Diagnosis: Modernity

“The answer to poverty is community”- Jurgen Moltman

It is no longer easy to avoid the ravages of poverty.  A drive through any city today reveals the extent to which wealth and the lack of viable income can coexist within a single city block.  Even a quick glance at the news in any medium reveals that homelessness is closer to all of us than we care to imagine.

The response is generally the same for any political group, regardless of culture war colors.  Each party and interest group assumes that the answer lies in some sort of political solution, some act of government.  Justice, they shout, comes through legislative decision.  For these groups, it is the elected community which will solve the issues of wealth disparity and poverty is the American political and economic community, whether federal or local, free-market or government funded entitlements.

This assumption is rooted within the modern project.  Modernity, through the likes of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, has sought to erase contentious religious systems from the public square to be replaced by a reasoned political system.  The modern vision, then, is for all communities to be related and subsumed under a public politic, relegating religion to private belief.  The over arching system of government is then, the one legitimate community.  In short, the answer to any social struggle is the political/economic system. So whether Tea Party or Green, Democrat or Republican, even Libertarian or Socialist the Modernist assumes some degree of governmental response to the questions of the day. (Note)

The Church today, even those most rooted in a Post-Christendom model of Church and State, continues to follow this Modern assumption.  It’s the one facet of Christendom that we cannot seem to shake off.  But really, it’s not much of a surprise.  In the Tercentennial study of the Church of the Brethren membership it became clear that we are more identifiable by our political party affiliation than by shaped by Brethren values.  We are more Red and Blue than we are “Continuing the Work of Jesus.”  Well, more accurately, and more respectfully, our senses of what it means to follow Jesus look more like our party affiliations than anything else.

Within the history of radical Christianity, from Acts through the desert ascetics all the way through to the Radical Reformers, the emphasis has fallen on the Christian community as the treatment for social ills.  Poverty, disproportionate gaps in wealth, health care, even natural disasters all received the same response- The Church, not the State, came to the aid of believers and non-believers alike.  For example, the great story of the Middle Ages is that more priests and monks died of the Black Death than any other vocation because they were the ones out tending to the sick and dying.  Kings and Lords did not enter their streets to save the citizenry.

The effects of this Modernist infection are two fold. First, we assume that the proper expression of doctrine occurs within the secular political process. We simply translate our systems of belief and values into the agnostic realm of government. Second, and probably less obvious, is the translation of secular modes of politics and decision making into the life of the Church. Here we assume that votes and position platforms, uniformity of belief within camps, and even debates and sound bites are the norm for discernment and decision making. The irony is that as we look back on Church History and condemn the presence of armies at ecumenical councils such as Nicea and Constantinople, while at the same time we adopt the swordless system of Modern politics as our own.

It was recently asked why the Church of the Brethren today is so divided.  The answer is simple- We are more defined by political affiliations and the idea that political processes will restore the Church.  We expect the political systems of governments to resolve the needs and struggles of everyday life and unite the Church.  We think that discernment is a 51% game, and that those in leadership or power have agendas to fulfill.  We think our Church is the holy image of American representative democracy.  The problem is that progressive and traditionalist alike have sold out to the wider political narrative and practices of Modernity, only to forget that we as the gathered Body of Christ are set apart, and must find ways of being together that are more reflective of God’s narrative of reconciliation.

Our diagnosis is simple we have an acute case of Modernity. The cure, not so simple: We cannot wait for the State to save us. Nor can we expect the practices of public politic to redeem the Church.

Note The nature of each of the these groups is really one of degree: To what extent need the government be involved for the well-being of the most number of people? Even here the assumption is that the government’s own self-limiting is a response to the problem. I also am aware that I assume the economic system is a form of the political, whether a laisssez faire or interventionist capitalism.


Filed under Discipleship, Politics and the Church

45 responses to “Diagnosis: Modernity

  1. Chris Jones

    In the land of the Mennos, we too are shaped more by modern politics than the Cross of Christ. I would push back a little on the idea that the realm of the government is a realm for the agnostic. I think when we embrace the radical, apocalyptic vision of Jesus and the early church we would see organized power for what it is: a satanic parody of the Kingdom of God and then we would refuse the temptation. What we need to hear is the call to come out of Babylon.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Thanks Chris, especially for widening the scope from the CoB to Anabaptism. Having walked in both worlds, I think the diagnosis applies. When Stuart Murray Williams was with us on the east coast he emphasized the Christendom shift. He was always quick to hedge though that Christendom in America is more of a Cultural, rather than a legal, Christendom. One of the questions that loomed afterward was whether or not American Anabaptists really want to let go of Cultural Christendom. I think this diagnosis of modernity is part of the reason why most do not want to move out of the Christendom homeland.

      I agree with you and Brian that “agnostic” is too soft of a term. At the same time, though, it is how the system would describe itself, at least as an areligious process. What I like about “agnostic” is that it carries just enough of a pejorative edge to raise the question. I too argue that the modern system of politics and economics is another Religion- with significant formative practices. Yet, I think to see it as such requires a prior confession of faith in another system. So to see it as Babylon means we have our homeland in Christianity. So with Brian, I think Cavanaugh and Taylor help us see the religious nature of modern politics….the task then for us as the Church is to take the prophetic position and name both our exile and our captive empire.

  2. Wowzers, Josh! This is a very Hauerwasian diagnosis, so of course I think it’s awesome. 🙂 I affirm your diagnosis and would only push back on a few things, perhaps only semantic:

    1) Like Chris, I would argue on the realm of government/public politic (good term there, btw) being described as “agnostic.” That’s too soft! Catholic thinkers have helped me a great deal here, especially William Cavanaugh, Charles Taylor, and Carl Schmitt, the last of whom said, that “all political thinking is inescapably theological.” Down at the core of any political theory is a metaphysical kernel, a “theological” account for how the world world works and our place in it. Or as Chris said (and this sounded kind of like Wink) “a satanic parody of the Kingdom of God.”

    2) On your statement that we’re (as Brethren) not shaped by “Brethren values”: Yes, but… Probably due to my experience in corporate America and also church organizations influenced by Western organizational culture, I’ve come to despise the “mission/vision/values” language. It sounds too rational and susceptible to idolatrous narratives providing content. The beauty in traditional Brethren liturgical practices is that they worked on our entire bodies. You read Scripture as you washed the feet and kissed your brother in Christ, the biblical narrative being etched into the very fibers of our corporeal bodies (which includes our brains). So I just squirm at that word “values”…

    Chris mentions the Menno world struggling with this same kind of thing, and that’s true, but one thing that stands as a marked contrast between these two cousins, as I see it, is the fruits of missionary work. In other words, the struggles that we’re looking at here are primarily Western struggles (though they do have global impact, for sure: e.g. globalization). But because Mennonites have quietly encircled the globe and are growing in the Global South, that puts them in a different situation than the Church of the Brethren, which is a very American denomination (denominations themselves being a very Western phenomenon).

    I’ve heard some Brethren attribute this to some weird kind of humility and not wanting “to put our name on everything like those Mennonites,” but I think that argument is terribly flawed and it shows in the work that Carl Bowman has done, which you’ve mentioned here. It’s an argument born out of cultural ignorance, trading our Brethren story (bad) for that of the broader culture (good), assuming that it’s somehow not a story but “the real.” Very Modernist thinking, and very damaging.

    I do want to be careful, though, because it’s not like the pre-20th century Brethren tradition was lily white. There are some things we jettisoned that were worth jettisoning, which probably had a lot to do with a similar case of cultural ignorance (I don’t mean that pejoratively).

    You offer a diagnosis, and I’ll offer a sketch of a corrective: We need great storytellers. I already tipped my hand earlier in terms of the rich practice of Love Feast, so I’ll just fold that in here too. So that storytelling needs to happen in ways that are biblical and liturgical, taking a good long read of Church history including (but not limited to) our own, and done in committed and serious local congregations who also have an awareness of the broader church including (but again not limited to!) our own Brethren tradition. Potential job title: Storyteller/theologian/historian/pastor. Is that too much? 🙂

    Good stuff, thanks Josh! (Hope I didn’t go too soapbox on you.)

