August 21, 2017 Editor

Kenotic Ecclesiology: Select Writings of Donald M. Mackinnon

John C. McDowell, Scott A. Kirkland, Ashley John Moyse, (editors), Rowan Williams (Foreword), Fortress Press, 2016

by Ron Dart

There has been a desperate and much delayed need to read and inwardly digest the poignant insights of Donald MacKinnon. Mackinnon has been ignored for too long, curtly dismissed as too eccentric or caricatured. This tendency has led to the virtual absence of MacKinnon’s insights in the broader faith community on substantive issues. There has also been a tendency to apply the notion of kenosis to either Christology or Christian contemplative anthropology. The sheer beauty and appeal of Kenotic Ecclesiology is the way the idea of kenosis is applied to the life of the church in a post-Constantinian and post-Christian ethos.

Kenotic Ecclesiology draws from two of MacKinnon’s contributions to the “Signpost” series that was published in 1940 (the searching vision is quite pertinent today, though) and his much later mid-1960s “The Stripping of the Altars”(with its searing and relentless questioning).The “Introductions” to the three booklets in the tome by John C. McDowell, Ashley John Moyse and Scott A. Kirkland bring together, in a compact and succinct manner, the congealed vision of Mackinnon and why his “Signpost” articles and “The Stripping of the Altars” are as significant today as when they were published a few decades ago. “God the Living and True”, “The Church of God” and “The Stripping of the Altars” have a prophetic and incisive bite that holds to the core issues and will not quit until the raw and painful realities are faced into with unflinching honesty and, at times, painful transparency.

Mackinnon had a unique and uncanny way of threading together theology, philosophy, literature and many other disciplines. It is quite obvious why, as a teacher of Rowan William, Iris Murdoch and many other significant writers, he is the oft hidden king. But, the real contribution of Mackinnon is the way he faithfully and consistently engages the nature of faith and the tragic. Obviously, MacKinnon is much too bright to slip into a simplistic and unrealistic Christian triumphalism. And, the way he ponders the layered nature of kenosis and tragedy is rare amongst most Christian intellectuals and theologians. Tragedy, as a literary, philosophical, political and theological insight goes much deeper and further than merely a pondering of suffering. Suffering can be tragic but there is more to tragedy than suffering. The task of threading together hope, kenosis and tragedy forms the backbone of much of Mackinnon’s far reaching approach to faith. Sadly so, the church is often quite unaware of such themes and Mackinnon’s unique approach to such reaching into the hard issues. I found MacKinnon’s dialogue between Greek and Christian thought on the tragic a needful reworking on the perennial Athens and Jerusalem horn butting or varieties of synthesis. Once the tragic in Greek theatre is brought to the fore and the tensions between the Greek tragedians, Plato and Christian thought collide, deeper places are gone to that one and all must face into sooner or later. It is significant that Rowan Williams’ recent book, The Tragic Imagination: The Literary Agenda, deals with such a timely and timeless theme.

The fact that Mackinnon in these three booklets of sorts touches on difficult issues where many often do not go does not mean he does not face into the way the church has often been co-opted by political and military power. Yet again, MacKinnon points the way for the church to go that does not pander or genuflect to political realism. But, in saying such, MacKinnon was no naïve idealist either. Again and again in Kenotic Ecclesiology we see the prophet MacKinnon caring so deeply for the church that he neither abandons her (as lesser souls do) nor uncritically doffs the cap to traditionalism or the establishment status quo—certainly not an easy tightrope to walk.

I must admit I found “God the Living and True”, “The Church of God” and, crowning these two pamphlets of sorts, “The Stripping of the Altars” compelling reads that both challenge and nourish the soul, mind and imagination. But, as mentioned above, it is MacKinnon’s genius and depth, breadth and rigorous engagement with kenosis and tragedy that is his real contribution to serious theology as it ever inches into the uncertain future.

There can be no doubt that with the publication of Kenotic Ecclesiology a phoenix-like resurrection of Mackinnon is afoot, and do we dare to hope that more of MacKinnon’s writings will be brought to the frontstage to both enrich and challenge the church?


