“Knitting While Detroit Burns?”: The Reformed “Both/And” versus the Anabaptist “First/ Then”

portlandia-310You’ve got to love the phrase “Knitting while Detroit burns?” Jamie Smith is one of the best at turning a phrase and this one beautifully visualizes what a lot of people think about Anabaptists and the push for the local. With regard to justice, we Anabaptists supposedly take the church into retreat from society at large in order to focus on the local. In pursuing all things local, we withdraw from engagement with macro policy concerns. This seems to be the worry behind Jamie engaging Brandon Rhode’s article in CT with his piece entitled “Knitting while Detroit burns?” Jamie is afraid the young Millennials’ push for local, and its reaction against their parents’ triumphalism, will eventuate in a rejection of macro civic/policy engagement. Instead he pushes for a “both/and” approach where the church engages society both through local work and macro civil policy.
Most ‘Neo-Anabaptist’ thinkers (I use this term to distinguish this group from purist historic Anabaptists. Yoder and Hauerwas being main influences here) agree with Jamie. For us the church’s engagement with the larger civil order is a both/and, local/macro endeavor. Nonetheless, there is a difference between how a Reformed person like Jamie and a Neo-Anabaptist like myself parse the both/and. For us it’s not as simple as “both/and.” We reject the “either/or” for a “first/then” approach. For us the engagement of larger civic policy concerns must first begin in local engagement and discernment. Then, out from the local hermeneutic of the community, we engage wider society concerns armed with the wise judgments and modeling made possible in a community committed to live (and discern) under the Lordship of Christ. Jamie articulates a “both local and macro” engagement strategy while the Neo Anabaptists prefer a “first local then macro” “local precedes macro” engagement strategy. Why is this important? I suggest there are a few theological reasons.

  1. Neo-Anabaptists see the civil order as preservatory. The church however is a direct participant in the redemptive order of Christ’s reign inaugurated in His life, death, resurrection and ascension to the right hand. Though the civil order, including the exercise of the sword, may have been instituted by God after the fall, it is still an accommodation to sin. It is therefore discontinuous with discipleship. It cannot be redemptive. It plays a role in redemption in that it preserves sufficient order to allow for the church to live and give witness in space and time. But it itself is not redemptive. It therefore makes sense we start by discerning the justice of the world via the redemptive order of Christ and then proceed out from there where indeed God can be working in the world. It is a “first/then,” not merely a “both/and.”
  2. Neo-Anabaptists understand that we have no direct access to the category of creation. Creation has been tainted by the fall. Our human reason is fallen as well. For sure, there is still good in creation. But Anabaptists take the Reformed understanding of the falleness of reason to its logical conclusion. We cannot know directly the will of God off of nature. We are prone to being submerged into the rebellious powers and principalities. Unless of course, we can gather, in mutual submission, to the Lordship of Christ working via the Spirit, to discern what God is doing here in our lives together and in the contexts around us. Here truth is ferreted out in a hermeneutic of the community. Here we can test and learn justice, recognize it when we see it in the wider culture, and bear witness to it and join in with it. This is why Hauerwas (along with Balthasar and others) says stuff like “We are sure Jesus is present in the world, but around the Eucharist we know He is present, and from here can discern Him in the world”(my paraphrase). So for sure, this is a “both/and” but this is also a “first/then.”
  3. Neo-Anabaptists understand the church’s entrance into culture as an incarnational process. Certainly I cannot speak for all Anabaptists on this one, but it seems the way of God as revealed in Jesus Christ is humility, vulnerability, presence and then of course embodied witness. Our engagement of culture comes first through humble service, presence, listening and embodying another way. Then, having discerned God at work, we can respond faithfully in wider cultural engagement. Our witness, embodied in the language and life lived together, lends power, integrity, credibility and even understanding to our engagement in the wider culture. So here again, we have a “both/and” but here too we are encouraged towards a “first/then” approach to engagement.

There can be no simple “cultural mandate” then in the sense that we get to sit from a perch overlooking the city and tell the people via our brilliant analysis what they should or should not be doing. There is no “culture war,” because God is in control of history, and the church is the bearer of that truth humbly without coercion. God will bring in His Kingdom through the way of the Lamb who sits on the throne. The provision of good ordered government is a sign of God’s patience. He preserves the world while the work of redemption and restoration patiently goes on His timetable. For these reasons, we Neo-Anabaptists think the words “cultural mandate” (often found in Reformed/Kuyperian writing) are dangerous. It too easily can forget the “first/then” of the church’s engagement with society. It too easily can lead to Jerry Falwell, George Bush or (dare I say) Jim Wallis.

None of this means that we do not vote or we do not work for good roads or a better banking system. We do not necessarily need community discernment every time we have a national election or a referendum for better roads. But we do now have the regular practice available, when an issue comes up, to discern it communally. Our church once discerned to work against a road being put in near our church building because of its effects on our neigborhood. We have the option available to withdraw from voting, war and even taxes when the system we are a part of has become so corrupt that we must resist it. We have good habits of being critical towards rather than simply participating in and thereby supporting macro-policy systems that are corrupt.

Lest someone think this is ineffective, let he or she should look at where the hospital system came from, where democracy was learned (according to Yoder at least), where the current hospice system ideas came from, where the first colleges and universities came from. They came from the church not government. If we look at what provoked the civil rights movements, we see the practice of non violence and social justice learned and developed within the Black churches. MLK may have learned non-violence via Gandhi, but Gandhi learned it from Tolstoy 🙂 . These tactics, locally born, have proved their merits in the changing of society for God’s Kingdom purposes. Yet it starts local first, then moves to the wider macro concerns of society.

As opposed to Smith’s “both/and” for Detroit, can we imagine what would have happened to Detroit if several thousand Anabaptist radicals had moved in, developed local employment, repaired homes, nurtured urban gardens, found ways to repair roads with less expense etc. etc.  Indeed this is exactly the kind of justice activism Detroit and the United States as a whole is in sore need of in our current history.

For all these reasons, it seems that James K A Smith’s Reformed “both/and” requires the Anabaptist “first/then.” What say you?

For more on this approach to justice in some practical depth see chapter 9 in Prodigal Christianity.  See also Chris Smith’s response article to Jamie’s piece here.

If you liked this post check out “Are the Neo-Reformed/Evangelicals Niebuhrian?”

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