I am on my second reading of James Davison Hunter’s outstanding set of essays on American Christianity, To Change the World. The book is a serious attempt to explain how Christians have tried to engage, largely unsuccessfully, with culture, and is a description and critique of those efforts made by the Religious Right (Falwell, Dobson et al.), the progressive Christian left (Wallis, Campolo et al.) and the neo-Anabaptists (Yoder, Hauerwas, Claiborne, et al.) themselves to critique American culture but also (especially in the first two cases) to influence it. This is done in terms of a sociological understanding of the role of culture, history and power, and is particularly good on detailed analysis of each position and where the reality and the myth adhered to by each position is self-defeating. It is wonderfully referenced – a book you need two bookmarks for, to keep tabs on the references – and I am heading, I suspect, for a third reading before I try and apply it.
The book is structured in the form of three essays, each with several chapters and at some stage I will review it, because it is one of the most helpful and carefully argued pieces of sociological reflection that I have come across about the church. And whilst it does not have immediate traction with the situation that the British church finds itself in, there is enough sociological exposition, enough common ground and enough in the way of expounded scriptural principle to be highly useful to my own work as an educator and as a leader of a church school.
I have found the exposition of the neo-Anabaptist position particularly helpful, partly because I had not really understood its position and impact – I knew about Yoder’s Politics of Jesus and Hauerwas & Willimon’s Resident Aliens, and had links to Mennonite community friends in South Africa. And of course, through Wendell Berry and David Kline, I have become more aware of the theology of the Amish. But seeing it laid out clearly as one of three distinct positions, but without ignoring the nuances within its broader common stance, has been very helpful.
Hunter’s critique of the neo-Anabaptists is honest, and where they themselves critique capitalism and contemporary culture he does not take issue, as their critique is well-founded. Neither does he demur at the pacifist stance, as he is as much a critic of the Constantinian church-state stance of both the religious right and the progressive left among Christians as are the neo-Anabaptists.
Where this becomes particularly interesting in Hunter’s work is in his analysis of how political we have all become in our choice of how to influence and shape the world and its culture. He argues that since the New Deal of the 1930s, those seeking change have primarily looked to politics as the means of effecting that change. Because we have all grown up with this, we do not see it as anything strange. But it is strange, and it is limited; worse, it tends to domination of others (Nietzsche’s will to power) because of the nature of current political discourse. The corollary of this is that what is regarded as public becomes more and more the domain of the political. Wendell Berry tackles this obliquely in Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community insisting that there is a middle way between private and public that is communal, arguing that the community sets particular standards (a consensual authoritarianism) that govern and facilitate good social and economic relationships within a geographic location.
The upshot of all this is that the state becomes the arbiter of what is acceptable and right in a community, appropriating to itself certain ethical approaches that serve mostly to defend the state, and which are defended in turn by the state’s coercive power. It merges with and defines civil society – Anabaptist theology would see this as the coercion and co-option of the principalities and powers in the life of the world. Hunter writes:
Even when the church distances itself from formal alliances with the political establishment but still operates within civil society, it engages a version of the Constantinian alliance. The reason is that civil society is not a free space independent of the State’s coercive and compromising reach. The State has permeated civil society to such an extent that the two are mostly indistinguishable. Indeed the State has effectively co-opted any efforts in education, science and technology, human welfare and the professions to effectively prohibit them from acting contrary to the State’s interests (p154).
In other words, the State (as a “power”) first of all protects itself and uses all the arms of the state, including education, in that effort. This is an interesting light in which to see current reports in the news this weekend that certain “illegal schools” (that concept for a start is very worrying!) are teaching children ideologies that directly threaten the security of the British state. Of course the state takes to itself the right to defend itself, and we hope (don’t we!) that the state knows more or less what it is doing. The ongoing debate about British values and the PREVENT strategy against radicalisation is at one level the state defending itself by ensuring that people “think right.” At another level it is the coercive force of the state saying that in order to be a part of civil society in Britain today, you need to adhere to these directions of thought and practice. For those to whom the right to educate their children has nothing to do with the state (again, the Amish come to mind), there is a dilemma. Many Muslims deeply resent the PREVENT agenda – not just because it targets them by name but because it is a state intrusion upon a realm that to them is not political, but religious and communal. In this case, the criteria for judging whether the state has overstepped its limit is NOT whether the education in an “illegal school” does or does not meet British values, but whether it does harm to people. These may be the same thing, but may not.
How does the church, then, act out a healthy opposition to the reigning powers, that are largely demonic but which serve to keep order in the world? And is this the same sort of action that a church school – maintained and therefore already co-opted in the grand “powers” scheme of domination – can take? And should we? What of value to God, to ourselves and to children do we lose when we find ourselves co-opted by the state to do their bidding? In this blog I have argued long and hard for a healthy opposition to the powers-that-be, on pragmatic, theological and philosophical grounds. We cannot know whether what the British state is doing for children through its education system is good for them. The general outcome and position of our common society suggests at first glance that it is not, and if it is, then it is not powerful enough to heal our society from the frenetic and rootless ills that currently beset it.
More research and reflection is required. In the meantime, I will jump to the end of Hunter’s book and give the game away.
After rejecting the three traditional Christian political approaches of “defence against” (the religious right), ” relevance to” (the progressive left) and “purity from” (the neo-Anabaptist position) the prevailing culture, Hunter argues for a “faithful presence within.” This is much closer to Tom Wright’s position and to one that many Christians in the UK have already settled upon, partly because we are a much less Christianised culture than the US. It is a presence marked by shalom wholeness in life and faith and to nature. In proposing a new “city commons” Hunter recognises that for all the truth of the neo-Anabaptist critique of contemporary culture and politics, there is much that is good in it and much that is honourable that many strive for. Our contribution is therefore “a commitment of the community of faith to the highest ideals and practices of human flourishing in a pluralistic world” (p279)
There is going to be much more from this book over the months ahead, and much to be reflected on in the way we do church school in the midst of our confused and rootless society.