Unarmed Empire: A Book Review

Unarmed Empire: A Book Review

Sean Palmer loves the church. This is a theme Sean returns to often in his book, Unarmed Empire: In Search of Beloved Community. [1] His stories will feel familiar to other lovers of the church. However, even without drawing our attention to it, Sean’s love of the church churns through every page of this book. Because only a person who loves the church writes a book like Unarmed Empire in the first place. Someone who loves the church with that schmaltzy sentimental sort of fuzzy love that tries to erase all flaws and smooth all jagged edges couldn’t write this book. This book will frustrate someone who wishes to look at the church with all the imperfections airbrushed out.

Someone who has fallen out of love with the church couldn’t write this book – although many have attempted to write a similar book, struggling to mask their wounds and vitriol under the mask of “church reform”.

Sean’s also been wounded by the church. He’s very open about those wounds. But he’s also been healed by Christ through participation in the church. That’s where a book like Unarmed Empire comes from. It must be written by someone who loves the church with the clear-eyed vision of a prophet, the quiet confidence of a mystic, and the careful delivery of a preacher. But mostly, it must be written by someone who loves the church.

Unarmed Empire doesn’t trace an argument as much as it casts a vision. Or at least, you don’t always know that it’s making an argument. The argument sort of spins itself through storytelling, Scripture, cultural critique, and prose. But all that spiraling begins to come into focus as a vision of church becoming what it was always meant to be, and too rarely is--a community centered on reconciling relationships with God and each other and extending the love of God into the world. And it’s a vision whose goals cannot be achieved outside of the love of Christ and a commitment to the way of life we’ve learned from him.

This ancient vision feels particularly relevant against the current cultural milieu, which Sean also textures into his chapters. North America is a polarized country. The unhealed wounds of racism are raw and exposed. 2016 provided us with the most contentious political election season in recent memory, and social media and television ensured no one could just “sit this one out”. People are feeling lost, disconnected, and caught in the crossfires of “culture wars” with no clear winners and losers. If ever there was a time for the church to be the church, surely it is now!

Unarmed Empire reveals that The Way of Jesus is still the way forward for the church, even in such times as these.

One thing I love about Palmer’s storytelling is that the grace of God keeps showing up in the places where you least expect it. One minute I’d think Palmer was playing to my biases and beliefs only to discover--nope! He was inviting me to lay down those biases and love the Other. Other times I found myself standing on the outside of the story only to discover by the end--there is room in here for me too! Unarmed Empire calls for an end to all divisive, community-destroying behavior, and for a commitment to the path of love and reconciliation that transcends and includes all categories of people. It also demonstrates this new alternative with its own storytelling.

If you love the church, I think you’ll appreciate this book. If you once loved the church, but the church broke your heart, I think you might appreciate this book. It’s a vision for church that sounds like death and resurrection. Not escapism. Not scorched-earth starting over. Not ten more strategies to learn and a new conference to attend. Just the body of Christ, blessed, broken, and shared with the world in which we find ourselves.

Note: The author shared an unedited copy of the manuscript of this book with me for review.

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[1] Sean Palmer, Unarmed Empire: In Search of Beloved Community (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017).

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