    • Joshua Brockway


      I love the remedy of storytellers and enacted stories (liturgy). As I was posting this I knew I had come of short of offering an alternative. If there is one critique of some of Hauerwas, it is that it’s clearly an ideological community and few actual practices described. In a way this is where we haven’t jumped the modern ship yet…we like ideas way too much! It’s the same critique that historians of the liturgy bring to liturgical theologians- where does this Liturgy actually exist. Hopefully soon I will have a post bringing together some of Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom and the Krieders’ Worship and Mission book.

      I hear you about the faults of 19th century Brethren. As I’ve argued at Brethren Cultural Landscape and here, tradition is a living thing often expressed in transformation from one context to another. So, what was tradition in the 19th century morphed into us today. My underlying question here is simple: what are we morphing into now. How are we faithfully articulating the Brethren Dream, as Scott Holland called it earlier, in the 21st century. My sense is that we may recover some of what was lost in the modern shift without returning to the 19th century in practice.


      • I think the worship/liturgy stuff is there in Hauerwas’ work, definitely moreso than in Yoder’s, but you might have to go looking for it across his broad corpus. It seems like JKA Smith – in his own wildly awesome Reformed pentecostal way – has taken some cues from Hauerwas and really pushed it out in his “cultural liturgies” work now underway.

  3. Robb Davis

    Thanks to Brian for sending me to this post. Excellent diagnosis and one I agree with. One example that in our local context that I am becoming painfully aware of due to my work with homeless brothers and sisters: Over many years it has been accepted as a given that the state (in the form of our county government) would care for those struggling with mental illness. It seems that the state (county) is increasingly unable to fulfill this expectation. Unfortunately the local church has for so long NOT seen a role for itself in this realm that there is little discussion (or even a sense of a need for discernment) about what it should do.

    • Joshua Brockway


      Thanks for joining in! I really appreciate the clear example you’ve provided. Like I say in the post, the Church was often the single place for care and concern for most of its history….now we have ceded the ground to the state. Now the generations who were radically involved in those ministries have passed and we are faced with recreating the wheel.


    • Yay; thanks for joining the conversation, Robb! As you and Josh point out, the church in America really has handed over the keys to the “public political” systems for what Christians would call social justice ministries. Don’t get me wrong, I see tons of churches in America working at these, but it’s often around the fringes in church-affiliated orgs, and not thoroughly integrated into the liturgical life of congregations. Mission and liturgy should be inseparable!

      The same has happened with the “peace witness” for the Brethren. It got kicked out of congregational life and into para-church ecumenical organizations that quickly got labeled as “liberal” and then ignored by the vast majority of Brethren in America. The whole Western phenomenon of professionalization has been devastating to missional worship in congregations.

      Finally, one last note on the “public politic”: James Davison Hunter describes this as the “public” becoming conflated with the “political” in the American social imaginary, leading Americans (Christian or otherwise) to think that the only solutions to issues facing the general public are through the workings of the governing political systems. If Christians accept this – on the Modernist grounds that religion=private – the Church is impotent to provide any prophetic embodiment of a counter-narrative. Not cool!

  4. Josh, you should skim Jeffrey Stout’s Democracy and Tradition – you’ll disagree with him wholeheartedly, I think, but he names a lot of these problems pretty sharply.

    And a big YES to Brian’s point about the political not being equal to the public – just because we refuse to cede power to the state does NOT mean that we refuse to act publicly or for the good of the whole. An important hedge to keep us from falling into sectarianism. I love Parker Palmer on this one – The Company of Strangers is a lovely theology of hospitality.

    But, as with every idea I get behind, I do wonder how we go about translating this caution and diagnosis of modernity into local congregations (or BVS orientations, etc., etc.). What’s the hook that pulls us out of our political commitments and worldviews of modernity and gets us thinking in the Kingdom ways?

    • Joshua Brockway

      Dana, I haven’t read the Stout book. Sounds like I need to add it to the to-read pile.

      Re. Public vs Political- that is exactly the problem I ran into when I taught Hauerwas’ After Christendom. He talks of the Church as a Political Community. For the class, and for others I have mentioned the idea to, it was hard to keep the difference between the political nature of the Church and American Politics. For Hauerwas, the idea is that the Church is public and as such offers a new vision for the political.

      I do love your final question, especially how to reveal why it is important. The one way I have done that recently is to deconstruct the “Spiritual but not Religious” myth. In that setting, I start by saying “there is no such thing as being spiritual but not religious.” Usually that gets us talking about 1) how our cultural practices shape us and 2) how we can look for Kingdom practices.

    • Scott Holland

      Dana & Josh,

      I’m just catching up with your blog, Josh, after a few very full weeks of teaching, writing and road-trips. Yes, do read Stout’s “Democracy and Tradition” as well as his new book, “Blessed Are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America.” Apart from our various engagements with Anabaptist and Peace Church writers, Stout’s political theory of religion and democracy is the one most enthusiastically embraced in the circles of “public theology” taught at Bethany via my Baker Peace Studies Office. — Scott

  5. Josh, sorry I am a little late to the party here. I might offer a slight push back on part of your analysis. The simplistic question I might ask is WWJD in the face of poverty in America? And I might begin by suggesting that he would most certainly use the government to address the problem.

    He, of course, didn’t have that option in his lifetime. The Roman empire was busy rampaging about the countryside enforcing a trickle-up form of economics that enriched the elite and their clients while impoverishing the peasants. So Jesus went about doing his own form of community organizing to teach them how to take care of themselves while waiting for God to change the facts on the ground in a big way.

    Unfortunately God dallied, but the early Christians took the message of Jesus seriously and literally changed the course of history as they took care of the sick, widows and orphans in the early Roman empire. By the middle ages the kings and lords didn’t need to go out on the streets to take care of those ravaged by the plague because an arm of their bureaucracy was on the job, the medieval church. It was the best social services system yet devised for meeting the needs of the needy.

    It all broke down, of course, with the Reformation and then the Enlightenment. We separated church and state for many good reasons I would argue. But what was lost was this, for its time, fairly highly organized social services wing of the church/state empire.

    This didn’t mean that Christians stopped taking care of the sick. They did and they do. But now it was left to individual congregations and denominations to service these needs. It is into this fragmented breach that governments in many western societies have stepped, to do better what the church in its current form can’t do well. It is worth noting that when the depression hit in the US a vast majority of senior citizens were living in poverty and depending on the charity of churches who were completely overwhelmed. Social Security was a god-send and modeled right from that socialist chapter in Acts. A whole host of government-run anti poverty programs and civil rights programs followed and have made life better for Americans, despite how much we hate the government.

    WWJD? This is what he would do. He would support these programs because they are the most effective method there is to feed the hungry. There will always be plenty of work to do at the local level to fill in the gaps and to interact with individuals in a more personal and holistic way.

    But I in no way mourn the way liberal democracies have supplanted churches as the primary vehicle for delivering social services. I find myself amused by conservative Christians who argue that cradle to grave social services should be abolished because they put churches of business. “Look at Europe for God’s sake!” Putting Europe’s established churches out of business was good for Christianity and for Europe. As Christians there discover, as they are, how to live without being attached to the teet of government protection they will thrive, albeit as smaller communities.

    Our task as some nutty theologian says is to be the church, telling the stories that set us apart from our culture (and this is particularly true in the area of peace and violence), and teaching the kinds of virtues that transform lives and communities. But then I certainly hope that some of those virtuous people go out and work in the government to make it more compassionate and effective.

    • Scott Holland

      Thanks, Jay, for your clear articulation and affirmation of what some of us would see as a welcome ‘public theology’ for life in pluralistic liberal democracies. — Scott

      • Joshua Brockway

        Scott, could you define a public theology? I think that would help draw out some of what that means and highlight where we differ.