Genre: Kenotic Ecclesiology
Subjects: Kenotic Ecclesiology, Ron Dart - reviewer, Select Writings of Donald M. Mackinnon
  1. [1]Please look at several articles as well on American/Western will to world domination by clicking on "Selected Articles: Western Aggression Backed by Western Media”. The series of articles is introduced thus:
    The Western allies never run dry of resources to support their global war of terror and aggression, ostensibly an integral part of their foreign policy. They dynamically legislate laws lest the people awaken. They have the unbending support of the corporate media, which skilfully distorts reality. When will they ever back down from their destructive quest for colonies? Read our selection below.
  2. [2]It continued:
    ‘For seven months, Tiger Force soldiers moved across the Central Highlands, killing scores of unarmed civilians – in some cases torturing and mutilating them - in a spate of violence never revealed to the American public,’ the newspaper said, at other points describing the killing of hundreds of unarmed civilians. ‘Women and children were intentionally blown up in underground bunkers,’ The Blade said. ‘Elderly farmers were shot as they toiled in the fields. Prisoners were tortured and executed - their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs. One soldier kicked out the teeth of executed civilians for their gold fillings.”   The New York Times confirmed the claimed accuracy of the stories by contacting several of those interviewed.  It reported: “But they wanted to make another point: that Tiger Force had not been a ‘rogue’ unit. Its members had done only what they were told, and their superiors knew what they were doing. “Burning huts and villages, shooting civilians and throwing grenades into protective shelters were common tactics for American ground forces throughout Vietnam, they said. That contention is backed up by accounts of journalists, historians and disillusioned troops… ‘Vietnam was an atrocity from the get-go,’ [one veteran] said in a recent telephone interview. ‘It was that kind of war, a frontless war of great frustration. There were hundreds of My Lais. You got your card punched by the numbers of bodies you counted.’ Current likely Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry was also quoted giving evidence before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971.  He reported that American soldiers in Vietnam had “raped, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country. Nicholas Turse [later author of: Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam], a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, has been studying government archives and said they were filled with accounts of similar atrocities. ''I stumbled across the incidents The Blade reported,'' Mr. Turse said by telephone. ''I read through that case a year, year and a half ago, and it really didn't stand out. There was nothing that made it stand out from anything else. That's the scary thing. It was just one of hundreds.'' Yet there were few prosecutions.
  3. [3]Historian John Coatsworth in The Cambridge History of the Cold War noted:
    Between 1960, by which time the Soviets had dismantled Stalin's gulags, and the Soviet collapse in 1990, the numbers of political prisoners, torture victims, and executions of nonviolent political dissenters in Latin America vastly exceeded those of the Soviet Union and its East European satellites. In other words, from 1960 to 1990, the Soviet bloc as a whole was less repressive, measured in terms of human victims, than many individual Latin American countries [under direct sway of US Empire] ("The Cold War in Central America", pp. 216 - 221).
    What was true for Latin America was true for around the world: massive human rights abuses, assassinations, regime changes of democratically elected governments, etc., etc., etc. orchestrated by US Empire. Yet Americans invariably have wanted it both ways: to be seen as the exemplary "City on A Hill" that upholds universal human rights and democracy, while operating a brutal Empire directly contrary to all such elevated values, and a concomitant rapacious Empire market economy that takes no prisoners. This began of course even before the founding of the United States of America and continued apace, in its mass slaughter and dispossession of indigenous peoples, in its brutal system of slavery on which its obscene wealth in the textile industry in the first place was built. "The Land of the Free" conceit was a sustained con job on the part of America's leaders. It was also apotheosis of hypocrisy. American exceptionalism was/is true in one respect only: it was brutal like no other Empire in its eventual global reach.
  4. [5]
  5. [4] The highlighted article about renowned whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg points to again what is utterly chilling, horror-filled, exponentially beyond immoral, American (hence the world's) reality: "Daniel Ellsberg: U.S. Military Planned First Strike On Every City In Russia and China … and Gave Many Low-Level Field Commanders the Power to Push the Button". [5]He has since written The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Of it we read:
