Imagine a Carnival – part 1

Prophetic Image-in-a(c)tion for Just Communities

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This week sees the new book, Carnival Kingdom: Biblical Justice for Global Communities published and made available for purchase. More details about the book, including the book launch on 2nd March will be posted in part 2, of this blog piece, tomorrow.

What is the Carnival Kingdom all about?

The Medieval Carnival legitimated revolutionary imagination – if only for a few days. However, when the last laugh had subsided and the last feast was cleared away the question lingered: ‘is the alternative reality possible?’ Chapter 1 written by Carol Kingston-Smith sets out the theme of the book by engaging concepts of the Medieval Carnival with the dynamics of the Kingdom of God – we might not readily identify these in the same category, but a closer study reveals surprising insights.Carol suggests that the creativity and critique of power embedded in the Carnival may have something to teach us about the promotion and sustaining of justice which reflects the biblical vision of the Kingdom of God.

Here are a few excerpts (part 2 will add a few more):-

When the late Martin Luther King Jr. began his famous speech with the words ‘I have a dream’, he was sharing a vision of an alternative reality not yet manifestly available to the people of the USA in the 1960s. It was available neither to the black communities who were being denied the right to a dignified life, nor to the white communities, who as a result of unjust racist structures were also denied and denying themselves the dignity which comes from being a part of a just community. Martin Luther King’s speech was not, however, an idealised vision plucked out of the air, but rather, one which was forged in direct response to the destructive and harsh experience of dehumanising injustice; injustice observed and experienced both corporately and individually.

it seems clear that in order to live faithfully in accordance with the Good News of the Kingdom, we need to develop this ‘image-ina(c)tion’ of the Kingdom in the very contexts in which we find ourselves. By this, I mean that as people of faith we need to grasp the images of the Kingdom we find embedded in the whole of Scripture, but most clearly enacted by Jesus himself, and then we need to interpret them in and to our contexts. In this way the image of the Kingdom moves from internal revelation and transformation to external revelation and transformation and vice versa through our actions and lives lived in humble and often vulnerable testimony to ‘that which we have seen and heard.’

The Medieval Carnival was, at its heart, a revolutionary and alternative view of reality; a way of representing, if only for a short time, a new reality in which the present order was turned on its head in favour of those from the underside of history; the peasant, the poor, in short, the non-elite. As such, the Carnival represents a creative interplay between the way things are, that is, the present status quo–which for many of the time was harsh and oppressive–and the ways things could be. This envisioning, interpretation and enactment (if only at Carnival time) of an alternative energy and reality was conceived at the interface between ‘the stasis imposed from above and a desire for change from below, between old and new, official and unofficial.’”

The Christian conception of the reign or Kingdom of God, like the Carnival, presents a profound challenge to the present fallen order of society, both in the prophetic, scriptural tradition of the Old Testament and by the incarnational revelation of the life and teachings of Jesus. Understanding in what ways the Kingdom of God speaks into and calls for the renewal and restoration of our societies is a core task for those of us who consider Kingdom justice to be the path to peace for global communities. Like the Carnival, the Kingdom is described as an ‘upside down Kingdom’– radically different to the status quo of earthly kingdoms where power and privilege coalesce in the hands of a few, often at the expense of the majority. At the heart of the vision of the reign of God is the belief that this reign will result in shalom; the delightful and convivial energy of a community at one and at peace with itself in purposeful service to God and the greater good of the rest of creation.

The Carnival Kingdom, as I conceive it here, unlike the Medieval Carnival, is not officially permitted and tolerated as a necessary cathartic release of the pent-up frustrations of both history’s downtrodden, and tight-laced sombre elites. It is, rather, a way of life which requires those who enter it to let go of their pride, their fear and their idolatries and become trusting and humble, like children. Early Christians in the Roman Empire were persecuted, not because their cult was illegal (religious cults were legal under the pax romana), but rather because they ‘overstepped’ the boundaries of permissible privatised religion and were explicitly political in their challenge to the sovereignty of Caesar by declaring that Jesus, rather than Caesar, was Lord. That is to say, early Christianity was not ‘in bed with power’ but rather it testified to another way of living, based around the Lordship and teachings of Jesus, which at a number of points contested the status quo of the Empire of their time. The consequence of their resistance was in many cases imprisonment, torture and death.

Jesus modelled the path which leads to reconciliation at the inception of his formal, recorded ministry in the Gospels. This commenced with an inter-power dialogue during his wilderness temptation. There he spoke truth to the power which sought to coerce both his allegiance and his service. In doing this he set his compass uncompromisingly against the same principles which lay at the roots of the Roman Empire; power through the coercion of military might. Following his death on a Roman cross, His resurrection was the closure of that dialogue.

The call to adhere to the ‘rules’ of the Carnival are radical. However, our Bibles remind us what ‘taking up our cross’ means and the call to obedience and radical discipleship is one that demands our all, and that has implications for how we live today, and how we engage with others around us.

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