For the most part, I think Avery Dulles is right to say that “dissent [in the church] should neither be glorified or vilified.” Dissent in the 21st century is not only permitted, it is often even required as a sign of truthfulness. Of course, that’s not entirely incorrect. To dissent, in part, is to signify that there is road left to travel, that we have not finally arrived in understanding or practice. Those who compel us towards growth in understanding, towards a more faithful discipleship, always bear something of a critical edge—they take notice of those places where we have fallen short, they push us beyond our insufficiencies. But dissent in the 21st century West is also celebrated, totalized, in a way that negates its opposite: trust. Or maybe it’s the reverse: dissent in the 21st century West is impossible, because there is a refusal to recognize that anything could rightly claim authority—there is nothing from which to dissent. The result of glorifying dissent, on this end of things, is an indomitable arrogance, where nothing is worth preserving and my critical edge is automatically the critical edge of truth.

Yet I wonder if Dulles has forgotten the central place of the prophets as faithful dissenters in the Old Testament canon. At least it disturbs me somewhat to hear Dulles reduce Jesus’ prophetic role to “authoritative instruction.” Instruction is certainly there, but for Jesus and the prophets before him, prophetic instruction is always instruction over against. That is, prophecy always involves judgment, and not just of individuals but (even primarily) of establishments and habits. And what is dissent if not this critical judgment of establishments and habits? Need we not maintain what Dulles forgets, a positive account of the indispensability of dissent, if we are to walk with the prophets even today?

Update: Tim Nafziger has made an important comment below, calling me out on the unnamed and narrow scope I had in mind while writing this. Ambivalence towards dissent from violent regimes or structures is but a damnable apathy towards evil, Tim is absolutely right, and I did not mean to suggest otherwise. This post has in mind dissent within the church, and in a particularly American context.

Comments (15)

  1. Forrest Moyer

    Some good insights here. Thanks. We all have to learn that balance between trusting tradition and blazing new trails; and I’m sure the learning will continue for the rest of our lives. :)

  2. Brian Hamilton (Post author)

    Thanks, Forrest–it certainly is an ongoing process. But this isn’t just a ‘moderate’ position either, since trusting the testimony of our parents down through the ages is genuinely radical with respect to a culture who thinks itself better than its history. (Of this last sin, both ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ are guilty.)

    Sorry if I’m turning into a one-trick pony here. I’ll try to shake it up with a different sort of post soon.

  3. TimN

    While I agree that dissent has its limits and that it can become an idol, I think we have to keep in mind the broader global context in this discussion. As long as their are countries where dissent is criminalized and repressed, ambivalence to dissent is complicity with that repression. As we see with the biblical prophets, dissent is not always an action taken from a position of equal power. Its sometimes going to end up getting you tossed down a well. In Colombia, where I worked with Christian Peacemaker Teams, dissent may get you branded a guerrilla and things may happen to you and your family much worse than Jeremiah’s fate.

    The whole postmodern paradox of no recognized authority and nothing to rebel against is fairly limited in global terms. The vast majority of global citizens know full well where the authority and power lies in their communities. And they also know the feeling of powerlessness in trying to change “the way things are.” So I guess the challenge I would have for those who idolize dissent is to get out their and do something about it where it matters rather than just sticking a snide bumper sticker on their SUV, Lexus or 20-year old Toyota.

  4. Brian Hamilton (Post author)

    Thanks, Tim, for broadening this out into places where dissent is both more urgent and terrifying. I should have located this piece beforehand: I prepared it last semester for a discussion on authority in the church in response to an American theologian (Avery Dulles). Totalizing this ambiguous stance towards dissent, you’re right, would be catastrophic in political-social situations of violent oppression. The church ‘dissents’ from every evil, every darkness, wherever it is found–or better she repudiates it outright in preaching her gospel of light and love. She mourns with those who mourn, rejoices with those who rejoice, works alongside those with eyes to see the terrible violence of our world.

    If I may make a theological response to your comment, though (it’s the only kind of response I’m any good at making): even here, dissent cannot be first or most fundamental. As Karl Barth says, the Yes of God’s gospel precedes the No of God’s judgment. This renders God’s judgment no less severe, but always subsequent–confessionally rather than chronologically speaking–to the proclamation of God’s joyous light of glory. So we don’t go around preaching dissent but rather the love of the Christ who has conquered sin and death. We don’t go around supporting dissent per se so much as we act under the true authority and power of the risen Christ (which proves all other powers penultimate). Maintaining this priority makes worship an indispensable dimension of peacebuilding, and suggests that part of ‘getting out there and doing something about it,’ at least for the Christian, is getting down on your knees to pray.

