Author Archive: Brian

A definition of ‘radical’

From his by now rather famous Terry Lectures, given at Yale in April 2008, now published as Faith, Reason, and Revollution, Terry Eagleton offers a succinct definition of ‘radical’:

“Radicals are those who believe that things are extremely bad with us, but they could feasibly be much improved. Conservatives believe that things are pretty bad, but that’s just the way the human animal is. And liberals believe that there’s a little bit of good and bad in all of us.”


The Body of Christ

I also plan to attend the Believers’ Church Conference that Hinke mentioned a few days ago, at Canadian Mennonite University. (Hopefully, Hinke, we can meet up at some point!) I’m presenting a paper on Michael Sattler—everybody’s favorite Anabaptist, right?—and I plan to write up a little blurb on his understanding of the church for discussion here sometime in the next week. For now, though, I want to pose this question: What does it mean to call the church the body of Christ?

The theme of that conference, as Hinke hinted, is “Congregationalism, Denominationalism, and the Body of Christ.” It’s raising questions about what it means for the church to be, supposedly, one body, and what the implications are for church structures, practices, and self-understanding. For now, we can keep the question even broader. For you, is “the body of Christ” a meaningful description of the church? What specifically does it suggest? Where has it been used correctly or incorrectly?

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor 12:12–13)


The struggle against materialism is one many of us (but for the weakness of our flesh) are happy to join. Consumption has become something of a cultural obsession, a sick habit that eats away even at those of us who admit its depravity. More deeply, ours is a culture that measures value according to consumption, in both directions: the more valuable you are, the more you should be allowed to consume (so CEOs and entertainers deserve the money they make); the more you consume, the more attention you command. Most on this blog are past denial: we confess our sickness. And at least we work hard to check ourselves against reckless buying.

But I want to suggest that another materialism has pervaded our perspective, a much more insidious philosophical materialism which only admits of a theological solution. This materialism is visible precisely in our inability to speak theologically about the world, and in our refusal to recognize higher values than the material ones. As much as we oppose the idea that material is the measure of human worth, we nonetheless rarely allow anything other than material criteria into our discussions of what is good and right. “Justice-talk” is separate from and outweighs “God-talk”–because justice, which has to do with the right ordering of human society towards the good, has been reduced to a material condition. Theology is dismissed as abstract rather than concrete, but only because we’ve been trained by modernity to think that only the material is real and that talk of God and grace is just theoretical.

The only way to counteract this deeper materialism–which is the root of all crass consumerism–is to regain a sense of theological realism. The point is not to denigrate the material as unimportant, but to re-situate it in a theological context. The point is to refuse to allow the material the last word, as if it created its own meaning. Rather, the goodness of the world comes from the God who created it, and God is truly at work in the world.

Political Assimilation

We’ve had quite a few flabbergasted mentions over the months of the shocking recognition that so many Mennonites vote Republican, wondering helplessly what to do about their ignorant collusion with oppression, and Tim mentioned in his post on Gregory Boyd the converse fear that the new generation of Mennonites and their teachers (at least) have similarly sold out to a left-wing political program and forsaken the gospel for social activism. Both fears, I admit, seem to me deeply right. Whether by overlooking the horrors of war and sidestepping the political example of our crucified Lord, or by flattening salvation to a social phenomenon and forgetting that the truth of Christ transcends every political concern, Mennonites of all political stripes have given up the principle of nonconformity that’s necessary for the church to be the church.

