Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove lives at the Rutba House, a Christian community and house of hospitality in Durham, North Carolina. He is the author of Strangers at My Door (Convergent, 2013). This is the foreword to Blumhardt’s Everyone Belongs to God, a new book from Plough.
In every age, God’s people need prophets to help us see beyond our blind spots – to expand our vision of what God is about.
Jeremiah was a prophet. To a people in exile, caught between the false hope that their God would destroy Babylon and the despair of thinking God had forgotten them, Jeremiah proclaimed a new vision. The old images of God’s faithfulness would no longer suffice. Yes, their God had saved humanity in an ark and washed away the wicked in a great flood. Yes, their God had brought them out of Egypt, drowning Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea.
But a salvation that requires someone else’s destruction is too small a salvation, Jeremiah proclaimed. To a people in exile, he wrote, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:7).
You will not be saved apart from your neighbors, the prophet says. Everyone belongs to God. Or, to quote another of the biblical prophets:
It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (Isaiah 49:6, NRSV)
Jesus came preaching peace to all people. But he got into the most trouble for showing the religious insiders how the people they counted out often understood the advent of God’s reign better than they did. Take Luke 4. For his first sermon in his own hometown, Jesus took a text from Isaiah, the prophet. And when he said that the great day of Jubilee had arrived for God’s people, everyone rejoiced.
But when he pointed out that a Syrian soldier and a Gentile woman had more faith than anyone else in their day, the hometown crowd tried to throw him off a cliff.
Your gospel is too small, Jesus said. But no one wants the prophet to speak so directly to them.
Better to celebrate that the scripture is fulfilled in our hearing than to grapple with the ways God’s Word forces us to expand our imagination.
But expand we must. At least, that’s what the prophets tell us.
The text of Everyone Belongs to God is over a century old, but it contains the words of a prophet who was ahead of his time. At the beginning of the so-called “Christian Century,” when science and progress seemed to be bringing Christendom to its full height of glory, Christoph Blumhardt heard a word that cut through his cultural formation and easy assumptions: Everyone belongs to God.
Cultural captivity is, of course, a far cry from exile, but the long march of Christendom, as we now see more clearly, took God’s people as far from the Promised Land as Nebuchadnezzar’s forces ever did. As in the Babylonian captivity, we face a dual temptation.
On the one hand, there are those who say, “All you’ve got to do is believe.” God is greater than the forces of secularism and materialism, atheism and individualism. Yes, Western Christianity is compromised. But the pure in heart – those who really believe – can be saved right here, right now. All you have to do is bow your head and say this simple prayer. . . .
On the other hand, the cynics point out, the Good Book became the Bad Book in so much of the Western missionary enterprise. We over-evangelized the world too lightly, exporting cultural hegemony along with the faith, doing more harm than good. Christendom has failed, they say, and so it is best to leave the name of Christ behind. Do good, for goodness’ sake. At the very least, try to do no harm.
In the midst of this crisis, I hear Blumhardt’s words for twenty-first-century Christians in the same vein as Jeremiah’s to seventh-century-BC Israel: “The Risen One wants to draw people to himself, and so propaganda for a particular confession of faith or church is no concern of his. You must stand up and represent the gospel of the kingdom that shines for all people, no matter who they are.”
We cannot give up on the missionary enterprise because we have misunderstood and abused it. Instead, Blumhardt insists, we must reclaim the heart of Christian mission.
Our gospel has been too small. It is, indeed, too small a thing to think that the hope of the world rests in our ability to recruit others into a religion which has too often made us morally worse.
To confess that the hope of the world is Jesus Christ is to open ourselves to a kingdom beyond our control – beyond our imagination, even. It is to embrace the revolutionary notion that everyone belongs to God.
Though Bonhoeffer had not yet introduced the term when Blumhardt wrote these letters, it was in the midst of his own confrontation with the crisis of Western Christianity that he wrote of “religionless Christianity.” Bonhoeffer had so little time to explore what this term meant, even less how one might practice it in the world.
But this volume fills some of that void. For it, we can all be grateful. Take and read the words of a prophet for our time.