    Shortlisted for the 2018 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist for the California Book Award in Nonfiction The San Francisco Chronicle's Best of 2017 List In These Times “Best Books of 2017” Huffington Post's Ten Excellent December Books List LitHub's “Five Books Making News This Week” From the legendary whistle-blower who revealed the Pentagon Papers, an eyewitness exposé of the dangers of America's Top Secret, seventy-year-long nuclear policy that continues to this day. Here, for the first time, former high-level defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg reveals his shocking firsthand account of America's nuclear program in the 1960s. From the remotest air bases in the Pacific Command, where he discovered that the authority to initiate use of nuclear weapons was widely delegated, to the secret plans for general nuclear war under Eisenhower, which, if executed, would cause the near-extinction of humanity, Ellsberg shows that the legacy of this most dangerous arms buildup in the history of civilization--and its proposed renewal under the Trump administration--threatens our very survival. No other insider with high-level access has written so candidly of the nuclear strategy of the late Eisenhower and early Kennedy years, and nothing has fundamentally changed since that era.
  6. [6]A classic instance of this aligning with "just war" is the United States' "war on drugs" as subset of "war on crime", while at the same time the CIA was a major worldwide drug dealer in league with other drug cartels -- all done to enhance American Empire during the Cold War -- and continues to the present. The four-part series mentioned below connects American Empire drug dealing to the current War on Terror, in particular in Afghanistan. This of course is colossal hypocrisy as well. Worse: the series posits American federal government administrations over many decades as the Ultimate Drug Cartel, with Blacks, Latinos, and generally the poor directly being knowingly poisoned en masse. Then they have been primary targets of the Drug Enforcement Agency, and thereby become victims of America's too often savage prison system that oppresses and brutalizes them all over again... See: "The War on Drugs Is a Failure, So [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions Is All for It". A citation from the article reads:
    In June [2017], the History Channel aired a four-part documentary series called America’s War on Drugs.” The series asserts that the war on drugs was actually a war of drugs—and that the CIA was essentially a partner in spreading drugs and drug use. The series follows how the U.S. intelligence agency, in an obsession with fighting communism, allied itself with U.S. organized crime and foreign drug traffickers and includes firsthand accounts from many involved. In an interview with Truthdig columnist Sonali Kolhatkar on her radio program “Rising Up With Sonali,” the series’ executive producer, Anthony Lappé, explains why the CIA got involved:
    It’s actually a pretty mind-blowing story when you look at the extent to which the CIA was involved with drug traffickers and drug trafficking throughout the Cold War. … If you look at Cold War policy against the Soviet Union, we were locked in a global battle for supremacy, where we have lots of proxy wars going on. … We needed to team up with local allies, and often the local allies we were teaming up with were people who had access to guns, who had access to underground networks, to help us fight the perceived threat of communism. There are actually a lot of similarities between what drug traffickers do and what the CIA does.
    Lappé elaborates by saying the hypocrisy of the war on drugs has been evident from the start: Secret CIA experiments with LSD helped fuel the counterculture movement, leading to President Richard Nixon’s crackdown and declaration of the war on drugs. The series also explores the CIA’s role in the rise of crack cocaine in poor black communities and a secret island “cocaine base.” In addition the documentary makes the connection between the war on drugs, the war on terror and the transformation of Afghanistan into a narco state and contends that American intervention in Mexico helped give clout to Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and the super cartels, making it easier to send drugs across American borders. Watch Kolhatkar’s full interview with Lappé by clicking here. Please also see the now classic: The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, by noted American historian Alfred McCoy. Of it we read:
    The first book to prove CIA and U.S. government complicity in global drug trafficking, The Politics of Heroin includes meticulous documentation of dishonesty and dirty dealings at the highest levels from the Cold War until today. Maintaining a global perspective, this groundbreaking study details the mechanics of drug trafficking in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South and Central America. New chapters detail U.S. involvement in the narcotics trade in Afghanistan and Pakistan before and after the fall of the Taliban, and how U.S. drug policy in Central America and Colombia has increased the global supply of illicit drugs.
    To be noted as well is Johann Hari's Chasing The Scream, which tells the tragic tale of America's long-standing offensive against drugs, and the way to end such a war worldwide -- that several nations are successfully embracing.


Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

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