The Church on the Margins: Living Christian Community

Article excerpt

The Church on the Margins: Living Christian Community. By Mary R. Sawyer. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2003. xv + 288 pp. $24.00 (paper).

This volume fits into the pattern of theology's current "turn to ecclesiology," as characterized by such different schools as post-liberalism, narrative theology, and radical orthodoxy. Mary Sawyers argument for the importance of "community" draws from a rearticulation of liberation theology, particularly from its black (Cone) and feminist (Ruether) articulations.

The book's principal contribution is its description of particular ethnic and minority Christian communities in the contemporary United States (black, Native American, Hispanic, Asian, gay and lesbian, and so on). Sawyer contrasts these marginal identities with the hegemony of the established "white" churches. Although these comparisons are interesting and occasionally illuminating (Sawyer draws on considerable demographic data), they are also rather simplistically drawn. She essentially reduces ecclesiology to an understanding of a community structured around certain authentic "values"-relationality, hospitality, love-without clearly deriving these values from the Christian tradition, or exploring the complexities involved in institutionalizing such values. Furthermore, her accounts of these various "minority" Christian identities tend to offer portraits of unified and cohesive progressive countercultures, with little attention to the tensions and diversity within these same communities. For example, although Sawyer acknowledges that some black churches have identified "with the anti-feminist, anti-gay rights movements of fundamentalist white churches," she treats such instances as anomalies of the normative "liberationist praxis" of authentic black churches (pp. 95-97).

What emerges is a dualistic portrait of the church as a "spirit-community" that espouses a "tribal identity" in order to confront the consumerism of American culture, and the closed dogmatism of the institutionalized "white" church. This is an interesting strategy, one shared by the likes of Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, and Latin American liberation theology. The problem with this tactic, however, which is evident in Sawyer's book, is that it is often purchased at the expense of diminishing tensions between community and the individual, or among differing "tribal" communities. …