By Matthew William Brake
My friend Jack Holloway wrote a blog not long ago on Anabaptist theology, critiquing it as an apolitical, “peace at all cost” theology that denies black experience and the need for participation in political systems by those who have been oppressed and are seeking systemic justice. Anabaptists commit so strongly to nonviolence in principle that they refuse to allow the real, material experiences of oppressed peoples to inform their theology.
There are certainly many things about Jack’s blog that commend it to those who might appreciate the critique of Anabaptist theology through a lens of Black Theology, and I would encourage you to read it.
However, there is an imprecision in Jack’s argument that bears some further reflection, for Anabaptism, like most sects and traditions, has its own share of diversity. To characterize all Anabaptists as politically withdrawn, “peace at all costs” idealists who deny the role that black experience might play in informing theology’s engagement with worldly politics is an oversimplification (Drew Hart might be a counter-example to Jack’s assertion).
Where I think Jack’s critique has bite is with Neo-Anabaptists—those conservative evangelicals who came to faith in an era when “real” Bible-believing Christians supported the Moral Majority or the Christian Right, but later adopted many of the so-called “apolitical” social teachings of the Anabaptist tradition. I grew up in this world, and I thought getting George W. Bush elected into the White House would transform the U.S. “back” into a Christian nation. However, I imagine that the story of many neo-Anabaptists is a lot like mine: while we were strong advocates for the alignment of evangelicalism with the Republican party, the mishandling of the Iraq War acted as a moment of awakening. Between all of the talking points and contradicting public statements, I began to rethink the relationship between my Christian faith and my political loyalties.
It was around this time that I discovered books like The Myth of a Christian Nation by Greg Boyd that planted the seeds of my apolitical orientation. My mantra become, like that of many neo-Anabaptists, “All politics of the world operate by manipulation and violence. Jesus’s kingdom is different.” While my newfound Anabaptist leanings allowed me to “speak truth” into the surrounding culture, I would no longer vote or support the “corrupt system of worldly politics” in any way. I would attempt to live into Jesus’s alternative politics of nonviolence. The church in the U.S. had screwed up by getting too cozy with secular politics, and I had gotten caught up in the frenzy, which led me to support a world-disrupting war that I now regretted. I was going to make sure that I never made that mistake again.
Why the Watcher Only Watches
Uatu the Watcher made his debut in Fantastic Four #13 (1963). He is a part of one of the oldest and most advanced races in the cosmos. Ages ago the Watchers decided to share their knowledge with the other sentient beings in the universe; however, their first attempt was a complete disaster. The culture they shared their technology with annihilated itself. The Watchers, filled with guilt over the role they played in the death of that race, vowed to never interfere in another world’s development ever again. Instead, they would simply watch and record the goings-on in the universe.
The collected trade paperback for the event series Original Sin begins with the explanation that it wasn’t simply any Watcher who encouraged the sharing of their advanced technology with other races, but Uatu’s own father. This drives Uatu to search the multiverse, seeking a reality where Uatu’s father’s plan did not end in devastation–to no avail. One gets the impression he is searching for a universe where his father’s meddling did not end in disaster in order to give himself permission to intervene in the events he constantly observes, but his search merely confirms that intervention by the Watchers in the affairs of the universe lead ultimately to disaster.
I, too, feel like Uatu. I wish that I could find an example of Christians having access to the seat of political power that didn’t end in devastation and the corruption of the Christian faith; I haven’t yet found any reasons to be hopeful about a healthy interaction between the Christian church and secular politics. Neither the Orthodox East nor the Catholic West provides me much comfort. The Reformation brings to mind John Calvin’s Geneva and the burning of Michael Servetus at the stake for being a bit too theologically unorthodox. The Puritans’ “manifest destiny” was no good news for indigenous peoples or the theologically unaligned. And in our own day, the Moral Majority and the Christian Right gives me even greater cause to deny that the mixture of Christian faith with secular political power is in anyway “good” news.
Neo-Anabaptist thinkers and practitioners like Greg Boyd and David Fitch flaunt their “apoliticism,” and I have to say that I DO understand. Like Uatu, we’ve seen the destruction that “our people” have wrought by embracing political power (roughly since Constantine), and I contend that a lot of evangelicals who supported the Christian Right have become Anabaptist or Neo-Anabaptist and have done so out of a guilty conscience over past interference in politics and the subsequent violence that has stemmed from it.
