To Change the World: Essay 2, Summary, Part 2

[This series of posts won’t be a traditional book review. Rather, I’ll summarize parts of To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, and then I’ll add my own thoughts. I may criticize the book here and there, but I don’t have much to criticize.]

In response to the Christian Left and Right, there has arisen a neo-Anabaptist movement, led by such theologians as Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder.

It provides a credible, even compelling, script for those who find the account offered by Christian conservatives distasteful if not dangerous and the narratives offered by Christian progressives unconvincing and irrelevant. …

[The Christian Left] is committed to a strong State and is willing to press it to realize its agenda in law and policy, while [the neo-Anabaptist movement] keeps its distance from the State, maintaining a basic distrust toward its structure, action, and use of power.

Personally, I’m not all the way there, but I find much that appeals in the neo-Anabaptist movement. It’s certainly closer to the truth than the Christian Right or Left.

From the neo-Anabaptist perspective, Christians fail to understand Jesus at all if they fail to see him other than as he was: an agent of radical social change. …

The new humanity [Jesus] modeled also entailed a rejection of coercion and violence. … The temptation to exercise political power was always present and, in each case, he rejected it. More importantly, Jesus challenged and overcame “the powers.”


Typical of neo-Anabaptist thought is pacificism (one place where I part from the movement). The movement rejects all forms of coercion, violent or otherwise.

Instead,  the neo-Anabaptists contend that —

central calling of the church is to be a worshipping community. It is in the preaching of the Word, in the observance of sacrament, and in the practice of praise that the church achieves its highest purpose.

Hunter argues,

There is a separatist impulse here. Within the neo-Anabaptist conversation there is some dispute over how separatist it should be. Hauerwas doesn’t want people to withdraw from the world as much as he wants people to be Christian in it. What this means is left unclear. Younger voices, however, contend that Hauerwas is not nearly sectarian enough.

Hunter points out that, like the Left and Right, the neo-Anabaptists —

make no distinction between the public and the political. …

Yoder goes so far as to argue that the only suffering that has spiritual meaning is political suffering. …

Even though the nature of politics and political action in the church is an inversion of the prevailing powers of the present age, the language of politics still provides the meaning for the public witness of the church. …

The language of politics also provides the structure for the public witness of the church. For one, the active opposition to the powers (to war, globalization, and the like) is ultimately oriented toward changing political, military, and economic policy. Thus, even when the intervention is motivated by a desire to realize God’s peace and justice, the framework of operation is still a politics of this world. …

[T]he collective identity of the neo-Anabaptists comes through their dissent from the State and the larger political economy and culture of late modernity. Their identity depends on the State and other powers being corrupt and the more unambiguously corrupt they are, the clearer the identity and mission of the church.

Here’s the line to remember:

It is, as my colleague Charles Mathewes has put it, a passive-aggressive ecclesiology.

It’s not about being Jesus as much as not being involved in the powers of this world. It’s close, but it’s not all the way there.

The church depends on its status as a minority community in opposition to a dominant structure in order to be effective in its criticism of the injustices of democratic capitalism.

As I pointed out back in the series on pacifism, much of their theory falls apart when the church ceases to be in the minority. It’s easy to refuse to govern when you are an oppressed minority. If you are 85% of the country, and if you refuse to staff the police force, you’ve left the innocent defenseless, empowered criminals, and proved yourselves very unloving.

In the writings of the neo-Anabaptist theologians, there is little good in the world that deserves praise and no beauty that generates wonder and appreciation. … [Their message] is overwhelmingly a message of anger, disparagement, and negation.

It is, of course, true that the Christian Right stands against some truly evil things in this world. The Left is right to be concerned with the poor and oppressed and discriminated against. And neo-Anabaptists are right to flee the temptation of political power and assimilation into American consumer culture. But there’s more to Jesus than politics — and we can’t define our Christianity in terms of politics. Jesus didn’t save us so we’d gain power over others using the tools of the state. And he didn’t save us to retreat from the world.

It’s entirely possible to think in terms that are neither political nor anti-political — and we miss a goodly part of the scriptures unless we do. Ressentiment is a sinful attitude, whether it’s ressentiment against secular humanism, the Christian Right, or the government. Jesus was a victim, but a willing victim. He didn’t seek redress for his suffering.

The early church wasn’t about getting justice for Jesus. Nor was it about withdrawal from the world.

