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Over the past couple of weeks I have been engaging the complex dynamics and contradictions that exist within what may be called the Brethren culture. Continuing on the ironic (and ever growing) theme of culture wars within the Brethren community, I’d like to process some growing thoughts as to the current reality within which the Brethren live. It is no coincidence that while I have been writing and thinking I have been simultaneously reading James Davison Hunter’s book, To Change the World. While he is engaging the larger Christian culture, he has specific criticism that apply to the Brethren.

A brief summary of his observation and argument regarding the full spectrum of the Christian community in the U.S. is that the church has come to understand “the good society through the prism of politics.”[1] While this may seem somewhat benign if not a positive (think of Yoder, Hauerwas, et al), it is far more symptomatic of an infectious dysfunction both within the larger community as well as within particular smaller communities, such as the Brethren. What he says specifically is that both the “Christian right and Christian left operate within the political establishment in the same ways as the major special interest groups.”[2] One of the things I have observed is that the Brethren have accepted the status quo of modern western society to such an extent that this church embodies the same political partisanship as the larger society. In this sense we are the mirror expression of the national political world.

What I find frustratingly fascinating in all this is that the Church of the Brethren seems to be “broken up” (an unfortunately appropriate description) into the same constituencies as the larger Christian culture. We are a microcosm of North American Christianity. We are made up of folks who are unabashedly liberal (or progressive), those who are conservative evangelicals in all their diversity, and even the neo-anabaptists. When I look at this I cannot help but wonder as to how we got to this place, not that it is even important at this point. The regrettable part of this is that by becoming this microcosm we have surrendered our grasp on the foundational narratives that formed our identity and embraced the narratives of western modernity, especially western democracy and capitalism. With this embrace we have taken on the same rhetorical strategy as the political empire by means of a politics of negation. Rather than witnessing (and even celebrating) to and representing all that is good in this world and the emerging kingdom of God, we seem to be abandoning a positive presence in lieu of the violent (in all its irony) discourse of popular politics. Rather than seeking and speaking truth we make assumptions and judgments without considering the path of grace. Hunter puts it this way, “What this means is that rather than being defined by its cultural achievements, its intellectual and artistic vitality, its service to the needs of others, Christianity (and in this case Brethren) is defined to the outside world by its rhetoric of resentment and the ambitions of a will in opposition to others.”[3] While this criticism is targeted specifically toward the right and left wings, the neo-anabaptists are not excluded. While for the most part they have removed themselves from some of the political discourse surrounding divisive issues, they participate indirectly by means of what hunter terms it as a “world-hater theology.” This last criticism is especially difficult for me because I find myself a part of this constituency. While I have never thought of it in these terms I must admit that I do struggle with a strong dislike of institutions and social orders. This too is an embrace of the politics of negation. It is the way of judgment through a discourse fully committed to articulating the kingdom by means of what it is not. Regardless of the constituency each bears a deep resentment for the “other.”

What is most disappointing is that we do not seem to be noticing our trajectory. We seem to be perfectly happy with the status quo of division and violent discourse as we politicize our issues and values. It is blatantly obvious that we have become the very institutions which we resisted at the beginning. I fear we have lost our witness as “another way of living” as we continue to embrace the status quo and follow the via negativa.


[1] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 169.

[2] Ibid., 170.

[3] Ibid., 174. The italicized parenthetical is mine.

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Comments
  1. Happy to see you using Hunter so much, Andy. I was using To Change the World to converse with/critique Brethren last year, and we seem to agree on a great deal by what you’ve said in your last three posts. There are a string of posts on my RT blog in the Hunter-Brethren vein, if you’re interested.

    One Brethren-Hunter connection to note is that Carl Bowman works at the same institute at UVA: The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture (http://www.iasc-culture.org/). Hunter acknowledges this connection in footnotes, referencing Bowman’s Brethren Culture.

    As to how Brethren got sucked into this, I find William Cavanaugh to be a helpful conversation partner while reading Hunter. Hunter’s observation is that American-style politics has captivated our “social imaginary” to the point where it seems the only natural, inevitable solution to any social problem. Cavanaugh goes further in showing that liberal democracy in America tries to (and has very successfully) sucked the sociality out of civil society. In other words: the states wants citizens to see it as the only viable purveyor of goods and services and peace and security. Cavanaugh uses the image of a bicycle wheel where citizens are spokes, all individually connected to the hub/center, the nation-state. Contrast this view with pre-modern societies and polities which were characterized by a dense, diffuse web of relationality and interdependence.

    So you’re right: Brethren have been duped into this “nation-state as savior” mentality, which is incredibly top-down and authoritarian, and it has come to characterize our own “in house” political battles. And no one really seems to even sense this, especially leadership, so the politics go on as they have for the past few decades…

    • Andrew says:

      Hey Brian, thanks for your comment and the information. I’m relatively new to socio-political and cultural studies (I’ve spent most of my time and education in the area of hermeneutics and theology) so could you be more specific as to which Cavanaugh text you are referring to? I’d like to pick it up.

  2. […] Brethren and the Politics of Negation […]

  3. […] Brethren and the Politics of Negation […]

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