Nonconformity to the Powers

In response to my earlier post Transformationist Anabaptists?, Folknotions, asked me to explain why I would put myself in the Transformationist Anabaptist category. I started to write a comment, but realized it was quickly growing to post length. I suppose it’s because for me, this question cuts to the core of my convictions as a Christian. ST’s post on the lure of the dominant culture reminded me how the transformationist Anabaptist stream is so important for me as an alternative and challenge to the constant tug of “produce and provide”.

I see non-conformity to the political and social powers of this world as an act of faith and discipleship, not of politics. Rather then try to make any kind of systematic theological argument for this point. I’ll just describe a few of the influences in my life that have led me to this stream. One of the transformationist touchstones for me was when I first read Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder. There’s lots of very profound things in that book, but at the time, the revelation that had the biggest impact on my life was Yoder’s reading of Jesus’ invitation to “Take up your cross and follow me”.

Yoder pointed out that, in the Roman Empire, the cross was a specific punishment for political subversion and insurrection. It was dealt out en mass to those who challenged its political and social dominance.

[Crucifixion] was generally used against slaves, traitors, and members of the lower classes who were convicted of political crimes. The most dramatic example from Roman history may be the mass crucifixion of 6,000 gladiators and slaves at the end of the revolt of Spartacus (73-71 B.C.E.). (from Two Archaeologists Comment on The Passion of the Christ, p. 3)

Therefore subversion and challenge to the powers of domination is central to the call of discipleship. Nathan Hobby summarizes Yoder thusly:

The cross of Christ is not a difficult family situation, not failure to buy a house or get a promotion, not crushing debt or debilitating illness; it is for Jesus and his followers the legally expected outcome of a moral and political clash with the powers ruling society. (Chapter 7)

Soon after reading Yoder, I became involved in the local Christian Peacemaker Teams regional group. I hung out with folks like Cliff Kindy. We did things like go to the local air force base to hold buyback programs for B2 bombers. I discovered an engaged noncomformity very from the separationist variety I had known growing up.

I went on to read Engaging the Powers by Walter Wink which names the governments and corporations of this world as the powers of which Paul speaks. These institutions have spiritual dimensions which reach into every aspect of our lives. The Institute for Peace and Justice has an excellent summary of Wink’s work on the Powers, including this quote from him:

“This overarching network of Powers is what we are calling the Domination System. It is characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all… from the ancient Near Eastern states to the Pax Romana to feudal Europe to communist state capitalism to modern market capitalism…” (Wink, p. 39)

As ST points out, the powers are very seductive. They have a tremendous capacity for assimilation and appropriation. Just look at what popular culture has done with folks like Martin Luther King and Che Guevara.

In England I took a year-long course called Workshop which taught us to read the Christian story as God’s call for shalom, the whole peace and justice of the lion and the lamb. It’s not just about one verse telling us to be in the world, but not of it. It’s about the whole sweep of the bible, from the creation story that challenges the redemptive violence of the traditional Babylonian creation story.

In this context the conviction that “Jesus is Lord” becomes a political statement, with its implicit rejection of Cesar as lord. This isn’t about lobbying or party politics. It’s about living a different story that does not conform to the powers of domination that seek to rule us and hold us in bondage to lords other than Jesus.

There are dangerous political temptations for transformationist Anabaptists. The story of the Muensterites and the Batenburgers show us the tragic results when we give into the seduction of the sword. While we may not identify with their search for the “New David” and anticipation of the apocalypse, we do see the many ways in which our society’s lust for profit and oil are pushing us toward global cataclysm.

We need to remember that Jesus also lived in a time of impending cataclysm. In this context he was absolutely clear in his rejection of the way of the zealots, the violent revolutionaries of his time. Instead he invites us to a life of stubborn subversion through reckless love and a foolish belief in the resurrection.

