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Thursday, September 30, 2010

How should Christians engage the powers that be?

Below is an ongoing conversation between me and my good friend Dan Sidey:

Question: One of the questions I'm wrestling with these days is how to be a Christian who is truly engaged in contemplative resistance. I realize that the US is not a peaceful country. I live in a small town that relies on the assets that come from our military. We have plenty of families that rely on the money made by troops and an airbase that nearly five times a day, with F-15s, tries to remind us that the US wants to own the skies of the world. The whole thing is disillusioning, yet so ingrained as deeply valuable in the mind of most folks here. I see the tragedy of this paradigm played out constantly in the violence in my own neighborhood. It is as grand as gang fights and as minute as unhappy parents neglecting their children to run from their own violent demons.

I'm beginning to believe negotiating with these powers for a share in their use is not our calling. We're meant to denounce their ability to help as Jesus did. He calls us to love the least of these. Instead of climbing the ladder of success in search for the scarce resources of power we turn around and find an abundance of opportunity to serve in love those the empire considers a liability. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove believes that we will finally find abundant life only in community with others engaged in contemplative resistance like this.

I'm looking for this message of Jesus fleshes out. I'm curious how you'll wrestle with these ideas in your books. What does Carl believe about this message?

Thanks for dialoguing about this.


Thank you Dan.

I think that's a lot to chew on. Of course, based on what you've written, I would say to you "Go for it!!" I think we have to keep in mind though that different people have different callings. Carl and I are primarily trying to speak to the evangelical world, telling them to reconsider their hate and prejudice towards 1.5 billion Muslims. That's a pretty tall order! Carl travels and speaks quite a bit, so he wouldn't fit nicely into the "beware of your carbon footprint" camp. I probably wouldn't either since travel is a large part of my calling. I've come to realize that I can't do everything and take up every cause, though that doesn't mean that I can't encourage others in their respective callings. As long as we're loving Jesus, loving people, practicing non-violence, and taking the admonitions of Jesus towards the poor seriously (whether that means living among them or advocating for them politically), I think it all counts.

Not sure if I'm making sense here.

I hope this helps.


Dan's response:

It's true that many New Monastics are concerned with their carbon footprint, but thats not really one of the distinctives that I'm gleaning from them as paramount in my journey. It doesn't surprise me that both you and Carl don't either. Your interests seem to be more along the lines of mine, focused on a Christian response to Muslims and the practice of non-violence in the face of militarism, nationalism and radicalism.

So how do we engage the world as a political body? The political Body of Christ. Are we called to negotiate how the government uses force? Or are we called to have a prophetic witness that is not a stake holder in power, but a denouncer of force that points others to love? Maybe a little of both?

I recall in your book(at the very end) you said something about force being a possible asset in the face of extremes like genocide. Do you feel that way? Are we stakeholders in power?

Peace, Dan


Dan, this is one of the best questions ever posed on this blog! I love the way you frame it: How should followers of Jesus engage the world as a political body? Should we negotiate the government's use of force or should we refuse to be stakeholders in power?

I love the way you frame this question, since it underscores a key point I make in my book "Alone with a Jihadist." If you remember the last chapter, Powerless Prophets I make the case that followers of Jesus would be a lot better off renouncing earthly power (and by that I mean most political power positions available and definitely military power) for the very reason that you stated. When we become "stakeholders" in power (thank you for the phrase--I'm going to use it!), we lose our objectivity and our credibility as prophetic witnesses. Almost like a conflict of interest if you will. So, to answer your question, I don't think it's an either/or. It's both/and. We renounce power not just so that we can withdraw in our caves and let the world self-destruct. No. We renounce power so that we can be a credible voice to the powers that be! At times this may take on the form of prescribing practical solutions for just peace making between warring parties, but we have to be careful here. Political solutions are almost always ambiguous. If a follower of Jesus isn't well informed on the issues at hand, he or she should keep their prophetic distance and work for peace and justice in non-political ways. God uses all kinds!

That's where I stand right now. If I end up moving my position, it'll be in the direction of non-engagement, where we don't even bother at all with telling the earthly kingdoms how to run their affairs. I'm not there yet because I still feel that if we refuse to participate in the violent structures earthly kingdoms use to advance their interests, the very least we can do is propose alternatives to mitigate the violence. I think John Howard Yoder has it right when he says, and I'm paraphrasing here, "We can't hold earthly governments to Kingdom ideals, but we can hold them accountable to their highest ideals."

I hope this helps!


Anonymous said...

I wonder what taking a prophet posture toward our government in the US looks like. I know individuals are doing it. How do we get their stories?

-Dan Sidey

Shannon said...

An intriguing conversation. I'm not sure I have any kind of answer to the questions being asked, but I've been wrestling with non-violent resistance on my own for awhile.

I think what has been most eye-opening for me in wrestling with the third way has been to understand that the other side, or "just war" if we want to call it that, has an implied moral purpose as well. I think it was reading Hauerwas that began to bring that to light for me. And so when we say that we're for non-violence, does that somehow imply that others think violence is a good idea? What I see when I look at modern politics and the logic behind war is desperation. There's such a drive for dominance, and sometimes I think they believe that their own being in power is for the good of others. If this is not stated explicitly, then it seems at least understood implicitly. But in striving for that power, narrow-mindedness and desperation are married together, until violence seems like the only answer. They respond with a shallow notion of power, one that is crude and destructive to some to "bring good" to others, out of a sense of powerlessness to do anything else but exert force. So even in exerting power, they demonstrate their powerlessness. I've learned that if you press a conversation with someone who tends toward just war thinking, there comes a point when words shift to a conversation about what to do in the most dire of situations. At the core, it becomes a question about what to do when there are "no other options" than to exert force. When one is powerless in every other way, is it then okay to use force? Is it okay if it's for the good of another?

I don't know how that changes things, or if it does, on a grand scale. But for me, it helps me to see that the dynamics of what is taking place isn't about violence vs. non-violence, but instead has more to do with powerlessness, desperation, and how we achieve the best good for the most people. What do we do when good has to win?

And so, as I think I understood from Hauerwas first, we do all have one thing in common - we want good to win (or at least what we perceive good to be). It at least shifts the course of my wrestling through what it means for me to live peacefully in the world.

I've so enjoyed your thoughts!