Carnival Kingdom: Biblical Justice for Global Communities – Book Review

Editors:  Marijke Hoek, Jonathan Ingleby, Andy Kingston- Smith & Carol Kingston-Smith
Publisher:  Wide Margin Academical
ISBN 13:  978-1-908860-02-6

Book Review by Associate Professor Dr. Christopher Marshall, Head of School, Art History, Classics and Religious Studies Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

In the biblical tradition, the experience of God‟s hoped-for reign is sometimes likened to a huge feast or a banquet or wedding celebration. Jesus made great use of this motif, most obviously in his parables and allusions to jubilee themes, as well as in his notorious practice of sitting at table with tax collectors and sinners. Playing on a variant of this motif, the editors of this book – which is a collection of a dozen or so essays on a variety of justice issues – use the analogy of the medieval carnival as an image that captures the distinctive ethos of God‟s kingdom and its justice.

The metaphor is surprisingly apt. As the opening chapter
explains, the medieval carnival was more than just a big day out for local peasants. It was a time during which the normal rules and conventions that governed everyday life were temporarily suspended or even held up for ridicule. An alternative, revolutionary reality took over, albeit for a moment, one in which the poor held centre stage and peasants could act as lords for the day. And the whole event, with its lampooning of the powerful, was permeated with laughter and fun.

The social reversals enacted at carnival time are powerfully reminiscent of the upside down kingdom proclaimed by Jesus. While deadly serious about confronting injustice, God‟s carnival kingdom is also full of laughter, even in face of pain and suffering. It is laughter than stems from knowing that the unjust kingdoms of this world are transitory and will eventually be eclipsed by God‟s new order, and also from witnessing the first-fruits of this new order already at work in the present, in the feeding of the hungry, the freeing of the captives, and the lifting up of the downtrodden.

The social character of God‟s justice is explored imaginatively in chapter 2 by consideration of the image of the Shire in the Lord of the Rings. The justice of the Shire corresponds in interesting ways to the vision of shalom found in the book of Deuteronomy, which may have partly inspired it.

In chapter 3, there is a fascinating account of the radical theology of the Levellers and Diggers in 17th century England. The author is a green economist who thinks there are lessons to be learned from this historical experiment in social and environmental justice relevant to the quest for sustainable living today. The focus shifts in chapter 4 to modern Latin America. The evangelical community in Peru is challenged to acquire a more biblically faithful and politically engaged theology if it is to make a difference to that society. “A mutilated gospel, dedicated to the salvation of bodiless souls, disconnected from the historical reality, will never produce exemplary citizens who are preoccupied by the search for the common good…”

Chapter 5 discusses the precarious plight of religious minorities in India. The growth of extremist nationalist movements in that country over recent decades, and the tacit, and often active, support of the police and judicial authorities for their targeting of minorities has created a pervasive and deepening sense of insecurity on the part of religious sub-groups there, particularly Muslims and Christians. Insecurity is also a part of the experience of exiles, whether they are migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, or displaced persons. Chapter 6 examines the complex needs of those who move, or are forced to move, across political and cultural borders; it also outlines a “theology of migration” that includes an obligation on the Christian community to minister grace to those dislocated from home by forces beyond their control.

The number of such people is expected to grow exponentially in the coming decades, not least as a result of climate change. The phenomenon of climate change is taken up in detail in chapter 7. Not only is this arguably the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, it is also one that, as always, bears down most heavily upon the poorest of the poor, wherever they happen to live in the world. Justice for creation and justice for the poor are therefore inseparably united.

Perhaps the most common way of formulating justice debates today is through the idiom of human rights. Focusing on Martin Luther‟s Freedom of a Christian, chapter 8 identifies some of distinctive insights the Protestant Christian tradition has to offer contemporary discourse on the meaning of rights and freedoms and their undergirding “ur-principle” of human dignity. Amongst these is Protestantism‟s “reflexive egalitarian impulse”, which is rooted in its apprehension of universal human accountability to God. Chapter 9 continues the theme of equality by offering an exposition of “the justice of equality” articulated both in scripture and in contemporary post-colonial studies. “A culture of hierarchy”, the author explains, “inevitably means a lack of freedom”. The egalitarian inclusivism evident in the social patterns of ancient Israel and the earliest church provides an enduring paradigm for the agenda of the God‟s kingdom in today‟s post-imperial world.

But why, even after empire, do some countries remain stubbornly poor while others flourish? The answer lies, at least in part, chapter 10 proposes, at the level of culture and religion. Without denying the role of structural exploitation and unjust distributions of global power and wealth, the author explains that endogenous cultural and religious patterns are also key to explaining the “development conundrum” that baffles experts and defies our best attempts at remedy.

The penultimate chapter discusses how Christians should engage in public debate, especially in the media, by telling stories that bear witness to the counter-narrative of God‟s kingdom. “When the media features youth as „a lost generation‟, we respond with hope. When they discuss asylum, we talk about the need to recover compassion for the persecuted. When they speak about the penal system, we speak about restorative justice”.

The final chapter of the book looks at the role of entrepreneurship and Christ-centred business practice as a form of Christian mission and a tool for achieving the holistic justice of God‟s kingdom.

Carnival Kingdom is an excellent resource book on the all-embracing nature of Christian mission. The contributors reflect the global face of the church, and the subjects they address are as desperately important as they are diverse. Undergirding the entire volume is the core conviction that the hope of God‟s kingdom is not just some spiritual aspiration for the future: it is also a call to positive action in the present in the service of greater justice on earth. Such action is not empowered by some kind of stern ideological purism but by the joyous experience of participating with others in God‟s upside down, carnival-like, laughter-filled kingdom here and now. Highly recommended.

Biographical details

Associate Professor Dr. Christopher Marshall is Head of School, Art History, Classics and Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

Chris’ specialities include the study of New Testament theology and ethics, peace theology and practice, and restorative justice – both theory and practice. Chris is also an expert in the study of contemporary Anabaptist theology. Chris is currently working on several projects, including works on restorative justice, religious violence and biblical theology.

Please Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Redcliffe College.

Return to Issue 45.

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