the “detours.” Jesus meant what he said. Wrestle with his words, but don’t evade them.

The dismantling of “centuries of misinterpretation” is an enormous challenge, but it is critically important before the words and life of Jesus can emerge. And emerge they do in The Upside-Down Kingdom.

In the 1978 edition, “[Kraybill] gently but devastatingly dismantled centuries of misinterpretation of the Sermon on the Mount,” writes Stuart Murray in The Naked Anabaptist.

A relevant ethic

In 40 years, though, the times have changed, and the readers have changed. The apologetic needs have also changed. Six years ago, Murray wrote The Naked Anabaptist to capture the post-Christian reader. He wanted to introduce Anabaptism to a world unfamiliar with it, with Christianity, and even the Jesus of the Gospels. Murray did a very good job at this. But what to read next?

Written as a primer for Anabaptists thoughtfully articulating their theological territory in a largely Christian world, The Upside-Down Kingdom now fills in the details of Anabaptism for those taking the next steps on their journeys as followers of Jesus in post-Christendom.

Readers will discover that the six detours around the teachings of Jesus are not just historical artifacts. These are six very real temptations that followers of Jesus need to wrestle with in their daily lives.

The Upside-Down Kingdom equips them to hold and deepen their course – and watch transformation unfold.

[James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.

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