We live in a strange world. Take, for example, the scene that opens the thirteenth chapter of Melani McAlister’s The Kingdom of God Has No Borders. McAlister is at a small airfield in northern Kenya, waiting for a chartered plane to arrive. The plane will take her and five American evangelicals to southern Sudan (the year is 2006). She is not exactly clear on what the group will be doing when it gets there. With the exception of the group’s leader, who is also the pastor of the group’s Wisconsin church, none has much experience in Africa nor are any of them ministers, nurses, teachers, or other occupations commonly associated with missions. What on earth are they doing there?
Standing on the airfield McAlister reflects on the pastor’s stateside response to her queries about the group’s plans. He had provided what he called an “African answer” to her “American question.” There was no plan. They would not be building wells or houses, healing the sick, or preaching to the lost. Rather, they were traveling to be present with their African brothers and sisters, to “be in fellowship with Sudanese believers, to learn from them, to see the work they were doing, and to pray with them.” A reader who has been carried along by McAlister’s deft prose and wry observations cannot help but smile to herself and ask: could there be anything more American than flying to a remote and impoverished place with no goal other than a visit? Is there anything more American than this?
But as the reader also knows, McAlister plays it straight, and shows her reader how short-term visits like this one, and many other American encounters in the Middle East and Africa, are crucial nodes in evangelical networks that continue to shape American evangelicals’ affective sense of their place within the worldwide body of Christ. And as a consequence, this deeply researched and admirably measured tour of American evangelicalism’s international affairs goes a long way to helping us see this African scene as both deeply strange and surprisingly normal.
The Kingdom of God Has No Borders is essential reading. I can think of few other books that range so widely in framing what American evangelicalism is and has become, or that articulate in such close detail how global imaginations of the kingdom of God have shaped and fashioned US evangelical theology, affect, and self-understanding. McAlister’s book is not alone in observing the long-lasting, century’s long investments of all kinds of American Protestants in world affairs, and contributes to this extensive and growing scholarship of American religious interests abroad. But her focus on the African and Middle Eastern context, and on international interactions in the last half century, offer narratives that bring forward a new and more complicated story of American evangelicalism at work in the world.
McAlister’s focus foregrounds a wide, and consequentially diverse, range of American evangelical actors, whose national, racial, political, and theological diversity frames a much wider and more complicated story of American evangelical work in the world. McAlister’s work also foregrounds from the first pages how interactions in diverse networks prompts American evangelicals to ask themselves critical questions about their actions’ and efforts’ complicity within American political and foreign policy interests, and how (or if) their interests can be disentangled. The Wisconsin pastor asks McAlister, “The question is, I suppose, are [evangelicals] present . . . for Kingdom reasons or simply to advance the interests of the American empire?” “It’s a good question,” McAlister observes.
Throughout The Kingdom of God Has No Borders McAlister shows us the complex and theologically rich ways American evangelicals seek to answer this question in action, and to get out from the entanglements and complicity their positions in the world nonetheless expose. One such on-the-ground answer comes in to arresting focus as McAlister and the Wisconsin evangelicals make their way from the Kenyan airfield to an impoverished town in southern Sudan. They are summoned to meet with the town elders who speak at length about their region’s many needs. The next day, accompanied by an armed security detail, they visit a Christian school staffed by African-Sudanese missionaries and funded by a member of the Wisconsin congregation. They stumble upon a blind man singing Bible-school songs in English. And they participate in daylong singing and prayer meetings, with sermons by both Americans and Sudanese preachers. And at every turn, McAlister is confronted by the grinding realities and consequences of war, disease, and poverty that surround and suffuse their interactions.
The pastor remains firm in his conviction that the American group is not there to be a checkbook. He is critical of and concerned about the old missionary impulse, where American dollars are exchanged for African spirituality. He understands that such an exchange would continue to feed a cycle of dependency that is demeaning to Africans, and he believes it must be upended. Even as the others in his group immediately begin to talk about sponsoring a health clinic, he seeks to find a world readymade, where Christians meet as spiritual equals, and where Americans learn (in the words of the oft-repeated phrase from the Book of Micah) what it means to “act justly and love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God.”
This determination to live out a humble walk with global Christians appears to many evangelicals as a more progressive approach, McAlister observes. Yet as it appears at one moment to shed itself of some forms of primitive orientalism, it is no less shaped by a longing for “emotionally powerful forms of religious experience [that Americans regularly identify] with Christianity in the global south.” “Walking humbly” may mark a way of meeting co-religionists on equal terms, but in these examples it also shows itself to deactivate—or flatten—a vision for understanding structural or political injustice. McAlister brilliantly connects this particular form of evangelical “enchanted internationalism” to what the anthropologist James Ferguson termed the “anti-politics machine” of humanitarian and development NGO work in Africa.
In locating evangelical affects as connected to this wider frame, McAlister offers valuable insight that challenges liberal evangelicals’ persistent hope that their co-religionists’ prolonged engagements in Africa and the Middle East will eventually lead to greater self-awareness and different, more equitable forms of advocacy and partnership. A progressive evangelical leader tells McAlister that if the California megachurch minister Rick Warren “keeps going back to Rwanda and bringing other people to Rwanda, eventually he’s going to have to realize that US trade policy [is an issue].” McAlister’s observations throughout this volume suggest however that the likely scenario is that Warren is well aware that trade policy is an issue, yet has determined that it is not his mandate to address it. The issue is not what evangelicals know about policy and politics or their complicity but rather how they interpret that knowledge and entanglement as part of a divine plan—that is, the unfolding of the Kingdom of God.
Theologically speaking, evangelicals across the political spectrum understand the Kingdom of God as both present in the world and yet to come. This motivating, orienting theological understanding profoundly shapes their interpretations of world events, their interests in politics, and their affective longings. McAlister’s focus on these impulses is more explicit in the book’s second section, where her focus is on the divine drama of the body of Christ, the rise of contemporary persecution and martyr politics, and the allure of spiritual warfare. In its basic forms, these conceptions signal what Richard Hofstadter defined as the “paranoid style,” wherein the world and its history are conceived as a single plot “set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade.” Many of McAlister’s interlocutors would shudder at the thought of being called paranoid, and many also find the tactics of prayer warriors and the cult of contemporary Christian martyrdom to be verging on heresy. But few, if any, would disagree that they (and by extension, all of humanity) are living in God’s time, or that God’s plan for the coming Kingdom is unfolding in ways that are not entirely discernable. Living in an “enchanted internationalism” allows them to imagine that the best way to further the Kingdom might be to “walk humbly,” to attend to the heart. And, to answer the question of complicity with a form of quietism.
At points I wished that McAlister had said more about how she understands the two political theological formations of spiritual quietism and warfare, humility and triumphalism, work together. Yet in many ways, this volume is written so as to work against an attempt to reframe this story in yet another simple plot. It foils any reader’s attempt to perform their own paranoid reading of evangelical efforts in the world. In this way, McAlister has given us an essential contribution in our increasingly strange and troubling days. Within this season when it is easy for everyone to feel a bit paranoid The Kingdom of God Has No Borders shows us how much there is to gain in refusing that style of approach, and indeed how necessary it remains to do the hard and challenging work of thinking and listening.