That’s my contention: that the problem across the board is that we’ve lost the principle of nonconformity. And more specifically, we’ve forgotten that nonconformity is a theological principal. It’s not that we refuse to conform to this or that bad policy, but that we refuse to conform to the world, this fallen, deathly, blasphemous, and violent world, this world whose goodness has been disfigured by sin. And we are joined instead not to justice or righteousness or fairness in the abstract, but to Jesus Christ: ‘joined’ as an apprentice to her master, ‘joined’ as a child to her mother, ‘joined’ as any person to her own spirit and power. Being so joined to God passes judgment on every political program, certainly, because it reshapes the notion of the political itself. No political agenda is untouched by the good news of Jesus’ resurrection–because Jesus is resurrected as Lord–and every form of praise and discipleship becomes a political act. Judgment on so-called conservatives: by ‘conserving’ what remains wrapped up in the powers of violence, you serve the prince of darkness rather than the prince of peace. Judgment on so-called radicals: by preaching justice rather than Jesus,* you cut the world off from the root of true life and condemn it to self-destruction, meaninglessness, and hell.

Of course, this suggestion seems sectarian to the right and absolutist to the left. But this is precisely what I mean: nonconformity to the world. We must constantly and seriously consider in what ways our commitment to Christ pronounces judgment on every political commitment–for Christ alone is Lord.

* This is no better, of course, than preaching Jesus rather than justice–as if the two could truly be split. But it must be admitted that the radical ‘program’ often quite explicitly renounces actually preaching Jesus, thinking justice a near enough equivalent.

Welcome to the Gaza Zoo

For all who have been trying to follow recent events in the Gaza Strip–and for those who haven’t, for lack of any intelligible point of entry–direct your attention to Tabula Gaza, a blogger living in the area. The blog is full of incisive political commentary, ground-level observations, and stories about local folks. I’ve found it much more helpful than news reports in most cases (though he’s not attempting to ‘report’ anything), since it’s so much easier to understanding what’s happening when you hear what’s happening to the police officer down the street or the children next door.

History as Propaganda

I want terribly to engage the history of this place, to relive the ancient history of the Jewish people and fall in love with their customs and culture. The history of the Jews is my history, not just any history but the history of our salvation and the history of God’s own work. I want to join them in their reverence for this holy city of Jerusalem. But they condemn themselves with their refusal to admit their own complicity in a terrible violence; they place themselves once again in danger of God’s judgment.

Today, we traveled into Jerusalem to visit “King David’s Tower,” the base of which was built by Herod the Great himself; and to see the Burnt House Museum, which showcases the archaeological remains of a priest’s house burned in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The walk through the Burnt House begins with a video dramatization centered around the family that would have occupied this house leading up to the burning of the Temple, demonstrating along the way the tensions that existed within Judaism at the time. But it was not only a re-telling of this history–how could it be? The entire presentation was framed by current events, and the story was told in a way so as to directly legitimate the Jewish control of Jerusalem. (more…)

On the Ascension of our Lord

[Icon of the Ascension]

Today, the seventh Sunday of the Easter season, we celebrate the ascension of our Lord into heaven. “‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1,8–9).

“The mystery of the Ascension throws open before us the spiritual horizon before which such a gain* must be situated. It is the horizon of the victory of Christ over sin and death. He ascends into heaven as king of love and of peace, source of salvation for the whole human race. He ascends ‘to appear in the presence of God on our behalf’ as we have just heard in the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 9,24). What comes to us from the word of God is an invitation to confidence: ‘he who promised is faithful’ (Heb 10,23). (more…)

On Schism and Unity

A point of clarification: at least if we let them tell the story, the early Anabaptists were not schismatics. According to Menno, schismatics and those who refuse Christian admonition are indeed the only ones who merit exclusion–“and that with sorrow and pain,” in order to turn them back to the Word of Christ (Complete Works, 1060–61). If there is a time for excommunication, it is only to be undertaken with an eye to unity and to reforming (never destroying!) the person or group who is excluded (p. 1049). What’s more precious to the church than her unity? A church divided can never witness to the reconciling power of Christ, or the constancy of the Father. Pilgram Marpeck likewise urges,

“If you truly contemplate these things [I have said] you will honor this great treasure of the bride (love), which is unity in the Holy Spirit, and preserve it in your midst without laziness and carelessness. For this treasure alone the Bridegroom prayed to the Father on behalf of the bride, that is, to keep the unity with one another as the Father and Son are one in Spirit and truth. This is the true and chief treasure of our most holy Bridegroom, Christ.” — Pilgram Marpeck, The Unity of the Bride of Christ

I say this, of course, in response to Eric’s recent post: get your schism on!. (more…)

Resurrection Day

[Resurrection Icon]

O Death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown! Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen! Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is risen, and life reigns! Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages.