    Thanks for this immensely helpful comment. I’ll slightly modify the post to show its location.

  5. Brian Hamilton (Post author)

    One more note: I just read Hans-Jurgen Goertz say
    “The conformitas to the body of Christ.. is the foundation for the nonconformitas to the world,” which is just what I’m trying to get at. Our trust in Christ founds our dissent from the world.

  6. AngieLederach

    Thank you, Brian and Tim, for sparking an engaging discussion. I hear the voice of a long-time West African mentor explain to me his sustenance while he works with child soldiers and post-civil war peacebuilding: “What has saved me up to this point, is my prayer everyday. After all the peacebuilding skills I have acquired, the only way communities can relate to someone who is a peacebuilder is something that you stand on that has value and that makes you, however young you are or however old you are, to constantly bring something of a difference.” There is a creativity and power in prayer that we often do not recognize–a power that not only sustains, but transforms–giving us the capacity to “constantly bring something of a difference.” In “Peacework” Nouwen writes: “A peacemaker prays. Prayer is the beginning and the end, the source and the fruit…peace is a divine gift, a gift we receive in prayer.” But, Nouwen (and Emmanuel) do not end there. The conformity leads to nonconformity, as you said Brian–and I think this is when it becomes difficult–this is when people begin putting “snide bumperstickers on the back of their 20 yr. old Toyotas” (Tim, you totally called me out on this one). Prayer is peacework, yes–but it should also call us into uncomfortable places, committed action–as Emmanuel went on to say: “Faith that is not translated on the ground for social change as we see in the social teaching of the church, has no meaning.” In the context of Northern Ghana, Togo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Cote D’Ivoire (all places Emmanuel works), this is a powerful statement. Perhaps it is even a statement of dissent–dissent from a church that refuses to act–whose fear refuses to allow conformity to Christ translate into nonconformity to the world. This is, for me, the challenge in America, where apathy runs high, where the fear of the loss of comfort drowns out the true call of prayer, the true call of Christ. Here, dissent is necessary. Perhaps this would be a “positive account of the indispensability of dissent” that you spoke of, Brian.

    There is, yet, another question the discussion sparked for me. I would agree that prayer is peacebuilding–I would also argue that at times peacebuilding is prayer. Thinking over the last few months, and in particular, the time I spent in West Africa this summer, my most powerful moments of prayer occurred during moments of peacebuilding. After spending time with former child combatants at the Liberian refugee camp, where “disillusioned” “hopeless” and “burned out” do not even begin to describe the state of my heart; after all, how does a generation who has only known war, who has only known some of the most severe forms of violence–who have spent the last decade of their lives carrying out that violence–find transformation, love, and hope? That was the American speaking. The boys, however, maintained a sense of hope and joy. They got out the jembe’s (literally translated jembe means “come together”) and began drumming and dancing. It is a power I have never felt before. And it was one of the most spiritual experiences of my life. Peacebuilding here, was prayer. The same could be said of women holding the hands of their perpetrators in Liberia, walking them from exile into their communities–singing spirituals. Or in a totally different context, the overthrow of Marcos in the 80s in the Philippines happened during a mass demonstration–with Filipino’s singing, dancing, and giving gifts of cigarettes/flowers/and chocolates to the soldiers driving tanks, stopping them in their tracks. Peacebuilding is prayer–and it is, indeed, a Divine gift.

  7. Katie

    regarding dissent in the church:

    I’m still going to go with what Tim had to say on dissent in the global context except I think it applies within the church as outside of the church.

    “While I agree that dissent has its limits and that it can become an idol, I think we have to keep in mind the broader global context in this discussion. As long as their are countries where dissent is criminalized and repressed, ambivalence to dissent is complicity with that repression.”

    While dissent within the church isn’t likely to get you thrown down a well (or other physical harm), the powers-that-be in the church don’t tend to hand out sparkly star stickers for internal dissent. Instead they react by censuring, expelling, silencing, “disciplining,” and generally throwing up boundaries.

