Resurrection City: A Theology of Improvisation -- A Review

RESURRECTION CITY: A Theology of Improvisation (Prophetic Christianity) By Peter Goodwin Heltzel.  Grand Rapids:   Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012.  Xv + 203 pages.

What does it mean for Christians to speak prophetically about matters of justice?  There have been many prophets down through the ages, but too often we treat the prophets with contempt and even violence.  And yet the prophetic word continues to beckon us to live justly, humbly, righteously.  The prophets call on us to step out of the shadows of our complicity in the ways of the world, the world of empire. 

The image of Resurrection City, which provides the title of Peter Goodwin Heltzel’s book, has two inspirations.  One is the tent city that was built in Washington in the summer of 1968 as the culmination of the Poor People’s Campaign, which Martin Luther King had launched in the months prior to his death.  That city in Washington was designed call attention to the dehumanizing affects of poverty – especially in the cities of America.  The other form of inspiration comes from the Book of Revelation, and its envisioning of heaven.  Heltzel writes that “’Apocalypse’ means a revelatory unveiling of God’s gracious activity in the world, and out of this unveiling Resurrection City provides an ethical goal and future destination for world Christianity” (p. xi).   The vision for justice presented in this book, authored by a theology professor at Ney York Theological Seminary and assistant pastor for evangelism at Park Avenue Christian Church, a Disciples of Christ congregation in the midst of the city of New York, is expressed in terms of the jazz idiom of improvisation.  It is a vision that is rooted in “the song of Israel,” especially the prophetic texts, upon which Jesus and those who follow have offered their improvisation, as they seek justice for society.

            Heltzel seeks to invite us to join in the pursuit of a prophetic Christianity.  He chooses the jazz idiom to express this invitation, because jazz “is a multilayered experience of the musical dimension of our humanity.  It touches the blue note in our heart, but offers a new way of experiencing life – life together”  (p. 2).     He chooses the metaphor of the city because it is for one thing a biblical metaphor.  It is a metaphor for the presence of God and it is the telos of the biblical story – a movement from the Garden to the Resurrection City in Revelation – a city of shalom. At the same time the city is a place of empire, of rule, of power.  If Jerusalem represents peace, Babylon represents its opposite.  It is a city built on violence.  The question is – which city will prevail?    Every city, Heltzel suggests, is engaged in a struggle between Babylon and the New Jerusalem.  The prophetic word invites us to leave Babylon and enter Jerusalem.

            The way forward requires that we acknowledge certain aspects of human experience, including the presence of racism, which includes theologies of conquest and supersessionism.  Prophetic theology seeks to subvert our attraction to racist ideology, this belief that humanity must be assimilated into whiteness. 

            Heltzel writes to Christians, suggesting that Christian theology is an improvisation on the prophetic melody of Israel’s song.  It is a call to pursue shalom justice (mishpat), which involves reaching out to the poor, the widow, and the orphan.  It involves hearing the call to be a blessing, and to see in the Law God’s baseline for shalom justice.  If the baseline is the Law, Jesus is the key Jewish improviser, who takes the “prophetic all to love God and neighbor to a new level” (p. 49).  It is a ministry of improvisation that begins with Mary’s song of victory, and continues on as Jesus expresses three charisms – teacher, healer, and holy feaster. He offers this new vision in the context of Rome’s “theater of oppression.”

            Heltzel begins with the biblical story and then weaves in the American story, contrasting the dreams of freedom expressed by Thomas Jefferson on one hand and Sojourner Truth on the other.  Jefferson’s vision is deistic, with Jesus as a moral example, but his secular vision isn’t equipped to seek an expanded understanding of freedom.  Slavery remains for him a boundary he can’t cross.  Sojourner Truth, on the other hand, offers a prophetic vision of freedom that calls the nation to leave behind the bondage of slavery.  Heltzel wants us to think of slavery as not just a social issue, but a theological one, with the lynching tree being America’s version of the cross – as suggested by James Cone. 

            If the prophetic improvisation calls us to pursue justice as true freedom, the question is how do we build the “beloved city?”  That quest requires a theology of love.  Dr. King’s vision of the Beloved Community is rooted in King’s readings of Howard Thurman description of God’s essence being love.   During his college years King recognized that the church’s mission was defined by justice, and then he discerned that the appropriate path to justice came through nonviolent resistance.  The methodology for this resistance came through Gandhi, by way of Thurman.  King’s ministry began with the pursuit of civil rights for African Americans, but he recognized that this effort was part of a broader pursuit of justice that included dealing with poverty and militarism. As powerful as King’s prophetic ministry was, he is not without faults.  Heltzel reminds us that this original movement didn’t deal with patriarchy, and in fact was infected by it.  The author notes, however, that Black patriarchy is rooted in White Patriarchy – it is in essence a mirror image.  That stain on the earlier movement is being addressed as women’s voices are lifted up, because “prophetic female leadership is vital to the future of the movement for justice today” (p. 121).        

            The prophetic is never comfortable, especially if you are part of the majority culture.  Too often the church becomes a community of spectators in what Heltzel calls the “theater of the oppressed.”  If we’re to become prophetic communities, we must become actors in this drama, and this comes with a fresh in breaking of the Holy Spirit that will allow it to transform the city from despair to hope. For those of us who inhabit the suburbs, this is a difficult move to make, but it’s possible for the church to become the hands and feet of Christ in the world, embodying Christ’s vision of justice and peace.

            The concluding chapter takes up a song by John Coltrane – “Love Supreme” – in which this vision of justice rooted in love is developed.  He notes that jazz is an idiom rooted in the African American experience, and that music has become a common language for the African diaspora.  It is, he writes, “a vehicle for spiritual renewal, communal bonding, political resistance, and psychic survival.  Through the rituals of music, Africans in the diaspora began to subvert the logic of commodification, retaining their moral and cultural agency, despite being enslaved in an economy that not only valued them as little more than bodies, fit for manual labor, but also claimed theological validation from Holy Scripture” (p. 151).  As a lover of jazz music, and Coltrane in particular, I’m invited not only to look at this musical idiom in a new way, but join in the struggle, as a partner not as the leader.  I must learn the song so that I can join in the pursuit of justice, and this involves, the author suggests that we accept the need to confess our sins.  The musical idiom, however, allows us to see that there is a possibility of harmony through the reconciliation of our conflict.  This involves heeding the call of Jesus to love others and seek God’s shalom. 

There are two cities – the city of God and the city of humanity.  There are also two forms of church – the external and the inner church, the latter being the prophetic form.  Heltzel notes that in Augustine’s vision of the two cities, there was separation, you had to choose, but in Dr. King’s vision of a two-fold church, invites us to “interrupt the love of self with the transformative love of God.”  This is our calling, to pursue the politics of love, which leads to the “transformation of our cities into communities of resurrection.”  We as the church have the opportunity to model a different way of living in the world – one that is just and expressed in love.

The call to a prophetic form of Christianity is not easily heard or embraced.  The comforts of the status quo are often too enticing.  We who serve as leaders of these communities know all too well the dangers of stepping out into this calling.  And yet the call is there, and we must decide what it means to be faithful to the call of God on our lives.  Will we embrace the call to improvise on the biblical story so that we might find our way to the Reesurrection City?   Heltzel’s book is full of important insights and challenges, which the church needs to hear.  Even those of us who have tried to step out and seek to partner in the work of building the Beloved Community, we do so gingerly, but here we have words of wisdom that can guide our pathway to justice.  Indeed, we’re blessed to have this resource at hand.  


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