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Towards a Postmodern Theology of the Hem
From Dublin, Ireland, McKeever speaks of theology for the growing numbers of people at the edges of society, in the informal sector of surplus populations, at the doorsteps of the church.
By John McKeever
How we do church affects how we do mission, especially that universal mission which lies on our own doorsteps. The doorstep of my home church is crowded with the people of the hem. They turn up regularly with intensive needs and volatile emotions. They turn up stoned, angry, rejected, in crisis, fearful, desperate, hopeless, homeless and heart-broken. While serving them with palliative cups of tea and sympathy we watch the women’s handbags and the offering. We offer them Jesus as a sort of proleptic, slow-burn panacea and refer them to crisis agencies. Our prayers with and for them, indeed our whole interaction, can seem insipid. All our motivations are good but our primary, and often visible, emotional response is fear and a sense of our own inadequacy. In this arena it is the faithful stewards who are the prime ministers. They cope valiantly and graciously with the unknown, but they are torn between the crisis in front of them and the need to conserve order in the meeting. I’ve been there, as both presenting crisis person some years ago and, more recently, as a steward. My experiences on both sides of that interaction have been both good and bad. Hemsters may be broken but they are not stupid. They can smell judgment at fifty yards and see rejection where it is not intended.
Unravelling the Hem
The doorstep crisis people are only one constituency in the larger population of hemsters. There are the slinkers who sneak in after the meeting starts and dart for the door during the last worship song. They love God but are highly ambivalent to church and fellowship. Their wounds, often inflicted in church or personal ministry, produce a superior and hypercritical spirit and they regard themselves as being persecuted by misunderstanding.
Then there is the ever-growing population of people whose sexual orientation or relationship choices exclude them from leadership and ministry. Some of these are, thankfully, brass-necked enough to continue to assert their membership of the body, despite their visible ‘sin’. Unfortunately, however, most of them disappear back into the woodwork. Returning ‘backsliders’ is another constituent group. They shuffle about at the hem for a few months until rehabilitation is complete. Finally there are the conscientious objectors; people whose beliefs do not fully concur with the church’s statement of faith and who have found the church with the closest fit. They keep quiet about their eclectic and idiosyncratic beliefs and devote themselves to invisibility.
Journey to the centre of the garment, and back again…
As one who has made the journey from doorstep crisis, through rank and file church membership, through service to leadership, I have acquired a fairly panoramic view of the hem and the garment, and the inevitable tensions between the two. Quite recently I have chosen to step down from leadership and teaching ministry to return to the hem, primarily for reasons akin to those of the conscientious objector cited above. My ability to do so was greatly helped by my growing involvement in a para-church NGO which brings kingdom services to individuals and communities suffering from generational economic and social exclusion. The transition was extremely smooth and devoid of doubt, recrimination and regret. Far from being recidivist the move back to the hem is part of a dialectical process I am continuing to engage in with the church leadership. The hem is where I want to be. For theological reasons I choose to see myself more as an affiliate than as a member. My move has caused none to stumble.
Doing and living theology in the hem is an extraordinary reality check. There are no structures, guidelines, training courses available. It is an amorphous and chaotic world. One enters it only with faith, a strong spirit and the desire to not treat the wounds of the hem people lightly. It would be very easy, and a lot safer, to slip into simple social service secularism or ‘one size fits all’ evangelism. But it is to the church, with all its flaws and hang-ups, that these people have come for help. Many of them have already exhausted the help available to them through social, psychological and medical services. As the church is in the world, but not of it, so many hem people are of the church, but not really in it.
Towards a theology of the hem
Do we need a theology of the hem? And if so, do we necessarily need a postmodern approach to such a theology? I would answer both questions affirmatively. The postmodern tools of deconstruction, linguistic analysis, and the dynamics of legitimation together with Derrida’s concept of diffèrance can help us understand and live with the tensions of this field of ministry far more than the rationalist or positivist approaches can. Indeed I would suggest that these latter approaches may be the cause of many such tensions! I will return to this part of the discussion at the end of this article but for now I will focus on the need for a theology of the hem.
I want to make it clear at this stage that I am not suggesting a change of praxis in relation to doorstep mission and outreach. While this may be one very valuable outcome of the discussion, I am thinking of a more radical theological recapitulation of hitherto ‘essential’ doctrines and a lateral re-thinking of traditional ecclesiology with a view to coming alongside those, who for any of the reasons detailed above, find themselves confined, or dispatched, to the hem.
My motivations for pursuing this line of thinking are complex. Firstly my own experience consistently suggests that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is far more evident at the hem than in the garment itself. This ministry is also far more powerful and persuasive because it occurs outside of the religious conventions and routines of normal church. It may not be unfair to suggest that this unstructured environment affords the Spirit more freedom of expression and engagement. It is exciting, spontaneous and often playful. Secondly, and I hate to resurrect the armband rhetoric of a decade ago, but WWJD? Would he align himself with the pew-dwelling saints or the great unwashed who drink coffee through the service and go out for frequent smokes? I apologise for the form but not the intent of this question. Lastly I have to introduce the c word. Social class continues to play a significant role in whether or not church is a viable, realistic and welcoming ‘home’ to those who are already excluded by virtue of poverty, education and opportunity. I know many people, who desperately need and want God in their lives, for whom even community church is a non-starter.