        As an aside, to fill in my response to Jay below, I just sat in a workshop at the Urban Ministries Congress in Chicago about the Truth Commission on Conscience. For those not aware of this group, it was a recent ecumenical gathering which sought to address the recent wars and the issues of Conscientious Objection they raise. One of the outcomes of that group was to ask the government to enact legislation that would allow for Just War and Pacifist objectors. In essence, and this is their language, they are asking for a provision for Selective Conscientious objection. (You will soon find out that I consider this theologically schizophrenic)

        If that is a case of Public Theology, then I am really not interested. First, it’s very public or political, and thus asks the government to make space for a religious distinction. And because of that, it’s not very good theology. The question is really an intra-ecclessial matter, one of theology and practice of the CHURCH. But we are then engaging the government based on a matter of ecclessiology. Why would a liberal/modern democracy benefit from or accept the terms of the Church. In essence we are trying to revive the entire Investiture Controversies. What is more, it continues to assume that the primary form of discourse is POLITCAL and LEGISLATIVE. In essence something is not True, Good, or Beautiful until it is codified in secular law.

        Now let me back up a bit to say that all theology is political. But from the root, I am arguing that this political vision is distinct from and counter to the Modern political vision. Are there places of overlap, of course. But the catechized Church must learn to see the government for what it is- a false and incomplete representation of the Kingdom of God. What is more, all theology is public. In that way, it must wrestle with the realities of a pluralistic public square- but that is not contrary to scripture for we as the Church are called yeast in the bread and light on a hill. In essence we are the small in the vast. In a modern/liberal context, we are too often asked to make faith the second chair, and thus the element of the discourse and activism which can be compromised for the greater good. What if the activism we engage in is actually the faith we profess? What if the faith is actually primary?

        I think what is gaining traction in many young anabaptists (and pietists) is the idea that socially progressive actions need not compromise belief. In fact, as I sit and watch establishment liberals (politicians and theologians) I grow tiered of such a compromise in the name of pluralism. In each of those compromises, or the silencing of theological roots, they continue to cede Christianity to the Right. In other words, the John Piper’s get to speak for Christianity as a whole because they speak with the most conviction of faith. Maybe the most “radical” thing is a public, and alternative political, witness of Faith and Action?

    • Joshua Brockway

      This is the great thing about blogs….it doesn’t really matter when you jump in. I, for one, appreciate your thoughts. Thanks for joining in!!

      I’ll be honest first, I am up to my eyes in German vocab right now. I know I’ve caught your jist and nuance, I just can’t seem to formulate an insightful response….I’ll be able to do that after Friday.

      My initial, knee-jerk thought is simply that the all to often hear of the Church expecting the government to do what the Church ought to be doing itself. Unfortunately, things like Social Security and other New Deal programs will always be subject to the whims of political climates….and to be honest ineffective at times, and often oppressive, implementation. I think you have spoken well by saying that the Church’s early “success” was due to it’s radical involvement in health-care and social security in the 1st and 2nd century political economy. I am growing more and more convinced that the Church has not just ceded the ground to the government, but in many cases we are too dependent on it to do the things we should be doing. It lets us stay isolated from the people around us and the needs aching for God’s healing.

      The second part of this, is to say that the while the government may be the best response to some of the issues (though I think that many, even progressives, would question the actual efficiency of these programs), the Church has a little bit more at stake in these ministries. Put positively, the Church’s ministry to these social issues is Holistic and Embodied (in the sense that I argue on the blog. We seek to serve both body and soul, while the Modern government assumes that money and food are enough. In old evangelical terms, we speak of salvation- not pie in the sky but on earth, right relationships with each other, with the economy, and with God. The Modern government will always ask us as the Church to be involved, but it will also ask us to check our faith at the door. The Modern system assumes that faith and belief will only muddy the process and create conflict. In a way, it has asked us to be good civic servants and keep faith to Sunday morning. That’s just not something I am ready to concede.

      Maybe I did have a response in there somewhere 🙂 Thanks again for jumping in….I hope the conversation continues!

      • Scott Holland

        Josh & all,

        In a pluralistic, democratic society I do indeed strongly support the legislation you cite above allowing for non-military participation for both pacifist and just war objectors. This is indeed the style of public theology I’m advocating. I have actually been in the center of these ecumenical dialogs. I have made the case that a number of Historic Peace Church leaders would not be uneasy with this style of what J. H. Yoder would call “middle axions” in public and political life: some wars, for those who reason outside the perfection of Christ, are indeed more just than others. Hauerwas would reject this style of public reasoning but Yoder (my old teacher) and many others in the HPC circles, including me, in formal, official ecumenical roles have affirmed it. This is why Yoder taught ROTC students the Just War Theory at Notre Dame, to help them on their long moral journey to peacemaking and hopefully even to pacifism as a logical conclusion, even as he remained a pacifist teaching the imperfect moral intentions of just war. As Jane Fonda once said to me: “Sweetheart, all war may be sin, but not all sins are the same!” You should also know that the Just Peace document of the WCC, which I helped author in 2010 in both Bogota and Beirut does declare, that “Just War is now obsolete.” This document will become an official ecumenical call to a new vision of peacemaking from Just War to Just Peace. This conversation was started in 1948 in Amsterdam and and ended just last week in Geneva — via Bogota and Beirut — with this prophetic, pragmatic conclusion.

      • One thing that makes me highly skeptical of the efficacy and (more importantly) the faithfulness of Christians placing a large portion of our time, energy, and desire in seeking justice through the channels of the nation-state is the dawning reality that the power of the nation-state is being bled dry by the forces of economic globalization, i.e. hypercapitalism.

        As John B. Thomson points out, “western states are now effectively market states; that is, states that can at best offer their citizens the formal capacities to flourish in the brave new world of the world market, but which increasingly cannot offer the tangible benefits of social security, national security and self-conscious ethnic identity/history” (Living Holiness: Stanley Hauerwas and the Church, 146).

        “In contrast,” Thomson continues, “the Church is a polity more orientated through worship to see the world as more than a human playground. It represents a more substantial polity than the state, earthed as it is in devotional practices that prioritize tangible service rather than abstractions such as electronic markets” (146-7).

        A good ol’ Marxist critique of capitalism and its increasingly obvious functioning at a deep level in American politics should give Christians serious pause when it comes to how much we invest in activism through those channels.

  6. Craig Gandy

    I must disagree with Jay’s suggestion that Jesus “would most certainly use the government to address the problem” [of poverty]. I see the exegetical evidence of the Gospels pointing in a different direction. Jesus saw his mission as ushering in the Dominion (or Kingdom) of God, and not attempting to manipulate secular governments. While Jesus was certainly concerned about poverty, it is important to emphasize that Jesus did not see the Dominion of God as an indigenous movement of the poor and marginalized, rather Jesus proclaimed that his Dominion was “not of this world” (John 18:36). Jesus’ primary concern was not turning stones into bread in order to feed the hungry, but to give people “living” food and drink (John 4:13-14). One of his wilderness temptations was to accept the authority of all of the kingdoms of the world (Luke 4:5-6); if Jesus simply wanted to use the authority of secular governments to end poverty and fix other problems of the world, then he could have simply said “yes” to this temptation. Instead, Jesus was doing something even more radical. He was ushering in God’s Dominion, the first installment of the eschaton, where the first shall be last and the last shall be first, where the unjust powers and principalities are defeated and all things will be made new!

    As followers of Jesus, we, the Church, are to live as citizens of God’s Dominion. We do not pledge our allegiance to secular governments or political parties, which are fallen, sinful, and corrupt; rather, we pledge our allegiance to Christ, who has freed us from sin (Romans 6:17-18). Unfortunately, Christians have been infected by the (false) presuppositions of Modernity, and as Josh rightly observes, “We think our Church is the holy image of American representative democracy.” We have attempted to synthesize God’s Dominion with our own secular and corrupt American governmental dominion. Too often today, we expect the government to do the job of the Church, and we campaign and vote to ensure that the “correct” candidates are elected so that God’s work will be done in our nation and in the world (of course, opposing political candidates, the “incorrect” ones, are often mocked and ridiculed in an uncharitable manner). This is all problematic because we cannot attempt to simply Christianize the fallen powers and principalities of secular governments. This Constantinian approach failed in Rome, it failed in John Calvin’s Geneva, and it is failing here in America. It is time for the Church to take back her responsibilities, and to stop attempting to legislate the Gospel.

  7. Craig, I am not trying to legislate the gospel. I am just trying to feed the hungry. A task, I might add that was not peripheral to the ministry of Jesus, although some of his disciples apparently thought it was when they suggested he send the crowds away hungry to he could attend to the “more important” matters of spiritual feeding.

