Equipping God's People to Create Missional Culture

Mark Van Steenwyk on The Good News

Illustration by Nidhi Balwada from India

Illustration by Nidhi Balwada from India

This entry is a part of an on-going blog series called The Good News, which is taking place throughout the Easter Season, from Easter to Pentecost. A full list of the contributors can be found here. Mark’s local newspaper is City Pages, an alternative weekly newspaper serving the Minneapolis-St Paul metropolitan area, featuring news, film, theatre, restaurant reviews, and music criticism. Here is Mark Van Steenwyk on the Good News.


“Gospel” is one of those old-timey words. It either conjures images of emotional choirs in black churches or southern white preachers wearing brown suspenders over button-up shirts with rolled-up sleeves sweatily shouting hellfire words to people in tents. American culture associates these images with “gospel” because they have become well-used clich├ęs in American cinema; the first image being an image of religious hope, the other being one of religious oppression.

Unfortunately for our world, the gospel has often been used as much as a tool of oppression or of hope. And this is hugely unfortunate – especially given the origins of the “gospel.”

The word “gospel” simply means “good news.” Back in first century Rome, “gospel”was a particular sort of good news; it was something publically proclaimed on behalf of the emperor. Sorta like when George W. Bush, aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln declared a “mission accomplished” for the conflict in Iraq. Such “good news” – either in ancient Rome or modern America – is usually BS.

In first century Rome, an itinerant lay preacher named Jesus started wandering the countryside… and he took the word “gospel” from the Emperor. In his life and message, he communicated an entirely different sort of good news. In an empire of oppression and exploitation, where the rich got richer and the poor poorer, Jesus said that the poor were blessed and the oppressed were liberated. In an empire of violence his was a message of peace. In a society of hierarchy and alienation, his was a message of equality and inclusion. Jesus message upset those in power so much that they killed him like a common criminal. And, for a while, the movement Jesus sparked remained faithful to Jesus’ subversive message, found meaning in his execution, and rejoiced in the belief that this Jesus conquered oppression and death so completely that he was raised from the dead.

Over the years, this beautiful gospel of Jesus got replaced with the old gospel of the Empire. The Jesus movement (the church) embraced a message and methodology of oppression, violence, hierarchy, exclusion as they clambered for wealth and power.

Interestingly, while this message of Jesus has been twisted and reshaped, the society in which we live isn’t all that different from Rome. Instead of a Roman Empire, we live in an American Empire. And if Jesus was seen as a threat to the Pax Romana, then he is no less a threat to the American Dream.

Jesus would make a lousy American. He works little, lives like a bum, holds no official role or office, befriends the scum of the earth, rants about wealth, is critical of traditional authority, and exposes the evil of corruption and oppression wherever it is to be found.

Now, I am one of those silly Christians that thinks that Jesus is alive and well today. He is here. He is real. He is present among the lowly and active wherever the Church is faithful to his life and message (which, granted, is increasingly rare these days). And his gospel is still good news. However, if it was considered bad news to the powerful in Rome, than it is probably bad news to many in America.

If to you the American Dream is more like a nightmare, then the good news is that Jesus has shown us another way to live… a way of liberation and peace and justice and love. And all who long for such a way are freely invited to sign up with Jesus. But, unfortunately, those who enjoy privilege and power and wealth… who are on the upper rungs of the imperial ladder… are likely to find Jesus’ good news to be a frustrating bit of propaganda. But to all who have ears, let them hear.

Mark Van Steenwyk is a member of Missio Dei (Missio Dei is an Anabaptist intentional community anchored on the West Bank of Minneapolis that pursues Jesus’ way of simplicity, prayer, hospitality, and peace). Mark is the general editor of JesusManifesto.com. He is a speaker, writer, and a grassroots educator (which means that he labors to spark people’s theological and socio-political imaginations outside of an institutional setting…though he is an adjunct at Bethel University as well). Mark is also a co-conspirator with the Common Root: a movement of prophetic communities committed to embracing the nonviolent way of Jesus in creative and sustainable ways. Part of his conspiratorial duties include helping foster new radical communities. He and his wife Amy have been married since 1997. They, along with their son Jonas, live at Missio Dei’s “Sattler House.”

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