To Change the World V: On Liberals, Anabaptists, and Anarchy

(system) #1

This is the fifth post in a nine-part series for the SPECTRUM Summer Reading Group. The nine posts will be drawn from the chapters of To Change the World by James Hunter. You can find the reading schedule here.

My four person interview to see if I was worthy of a full scholarship to medical school was going well. But, a doctor on the panel sized me up, found me wanting, and was about to demonstrate my deficiency. With a knowing smile, he asked, "If you were an elected official what would you do about urban poverty and access to health care?" I was stumped. As a young, conservative, rural American, extreme urban poverty had always been someone else’s problem. In addition, growing up in a sheltered Adventist community with Anabaptist roots, my only question regarding healthcare access was which parts of the hospital were essential to keep open on Sabbath.

I sat in silence. The seconds slipped away along with my chances at nearly $100,000 of financial assistance. Finally, I mumbled something about usually being more conservative, but that I would consider raising the minimum wage and start government funded health clinics. He raised his eyebrows in disbelief as my hopes sank.

I didn’t get the scholarship. But, the power of that question began to break through the barriers preventing me from seeing the other. I realized that, as a young medical student, my Adventist mix of conservative and neo-Anabaptist perspectives was so impoverished that I had not given any serious thought to the actual problems facing God’s creation.

After faltering over my own political ignorance, I began to more seriously consider questions of poverty, race, access, inequality, and justice. The result was an increasing disenchantment with the free-market social Darwinism extolled by the religious right and an appreciation for the Biblical perspective of the religious left. In fact, by the middle of the Bush years, I well understood the corrupting sensation of ressentiment Hunter describes in chapter four where he quotes Jim Wallis, “It feels sometimes that our faith has been stolen in the public arena. And when your faith is stolen, it’s time to take it back.”1

Given the loaded phrase, "take it back," it was evident then and even more so now following Hunter’s argument that Jim Wallis and the religious left are the flip side of James Dobson’s religious right political machine--co-opting the power of their religious communities for partisan purposes. From our Adventist perspective, we are very sensitive to this Constantinian error. Yet, ironically our intra-faith disagreements are beginning to take on the same rhetoric and methodology of political power which our end time eschatology has taught us to fear.

This leads to Hunter’s main critique of the neo-Anabaptists, and by extension Adventists, who he says attempt to separate from politics but still use political rhetoric. He claims we have a passive-aggressive ecclesiology consisting of an overly negative assessment of the world and a need to define ourselves in relation to others by demonizing them. This being the case, our message may become, as Hunter says, “overwhelmingly a message of anger, disparagement, and negation.”2 Unfortunately, this stance all but ensures that we will remain a culturally irrelevant minority since, as he maintains, we depend on our minority status to be effective in our critique of the injustices and evils of politics, society, and culture.

One of the leading critics of current political excess is Shane Claiborne, who Hunter labels a neo-Anabaptist. Only he isn’t. Shane says, “I don’t really fit in the old liberal-conservative boxes, so it’s a good thing we are moving on to something new.” He goes on, “I am a radical in the truest sense of the word: an ordinary radical who wants to get at the root of what it means to love, and get at the root of what has made such a mess of our world.”3 My guess is he would find the term neo-Anabaptist inspiring but entirely too restrictive and not nearly radical enough. Brian McLaren writes, “Sometimes I think there is really only one Christian denomination in America: American civil Religion--a consumerist, militarist, therapeutic, colonial, nationalist chaplaincy that baptizes and blesses whatever the richest and most powerful nation on the planet wants to do. But then I hear a voice like Shane’s, and I know that at least a few follow another leader on a less travelled road.”4

My main issue with Hunter’s work in chapters four and five is that while he takes great care to define the religious left and neo-Anabaptists, he draws the target too wide, causing his critique to miss the mark. Indeed, he offers Brian McLaren as an example of the religious left; but, I don’t think Brian would concur with this label. Brian writes, “In my view, the old conservatism and the old liberalism created the strong-hostile and weak-tolerant forms of Christian identity I'm critiquing.... Neither created the strong-benevolent identity I think we need.”5 He calls this strong benevolent Christianity, “a third option: how to have a strong Christian identity that is benevolent toward other faiths, so the stronger our faith commitment, the more we love, welcome, respect, protect, and enjoy the other.” 6

