To Change the World: Part 4, What About Those Anabaptists?

In our last post discussing James Davison Hunter's book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, we discussed Hunter's observation that one of the tragedies of contemporary Christianity (in America at least) is that both the religious Right and the religious Left have come to be characterized by ressentiment, narratives of injury. These narratives of injury are tragic for three interrelated reasons: 1) Ressentiment forces Christians to politicize their faith and associate it with political ideologies, 2) Ressentiment causes Christians to define their collective identity around feelings of injury (they see themselves as being victimized by other groups, 3) Ressentiment leads to the demonization of and struggle against (a largely political struggle, see #1) other ideological groups.

In short, pushed by ressentiment the Christian witness and identity becomes increasingly hostile and negativistic. A victim and siege mentality takes hold. And, to fight back, the Christian community struggles to grab political power to protect itself and way of life. According to Hunter this turns Christians into "functional Nietzscheans," a community defined by a "will to power" (a power needed to defend themselves against "those people").

The ressentiment of the religious Right comes from feeling victimized by modernity and liberal humanism. The Right feels injured because its way of life is threatened by the secularism found in Darwinian evolution, the dissolution of the family, abortion rights, gay marriage, and so on. More, the Right feel victimized by liberal cultural elites who dismiss them as intellectually backward, redneck and racist.

The ressentiment of the religious Left comes from its slow decline in American public discourse. During their heyday in the 40s, 50s and 60s, mainline Protestant churches were a cultural force. Liberal theologians like Tillich and Niebuhr were public intellectuals weighing in on all manner of cultural and political issues. Now, mainline churches are in decline, increasingly impotent and irrelevant. More, they see the religious Right growing in strength and political influence. There is a ressentiment on the Left about the Right getting to represent "Christianity" in the culture wars. Further, the Left sees how much sway the religious Right has with the GOP. While the Left identifies with the Democrats they don't feel they have a similar stranglehold on their party. Again, this leaves them feeling powerless and marginalized.

This, then, is the ressentiment of the Left and the Right. The Right fights against liberal humanism. And the Left fights, in the twilight of its former glory, against the growing influence of the Right in setting the cultural "Christian" agenda.

But Hunter's analysis doesn't end here. There is a third, vibrant Christian group out there: The Anabaptists. Who is this group? And have they managed to find a path past the ressentiment of the religious Right and Left?

The Anabaptists (and those who affiliate with them, ecclesially or theologically) have been profoundly shaped by the work of the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, in particular his epic book The Politics of Jesus. A central tenet of Anabaptist theology is the Constantinian heresy, also called Christendom. According to the Anabaptists, Christianity became corrupted when the Roman emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Empire. Up to that point, Christians, as a marginal and powerless group, were able to faithfully live out the Sermon on the Mount, a life and witness very much in contrast with the violence of Empire. But in the wake of Constantine and the establishment of a "Christian Empire"--called Christendom--Christians, now holding power, had to make critical concessions. No longer could the Sermon on the Mount be followed literally. Thus, Constantinian theologians stepped in to reconcile the teachings of the radical, peasant rabbi with the gilded halls of power and affluence. The two, you might expect, didn't fit well together. So Christianity became diluted and corrupted. More, Christianity became an instrument of the state. Being a good Christian meant being a good citizen and a flag waving patriot. Jesus and the Empire were now one and the same.

You might see in all this a parallel between Constantine and Christianity in America today, the quest to keep or create a "Christian Nation." Anabaptist theologians are keen to critique this Constantinian impulse amongst American Christians.

This critique of a "Christian Nation" makes the Anabaptists natural allies of the religious Left as they critique the growing influence of religious Right. And, at times, it can be hard to distinguish between the Left and the Anabaptists. But good Anabaptists will take pains to put distance between themselves and the Left. The Left remains too political for the Anabaptists and still compromised by Empire. Anabaptists are, after all, pacifists and the Left, being Niebuhrian, are not. In short, the Anabaptists would like to say to both the Left and the Right (although they have more sympathy for the Left): "A pox on both your houses!"

So maybe the Anabaptists can escape the ressentiment and "politicization of everything" that has tragically captured both the religious Right and Left. Is this the path through to the promised land?

Hunter says no.

