Isaac S. Villegas
MWR Book Review
A Neo-Anabaptist Vision?
James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2010).
In his analysis of Christian witness in North America, James Davison Hunter discusses a movement he names “Neo-Anabaptism.” The heart of the neo-Anabaptist vision, Hunter explains, beats against all forms of Constantinianism, which is a way of talking about the unholy union between Christianity and the powers that control the world.[i] Constantinianism continues today in the Christian Right and the Christian Left, Hunter observes, as these groups use their faith to regulate our society.[ii] Neo-Anabaptists reject those options because “coercive rule over others is contrary to what it means to be a believer.”[iii] Instead of legislating justice and righteousness, neo-Anabaptists imagine themselves “as an alternative community that manifests a new form of social relations.”[iv] The trouble is, according to Hunter, their identity is not rooted in anything positive about the world, but in “a discourse of negation;” it’s a “world-hating theology.”[v] Neo-Anabaptist communities justify themselves by criticizing the way power operates in the wider society, thus inviting the temptations of Nietzschean ressentiment — a “political psychology” of envy and revenge sustained by stories of being victims.[vi]
With the neo-Anabaptists, Hunter agrees that Christians must “disentangle” the church’s identity from American identity.[vii] Yet, he criticizes neo-Anabaptism for its inability to affirm the world. According to the neo-Anabaptist vision, “there is no good in the world that can be affirmed,” Hunter argues, “no delight in anything that is not the church.”[viii] For Hunter, Christians should affirm life’s gifts by participating “in the art, music, literature, commerce, law, and scholarship” of the world.[ix] Hunter’s vision is rooted in a “theology of faithful presence” that calls for Christians to inhabit “spheres of influence” across society in order to “seek the welfare not only of those of the household of God but of all.”[x] According to Hunter, to follow the lead of the prophet Jeremiah, who calls Israel to seek the welfare of our cities, obligates Christians to occupy the sites of world-changing power.[xi] Once in these positions, Christians will inevitably wield coercive power over others: “coercion is unavoidable because at times it is necessary [as] a means to achieve a lesser of various evils.”[xii]
Rather than the overt Constantinianism of the Christian Right and the Christian Left, and rather than the world-hating theology of the neo-Anabaptists, Hunter invites Christians to insinuate themselves into all of society, especially the “high-prestige centers of cultural production.”[xiii] Christians should sidestep the debates around legislation and party politics, and instead work within the institutions that shape culture.[xiv] The church should be “the connective tissue” for those who “permeate elite networks, status systems, and the lager cultural economy.”[xv]
Although Hunter is clear that his description of Neo-Anabaptism doesn’t refer to the “tiny denominations” of modern Anabaptists,[xvi] his criticisms may be relevant to some Mennonite identities. The liturgical musician Mary K. Oyer notes that Harold S. Bender’s “The Anabaptist Vision” had the effect among church leaders to intensify conversations about sacrificial discipleship while diminishing the role of the arts in the Mennonite community.[xvii] Was this a symptom of what Hunter calls “world-hating theology” within Anabaptist traditions?
The world-hating theology of neo-Anabaptism, according to Hunter, grows from the work of John H. Yoder, mediated through Stanley Hauerwas’ writings. Yet Hunter offers a flimsy account of both of their theologies. Hunter shows his confusion when he claims that Karl Barth helped Hauerwas articulate an expansive neo-Anabaptist vision: “Hauerwas’ theological debt to Karl Barth,” claims Hunter, “has given him a much stronger appreciation for liturgy, the Eucharist, and for catholicity.”[xviii] This is a strange misunderstanding, if one is familiar with Barth’s theology or Hauerwas’ major work, With the Grain of the Universe, where he suggests “that Barth is not sufficiently catholic” because Barth doesn’t seem to think “the church is constitutive of the gospel.”[xix]
A further peculiarity: Hunter builds his model for Christian social engagement on Jeremiah 29, the same basis for Yoder’s church that lives “For the Nations.” If Yoder is fundamental for what Hunter calls “The Neo-Anabaptists,” then it would have been helpful for Hunter to explain how his vision for faithful presence differs from Yoder’s description of the church’s “incarnational processes” that are forms of “creative presence” in the world.[xx]
The fundamental difference, it seems, between Hunter and Yoder has to do with social location. Hunter wants Christians to occupy the places of institutional power in society because “change nearly always occurs from the ‘top down.’”[xxi] Yoder, on the other hand, believes in the power of “creative minorities” on the underside of society,[xxii] “lost in the earth, filtering away without being seen or heard…creating a subterranean reservoir of saving and invigorating power.”[xxiii] In stark contrast to Hunter, Yoder argues that “if you see things from below, you see them as God does… [B]eing on top of the heap consistently keeps one from seeing things as they are.”[xxiv]
Where Hunter argues that the future of this society and our faith has everything to do with having friends in the high places of cultural power, people who come to Anabaptism via Yoder hear a call to find “friends in low places,” to borrow from Garth Brooks’ song.
In proper Anabaptist style, Hunter will be allowed the last word. In defense of top-down power, he notes that Paul, the great missionary to the Gentiles, was “a man of incredible privilege… a rabbi of high pedigree, from a wealthy trading city… with all the advantages of Roman citizenship… and elite networks.”[xxv] Where would Christianity be without such cultural power?
(An edited version of this review was published in The Mennonite World Review as “Change from above or below?“)
[i] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2010), 153.
[ii] Ibid., 154.
[iii] Ibid., 160.
[iv] Ibid., 158.
[v] Ibid., 108.
[vi] Ibid., 107.
[vii] Ibid., 184.
[viii] Ibid., 251.
[ix] Ibid., 3.
[x] Ibid., 254, 276.
[xi] Ibid., 257.
[xii] Ibid., 193.
[xiii] Ibid., 274.
[xiv] Ibid., 281, 41.
[xv] Ibid., 270.
[xvi] Ibid., 151.
[xvii] See Rebecca Slough, “Following the Way, Seeking the Truth, Loving the Life,” in Rebecca Slough and Shirley Sprunger King, eds., Nurturing Spirit Through Song: The Life of Mary K. Oyer (Teldford, PA: Cascadia, 2007), 27-28.
[xviii] Hunter, 152.
[xix] Stanley Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2001), 145.
[xx] John H. Yoder, “Sacrament as Social Process: Christ the Transformer of Culture,” Theology Today 48.1 (April 1991), 44.
[xxi] Hunter, 41.
[xxii] John H. Yoder, “Exodus and Exile: The Two Faces of Liberation,” Cross Currents (Fall 1973), 308.
[xxiii] John H. Yoder, The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1971), 158.
[xxiv] John Howard Yoder, “The Burden and the Discipline of Evangelical Revisionism,” in Louise Hawkley and James C. Juhnke, eds., Nonviolent America: History Through the Eyes of Peace (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 1993), 35.
[xxv] Hunter, 259.