And it’s entirely possible to have a public voice without having a political voice. The Right and Left need to learn that there are no political solutions for many of the problems they care about.

There are no comprehensive political solutions to the deterioration of “family values,” the desire for equity, or the challenge of achieving consensus and solidarity in a cultural context of fragmentation and polarization. There are no real political solutions to the absence of decency or the spread of vulgarity. …

The belief that the state could help us care more for the poor and the elderly, slow the disintegration of traditional values, generate respect among different groups, or create civic pride, is mostly illusory. It imputes far too much capacity to the state and to the political process.

Hunter wraps up the essay explaining power in more honest terms than we usually find in Christian literature —

Some one, some group, some institutions will always have more capacity to act than others and some one, some group, and some institutions will always have a great capacity to acquire resources than others. … Cumulatively, this means that human relations are inherently power relations. Power saturates all of social reality and unless a person lives in complete and utter isolation from others and the things they provide, it is impossible to remove oneself from the complex dynamics of power and what power provides.

Therefore, the neo-Anabaptists cannot accept powerlessness, because there’s no such thing. Indeed, a community of believers strongly committed to the teachings of Jesus would be and is a very powerful thing.

The creation mandate, then, is a mandate to use that power in the world in ways that reflect God’s intentions. …

The question for the church, then, is not about choosing between power and powerlessness but rather, to the extent that it has space to do so, how will the church and its people use the power that they have. How will it engage the world around it and of which it is a part?

I would add: Jesus rejected political power — in the sense of becoming an earthly king. So should we. But Jesus was a man of great power — and his friends and enemies both recognized it. The remarkable thing about Jesus is how he chose to use his power.

Hunter ends the essay with this astonishing statement —

What is wrong with [the Anabaptist’s] critique is that it doesn’t go far enough, for the moral life and everyday social practices of the church are also far too entwined with the prevailing normative assumptions of American culture. Courtship and marriage, the formation and education of children, the mutual relationships and obligations between the individual and community, vocation, leadership, consumption, leisure, “retirement” and use of the time in the final chapters of life — on these and other matters, Christianity has uncritically assimilated to the dominant ways of life in a manner dubious at the least.

Oh, wow … and amen.

[Note: this summary skips important portions of Hunter’s second essay. Buy the book.]

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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6 Responses to To Change the World: Essay 2, Summary, Part 2

  1. John says:

    An early Christian writer, Tertullian, claims that pagans often make the comment 'See how these Christians love one another'.

  2. Gary Cummings says:

    A lot of truth here Jay,

    I live in the Shenandoah Valley of VA surrounded by traditional Mennonite. I would say that over 90% believe that our president is a socialist, that Bush was a godly president, that God is more concerned about Israel than the rest of the world, and that the "Left-behind" paradigm is the cat's pajamas. I was asked by the pastor of a Mennonite Church to leave, as I would not be comfortable there, since I voted for Obama.

    Hauerwas and Yoder are voices of fresh air in a stagnant traditional Anabaptist culture. I dare say the original Ananbaptists would shudder at the cultural and political accommodation of the current batch of people who call themselves Anabaptists.

  3. Tim Archer says:

    I guess I’m close to the neo-Anabaptist view, even though I'm never fond of labels. What I think we need to see is that Christians refuse to take power under the world's terms. That is, Christianity exercises power on its own terms.

    The most powerful move that Jesus made was dying on the cross. There is great power in love and service, but they will never be perceived by the world as power.

    I'm interested to read more. Hope to read the book soon.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  4. Tim Archer says:

    Did you know that Richard Beck is currently analyzing the same book? You wrote about the same section:

  5. Jody B says:

    Jay you said, "Instead, the 'central calling of the church is to be a worshipping community. It is in the preaching of the Word, in the observance of sacrament, and in the practice of praise that the church achieves its highest purpose'.”

    Not quite sure I agree here at all. I can't exactly articulate the argument at the moment, but I figured I'd at least call your attention to the fact that none of those "points of purpose" include provoking one another to love and good works. Just seems like we're going back to formal worship patterns and orthodoxy as being the hallmarks of the church. Not what I expected to find here.

  6. Jay Guin says:


    That language is in quotation marks — it's Hunter's summary of neo-Anabaptist thought.

    I've edited the text to set off the quote to make that more clear.

Comments are closed.