This looks like a good one…

Just last month, American professor of religion, culture, and social theory James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World was published by Oxford University Press, and it looks really, really interesting. The book contains three essays. The first points out that culture is not merely formed by individuals or artifacts, as is commonly believed among people agitating for change “from the grassroots,” but also in significant measure by institutions and elites, and that consequently attempts to change culture must be able to work their way into positions of power within these institutions and elite groups. The second essays is a critique of the politicization of three major groupings within American Christianity: the Christian Right, exemplified by James Dobson; the Christian Left, exemplified by Jim Wallace; and, perceptively, what he calls the “neo-Anabaptists,” represented by Stanley Hauerwas. I’ll say more about this bit later. The final essay provides an alternate model for engagement with culture, which Hunter calls “faithful presence” – an endeavour less forceful and teleological than those of the three groups he critiques.

There’s an interview with Hunter about the book in Christianity Today, along with a pair of responses from writers Hunter critiques as well as a review of the book in CT’s sister publication Books & Culture.

Here’s an excerpt from the interview in which Hunter explains why American Christianity is politicized:

All Americans think about power primarily in political terms. We tend to conflate our understanding of public life with political life; they occupy the same symbolic space. Politics involves the mechanisms of the state. Over the course of the 20th century, all Americans—and Christians, not the least—have turned more and more to the state to solve their problems. That’s true for the Left as well as the Right. Since law is the language of the state, we should note that law increases as cultural consensus decreases.

The state is the sole legitimate source of coercion and violence. When Christians turn to law, public policy, and politics as the last resort, they have essentially given up on a desire to persuade their opponents. They want the patronage of the state and its coercive power to rule the day. What makes this problematic, in my view, is that the dominant public witness of the church is political, rooted in narratives of injury and discourses of negation. The sense of deprivation among Christians leads to an ethic of revenge, or what Nietzsche called ressentiment. In different ways and to different degrees, the prevailing political theologies in American society today—the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and even the neo-Anabaptists—partake in that ressentiment and consequent will to power. And here’s the tragic irony: Whenever Christian churches and organizations partake in the will to power, they partake in the very thing they decry in society.

I think there’s probably some good theological grist for the mill here, in terms of how the politicization of Christianity and its resort to law in its public witness is an abandonment of the grace that liberates us from the law (which, after all, brought death).

And, from Andy Crouch’s review of the book in Books & Culture, explaining why the neo-Anabaptists are also implicated in the politicization of Christian thought:

In a trenchant analysis of the three most coherent Christian social movements of our time, he finds a shared fixation on politics, and on power conceived narrowly as political. Exhibit A, of course, is the Christian Right, which perennially survives the predictions of its demise. It is driven by nostalgia for Christian dominance and moral coherence. Exhibit B is the Christian Left, less well-organized but still vigorous, and driven by a desire for economic justice (and abhorrence of the Christian Right).

And Exhibit C, shrewdly presented, is the “neo-Anabaptist” faction carrying on the thought and work of John Howard Yoder, driven by a distrust for the ungodly violence of the market and the state. This last exhibit is Hunter at his best, arguing that in the very ferocity of their dissent from state power and Christian collusion with it, the neo-Anabaptists end up defining themselves in political terms just as much as the partisan movements they seem to oppose.

Ultimately, I think the charge against the neo-Anabaptists probably sticks to Hauerwas better than it does to Yoder. There’s just more of that ressentiment in Hauerwas, and Yoder’s work probably actually provides a model for the “faithful presence” Hunter advocates. But as someone who is immersed in a community that is more aligned with the neo-Anabaptists than anything else, this critique really rang true to me. I constantly hear that the kind of radical peacemaking of Jesus is an act of resistance against the evil empires of the state and big business, and that if we do it right we will “change the world.” This is exactly the kind of Nietzschean ressentiment and will-to-power that drives both the Christian Right and Christian Left.

So I’m hoping to read this one myself, and if I do, I’ll definitely post my thoughts on it when I’m done.


3 comments on “This looks like a good one…

  1. I’m not sure I can get on board with making a distinction between public life and political life. Does the author make any significant distinction other than the bare assertion that politics is the mechanism of the state?

    I’m also not sure I can get on board with the idea that law is the language of the state. I’m pretty sure that law was the language of God when his people were relatively independent tribes.

    Maybe the author has a decent explication of these ideas in the book. What say you?

    • Theophilus says:

      I’m inclined to sympathize with your critique of Hunter’s use of the word “political”. It looks like he’s using it to refer strictly to the politics of the state, which is a narrower definition than you generally encounter around neo-Anabaptists. (And I know you spend some time in our company.)

      But the whole business with law being the language of death actually has a decent case, even if it was the language of God. The motif of “law = death”is a recurring theme in Paul, taking pride of place in Romans, and appearing again in 1 Corinthians 15 and Galatians 3. It is also a logical consequence of the “better covenant” of Hebrews 8. This is not to say that the Law is bad, or even that laws in general are bad, but rather it is to say as Christians we have a better way made available to us.

  2. Julia says:

    Is this sort of ressentiment perhaps inevitable when the state apparatus is as highly visible as in the US? As a Canadian Anabaptist, I have noticed a marked difference between my communities and our American counterparts.

    A peripheral but important correction: the relationship Hunter here posits between ressentiment and will to power is, well, wrong. Will to power is not a consequence of ressentiment; rather, ressentiment is the reactive form of the will to power. Nietzsche also imagines a non-reactive form, one of nearly kenotic creativity. I say this only because I see Nietzsche’s conception of the active will to power as a helpful alternative to a power that comes from resentment and defensiveness. Nietzsche can be an unlikely ally in imagining an alternative sort of power.

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