    I would say that you have less faith in government and more faith in the church than me. Both are fallen powers; how could it be otherwise in this world. Which means that we do the best we can with what we have. And we celebrate every small movement in either power in the direction of justice, peace, and love.

    I have no illusions about the shortcomings of our government’s active complicity in violence and our idolatrous worship of the free hand of the market, which left to its own devices will happily leave millions eating dust while a few profit mightily.

    However, I am not an advocate of Christians shaking the dust off of our shoes and withdrawing into our own more perfect enclaves while the world implodes. Nor do I believe for a moment that we Christians have the resources ourselves to meet the needs of poor.

    I support whatever the most effective means is to address poverty in our country and world. And however thin our social safety net is in the US compared to the western world, and however much it totters due to the politics of those who don’t really care if the poor suffer as long as the rich don’t have to pay any more taxes, I celebrate the fact that millions of seniors do not face dire poverty at their retirement and that people who lose their work receive unemployment checks so they can feed their families and that we are finally beginning to provide basic heath care to everyone not just the fortunate few. These are not peripheral needs compared to more spiritual needs. Hunger and health care are very much spiritual concerns in my view.

    I believe it is a legitimate concern of the church to see that these basic needs are met in the most effective way possible. I believe we ought to be grateful however these basic needs are met. I also believe that we need to be very careful not do dismiss the significance of these accomplishments because they are not being carried out more perfectly or because it is the fallen government that is seeing that it gets done or because this kind of physical feeding isn’t addressing what we might contend are deeper spiritual needs. I also believe that as these needs are met we in the church still have plenty of work to do in the world.

    And I most definitely disagree with your statement that “Jesus did not see the Dominion of God as an indigenous movement of the poor and marginalized.” But that is perhaps the subject for another post.


    • Hi Jay. I want to be careful how I respond since you and I have no personal connection, and that matters a great deal to me in contentious public discourse. It means I need to be humble while also seeking to be clear in my rebuttal. So hopefully we can be open to each other in love through this mediated virtual discussion. And since we both answer to the same DE, he can always come in and sort us out if things get wild. 🙂 So here goes…

      If we have lost faith that the church has the resources within itself to be faithful (including but certainly not limited to feeding the hungry, as you mentioned) then we’ve lost faith in our foundational narrative and our place in it as the called-out people of God, commissioned to be a priestly kingdom and a blessing to all nations and peoples. If somehow we’ve come to regard the church and governments as but both fallen equals then we’re in serious trouble. Yes, we need to be critically aware that the line between church and world runs right down the middle of each and every one of our attempts at being the body of Christ. But it doesn’t mean that we throw up our hands and say “Well, we screwed it up long enough with this ‘church’ thing. Time to move on!” It means we collectively repent and turn back to the God who calls us still.

      It’s also disheartening to see someone within our branch of the Anabaptist tradition dust off the “sectarian” charge that we so often get from those outside the tradition. Folks like Hauerwas and those following have done a fantastic job of countering that charge and unmasking it as the political power grab that it is on the part of liberal societies to keep “religions” in their place, namely in the hearts of individual believers so they can be good, productive citizens. If we swallow that lie then we’ve opened ourselves up to being a broom of the system (to borrow an image from David Foster Wallace), our imaginations thereby captivated by the story of liberalism that underwrites the American experience at the deepest level.

      Finally, it makes me nervous when I see a term like “most effective means” used in the church. “Most effective” is not a Christian theological category. What if the most effective means of solving poverty in the world is to start killing the poor? Isn’t this country’s systemic racism and classism already essentially doing that very slowly? Isn’t global hypercapitalism and the endless pursuit of pleasure by those of means already doing this to laborers around the globe? Hasn’t our treatment of God’s creation already created circumstances that are killing off the most vulnerable?

      I understand where you’re coming from, Jay, and your social concern for the marginalized is right-on and I share it wholeheartedly. This is a gospel concern, for sure. And yes, the church has been mightily unfaithful at times at embodying this part of the gospel of Christ. But my experience of the biblical narrative – especially in the Prophets and in Jesus’ “gospel realism” vis-a-vis the powers that be (c.f. John H. Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom) – keeps me from equating the church and the powers as somehow on equally fallen footing. The church is more. The church is gift…to the whole world, but only insofar as it will be faithful.

      Finally, part of what I find wanting in this conversation as a whole is the absence of worship. It’s perhaps no surprise that Josh and I, indebted as we are to Hauerwas, are the only ones to mention this. Jay, you do rightly mention idolatrous worship of the Smithian “invisible hand” of the market, as this society absolutely functionally does. But how can the church’s righteous worship practices enter this conversation? Don’t they matter to our witness to the world in concrete/material things such as feeding the hungry? (Begging the question, I know.)

      Phew. I have to be honest here that I’m neck-deep in studying Hauerwas so I’m absolutely drawing A LOT from him in this conversation. But I think it’s helpful stuff for American Christians. Hopefully I’m not being a “mean son of a bitch” about it. Thanks, Jay, and all other gracious interlocutors!

      • Hi Brian, thanks for your reply. My observation about the fallenness of the church is based simply on my reading of history and my experience of living and working in the church. I have not become cynical by any means but I have no illusions either. And I am not suggesting you or anyone is il-luded!

        I agree completely with the thrusts of many of these posts that the first task of the church is to learn how to be the church and to know how our narrative is different from the competing narratives out there in the world. I think it is fair to say that we have not done this well in the COB for a variety of reasons and the result is that we have lost the courage of our convictions, or maybe even a firm grasp of what are convictions are, with a not-too-surprising outcome that competing narratives have stepped in to fill the void and have come to shape our discourse.

        In our local congregations we need to be about the business of telling the stories of Jesus and being clear about how they unmasked and challenged the powers of his day and the powers of our day.

        I agree also that our worship life is inseparable from our mission. At Open Circle, for instance, we have a monthly community meal which functions very intentionally as our more regular form of communion. The table is open; we bring what we have to share; there is always plenty; we sit down next to each other and share our stories. This is the kind of formative worship narrative that comes out of scripture and hopefully shapes our lives together.

        However, and perhaps this is where we differ… When we do this well, or as well as we can given our many shortcomings as individuals and communities, I also have some confidence that we can engage the powers, including the government in constructive ways. To give you another example from my church and community, we have a handful of individuals at Open Circle who work for social service agencies funded by the government. They work with homeless, or physically or mentally challenged, etc. Like any metro area ours has a plethora of faith-based and secular organizations on the front line of meetings these needs. There is no church community that I know of that is not involved in some way in this, giving money or volunteers or providing services. But it is government money and government coordination that makes the service more effective. Not perfect by any means. But given the fragmented nature of our faith communities and the great need, the government provides the kind of coordination that makes the service better. I do not see this as any kind of abdication of our appropriate role as Christians. I see this as using, or helping, the system to achieve an end that we would view as Christian. (And the fact that I know the character of some of the people who are doing this work also means that I know that they are engaging the people they help and work with in body and spirit kinds of ways.)

        And I see nothing wrong with the word effective, or the notion of being effective, as long as we have a clear notion coming from our own Christian narratives of what effective can and cannot mean. To elaborate a bit more on that…

        I think it is possible and even necessary to our mission to be in Rome and use the language of Rome and sometimes the tools of Rome. We can do it without losing ourselves, and I have some hope that by doing it we can move other individuals involved in the system and even sometimes the system itself in our direction. So I guess I am not troubled at all by secular expectation in the public square that we leave our private (Christian) discourse at home and instead we use our public discourse. There is a place for both and we can still be people of integrity and be a witness to our convictions.

        Now a word about liberalism that won’t do justice to my convictions about it but will lay out my basic views. Liberalism, or the liberal experiment is not all bad in my view. Liberalism has given us many good ideas, the separation of church and state being one of them which does not come from our scriptures. Rights language has its problems but knowing the context out of which it came helps me appreciate its place in our world. Even the free market has its virtues. It is no accident, for instance, that people in India and China when given the choice opt for free market economics. It is raising their standard of living.

