James Davison Hunter on Yoder, Hauerwas and co

In his important and big book on Christianity and culture To Change the World: the irony, tragedy and possibility of Christianity in the late Modern World James Davison Hunter turns his attention to the neo-Anabaptists.

This will be a longer post on what is a significant chapter.

The main difference, he says, between Christian Left and neo-Anabaptists is their attitude to the state. The former seek to use and transform it to aid justice, the latter have an innate distrust of political power. Similarities are an intense dislike of the Christian Right and a highly sceptical view of Western capitalism.

Neo-Anabaptism has its roots in radical Reformation, the rejection of hierarchy and of the structures of Christendom, and the vision of authentic Christian communities. If the Anabaptist tradition is still found in Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites etc, the neo-Anabaptist movement is wider – drawing theologically on Anabaptism’s vision for how to engage the wider 21st world.

Two names best known names [to me anyway :)] are the late John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas.

And let me nail my colours to the wall here – I have great sympathy for the Anabaptist tradition and huge admiration for contemporary exponents like Stanley Hauerwas. I find him a truly prophetic voice; an authentic voice; an honest voice; an inspiring counter-cultural voice who articulates the deeply subversive nature of what it means to follow Jesus in late Western culture. You don’t have to agree with all he says to see that we need prophets like him.

Hunter is right to say that it is not that neo-Anabaptists have no interest in changing the world, but that they have a fundamentally different vision for how to do so.

Main characteristics:

1. Constantinian Error: While Jesus announced and inaugurated the upside-down-Kingdom of God, the story of the church since Constantine has been anything but radical – one where it supports and has been too often corrupted by the status quo. Rather than being radical it became conservative, power-obsessed, wealthy; a custodian of a civil religion while simultaneously losing its prophetic voice to fight for the weak and the vulnerable.

And this submission of the church to the state is nowhere seen more starkly than in the story of capitalism. So dominant has capitalism become, the state’s role and even existence depends on propping it up. [This is right – have you noticed it is our patriotic job to be good consumers so as to help the Irish state survive?].

Capitalism oppresses the poor; panders to greed and selfishness; destroys the environment; leads to a global financial crisis; promotes an insatiable desire for more; replaces God with things as the chief goal of desire. And the American church is up to its neck in sanctifying capitalism. Thus says Hauerwas, ‘God is killing Protestantism and perhaps the church in America, and we deserve it.’

2. The identity of Jesus: big important neo-Anabaptist themes revolve around Jesus. Authentic Christianity will be marked by

the way of the suffering servant who gives up his life for others

the rejection of force and coercion

– a Jesus-like challenge to the political and spiritual powers of the day. The concept of ‘powers and principalities’ is important here. Governments have overstepped their mark, becoming an end in themselves, demanding wholehearted allegiance. Yoder says that the spiritual grip of the powers must be broken. Jesus defeated the powers, his followers are to be free from their grip. Such a calling is communal – when the church is fulfilling its calling it will bear the brunt of the hostility and disdain of the world. The Christian response is one of forgiveness and peace.

a free church that embodies authentic Christian community as a counter-culture to the world. That refuses to endorse and participate in the power structures of the world and is therefore committed to non-violence.

3. The church versus the world

Flowing from this is a strong antithesis between church and world. The present world order is broken, rebellious and violent. Over against this the church is to be the visible foretaste of the kingdom, marked by baptism, Eucharist, preaching, forgiveness, service, peace, justice, love. Hence Hauerwas and his ‘Resident Aliens’ theme. The first and greatest task of the church is to be the church.

So to Hunter’s critique.

His main gripe is that neo-Anabaptism, in a strange parallel to both the Left and Right, still frames its vision in a deeply political way. Discipleship to Jesus is equated with social non-conformity. The very identity of the movement is drawn from opposition to the Christian Right, to the State, to capitalism. The vision for the church is framed against that of the sinful world. It is a ‘passive-aggressive ecclesiology’ – one which depends on the status of the church as a marginal minority community fighting democratic capitalism.

And in tone, the movement is negative. Negative about the world, negative about the failures of the church and its compromises with Christendom, negative about the idolatry of the Christian Right and so on. Hunter uses words like ‘anger, disparagement and negation’ as well as a ‘relentless hostility to all that is not God’. Shane Claiborne gets a mention as an example of the perfectionist, pietistic and separatist tendencies within neo-Anabaptism. In this way, Hunter concludes, neo-Anabaptist joins the ‘politics of negation’ that so dominate American contemporary culture.

Yoder when alive rejected such criticisms, as does Hauerwas today. The church living as an alternative community living a different way of life poses ‘a fundamental challenge to the way of the world’. Far with being pietistic and separatist, such a way of life is deeply political and is radically engaged with culture as it offers a foretaste of the kingdom to come.

We’ll get to Hunter’s own proposal for what he calls ‘faithful presence’ in the next post.

So is this a fair summary and critique of neo-Anabaptism?  Do you agree with its main themes? Why?

My tuppence worth: it seems to me that Hunter is not so much dissenting from any of the three key themes described above, but from the tone and political focus of the movement. It also seems unpersuasive to criticise a movement for being shaped by what it opposes. All theology is contextual, all reform movements are by definition seeking to change the status quo.


2 thoughts on “James Davison Hunter on Yoder, Hauerwas and co

  1. This is, once again, a very interesting and helpful posting. Thank you very much, Patrick. I am no way an expert in the field of “neo-Anabaptistism” but I think the convictions these people hold have an awful lot to say to the church in western culture today. And I agree with much of it. It is thrilling to see how at many places followers of Jesus start new movements and communities that focus radically on him as Lord and Saviour and thereby challenge the world as we know it. I guess their testimony will gain enormous strength when the current economic and socio-political crisis continues and gets more severe – which is pretty likely.

  2. Hey Holger – great to hear from you! Yes, if the economic crisis [Ireland’s viability as a state seems to depend on you Germans now :)] has exposed the myths and unsustainability of endless consumerism, it also poses a big challenge to Christians to be counter-cultural.

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