I don’t review many Christian books on the blog here, but I recently finished a collection of essays from the JusTice initiative called Carnival Kingdom. I’m going to mention this one because I love the premise of the book: it’s all about working for social justice by being ‘positively subversive’, drawing on the cultural theory of the carnival.
We have one of the biggest carnivals in Europe in Luton, where I live, and I took my three year old son down to it this summer. We saw the dancers and the parade, but for him the highlight was being able to walk down the middle of the road, the crowd oblivious to the traffic lights blinking red at the junctions. On carnival day, I explained, you can walk in the road. The people dance in the street and barbecue on the kerb, and just for one day the cars come second. Carnival is a time for freedom and irreverent celebration, when social norms and hierarchies are overturned.
And that, say the authors of Carnival Kingdom, is more what the church ought to be like. “It is generally easy to spot a Christian devotee” says Joel Edwards in the introduction, “we are the disapprovers. We have a tendency to panic and be very ‘concerned’. We show up with the humour of undertakers at a birthday party.” Instead, the church should be able to feel the pain of the world, but still see it“through spectacles of hope and evidently serve a God who turns sorrow into dancing and puts a song into the heart of a slave.”
Jesus certainly saw his ‘kingdom’ as one that overturns hierarchies, as Carol Kingston-Smith describes: “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.
In cultural studies, there is a whole theory around the carnival, with Mikhail Bakhtin as the central figure. He believed the medieval carnival was a time when power structures were challenged and subverted, but through laughter and satire rather than through violence. He noticed the power of subversive humour in his own experiences in Russia in the 1920s, and how new possibilities and hope can emerge from a ‘festive perspective’ of the world. That’s an intriguing lens to view the church through.
It’s also an appealing one, and one we can use at a practical level. The call for justice is central to the Bible, but that doesn’t necessarily mean confrontation and protest, though there is a time for that. Marijke Hoek’s essay here offers a theology of change that is rooted in everyday life, where “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistorical acts by people who lived faithful hidden lives”. She urges us to work with anyone who shares a cause for justice, building relationships and community as we “hold out a vision of wellbeing for the wider society and bring shalom in the place of brokenness and hopelessness.”
The church needs inspiring visions of justice like this, because we live in a time of major challenges – inequality, climate change, and profound individualism. The book addresses some of these specifically. Green economist Molly Scott Cato learns from the festive spirit of the Levellers and the English civil war, drawing lessons for our own challenge of transitioning to a fairer and more sustainable society. Martin and Margot Hodson look at climate justice. There are essays on migration, postcolonialism, and Mats Tunehag’s contribution argues that the church should engage in entrepreneurialism and job creation.
As well as subversion, carnival is also a time for diversity and colour. In Luton that means Polish, Irish, Jamaican, English and Pakistani communities all in the same space, hearing each other’s music and sampling each other’s street food. In the book, it means a range of global contributors and a broad range of themes – with essays from the Philippines, India, Peru, Sweden, and one even takes its inspiration from the Shire in the Lord of the Rings.
Carnival Kingdom is a colourful and chaotic jumble of ideas, exactly as it should be. It’s a call for justice, but also for play; for action, but also imagination.