        The problem with liberalism is that it needs to be tempered by strong communities of people who are shaped by another story and who see clearly both the strengths and weaknesses of liberalism. (The same could be said about any other political and economic system.) It isn’t liberalism’s fault that we failed to be those kind of communities. We lost, for instance, the language of temperance or wrongly came to associate it with the un-scriptural idea of abstinence from alcohol. The free market isn’t a problem if we have people working in it who know how much is enough and who see the earth as God’s creation and not their temporary dumping ground until they get to heaven. Or again, if we have strong communities with concomitant notions of mutual obligation then individualism provides a healthy counterpoint. Liberalism, in my view, isn’t really the problem.

        So, yes, again we come back to how important it is that we do church well. I am not sure if this addresses your issues and questions but it is where my mind took me in responding. Thanks for listening.

  8. Jordan Blevins

    Good morning, friends. I usually just read this blog with interest, and don’t take the time to formulate a comprehensive response … but given how closely this one hits to home for me, I feel like I have to weigh in.

    Let me start by saying that I have not read all of the comments here nearly as thoroughly as I should, so if I repeat others somewhat, or rehash a conversation that has already been had, I apologize in advance. I do want to jump off a bit from what Jay was saying. I wouldn’t, however, phrase it as WWJD. I would instead look to what the church has done throughout its history as it has tried to live into and carry out the mission Jesus left behind – calling forth, as best it can in an imperfect world, the kin-dom of God. Paul, for instance, was able to spread the gospel and build the church, and call the church to care for those in hunger in poverty, with such effectiveness precisely because hew as able to operate as a Roman citizen. In the Middle Ages, the reason the church was as effective as it was at responding to the needs around it was because the church was the government. There wasn’t a line or a distinction. In fact, until modernity, the church was so aligned with the political powers, that to suggest there was a distinction is a little absurd. The church could carry out the social services that were needed precisely because they were the government of the day.

    In modernity, that picture has changed a little bit. We live in a western world (because, lets be honest here, this is a purely a western framed and focused conversation) where the church is incredibly fractured, and in a pluralized world where we know longer hold the keys to government – allowing us to force everyone to join and tithe. I, for one, wouldn’t argue that is a bad thing. Instead, what we have to figure out is how to best address the needs of our communities in which we live. Folks have been correct to point out that many, many churches have continued to do that. Hosting soup kitchens, homeless shelters, responding to disasters and hunger needs around the world – the church is still very much striving to meet those needs. I would point out, however, that the means through which they do that are often government funded. In my mind, this is an excellent example of the church figuring out how to work within the world in which the church finds itself, as it seeks to call forth the kin-dom that is still only a glimmer.

    I would also argue that the work of the Truth Commission is another good example of this. Josh, I would very much want a government in pluralistic democracy to be respectful of the religious beliefs of those who live there – but it is contingent upon the religious bodies to name exactly what those are. Seeking recognition of selective contentious objection is a good example of that. As is calling for moral considerations to go into the budget process. It is a way for the church to name to society the values that the world into which it is trying to live hold to be true – even as the church is not the totality of that society.

    This is not to say that the church doesn’t have an awful lot of work to do on its own. I would argue that more of the problem – and the church not responding to the needs of society the way it used to – is a theology of individualism, that is largely rooted in the United States. This is both a political ideology, but it is also a theology that has taken root in out churches. Where salvation and eternal life has become about the individual, and not a communal understanding. I think that has less to do with the ways in which the church exists within the political structures, as much as it does the church seeking to respond to the individualism that has run rampant. It is actually to this that I think Moltmann was referring in the quote you have above. So, for a bit more from him (this is from “The Way of Jesus Christ, pg 54-55)

    “But what changes must christology undergo when this theocratic unity of church and Christian imperium crumbles, and the chiliastic deam vanishes, and the church has to live in a non-Christian, a-Christian and anti-Christian world? Is it not wise to give up the untimely dream of the pantocrator and the imperial church in the thousand years’ empire, and to turn back to the one crucified, and to live in his discipleship? Must not the chiliastically triumphing, eternal christology give way to the christology of history, which is a christology on the road, and a christology beneath the cross? In this world the church of Christ has as yet no social and political ‘body’ outside itself which it could interpenetrate as soul if it were once to surrendor its own bodiliness. The church exists in contraditions and conflicts, and it must organize itself as the visible community of believers against the impeachments of this world of violence, so that is may show the world God’s alternatives.”

    • Scott Holland

      Friends, This is a very important and engaging discussion, especially since this is very much more than mere theory in light of the current COB commitment to the ecumenical Just Peace process and project. For the next several days, however, I will only be listening in with appreciation and great interest. We have both prospective students and some denominational D.E.s on campus so I will caught up in these theological conversations and adventures.

  9. Craig Gandy

    Jay, how can a Dominion “not of this world” also be indigenous to this world? Of course, the poor and marginalized were very attracted to Jesus’ teachings, and they made up the vast majority of his earliest followers, but this does not make God’s Dominion indigenous. Rather, their attraction serves to illustrate how God’s Dominion, unlike the fallen kingdoms of this world, is an upside-down Kingdom (e.g. Luke 6:20-26) where the last and least become first and foremost.

    I agree with you that feeding the hungry was not peripheral to the ministry of Jesus, and I believe that the greatest commandment, to love God and neighbor, involves active participation in our world. Feeding the hungry is certainly a vital justice issue that requires action on our part (e.g. Matthew 25:31-46), and I affirm that faith without works is dead (James 2:17).

    I agree that secular government has its rightful place, and that we can be grateful when governments act to meet the basic needs of its people. I am grateful that our government provides Social Security and Medicare and other benefits, but I do not place my faith in a corrupt government. My concern is that many American Christians, influenced by Modernity, look to our fallen worldly government to solve our problems and do so with the notion that Jesus would do the same. He would not, and I do not believe we should either.

    Jesus said to his disciples, “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world” (John 15:19). Of course, this does not mean Christians should be withdrawing from the world, rather, it means that as citizens of God’s Dominion, we utilize and follow the politics of Jesus – a politics not of this world. Jesus is not a Democrat, nor is he a Republican, nor did he affiliate himself with the Jewish political parties of the first century (e.g. the Pharisees or Sadducees), And yet we, as modern American Christians, tend to readily define ourselves based on our secular political party of choice. Our Christian theology then risks being shaped by or synthesized with the party platform, which leads us down the slippery slope of Constantinianism.


    • Craig, thanks for your reply. I mostly agree with you. Except that I think that the problem with American Christians is not that too many of them look to government as the answer but that far too many of them look at the government and think that government is the problem. When the real problem that makes Social Security and Medicare and Obama Care a necessity in our world is our too often uncritical worship of an economic system that if left to its own devices (unregulated) devastates families and the earth. And people want to get government “off their backs”! Wrong answer! In my humble opinion of course.

      I support a strong robust social safety net and very strong and robust regulatory oversight of the market and redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation not because I think it will save me or us but because I see government’s involvement here as one of the only powers capable of checking the increasingly untrammeled power of the global free market. And it surprises me not one bit to see that power now working diligently to undo environmental regulations and destroy the last vestiges of union power and opposing having their taxes raised to pay for health care for all and… and on and on it goes.

      It’s probably best not to get me started down this road! Peace,

  10. Scott Holland

    WWJD? It’s not clear in every and in all contemporary situations but I’m thinking today he would be hanging out with Jay Steele.

    We had a fine day at Bethany with both visiting prospective students and a circle of District Executives who had attended the Advanced Foundations conference earlier in the week. Many of the urgent issues in this Blog were questions and concerns we talked about on campus today. Thanks, Josh, for providing this forum for lively dialog and debate.

  11. Scott Holland

    Friends, Since the question of sectarianism and Hauerwas has arisen in this blog exchange I should note that I have a paper-trail on this issue from the 1990’s. The pieces that connect most to this exchange are found in the Conrad Grebel Review, including a published response and exchange with Hauerwas at the American Academy of Religion. I do find Stan’s view of the church sectarian and I offer a liberal Anabaptist alternative. Yes, I am a liberal, not an apologetic progressive, but a liberal Anabaptist in the spirit of Rauschenbusch and company. When Hauerwas charges that, “Holland has embraced the liberal project,” I answer, “Yes.” I think Craig Gandy knows some of this material. I can’t at the moment cite issue numbers and years of the journal because it was indeed a long time ago. I like Jay’s reminder of the fallen church rather than the sectarian bad fiction of a romantic or triumphant church. In my exchanges with Hauerwas I suggest that sectarians tend to only have a high theology of the church and a very low or absent theology of culture and creation. In the kind of public theology I am advocating, I would argue that even as there is sin in the world there is likewise sin in the church and even as there is grace in the church there is grace in the world. Jesus came preaching the reign of God and too many of us retreat from this blessed, broken world of grace into sacred reservations called churches and pretend that this is the exclusive manifestation of God’s reign. The church only participates in this reign is if dares to ask not simply what God might be going in the church but also what God might be doing in the world and then joins that work of just peace and redemption in church, culture and creation.

