Review by Brad Jersak
After my first encounters with the theo-praxis of Bob Ekblad, recounted so vividly in his previous work, Reading the Bible with the Damned, I could only wait impatiently for the arrival of his New Christian Manifesto. I was not disappointed.
In this work, Ekblad demonstrates his acumen as a master bridge-builder and integrator. Specifically, he bridges the best of world-class biblical theology and front line pastoral practice. He integrates the social prophetic world of liberation theology with the charismatic prophetic world of the modern renewal movement. Text meets testimony, mind meets heart and authentic prayer finds its way into the world of the poor, the immigrant, the gangster and the prisoner. In short, Bob brings the good news of the Kingdom of God, preaching a decentering word to the powers (a la Brueggemann), and inviting those on the margins to the banqueting table of God.
To get to the heart of Ekblad's message, I quote from the blessing he wrote in my first edition copy.
To Brad, a true companion in the struggle, to see grace and truth increase, heaven come to earth. The groaning creation welcoming the sons and daughters of God. May Jesus keep taking you deeper and deeper into his baptism. In Christ, Bob
In that brief blessing, Bob summarizes some of the main themes of the book, which include a superbly practical theology of Jesus' prescribed prayer for his disciples, "Your Kingdom come: your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." On this front, Bob manages to bring together his scholarly credentials, his social liberation praxis, and his charismatic experience, all under one umbrella.
His message is a timely challenge to charismatics and evangelicals who've been co-opted by the neo-con agenda, as well as to the social-justice and biblical theology crowds who might tend to skepticism about supernatural experiences (esp. healing ministries). Yet because of Bob's open-hearted humility, I expect that rather than polarizing these groups, he'll give them pause to think again and ask some fresh questions.
The firstfruits of this is seen in the range of endorsers we find on the back cover: folks like Gerald West and Johnny Hill from the academy, Bruce Cockburn (Canada's foremost social prophetic minstrel), Roman Catholic contemplative activist, Richard Rohr, and Heidi Baker (Iris' Ministries) from the charismatic renewal stream. My hope is that if Bob can assemble such a cast as friends, then there's hope for further dialogue across these divergent streams. But dialogue about what?
First, Bob is all about Jesus' ministry of setting prisoners free. But in what sense? Literal prisoners of unjust legal systems and political oppression? Metaphorical prisoners of gang life, domestic violence, or substance abuse? Or spiritual prisoners of demonic powers, whether corporate or personal? The answer, in Bob's case, is "YES! All of the above." A New Christian Manifesto outlines Bob's work on all of these fronts: his chaplaincy at the Skagit County Prison, advocacy with undocumented migrant workers, community development with the poor in Central America, and deliverance ministry with those tormented by unclean spirits or 'demons.'
Meanwhile, Ekblad also demonstrates depth of insight -- whether through his spiritually significant dreams or his expertise with the biblical Hebrew texts -- to bring fresh eyes to the biblical narrative. One such topic is "the importance of baptismal death and rebirth for greater empowerment for fruitful ministry," including Jesus re-enactment of Moses' wilderness story. In that context, Bob argues persuasively from Exodus 15 and from Jesus' baptism that we see in Christ "the first and foremost act of identificational repentance with and for the death of the Egyptian firstborn and the Egyptian army in the Red Sea." (!!) In his solidarity with sinners and by sharing the fate of the opponents of the kingdom of God, Jesus shows us how to overcome enemies through forgiveness and blessing, rather than violence or vengeance. The chapter, "Living as Wetbacks," expands on Bob's discoveries and their implications along these lines... a rewarding journey for lovers of careful exegesis with a point.
Bob also shows the ancient prophetic courage required in confronting those powers that compete with God for our ultimate allegiance. In the chapter, "I pledge allegiance to the Kingdom of God," he describes the power of oaths, including the ways in which our pledges of allegiance to nationalism, patriotism and militarism can actually open a door to demonization. As I thought about this assertion, I saw how any pledge we make to ideologies, governments or flags can function as a filter over our hearts, distorting or negating an accurate understanding of God (e.g. God is like my president; my president speaks for God) or his will. E.g. the filter or idol of capitalism makes compassion for the poor and commitment to social equity sound like communism, which must be bad, because it's not capitalism. We can hear these filters at work in our politicians and prophets across the board; knowing this is an important aspect of testing and weighing their claims. Bob's 'heads up' is a necessary course correction, esp. for political engaged Christians, in this hour.
Finally, I was delighted to see the inclusion of Brita Miko's poem, "The Scream," climaxing the final chapter on Bob's theology of the atonement. "Announcing God's Victory on the Cross" is a fresh follow-up to his brilliant, more technical chapter in Stricken by God? ("God is not to blame:the servant's atoning suffering according to the LXX of Isaiah 53"). In this chapter, he looks at five significant liberations achieved through Jesus' "loud cry," through which he "released his spirit" [lit.] (Matt. 27:50). As with so many of Bob's reflections, he describes how such a text is read within the community of those whom he serves. There is an integrity and sacred power in it that moved me.
In short, A New Christian Manifesto is a must-read that will make you think new thoughts and weep new tears. Most important to me, it will lift your eyes to the God who lives, speaks and walks with the poor... and we're all invited.