    We all like to think of our churches as the non-conformist Body of Christ that cries for justice and peace. We love to think of our Anabaptist forebears as righteous martyrs that would rather die on the pyre with a tongue screw than cede our faith to the institution of the church/state. Unfortunately, sometimes our own Anabaptist institutions become the ones doing the oppressing to those within. Before we feel too ambivilant or negative about dissent within the church, I think we need to do some power analysis to make sure we aren’t being complicit to injustice inside or outside of the church.

  8. Brian Hamilton (Post author)

    Thanks, everyone, for this fantastic conversation. It’s clear that dissent is something near the center of our thoughts, as I think is the case quite broadly these days. I’ve said enough, but I’ll say a bit more:

    Ang: Thank you, this is wonderful—better said than I could have hoped to (and better than I, in fact, did). The more we can see prayer and peacebuilding in light of the other, the more faithful will become both practices. I would only say that I think it’s worthwhile to maintain some distinction between the two, just because I’ve too often heard certain circles equate justice and peace work with prayer—to the point where they no longer need really ask help, really sing praises, really sit in the silent power of the Lord the giver of life. Were this the ‘Young Catholic Faithful’ or something, I might try to emphasize the other side of things, but Anabaptists have usually been better at peacebuilding than at contemplation.

    Katie: Thanks for the good reminder of the difference between our visions of the church and their real lives and habits. As I say, I’m only any good at speaking theologically. Note, though, that my final call (which is more questionable for the Catholics I wrote this to) is for a positive (just not a glorifying) account of dissent, and not even Dulles suggested a negative account. While it’s certainly true that few institutions have ever dealt well with internal dissent, it’s equally true that dissenters are at least as often destructive as helpful. Especially in the church, if there’s anything like a deposit of truth or faith which we inherit and are charged to pass on, dissent cannot be reckless.

  9. TimN

    Brian, thanks for your thoughtful responses to folk’s comments. I’ve been chewing over your comments about dissent not being first. I think one of the things this discussion has uncovered is that many of us strongly associate dissent with working for justice. Brian, you’ve pointed out that this association is not always true. But if we can talk about an idealized church for theological purposes, let’s also talk about an ideal dissent that is based on the genuine desire for justice.

    While it may sometimes be helpful to prioritize love over dissent, I also find it useful to bring the two together in my understanding of God’s vision for shalom. As I understand the biblical concept of shalom it is wholeness in all things. My mentor and teacher Noel Moules is a shalom evangelist who often talks with excitement about ‘mishpat’ which means “putting everything right”, but is usually translated as judgement. If dissent is an attempt, albeit frail and human, to put things right then it is an inextricable part of God’s vision of wholeness and completeness for the world. This framework would be deeply challenging for the institutional church because it would force it to take the voices of those on the margins as seriously as they do those in the center.

    If you’re interested in reading more, Noel has written an article called “Gentle Footfall: Seismic Hope” for the Green Christian magazine that discusses his theology of Shalom and how it relates to care for the earth.

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  11. LeVon

    I like to think of the whole existence of God’s Kingdom as a critique of (or dissent against) the ways that the world chooses to govern, that is, with death and the threat of death.

    One point on Avery Dulles: He is the son of John Foster Dulles, a Secretary of State for Eisenhower, and the nephew of Allen Dulles, a CIA Director (both were founders of the CIA and NSA). John Foster Dulles once said: “There are 2 kinds of people in the world: the anti-communist Christians, and the others.” Bear this in mind as you read Avery…

    Also, please check a blog that a friend and I started: The WereMenno. We hope to get some good theopolitical discussions going.

  12. LeVon

    And here’s the link -> The WereMenno

  13. LeVon

    One more thing. I think you (Brian) and I were in Gerald Shenk’s class at EMS (Biblical Foundations of Peacemaking). Is that right?

  14. Brian Hamilton (Post author)

    Hey LeVon, good to hear from you–we were indeed in Gerald’s class together. Thanks for your point: I think that’s right, that the kingdom of God is a constant protest against the kingdom of this world. Again, I admit an inappropriate narrowness in this post.

    On Dulles: Although I wouldn’t travel far with him, he’s at least no reactionary–and I can appreciate somebody who falls anywhere on the spectrum if they really listen to the other side of things. This was written, I might have mentioned, in preparation for class discussion of Dulles. As to his pedigree, it is worth noting early influences, but the man’s almost ninety years old and a cardinal: I’m sure he’s thought through such things for himself by now.

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