  12. I’m argued out but I really do appreciate your nuancing, both Jay and Scott. Thank you both for the stimulating discussion (and to Josh for hosting it on his blog!).

    Scott, I am interested in following your paper trail w/ Hauerwas, so I’ll dig around in my research database resources to see if I can dig them up. Thanks for the tip…

  13. Craig Gandy

    There may be some additional volumes with articles, but these two are the ones that I remember:
    Conrad Grebel Review, Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring 1995.
    Conrad Grebel Review, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring 2005.

    Hope that helps.

  14. Josh Brockway

    Scott and all,

    It seems like this topic has peaked interest across the spectrum. In the first day of some of these exchanges the blog had an all time high in readers, and that was without posting a new entry! Thanks for such committed and yet dialogical responses. I have been on the road all weekend without my computer, but have been reading up through emails on my phone. It’s just impossible to say anything longer than a sentence from a smart phone!

    First, I want to say something about the WWJD thread within this conversation. That phrase, while a bit over used, is a useful ethical question. Yet, it is not the question to work from in a theological conversation. So, to say that Jesus is on the side of one perspective within the discourse is a less than veiled rhetorical attempt not only to say “I am right” but to insert such force as to say “you are in some way apostate”. I simply do not find such an rhetorical flourish fair or necessary. I would say simply that Jesus is with those whom we reference- the poor, the oppressed, the soldiers of conscience, and the sick- and not with any particular perspective argued here.

    Second, I want to reclaim some of my original post in light of what has been said here. I am not a Hauerwas echo. Though I find much of what he says speaks my mind, I do not feel the need to defend his theological portrait of the Church. What I am saying in this post is that we in the Church have too readily adopted Modern Political thought. First, in the public square we have bought into the idea that truth is not true until it is legislatively or judicially established. Take for example the matter of Conscientious Objection, in this time of a professional standing army there is no such thing as a CO- except of course for those soldiers seeking to leave the military. When I signed up for selective service I wrote on my card in the margins CO to establish my voice. However, I do not need the government to recognize my conscience before my status is valid. In fact, the opposite is true. My objection to war leads (hopefully) to a legal recognition. If it does not, I have assessed- yeah even Counted the Cost- of my belief. It is possible that my conscience could land me in jail, or worse (ie those of our tradition who were beaten and tortured for their belief).

    Second, in the Church we have assumed that votes and positions are valid modes of discernment. Thankfully, the Special Response process has moved us a bit away from this political process. But from too many conversations it is clear that all sides feel the need to gather “more votes” so as to conqueror the other. At its root, this debate in the Church is partly about how we corporately discern. I, for one, am ready to find alternative modes.

    Our conversations about Social Security and Welfare have assumed this as well. Recently, during a time of sharing in a local congregation it was stated at least twice that we should pray that the government “do the right thing.” Of course, but I also feel that the government never does the “right thing.” It may do something good, but by the nature of the system and its processes the Right is often negotiated to a Good. I know Scott that the response is quick in coming- Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. Yet, as the Church- as the prophetic voice of God in the world- is striving for the perfect and the holy.

    Now, in response to Jordan, I do not mind the prophetic voice of the Church in the political realm. In fact, I think it’s greatly needed. Yet, two things surface for me in that realm. First, given what I said in the previous paragraph, our efforts will always fail in that the government will not fully embrace the Godly Vision we are shouting. Nor should they. The Modern mode of governance, while a grand stride away from the autocratic rule of kings and the theocratic oppression of Calvin’s Geneva, still must dismiss the holistic (spiritual and physical) witness of the people of God. Second, the Modern vision of governance must be atheistic, by it’s own admittance. Along with many Post-Christendom theologians, I welcome that position of the Modern Government since we can no longer assume that the public politic will follow a Christian course. Yet, I fear that many of us in the Church still like the idea of a cultural Christendom which assumes that ours is still a position of power. My knee-jerk, historical and theological ecclesiology is simple- The Church is not fully the Church until it is persecuted. The modern assumption is that the Church can live as one voice among many and still find it’s vision some how implemented. I still have yet to see how this possible given that at times the Godly Vision and the National vision are in direct competition.

    From my post, it should be clear that I am not arguing for a “sectarian” Church, not simply a privatized system of belief. Rather, I am all for a Church active in the world, serving and proclaiming the Reign of God. Scott, I need to look back at your paper trail as well, yet I am not convinced of your definition of Sect as you have it here. The low theology of creation and culture you mention is a wider phenomenon than just the Anabaptist traditions. In fact, even the most Constantinian traditions among us have within them the ability to do just what you critique. Really I am with you that the Church cannot continue to live in denial of the movements of God in the world. Yet, I have the feeling that those of us here diverge on just how and why that is the case. As I argue in my Embodiment posts. I come to this conclusion through the Incarnation of the Word, not by some humanistic appreciation.

    What is needed however, is a more “spiritual” concept and practice. We cannot just look at the fallen world, the fallen (though I have a post coming about that) Church or the fallen government and assume that what is there is holy. As so many of the Christian tradition have said we must discern the spirits to see what is of God and what is not. To say without qualification that the culture and creation contain the divine is to overlook this ancient practice. Is what we encounter in the world Life, or it’s imposter.

    Thanks all, for the conversation. I know I haven’t touched on all what has been said. Yet, there are now several pieces spinning around in my mind!


    • Well, Josh, it sounds like you and others are ready to move on from this conversation. While there is no need for you to reply if that is so, I thought you were making some fairly debatable (in the sense that I would certainly want to debate anyone who made them) assertions in this last post.

      I am not sure, for instance, what the evidence is that because I (or others) choose to engage in the political process that I believe that truth isn’t true until it is decided legislatively or judicially. I would rather say that because I believe something is true (that all people are created equal, as an example) that it is appropriate to seek to make this a legislative reality. If the government legislates discrimination then my convictions will lead me to count the cost of civil disobedience in some form. If, on the other hand, government comes around to my position, then hopefully we have made the world a better place for everyone. But I am certainly not looking to the legislative process to validate the truth.

      I also disagree with your statement that the modern mode of government “must dismiss the holistic (spiritual and physical) witness of the people of God.” I would say that it may, but it also may not. This is because, among other things, some of those people of God are working in the government. (And some of those people of God may not be Christians.) Nor do I agree with your assertion that “the Modern vision of governance must be atheistic.” I would say rather that it must be agnostic, or more precisely it must simply take no position on the existence of God but instead welcome all perspectives to speak their voice and cast their vote.

      You may say that you are not arguing for a sectarian church but the above referenced paragraph sounds pretty sectarian to me. I mean that in no pejorative way. Just my interpretation of a paragraph that leads up to a statement that the church is not fully the church until it is persecuted.

      I think it is possible to welcome the collapse of Constantinianism and not be sectarian.

      Finally, I very much come to my theological perspective through “some humanist appreciation.” My view of the scripture’s reflections on the divinity of Jesus (the incarnation) is that it was just that. It was a secondary movement made in response to the human life of Jesus. He brought healing, hope, and love to his people. He showed them a challenging way of living to live in the already-present kingdom of God. It worked. Many peoples lives were changed for the better. A movement got going. Unfortunately this did not make everyone happy; it also cost him his life. But the movement lived on and Jesus lived on in the memory of those who were with him and chose to follow in his way. Because his way worked; it changed lives for the better. Naturally, as his early followers reflected on the meaning of his life they opened their scriptures and found passages that gave them a language to speak about what they had experienced in him. He was the Son of God, the Word made Flesh, etc.