Comments (4)

  1. Brian Hamilton

    This is a wonderful little summary, Tim; thanks. Just for my own curiosity, would you mind offering a few extra sentences distinguishing this from what you see represented in the ‘separationist’ strand of Schleitheim and Sattler? With some obvious difference in emphasis and language, this description isn’t too terribly different from what I gave as my reason for identifying with the ‘separationist’ stream; at least, I would gladly echo everything you said here for that purpose. And Yoder himself, of course, has not unjustly been called ‘neo-Schleitheimian’. As there, this is just my confusion over what constitutes the difference between these two supposed streams.

  2. TimN (Post author)


    I reread your comment on my earlier post and I agree that your framing of the separationist stream and my framing of the transformationist stream have strong similarities. In particular I resonate with this:

    Repentance, theologically speaking, is our renunciation of the powers of this world and our oath of loyalty to Christ.

    I think people who focus on the domination system and the powers need to think more about repentence. I have a friend in the UK who has focused a lot on the framework of repentence for shared sin. She is the director of a Christian student campaigning network and uses the paradigm of repentence to approach issues of trade injustice. They’ve used this as a jumping off point for public actions repenting for the burden of injustice we each carry. She’s talked about writing a book on the concept and I think it has the potential to build a lot of bridges between different streams of theology on these issues.

    As far as why I don’t identify with the separationist stream so much I guess it would be mainly because I grew up in Lancaster county where the descendants of the Swiss Brethren have been practicing social/cultural nonconformity for 400 years. While I value my heritage, I also see it’s limits. If we don’t recognize the political and economic aspects of the powers, we can end up wearing plain clothes, but driving black bumper SUV’s and marginalizing women. Nevertheless I recognize that the separationist culture has arguably been the most effective at preserving certain Anabaptist values over the centuries.

    My reading of Sawatsky was that he was starting with observation of pluralism within contemporary Mennonites as opposed to the the claim of a singular vision of the H. S. Bender and the “Goshen school”. Then he went back to the early Anabaptist to find correlaries.

  3. folknotions


    Thanks for responding to this, it gives me a better sense of where you are coming from. And, of course, as someone who has spent years working for justice on behalf of the marginalized, I resonated strongly with Yoder’s arguments for peace and justice.

    However, I have to soundly reject the pretense of Nathan Hobby’s argument. Saying that the Cross of Christ is not x, y, and z, I think, dangerously treads a line of elitism and tries to put a corner market on discipleship.

    Of course, the Cross of Christ is not the promise of getting more stuff, the Cross of Christ is not acting in ways that are violent or hubristic. But, I think, saying that the Cross of Christ is only the result of a political clash is, ultimately, reductionist. I think you can affirm the place of the political clash, but I don’t think by refuting the place of other burdens placed upon someone so that they can work toward mercy, grace, forgiveness, and peace.

    The Cross of Christ is also a debt paid for our sins. The Cross of Christ is also the initiation of a new covenant, where the curtain is torn asunder and God has come to dwell in our hearts.The Cross of Christ is not just victory over the dominion of the political powers, but victory over death and victory of the powers of Satan.

    The Cross is Christus Victor, it’s Ransom, it’s Penal Substution, it’s Moral Influence. I don’t see why these views can’t be held in tension together.

    Yoder, I think, even recognized that he could only affirm a reading of a political Jesus, but could not necessarily refute a non-political reading. He even outlines in the first chapter of The Politics of Jesus the common arguments against a political reading of Jesus, and says that they are not without merit.

    Therefore, I think I would identify with the Transformationist stream to a degree, so long as they don’t lay their claim on the Cross to the point of exclusivity.

  4. folknotions


    Do you recommend any resources/websites that point to the example of the early church as a transformationist phenomenon?

    If not, I would be interested in getting such resources together in one place; I know Jesus Radicals has some stuff, and Christarchy has some stuff, but I feel an aggregate of reading resources/web resources would be good if it doesn’t already exist?

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