To Change The World, Week Eight

To Change The World by James Davison Hunter
To Change The World


This week’s chapter focuses on the neo-Anabaptist strand in American Christianity.

When people are speaking about neo-Anabaptists, they generally have in mind people strongly influenced by theologians like John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwaus. They are best known for their commitment to pacifism, their focus on the problem of poverty and the need for justice, and their skepticism of non-church entities such as the state and the market — sort of a baptized blend of socialist and libertarian thought.

Hunter summarizes their basic critique of the church’s relation to culture like so:

“The problem today is that the American church is caught up in a dual allegiance to both Christ and the political economy of liberal democracy and consumer capitalism. Loyalty to this political economy is nothing less than idolatry.” (page 155)

And their pacifism is not just about non-warfare. It is usually much broader than that.

“For neo-Anabaptists, pacifism is the fundamental mark of Christian discipleship and the central ethical teaching of the gospel.… Anabaptists, of course, are perhaps best known historically for their pacifism in wartime. Yet war is not the central problematic but violence itself—broadly defined. This is why the state figures so prominently within the Anabaptist imagination. The state is the locus of self-legitimating violence and its very existence is defined by the exercise (or the threat of exercise) of coercion. Its power is always manifestly or latently coercive.” (pages 158, 159)

If that sounds awesome to you, you’re probably wondering why you’ve never heard of this perspective before. There’s a good reason:

[Neo-Anabaptism] is mainly known through its intellectual apologias; it plays out more in theology than in practice, more in political sensibilities than in institutional structures.” (page 150)

This seems almost inevitable given the instincts of neo-Anabaptist Christians. In Neo-Anabaptists and the Benedict Option, Jake Meador summarizes the predicament well:

To begin, the obvious problem for any religious tradition that defines itself in such essential opposition to the government but also, increasingly out of necessity, the modern market, is that if you preach repentance to Caesar (or the Wolf of Wall Street) and they say “OK, I repent,” you don’t know what to tell them.

I once read an essay which claimed you could understand most of the problems in the modern world if you simply grasped that Muslims do not know how to exist as a minority and Christians do not know how to exist as a majority. This latter point is what Meador is driving at. The neo-Anabaptists are good at critiquing existing structures but less skilled at crafting superior structures.

The neo-Anabaptists claim their message is prophetic but in its net effect (that is, in what people both inside and outside of the tradition hear), it is overwhelmingly a message of anger, disparagement, and negation. (page 165)

As a Pentecostal, I found this bit interesting:

The concept of “principalities and powers” bears some further reflection because of its importance to the neo-Anabaptist tradition. The concept refers to the institutional or systemic patterns of thought, behavior, and relationship that govern our lives and the spiritual realm that animates them. They were originally part of the created order and as such, were good. They were intended to mediate the creative purposes of God in the world, but like us they are now fallen. Rather than reflecting truth, they became adversaries of the truth. Rather than serving the aim of human flourishing, they came to dominate, coerce, and enslave humankind by claiming for themselves absolute power. They are “the rulers of this age” (1 Cor. 2:6). The power they wield is, at its source and in its consequences, demonic in character. (page 157)

Whether you consider yourself conservative or liberal, I encourage you to carefully reflect on these last three chapters (on the religious right, the religious left, and the neo-Anabaptists), seeking to gain sympathy for the positions you shy away from.

Which reminds me: I forgot to send the Christian critique of liberalism with last week’s readings. Sorry! Read the linked essay “The Problem With Liberalism” by J. Budziszewski, a Christian political philosopher at the University of Texas. In case you missed it, I sent his companion essay on conservatism with the chapter notes two weeks ago. My hope is that these critiques by Budziszewski will complement the readings from Hunter so that whether you lean left or right you’ll both find a chapter that describes your views fairly while also encountering a thoughtful critique of your tribe.

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