      In the same way I look around in the church and in the world to see where healing, hope, and love is being manifested. Sometimes it is happening in the church; sometimes it is happening in the world. Where ever it is happening in my theological reflection I name it as the presence of God. But my theological reflections are very much evidence, or fruits, based. I happily wear the label of a Christian humanist.

      Thanks for listening.

      • Craig Gandy

        Jay, I’m hoping for some clarification. You said: “I would rather say that because I believe something is true (that all people are created equal, as an example) that it is appropriate to seek to make this a legislative reality.” This is what I mean by “legislating the Gospel.” Perhaps you have a different understanding of what that means, but this certainly meets my definition. I find this to be theologically problematic because, as Brethren, we say there should be “no force in religion,” yet we seek to legislatively force our religious ethic onto a secular government and its citizens who are not bound to that ethic. Does this not come dangerously close to attempting to craft a theocracy?


  15. Scott Holland

    Josh, The WWJD comment was more rhetorical playfulness and a way to quickly signal that I agreed with Jay’s lengthly and thoughtful theopolitical presentation than some assertion of God’s-eye-view. I don’t use WWJD as a serious theological foundation for most contemporary expressions of contextual ethics. The real question, it seems to me, is what WE might do in this current context, as persons formed and informed by the Jesus story in this space and time. When I drove my old Jeep off to theological gigs across country some years ago, in Philly, some of the Jesus for President folks scolded me with an ecotheological WWJD! They said they knew Jesus would not be driving a 4×4 Jeep across country. I replied, “Right. I know. The dude doesn’t know how to drive.” Zoom, zoom, zoom…

  16. Joshua Brockway

    Jay and all,

    That’s the fun thing about blogs, there rarely is a stopping point. Since it is my post, I don’t mind continuing the conversation. Thanks for objecting, clarifying, and keeping it going. I am all for spirited debate, and positions taken with energy and conviction. Please, know that while I try not to offend, I do not take comments and critique personally. Though I do expect some decorum, I assume that we are engaged in important conversations for the life of the Church and not our own egos. I spend my academic time in the 4th and 5th centuries, so I am no stranger to ad hominem as a theological skill….anything we work at here has to be better than the polemic of Jerome!

    In my comment I do say some provocative things, but so have others. Any one who has ventured into the “Brethren Studies” debate with Scott knows that all too well! Like I said, your comment about the fallen Church is provoking another post from me. I think that concept of fall deserves it’s own thread. I am also considering hosting what some would call a “blog conference” to pick up on some of this conversation. All of this is to say that clearly we have only scratched the surface, and we all have made debatable claims that deserve fuller exploration.

    With my statement about the Church and persecution I am really pressing us to ask a whether one can be both a Good American and a Good Christian. What I am saying is that on occasion those two categories can overlap but there are also times when they butt heads. So just as you would say that the Church is fallen, I am saying the culture is fallen. To look and see signs of God, and I would say redemption, in the culture is to engage in discernment and as such already presupposes formation in the virtues/story of Christianity. But, because of this fallen nature of things, we cannot just say that 1) that the goodness is an inherent element of the system (rather it is a work of God) and 2) we ought not assume that the system will continually tend toward reasoned positions (even positions of faith). When I say that the Nation-State’s vision is in direct competition with the vision of “thy kingdom come” I want to be clear that there are two different teloi in play. The Nation has no interest in “on earth as it is in heaven,” in fact it is most concerned with self preservation and equilibrium. The Kingdom vision on the other hand, is as you say, the prosperity of all and the fullness of life (spirit and body). That often means an economy of enough rather than competition and infinite growth. It means radical mutuality rather than radical individualism. The American Dream cannot make room for those Heavenly visions. They challenge the status quo, they ask the people to give up certain cultural values. As Jarrod McKenna recently posted on Twitter, we know we are doing something right when they start shooting at us. The world, in it’s fallen state, cannot tolerate the insertion and living out of fully Heavenly values. At some point the state will put the Church down for the sake of equilibrium.

    This leads me to something that was churning in the back of my mind in this conversation and Scott may be better able to fill it in than I will here. But what we are talking about is a vision for the Post-Modern Church. I sense (at least) two visions being articulated here. First, there is the one I outline in the original post- the Church must let go of it’s Modern aspirations of having it’s cake and eating it too. That is to say that we begin to see the Christian story and the Nation story are in direct competition. This is, in part, a realization that the Church cannot enter the public politic without some compromise of its overarching vision. To continue to hold a Modernist position and value a post-Christendom context is to overlook the assumption that the Church is still in a position of cultural, if not legal power.

    The second Post-Modern vision is one I would argue is a kind of hyper-modernity. Here the idea is that the liberal and humanist project has not fully reached it’s zenith and that there are ways of compromise that bring out the fullness of the Kingdom of God. Scott’s subtle strategy of encouraging Just War objections to war and the theological tactic of saying there is no Modern possibility of a Just War is one such example. Here the rules of the cultural system are not seen as contradictory to Christian witness, but an asset to be exploited for a more strategic plan. (I would say it’s also a rhetorical, and discursive approach rather than an embodied and incarnational witness.) In a way, this hyper-modern form of Post-Modernity does not feel the need to question the current system and seek alternatives.

    We should see all of this competition in the recent emphasis on the Constitution in the recent political debates. When our legislators engage in a liturgical reading of the Constitution and our Supreme Court justices debate the writers intentions as the canon for measuring laws, we should see that we are in a political system which is becoming a religion. For me, it is clear that the early practices of baptism were in fact naturalization proceedings wherein a Roman citizen transferred citizenship from the Roman Empire to the Kingdom of God. What we have here in the emerging American political landscape is an attempt to place the politcal structures and practices in the realm of the religious. As Brian commented on my post about the creeds, our culture asks us to say the Pledge of Allegiance as a Creedal recitation.

    So, if this makes me Sectarian I’ll take the title. But I do not think that Scott’s Culture/Creation critique actually highlights a sectarian posture. That said, I am really not sure how we can use sect pejoratively if this Empire/Kingdom definition is true (if this is the definition we agree upon) since at the beginning of the Church this was standard. In other words, there is a deep tradition within the History of Christianity of clear distinction between the Kingdom of God and the Empires of the Earth.


    • Craig Gandy

      Great post, Josh!

    • Scott Holland

      Josh & all,

      On the modernity and postmodernity debate, those of us who might be Christian humanists or Christian pragmatists tend to make creative and constructive use of whatever contributes to human flourishing and therefore has analogical links to the best of the Christian vision of God, world, self and others.

      To state it in more Evangelical language, “All truth is God’s truth.”

      In the debates between Modern and Postmodern expressions of philosophy and theology, the matter of particularity vs universality or the dialectical vs the analogical imagination is much in focus.

      There is postmodern wisdom, as well as Jewish and even Anabaptist sensibilities, present in Elie Weisel’s dialectical words: “Only when one lives out one’s life in passionate particularity can one’s life take on universal significance.” Such an assertion can become sectarian if the particularist revels only in his lovely difference and fails to turn his affections to universal human cares and concerns, which he learns about best, in this model, via particular passions and practices.

      There is modern, indeed classical, wisdom in the analogical words of Aristotle’s Poetics: “To see the similar in the dissimilar is the mark of poetic genius.” Such an assertion can become colonial or even Constantinian if one fails to truly respect the otherness of the other in one’s romantic desire for a human solidarity grounded in easy confessions of similarity or even sameness. This would be the move of a weak rather than a strong poet.

      For Weisel, it is the artful storyteller, and for Aristotle it is the good poet who can guide us through these philosophical and theological quests to engage the dilemmas of both particularity and universality. The pragmatic Christian theologian is happy to cite this Jew and this Greek together in the adventure of composing a contemporary theology which Jacques Derrida insists must be Jew-Greek or Greek-Jew for our time.

      • Joshua Brockway

        Thanks Scott, this is helpful. In all I don’t really disagree, and in fact I am not sure this negates what I have argued as Kingdom/Empire conflict. The theological and theopolitical project is always a poesis, the taking of what is to make something new. Or as some have said, it is a bricolage.