So, if Shane and Brian aren’t neo-Anabaptists or Liberals, what are they? Well, for one thing they are postmodern and so slicker than a couple of greased watermelons in a pool full of political elites trying in vain to label and contain them. Yet, if I had to assign them a role based on the eclectic, humble, transitory, progressive nature of their writing, and the way they seek to break through the layers of encrusted impediments created by powerful institutions and misused religion, I would avoid the common controversial permutations on emergent and instead use an even more provocative metaphor: They are anarchists! (Minus the bloodthirsty violence associated with the term my neo-Anabaptist background is quick to add.)

American anarchist Hakim Bey describes what he has called “Temporary Autonomous Zones,” or TAZs. “They were places that were liberated - for a time - from the distant authorities.” 7 The most famous of these TAZs was Libertatia - real or imagined - it was a place where the shackles of poverty and oppression were literally cut off, where different races and languages were united in their struggle against the empire that sought to enslave them, and where, Kester Brewin evocatively paraphrases the Apostle Paul, “there was neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.” 8

Sound familiar? This is an apt description for the Kingdom (or Kin-dom) of God. To extend the metaphor, the church is called to the continual ongoing creation of new TAZs in the Spirit of Jesus. He is the One who refused to compromise with the powerful elite, committed terrible heresy against the religious leaders and power of Rome, sacked the money-changing tables and died on a cross. The incarnation itself is an act of anarchy. Through his life, controversial teachings, and subversive miracles, Jesus broke through the blocked orthodoxy of the religion that was meant to be a blessing to all. The kingdom of God is a TAZ that is totally outside the bounds of religious law. In these ephemeral visions of the Kingdom of God, Jesus revealed the true kernel of religion that had been nearly lost.

Unfortunately, the followers of Christ have instituted a religion just as blocked and calcified as any other. The initial radical method and ennobling intentions have been forgotten. In the same way, revolutionaries become just as violently oppressive and greedily self-serving as the imperialists against which they rebelled. Even the most progressive organizations forget their idealistic beginnings and through attempts to ensure the continuation of the organization end up undermining their founding purpose by failing to support the next generation of progressives who are deemed too controversial to be safe.

In order to combat this inevitable perversion, we must remember that the church is meant to clear TAZs with the emphasis on temporary. For any attempt to make the church a power structure in perpetuity will undermine its humble beginnings and prevent it from fulfilling its ultimate purpose which is to create openings for God’s Kingdom to illuminate our present and serve as a temporary place holder for the breathtaking fulfillment of God’s Kingdom to come.

Insofar as we forget our calling to be a blessing to all nations by providing temporary zones of freedom from partisan conflict, violent oppression, and stifling legalism, we will tend to exacerbate the problem of dividing people and blocking others ability to be fully human. Adventism in particular has sought to help us find and appreciate our wholeness. And yet, as Hunter points out, religious movements from the left, right, and Anabaptist traditions have sought to change the world through exercising political power and rhetoric. In the process, they have created and sustained rather than challenged and broken-down the systems and barriers that obscure our vision of God, separate us from one another, and even divide us internally from the core of what it is to be human.

If we have been divided amongst and within ourselves, it is the enclosures of capitalism, liberal democracy, and even institutional Christianity that have created many of these separations. The true vision of a shared commons is the spiritual gravity that draws us out of individualism, away from selfishness, above the demeaning pursuit of profits, beyond the denigration of the marginalized and into a common Spirit-filled community based on love and mutual interdependence. Even if just for a moment.

1. James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 143.

2. Ibid, 165.

3. Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 20.

4. Ibid, intro.

5. Brian McLaren, First Review of “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road” (, 2012) (accessed 7/13/2012).

6. Brian McLaren, I need your help... (, 2012) (accessed 7/13/2012).

7. Kester Brewin, Mutiny! (Self Published, 2012), 47-48.

8. Ibid., 28.


Brenton Reading is a pediatric interventional radiologist. He writes from the Kansas City suburb of Shawnee, KS where he lives with his wife and their three children.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at