His reasons for this conclusion are twofold. First, Hunter feels that the Anabaptist experience is also characterized by ressentiment. Their "narrative of injury" revolves around Constantinianism. Feeling injured by Christendom, Anabaptists define themselves as being over against a corrupted Constantinian church. This "againstness" is succinctly captured by Stanley Hauerwas's formulation that "the first task of the church is to make the world the world." That is, the church's job is to clearly mark where the church ends and where the world begins. And we can see the reason for this: It prevents the Constantinian dilution of the Sermon on the Mount. As much as Christendom wants a splash of water in that glass you have to drink that whiskey straight.

But the problem here, as many have noted, is that this formulation seems to make Christendom a prerequisite for the existence of the church. That is, the church starts being defined as the rejection of a prior Constantinian compromise. This, Hunter suggests, is the source of Anabaptist ressentiment. Defining oneself via a narrative of injury. In this, Constantine (then and now) is the injury and the church defines her existence in opposition to that.

Hunter's concern in all this is that the Anabaptist impulse is better at articulating what it is against than what it is for. Further, by defining its identity in relation to Empire (even if negatively so) Anabaptists continue the trend toward the "politicization of everything." In all of this, according to Hunter, the Anabaptists, while different, start to look a lot like the religious Right and Left.

A second, related problem with the Anabaptists, due to their "againstness" of the world ("make the world the world"), is that they can struggle with being world-affirming when this is needed. For example, Anabaptists often offer harsh criticisms about capitalism and market economies. Fine, they make a lot of good points about consumption, inequity, and economic exploitation. But what are the alternatives? Particularly if you eschew political participation to fix the situation? Further, Anabaptists can be charged with hypocrisy in various cases, seen as benefiting and participating in the very institutions they criticise. To fend off these criticisms and reduce complicity the Anabaptists, as Anabaptists will do, will pull inward, creating pious and separate communities that are self-sustaining and, of necessity, separate from "the world." This is the sectarian strain in Anabaptist thought and practice. The trouble with this move is that the church abandons the world to "be the world" and gives up on trying to change the world for the better. What is the Anabaptist going to say to the Christian Wall Street trader? The Christian business owner? The Christian police officer? The Christian mayor? The Christian lawyer? The Christian who works at WalMart or McDonald's? The Christian oil rig worker? The Christian poultry farmer? Or the Christian actor or artist?

The conclusion for Hunter is that, while different, the Anabaptists are very similar to both the religious Left and Right. All three are characterized by ressentiment and all three have failing notions about how Christians might "change the world" for the better.

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4 thoughts on “To Change the World: Part 4, What About Those Anabaptists?”

  1. I'm not a full-on anabaptist. I think that that some of what Hunter points out is legitimate here. But its interesting to me that for all the "over-against-ness," the anabaptists/hauerwasian's are writing a lot of the interesting books on culture. They're actually paying attention, and its not only over/against (see, Stephen Long, Rodney Clapp, Phil Kenneson, etc). More, when I read a guy like Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, an anabaptist, I feel embarrassed by how little I engage the world.

    And I think they're leading the conversation because evangelicals/fundamentalists have a naive view of culture and mainliners are still stuck in the Niebuhr typologies, either for or against.

    So, for all the criticism of the anabaptist tradition as an insular ghetto, I wonder if they might not be the most prolific contemporary theological tradition in terms of cultural engagement. At the very least, they are hardly head-in-the-sand sectarians.

  2. I agree. I mean, what was Tokens all about? Lee Camp was a student of Yoder's, right?.

    I'm summarizing Hunter's argument in this post, not endorsing it. I think his critique of that anabaptists is the weakest part of the book (although still interesting and correct in a lot of places). It's almost as if he wrote the book to critique the Left and Right (where his argument works well) and then someone said, "What about the anabaptists?" and then he had to go back and work hard to fit them into his overarching model of criticism. It's not the first time a scholar shoehorned everything into an overarching theory.

    Overall, then, I think his argument works for, to coin some words here, the paleo-anabaptists, but it fails with the neo-anabaptists you discuss.

  3. I've found this series wonderfully enlightening so far, but I can't help but ask. Are you going to discuss alternatives to the narrative of injury?

  4. In the next and final post I'm going to sketch out Hunter's positive recommendations, what he calls "faithful presence."

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