        I do want to hold up a bit of an irony in this however. In some recent conversations in private and here on the blog I have championed a kind of NeoPlatonic Christianity only to be reigned in by the typical neoliberal retort that NeoPlatonism is akin to the apostacy of the Christian/Hebrew narrative. Don’t you think that Augustine, Origen, Basil and the Gregories were doing exactly what you argue here in terms of cultural appropriation? Isn’t there some interior canon which measures the cultural medium and selects the appropriate elements from which to construct?

        What I am saying here, probably at the chance of sounding like a broken record, is that there are times when the Christian Narrative and the American/Modern/Political Narrative conflict. When that happens, it seems to me that we have not appropriately discerned how we assume the political narrative in our ways of being Church.

  17. Hi Josh, thanks for your thoughtful reply. I find myself in the somewhat ironic position here of defending the American dream, in contrast to my role as a pastor where I am continually contrasting the Christian story with so many of our American and cultural values. Still…

    I would suggest that the American dream is not monolithic. There are competing American dreams and visions. In some ways in fact we live and act in very schizophrenic ways. An obvious example is the way we pay lip service to a form of unbridled capitalism that wipes out jobs and communities and creates all kinds of environmental disasters. On the other hand we have created a social safety net of Social Security and Medicaid and now Health Care. This too, is part of the American dream, a part that calls for mutuality and individual sacrifice in the name of a larger good, while at the same time we celebrate the myth of the self-made millionaire. We have the same kind of dynamic going on as we celebrate democracy and prop up dictators around the world. We got problems.

    I would say, though, that the outcome of the American dream is very much up for debate. It could go one way or it could go another. I would also say that if it comes to the point that they (whoever they are) start shooting at us Christians, I would consider it not a testimony of our faithfulness but a failure of our Christian imaginations to engage the powers in ways that might bring out their better angels. The early Christians did, after all, have reason to celebrate when Constantine converted and the persecution stopped.

    I would also suggest that just as the American dream is not monolithic, neither is the Church. In fact, there is no Church. There are tens of thousands of particular Christian communities who cannot come close to agreeing among themselves about what it means to be Christian. So I don’t think your post-modern dichotomy does justice to the actual post-modern, post-Constantinian situation. There is no Church versus Nation. There are many Christian communities as well as Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, and more trying to be faithful as they understand it, and trying – the ones in this country – in various ways to influence the outcome of the American dream.

    I think it is very important for us in our communities to know and live out our particular stories, to clearly understand that there are competing value-systems out there and to see that some of them are incredibly destructive. But I also think it is important for us to do this with a little humility as we realize that amidst the many different religious traditions (Christian and others) and value-systems we haven’t cornered the market on the Truth. It doesn’t have to be Us versus Them.

    Thanks for listening.

    • Joshua Brockway


      Scott kind of touched on the universal and particular element earlier in his comment about the Post-Modern taxonomy. As I hedged in that comment, I am well aware that this isn’t really a dichotomy (or even the Post-Modern cardinal sin of being a binary). I would say that both of us are probably painting ourselves into a corner in a discursive process. As you mention it’s like the argument is putting you in an ironic position. For me, I am not trying to say that advocacy is a sin, but rather that we have to assess how our involvement in the public politic has shaped us counter to the Christian narrative and witness. The place I see that the most in in our assumption that Robert’s Rules equates to Christian discernment.

      Two quick responses- First, I well aware of the Church vs many Christian communities track. I work in Liturgical Studies fairly often and one of the things is that Liturgical Theologians like to say there is a Liturgy and Liturgical Historians say that such a thing never existed for there are but many liturgies. I, myself, think there is a middle ground. First, there is no Church outside the local communities. But, second, these local expressions make up the Church in their relationship to one another. That is to say the to confess that there is One Church- as is in the ancient creeds- is not deny this local expression, but to lead us into greater interconnection.

      Second, I’ll admit I cringe a bit at the idea that the world’s antagonism is a result of the Church’s failure. For many of my more progressive friends, the crucifixion is less a soteriological event (ie- Jesus died as a substitutionary offering) and more of a realist statement about the antagonism of the world. In other words, when the fully alive human lives out the intended pattern of existence the world cannot help but kill the prophet.


      • Good points. Thanks for the conversation. Perhaps this isn’t the place but I would be curious to know how this kind of conversation gets worked out in your denominational work. And how and where are local congregations and leaders being engaged? I find this to be a more fruitful line or kind of thinking in terms of what I am doing in the local church than some of the conversations on other venues that I participate in.

      • Joshua Brockway

        Jay….I take the 5th…

        No I am kidding. In the recent past I have tried to keep my blogging “off work time” so to speak. Yet, as I look over the posts, they have little to do with my academic life. Much of what I am writing about hits on issues and practices of discipleship. So in essence I need to re-think how this blog and it’s conversations intersect with my work.

        Now that said, there are number of things in the works about conscience, spiritual practices life discernment, and some work with Jordan on various things. I also come to much of this asking exactly what you are in terms of the local congregation. So in terms of advocacy, I ask quite often how such a letter or statement comes back to or grows out of a congregations context and practices. Recently, that means I end up writing or gathering resources for worship. But nonetheless I think it is imperative that Denominational work describe itself as enabling and nurturing local communities of practice and discipleship. In other words, advocacy, disaster response, global projects are an out growth of local faith and not the end.

        Thanks for the wise insights, and drawing out the conversation! I am honored that the space is fruitful, I hope I can keep up with that!

    • Scott Holland

      Josh and Jay:

      Sure, Josh, Augustine, Origen, Basil and the Gregories were indeed asking Greek questions of a Hebrew narrative, which is what Christian theology was in its earliest imaginative construction. Earlier, I was only cautioning against allowing the Hebrew story to be eclipsed by a Neo-Platonic master narrative, which is what some would call the triumph of Christendom.

      Like Jay, however, I’m interested in entering the best stories of the American Dream. Thus, Christian theology must not only be determined or directed by the Greek questions of Augustine and Basil but also by the American questions of Rauschenbusch, M.L. King, Emerson and Obama.

      Consider the first Brethren preacher with a PhD, Martin Brumbaugh. He reached a stage in his spiritual and intellectual development when living in Mack’s Church wasn’t enough for him to fully enjoy God and love his neighbor. He desired to also enter Lincoln’s America. I have been writing recently about “Entering Whitman’s America.” Whitman’s friend Reverend Emerson knew the canon of good theology didn’t end with the Greeks, although Emerson certainly loved the Greeks.

      • Joshua Brockway


        As we discussed earlier, I would say that the Christian Narrative is actually the confluence of the Hebrew and the Greek. That is the contextual core, even present in the very scriptures we read and interpret. The very use of Koine rather than Aramaic or Hebrew reveals that yin and yang of the Christian narrative (long before the triumph of Christendom). I can walk along with many theologians and set aside many elements of the Christian narrative- ie scholasticism, the Gregorian reforms and the Justinian codes- but I cannot just say that Hellenism can be set aside.

        Now the shoe is on the other foot and I am in the place of saying a dream has run its course. I do not hold out hope that any form of the American dream will carry us through the next few decades. In fact, I think you will find that many of the young and hip of the Neo-Anabaptist movement share that same skepticism. What is more, the American narrative of Emerson and Wittman could not fathom the economic context of 21st century globalism. As Brian noted very early on in this thread, the Modern Political Narrative has given way to Capitalism on steroids wherein large corporations and banks consume and control unfathomable amounts of currency. In fact, our conversation here is about 10 years behind the curve. Graham Ward’s recent book The Politics of Discipleship are already moving beyond the American political dream to discuss the Global Materialism dream. I think one of the effects of this shift is the realization by many Gen X and younger is that many of these praised achievements of Modern Politics (Social Security) will even be around in our retirement years. In fact, I am so skeptical that a true restructuring of health care will ever stem the radical privatization of both insurance companies and hospitals. With a little nod to your great rhetorical skills- We aren’t even in Wittman’s America but have moved into Goldman Sach’s Global Economy.


  18. Scott Holland

    Josh, Yes, these — Whitman’s America, King’s Dream, Obama’s Hope, the Kingdom of God, even Graham Ward’s church — are protest against and possible alternatives to Goldman Sach’s Global Capitalism, for as Paul Ricoeur reminds us, “We live only what we imagine.”

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