I am not unaware of the many creative solutions churches have come up with to tackle these problems. There are wonderful reception services, street pastors and detached ministries growing all over the place. They are to be commended. There are also many grass-roots fellowships springing up in inner city and ghetto communities. It is my opinion that many of these fellowships, after a glorious start, begin to mimic, unconsciously perhaps, the form and formulae of more traditional churches. Very soon they represent a cultural ‘leap too far’ for people living in alienation and anomie.
We can tinker with praxis until the cows come home, and refine and specialise our outreach and evangelism, but all this effort comes back to roost in a conservative, creedal theology which is ecclesiologically and doctrinally bound. For many that’s the bad news of salvation, the small print that is hidden in the effusive ‘welcome to the church’ manuals. Is it here that we see the torsion and tension between the Jesus of history and the Christ of doctrine most painfully exposed?
So where would one start to develop a theology of the hem? After Pannenberg’s Christology, which reversed the flow from top-down to bottom-up, would reversing the flow from the church outwards, to from the hem (and beyond) inwards, be one useful stratagem? Bear with me. I am suggesting an anthropocentric and ultimately existentialist approach. Let us divest ourselves of everything but wordless faith as we step out into the world and the world steps into us. Let us wait empty-handed and under the joint disciplines of purposeful listening and theological poverty. Let us revisit the apophatic tradition and the via negativa; but let us bring them out of effete monasticism and recontextualise them into postmodern society as an agenda-free glimpse of the magnificence and silence of God.
What might a theology of the hem and its practices look like? First and foremost it would be social, conversational, affirming, and lovingly challenging in that its challenges will derive from relationship and active listening rather than to abstract and distant authority/truth claims. It may start from the basic commonality of ‘being in the world’. It may well be dialectic in that the hem pastors will feed backwards and forwards between the hem and the garment. It would need to operate within a well-defined and publicised duty-of-care framework. It may prove to be a springboard and resource for local evangelism. It might validate the choice to not, for any number of personal reasons, be drawn in to the reformative moral framework of conventional church life. It might validate and critique the light that hem people have and honour them and their choices in such a way as to maintain whatever fragile fellowship is there. It might create an invaluable dialog partner for the garment church. It might create a safe space for seekers to ‘try before they buy’ and a temporary roost for visitors and transients. Most of all it may be the place par excellence where the suffering God of Moltmann may fellowship with suffering humanity, where Christ outside the gate represents warmth and unconditional welcome, and where the Holy Spirit has unhindered ministry. It is church, Jim, but not as we know it…
Why a postmodern theology of the hem?
Would all of the above be possible from a more conservative theological grounding? I think not. The cultural ‘fit’ would be problematic for a start. Traditional soteriology, hamartiology, evangelism and ecclesiology are far removed from, and often insensitive to, the pressing needs and issues of the hem. Again I stress that I am not suggesting clever packaging. It distresses me profoundly to see the proliferation of postmodern sic packaging on ministries with a not-too-hidden conservative ethos and practice. I view such stratagems as being the spiritual equivalent to the legal concept of entrapment. They have the superficial form of postmodernism but not the godliness thereof. (Yes, I know what Paul says about all things to all men!)
As reformation does violence to outmoded and problematic structures and doctrines so deconstruction does violence to maladaptive thoughts, beliefs, behaviours, assumptions and interpretations. Quintessentially it is a constructive process and one which can bring immense freedom from the betes noires that beset us all. Similarly Derrida’s concept of diffèrance enables dialogue which acknowledges and celebrates differences in meaning (between two people or traditions or within one person/ tradition, over a period of time) and enables the deferment of decision and conclusion. It may or may not produce temporary theses. It accommodates doubt, confusion, intuition, ambivalence and subjectivity and can operate at the nexus of emotion and cognition. To my mind it is an exceptionally apt and useful tool for hem ministry.
It would not be unfair to say that the hem has traditionally been perceived and treated as a sort of nuisance and embarrassment by church leaders. Unkempt hems drain pastoral resources in a multitude of ways. I hesitate to suggest that the hem be given the place of honour at our banquet but I do suggest that it be afforded an honourable place. The hem just may, by some form of alchemical transmutation, turn into a golden lifeline for a church that is not reaching the disenfranchised. A church that not only tolerates but celebrates dissonance may well yet prove to be a missing link in ecclesiological evolution.
This article is necessarily exploratory. Many of the ideas expressed are clearly derivative and even mundane. I apologise for any tones of ‘angry-young-man-ery’ that have crept in! Maybe all I have achieved is a sort of marriage between my passion for the excluded and my love of postmodern thought. Maybe that is enough for now. How does one drive theology forward?
One little bit of etymological serendipity encourages me as I come to a close. The word limbo derives from the Latin for hem. Perhaps there is, after all, a little heavenly resting place for the multitudes of hem people who have been rejected, slandered, vilified and persecuted by Christendom down through the ages.
I am deeply indebted to my home church which has generously and graciously afforded me the practical and intellectual freedom to pursue these ideas in and around the garment and the hem.
John McKeever is an affiliate of Trinity Church Network in Dublin, Ireland. He is closely associated with an offender rehabilitation project offered by Jobcare which is a kingdom ministry with special interest in employment and the meaning and dignity that it affords. He has developed an award-winning personal development programme for ex/offenders called Staying Real which he is now offering as a pastoral resource to Irish churches. John works fulltime as caretaker of an inner city social housing project.
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