Christian Anarchy and Reconciliation: A View from the Pulpit
“We believe that everyone—political figure or commentator, citizen or alien, man or woman, black or white, conservative or radical—who at this particular time says that this people and this nation are in deep, perhaps irremediable political trouble, speaks the truth.” —Will D. Campbell and James Y. Holloway
Some words come back, decades later, with haunting relevance. Back in the 1960s, these two southern churchmen, Will Campbell and James Y. Holloway, co-edited the journal of the Committee of Southern Churchmen, called Katallegete—Be Reconciled. A collection of their essays from that journal was published in 1970 under the title Up to Our Steeples in Politics (Paulist Press), from which these words are taken. They’re eerily timely, and yet manage to unsettle any and all complacent contemporary political assessments:
Stated simply, we believe that the fundamental crises in our land rise from the obsession with politics, the faith that the political order is the only source and authority from which we can and ought to seek relief from what ails us as a community and as individuals. Because there is in our land no real challenge to these obsessions, we believe that our crises will deepen, perhaps even beyond a point of no return … (p. 111)
In 1970, they were calling into question what they termed the “political messianism” of Christian liberals. Nearly forty years later, it seems the Christian Right took the bait and has been for two decades the more successful purveyor of this apostasy—the belief that we are called to create via political action what the New Testament claims God has already accomplished for us in Christ: reconciliation. Liberals, however, haven’t abandoned such messianism themselves; they’ve just been outflanked lately.
We can live as if we are reconciled, even before our politics catch up, even before we agree, even before we approve of each other, even when some refuse to see it yet.
Yet with the Christian Left now resurgent in the wake of the Right overstretching in Iraq, it is worth considering ways in which Campbell and Holloway’s warning goes both ways. They identify an error that Christians of any stripe risk when they trust Caesar over Christ. Such misplaced trust confuses politics—a means to an end, which is justice—with the end itself. Despite flowery theological or biblical rhetoric energizing the church’s political action, the church falls under Caesar’s yoke to the extent that the church trusts Caesar to do its bidding. “Surely our calling as Christians is not summed up by a vapid, pathetic and generally ineffective effort to inject morality and high-mindedness into political activity,” write Campbell and Holloway. Ouch.
And they go on: “Is obedience to Christ exhausted by immersing oneself in Caesar’s definition of politics? Is witness to Christ’s victory uniting all men best made by service to what Caesar judges as the urgent issues of our times? Might it not be that Caesar himself is confused, or is lying?” (p118). Caesar lying? Was this written in 1970 or last week? Why would we think that we participate in anything but a lie when we dip our feet into politics?
The error is not in taking political action, but in trusting that action too much—or trusting it wrongly. When power corrupts, it corrupts the innocent as well as the cynical. It distorts the language we cherish, taking deeply rendered Christian themes of reconciliation, justice, mercy, compassion, and righteousness, and using them in the name of issues and enterprises not our own. Do we need more evidence than our nation’s recent foreign adventurism, couched as it is in the language of Christian conscience? To free ourselves from this distortion, we must work as hard to change the subjects that dominate political debate as we work to sway opinion about the subjects we are handed by the powers that use us more than hear us. To Christian conscience, perhaps national security or preservation of American values should not take priority over compassion and justice for the poor and weak. The church has no borders, after all.
I realize that in making this point I’m stretching credulity, for one of our most difficult challenges in the American church is deciding who, at the beginning and end of all of this, is “us”? Are we Americans, Christians, Christian Americans, or American Christians? To what “we” are we preaching? Every time I step into the pulpit I must remind myself that my people are complex creatures—power brokers as much as victims, well-meaning citizens seeking to do good as much as baptized believers yearning for another commonwealth. We are caught up in the myths of the American nation-state as much as we are partners in a borderless world church. “We” are mostly Americans, yet in solidarity with brothers and sisters at the Eucharistic Feast; “we” are also Palestinians, Chinese, Ugandans, Mexicans, Iraqis, and more. In the pulpit, I must never say “we” without identifying which “we” I imagine, and I must gently stretch my hearers’ views of their own definition of “we.”
