Monday, June 20, 2016

Book Review: Slow Kingdom Coming by Kent Annan

Out of these experiences I've written this book about doing good without hiding from the bad--both around us and within us--because we're called to be part of God's kingdom coming. We're invited to confess our vulnerabilities in serving justice so we can avoid dead-end shortcuts that damage others and ourselves. We're invited to accept the grace and responsibility of living into our deepest longings for God's kingdom. We're invited to a responsible approach to helping other people flourish in our neighborhoods and in our world, where there is too much suffering. We're invited to be part of deep, lasting change. - Kent Annan, Slow Kingdom Coming

As a pastor, I've been a part of quite a few attempts to raise greater awareness of the world's many needs, as well as to organize projects and programs to respond to at least some of them. My own record of success is mixed, with some catching people's interests and energy and others not so much. In each case, I've attempted to take time to evaluate why certain things have worked and others haven't, the latter also raising questions about how to encourage more growth in faith and discipleship as well as greater effectiveness in advancing God's concern for the "least of these" among us.

These issues are at the heart of Slow Kingdom Coming: Practices for Doing Justice, Loving Mercy, and Walking Humbly in the World by Kent Annan. Annan begins with the acknowledgment that many who attempt to engage in mission and service opportunities of various kinds may wonder about the difference such efforts make: we may burn out from doing too much, become bored with routine or disappointed with how little changes, or perform a token gesture to assuage our own guilt. Whatever the attitude with which we approach such action, Annan proposes that there is a more holistic way to serve involving a shift in perception.

Annan suggests five practices to aid in this shift: attention, confession, respect, partnering, and truthing. He describes each of these both through accessible theological language and illustrative story.

Attention could also be called "awakening," as Annan describes the process of waking up to the world's needs. However, it is also an awakening to one's own passion: "Part of this practice of attention involves asking ourselves, what breaks my heart? In the world, my country or my neighborhood, what makes me angry because it should be better?" (p. 32) This practice is internal as much as external, as we intentionally notice what needs raise passion within us that will help us focus our time and energy.

Confession is our acknowledging our own half-hearted efforts at serving for a variety of reasons, some that he mentions being doing things for show, acting out of privilege, and operating with a hero complex. Service is good, but it can be done for the wrong reasons. Confession helps us name them in order to begin reorienting on the right ones.

Respect involves seeing the people you're serving as fully human and entering more deeply into the other's situation: "visitors should come to learn, not to save." (p. 74) Annan more than once points out the flaws in short-term mission trips, cautioning against "poverty tourism." Instead, those seeking to serve should be quick to listen and slow to impose one's own voyeurism and values on another.

This leads to partnering, which Annan describes as serving alongside others rather than coming in to fix something with which we're ultimately not that familiar. To show respect, one must see others as equals rather than those poor people we've come to save.

Finally, Annan borrows the concept of truthing from geology, where scientists compare aerial satellite images of an area with data collected through exploration of the same area on the ground. Annan uses this to describe the difference between studying an issue from far away and being immersed in it up close. The latter involves remembering the other four practices he describes, as well as realizing that God's kingdom comes a lot more slowly when you're actually in the thick of serving others.

Annan has written an honest assessment of what making a difference in the world really entails. As the title suggests, transformation often happens at a much slower pace than we'd like for a variety of reasons. But using the practices he suggests, we can at least help things along in a more realistic fashion that appreciates nuance and acknowledges our own limitations. God's kingdom may be coming slowly, but there is yet hope that it's at least coming.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)