Nick Fury and Getting Our Hands Dirty
Original Sin’s plot picks up when Uatu’s body is discovered dead on the moon. Leading the investigation is Nick Fury, the former Director of S.H.I.E.L.D
Later in the story, we find out that prior to Uatu’s death, his home was broken into. When Fury arrives to investigate, he fears that the assailants may have stolen powerful weapons and accessed the archives of the Watcher’s knowledge. He implores Uatu to tell him who attacked, but the Watcher refuses, maintaining his vow to only observe. The Watcher merely looks at Fury and tells him, “You are correct Nicholas Fury. I do see all things. Even [you].” Hearing a tone of judgment in Uatu’s voice, Fury angrily replies, with words that could echo the accusations of many black liberation theologians toward the Neo-Anabaptist crowd:
“Don’t you dare look at me like that. Who the hell are you to judge me? What have you ever done but stand around and watch. Watch as I fought to save the world. I won’t make apologies for how I did it. Especially not to you. You had the power to stop me. If you’d wanted. You had the power to stop it all. But all you ever did…was nothing. I know, I know—you’re bound to bear witness and not interfere. As part of some crazy cosmic order of peeping toms. And you like to brag about how you’ve broken that now, more times than anyone can count, right? Because what, you showed up to shout a warning? I’ve been down there day after day, in blood up to my knees. You wouldn’t have an earth to stand above and stare at if it wasn’t for me. And I’m not gonna let you throw all that away now. Everything I did was worth it, so long as that earth is still spinning! So tell me what you saw!”
Jack’s critique of (Neo)Anabaptism is similar to Fury’s critique of Uatu: “Ultimately, the Anabaptist Jesus is distinguishable from the responsive, dynamic God of the Israelites. This Jesus is not willing to get his hands dirty for the liberation of the oppressed. He would rather rest well on the certain and absolute principle of peace than risk his purity in the fight for liberation. Is he not then different from the God of the Israelites, who was responsive to Israel’s history and at times suspended the ethical in favor of Israelite liberation?”
I am torn while writing this blog. I sympathize with the Neo-Anabaptists (and Uatu). I’ve seen Christian attempts to interfere in secular political systems go bad. It almost seems easier to avoid the risk of impurity and to simply “bear witness” to another, nonviolent, pure reality. However, I can’t help but feel at least chastised by Jack’s critique (and by Fury’s words to Uatu). Very real people are struggling in the midst of very difficult and actual material conditions. As Jack points out, “A white, affluent society may believe, for example, that violence is never justified, that nonviolence is always the only Christ-like approach, and that Christians should not engage in politics,” but while white, Neo-Anabaptists stare on and “bear witness,” there are those getting their hands dirty, who are in blood up to their knees, to make sure that “the earth is still spinning” for those who are less concerned with keeping their ideological purity than making sure they can survive yet another day.
2 Comments Add yours
I don’t think the problem is the rejection of political entanglement or the commitment to non-violence. Rather I think it is because Quietism (the passive acceptance of things as they are) is a very comfortable spiritual alternative for disillusioned white evangelicals.
It is entirely possible to be committed to pacifism and apolitical, without being passive. If you’ve seen the film Gandhi, for instance, there is a scene where he is asked if he advocates “passive resistance” to which he response “I, for one, have never advocated passive anything. We must never submit to such laws. And I think our resistance must be *active* and provocative!” He also said “where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.”
If you take a group like the Quakers for instance, they were very confrontational in their early years – despite their rejection of war and many civic responsibilities. They openly supported the equality of women, and the liberation of slaves. All of which leads me to believe that Quietism is kind of like a calcification of the Anabaptist movement. Something people settle into over the course of generations. Or in the case of neo-Anabaptists – something they adopt because it feels more righteous than the filth of politics – yet accommodates their hesitance to stand alongside the suffering.
I like your point about Quietism as a calcification of Anabaptism. I’ll have to chew on that a bit. It makes me think of Dreher’s whole “Benedict Option” thing, which I also believe has a different reasoning behind it than the type of Neo-Baptist motive/explanation I tried to draw attention to here (although I think the two “rhyme”).
You also bring up a great point about the confrontational nature many of these “pacifist sects” adopted in their early years. I visited an intentional community in Chicago rooted in the Anabaptist tradition, Reba Place, last year. I made a joke about not voting and political involvement, and they were quick to point out that Anabaptists, Mennonites, etc. represent a movement of resistance (albeit nonviolent) as opposed to the type of “Quietism” you yourself highlight.