Campbell and Holloway remind us of two things: that iconoclasm can be a vital current within orthodoxy, and that a healthy dose of sectarianism in the church’s social witness might be healing. They write in a great and too-often ignored tradition of Christian anarchy, and they apply their anarchic impulse to many areas of Christian social concern. This impulse can be described as a refusal to acknowledge any monopoly of secular means over holy ends. It is a refusal to confuse economics with commonwealth, process with peace, schooling with knowledge, development with justice, commerce with community, progress with hope, relentless pursuit of happiness with joy. Most recently, Protestants like Jacques Ellul and Roman Catholics like Ivan Illich have reminded us about the power of this tradition of Christian anarchy. They remind us that trusting techniques of human invention as primary vehicles of the divine will amounts to idolatry, and should be treated as such.1
Does this Christian anarchy demand that we retreat from the “real world” and refuse to “make a difference”? Are we to hold ourselves up in Christian enclaves, relying on what the world can give us but not making any contribution toward the common good of those who don’t share our enclave or speak our language? I don’t think so. I do not read here a counsel to withdrawal but a counsel to reset our terms of engagement. We are to engage and wish peace upon the city and work for it as best we can. But as noted above, we are not to trust it too much, or like it too much, or confine our desires to its standards too much, lest we begin to confuse it with our home. When we mistake it for our home, I dare say we’re no blessing to it at all. We’re simply useful.
God’s Politics vs. National Politics
Campbell and Holloway are working within the kind of distinction Stanley Hauerwas described a few years later. The distinction is between a political church that seeks to produce justice within a polity gone wildly off kilter and irretrievably distant to the ways of God, and a church that is first a peculiar politics, giving witness to the justice that God has already accomplished in Christ (beyond and more powerful than economics and politics, and passionately nonviolent). We are called to give witness to what we begin to see—that God has already reconciled the world in Christ. And so reconciled, we need no longer kill each other because we are afraid, or angry, or belittling, or prejudiced. We can live as if we are reconciled, even before our politics catch up, even before we agree, even before we approve of each other, even when some refuse to see it yet. And by so living, we will humble the political for the sake of a new politics, God’s politics. And we might effect in time some of the very reconciliation we claim.
Well-meaning Christian citizens have told me this view is naïve in a world such as ours, distorted as it is by sin. They’ve counseled me to preach realism instead, even a Christian realism. And I’m trying to hear their pleading. I want to be a useful preacher to folks who have power in the world to “make a difference.” They want to be confirmed in their beliefs and challenged to develop. They want Christian perspectives on the news of the day or on policy issues related to the environment, schools, civil rights, foreign affairs, and more. I want to be helpful to them, for they’re in church for good reason and want to do what’s right. I will keep trying to help them along their way. Yet I still find something deeply lacking in my intent, something nagging at my anarchic conscience. Even as I find myself preaching in the hallways of civil, academic, and economic power, I am restless for something far more radical and far more political than what responsible Christian citizenship can ever encompass. I find myself wanting to preach a more profound reconciliation, as cryptic as it might seem to some. What is more “real,” after all, than what the borderless church sees, and does, and proclaims? And what is more “real” than what the church says God has already accomplished for us in Christ? And what is more “real” than suing for a peace that is deeper than the peace that politics can give, and joining with others to live that deeper peace quite despite the assurances of wiser heads that such living is not only impossible, it is dangerous?
I once visited with a wise older friend who had recently retired from a noble and eventful ministry. On the wall of his home was a framed sermon. I asked him why it was framed. It was the first sermon he preached to the president of the United States, he told me. It was from the first of several visits a sitting president made to his church. The framing made an impressive piece of memorabilia, though it surely represented only a small slice of his ministry. I might have framed it too, were I him. I shouldn’t pretend that I am free of my own nationalism. Yet, where Christian anarchy reigns, a sermon to a president is no more noteworthy than a sermon to an AIDS worker, homebuilder, or almsgiver. Anarchy refuses to make an idol of power.
If I am hearing the Bible, I must think twice before submitting to the subtle restrictions I accept when I become a chaplain to the reigning order—be that reigning order military/industrial, commercial, political, economic, or even religious; be it conservative, liberal, radical, or moderate. The church must live within the reigning order wisely and use its goods for holy purpose, but we must also work to resist the empire’s logic and question ways the empire tells us we are to be the church. We must still sow seeds of a more fundamental dissent. We must imagine an alternative order and invite others to join us in the imagining. And we must count the cost. I want to believe we can.
1. See Jacques Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity, new edition, tr. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991); David Cayley and Ivan Illich, The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich (House of Anansi Press, 1995).
Wesley Avram is pastor of Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church in Bryn Mawr, PA. From 2000-2006, he was Stephen Merrell Clement-E. William Muehl Assistant Professor of Communication at Yale Divinity School. He is editor of the book Anxious about Empire: Theological Essays on the New Global Realities (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004). An earlier version of this essay appeared on www.quicktolisten.org.