What does it mean to be a disciple?

This is a question that James Alison addresses in his talk Discipleship and the Shape of Belonging. He begins (following an extended introduction) with an observation about how we read the word “discipleship” in the first place:

My guess is that when you heard the word “Discipleship” in the title of this conference, and of this lecture, you intuited, for however brief an instant, that it was “Christian Discipleship” or “Discipleship of Christ” that was to be discussed. And, at least as far as this talk goes, you were right. But isn’t it strange that a word which is in itself object-neutral has come to acquire a quick-flash association with Christ? In principle, at least, discipleship could be of any model at all: Ho Che Minh, Ethel Rosenberg, Marian Anderson or Saladin.

As Alison continues, the use of the word “disciple” to describe Christ’s followers has distorted the meaning of the word:

as though there is a special form of religious following called discipleship which is an especially good thing and different from any other form of following.

Instead, Alison suggests, “there is no such thing as not being a disciple”:

Discipleship is not, in the ordinary run of things, a voluntary option. It is, on the contrary, a necessary precondition for being a viable, socialized adult human being.

This is because “discipleship” is about following someone, imitating them – and imitation of others is what humans do. Alison continues:

We are massively competent imitating machines, and from the very first time our mirror neurons get fired in our infancy, which they do by adults doing things which we can see, we repeat, and imitate endlessly. It is others, whom we imitate, who induct us into gestures, into language, into developing a memory, and thus having the beginning of a sense of self over time. It is others who fire off in us what enables us to develop the very elaborate forms of social interaction which constitute human culture.

Hence “we are all, and without thinking about it, prone to discipleship”. Our personal identity and social belonging are both inextricably linked with these processes of reciprocal imitation.

However, this reciprocity can turn sour. Imitation can quickly come to be seen as rivalry (perhaps by both the imitator and the imitated), with the result being conflict and ultimately “a mutual casting out into the outer darkness with each party being convinced that it was the other who started it”.

This is what makes discipleship of Christ fundamentally different: “it undoes reciprocity”:

Gratuitous benevolence has started to turn reciprocity on its head. He has done something for us which no one could ever repay, or return. And he is not remotely interested in our repaying or returning it anyhow. What he asks us to do is to multiply the gratuity, by doing other gratuitous things to and for others without any hope of repayment.

Hence Jesus’ call for his disciples to “to create gratuity rather than expect reciprocity” (Luke 14:12-14) and “not to engage in expected negative reciprocity” (Matthew 5:38-39a, 43-45).

Thus we are enabled “to start to live as if death, fear, ignominy and shame were not” – a process which we call “the forgiveness of sins”.

What I especially appreciate about Alison’s presentation here is the way in which he integrates two aspects of Christian teaching which can sometimes seem separate: the promise of the forgiveness of sins on the one hand, and the deeply challenging commands of Jesus to embrace gratuity rather than reciprocity on the other.

“Personal forgiveness” and “kingdom living” can sometimes be seen as being at odds, with some Christians or traditions feeling more comfortable with one or the other. However, both are about living “as if death, fear, ignominy and shame were not”, in imitation of the one who has “rendered [death] moot” for us by “having occupied the place of shame and death without being run by it”.