Saint Agatha

[Icon of Saint Agatha] In the middle of the third century, Emperor Decius of Rome announced an edict against the Christians, the most ruthlessly violent yet. Senator Quintianus, seeing an opportunity, offered to drop charges against one particularly beautiful Christian woman, a virgin, in exchange for sexual favors. When she refused, he sold her to a brothel to break her–but she managed to stave off ‘customers’ there as well. Furious, Quintianus subjected her to savage torture and sexual mutilation; her breasts were cut off and she was rolled on burning coals. “Cruel man,” she cried, “have you forgotten your mother and the breast that nourished you, that you dare to mutilate me this way?” In a vision, St Peter appeared to take away her pain. She was near death when an earthquake struck the city and drove away her tormentors. She thanked God for an end to this terror, for the patience to suffer for the sake of Christ, and gave up her spirit.

Today, February 5, is the feast day of Saint Agatha, whose story has been told since the early days of the church. Pray to her for the protection and deliverance of women everywhere who suffer from abuse, rape, and every manner of sexual offense.

“Jesus Christ, Lord of all things! You see my heart, you know my desires. Possess all that I am–you alone. I am your sheep; make me worthy to overcome the devil.” –Saint Agatha


Christian hospitality is not simply good manners, it is an entire way of encountering strangers: receiving them as Christ, as St Benedict says. It takes a peculiar imagination, of course, to hear a knock on the door and know it to be Christ–an imagination rooted in prayer, in a person who knows the hospitality of the God who welcomes truly, even up into his own trinitarian life. So Christian hospitality, as mutual reverence, has a profound contemplative dimension. (Which is also why, for St Benedict, guests cannot linger indefinitely. There must be space for silence.) And Christian hospitality does not require a home or a table or an abundance of food, since it is primarily an open invitation to enter into life together.


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.

Progressive Assumptions and Christian History

The progressive gospel proclaims that even though all history is in shambles, even though all history has been enslaved to enslavement and oppression and violence, we can move beyond. The progressive gospel involves a certain story about history which is a history of violence; we cannot proclaim that history has been really good without also (inadvertently) condoning the injustices we have now overcome, like patriarchy or slavery. Historical heroes are acceptable, abstracted from those moments of overcoming injustice, but history itself is a dangerous source (except for critique). Drawing positively from history reeks of a certain conservatism, a certain reformism, a protection of the status quo, when what we really need is revolution. For it is obvious to us now that the violence comes fundamentally from the system, which has persisted from the very beginning but which we might finally undermine.

A Christian historiography confesses that the Spirit has been at work in the world since the beginning, bringing the body of Christ to perfect discipleship. Where a progressivist history of Christianity knows only several moments—crusades, Inquisition, witch burnings—the church would rightly remember all those hundreds of years between these aberrant disasters. We remember the martyr church of the early centuries, the early fathers attempting to bring an empire (shockingly) claiming to confess Christ into line, the monastic movements being born in the fourth and fifth centuries, the mystical exemplars of the late millennium, the Franciscan and Dominican mendicant movements of protest against an emerging pre-industrialist economy… we can go on and on. Sinlessness the church does not claim for herself—but she is a body marked by gratitude and praise and so marked by a surprising and resourceful moral creativity. The church readily and with much thanksgiving roots herself in her own history, because we believe that this is the cloud of witnesses that will point us towards the crucified Lord of history. What progressives know as the ever-violent system, the church proclaims is the old age of death and violence, and that Jesus has begun a new age of life in his resurrection over death. Here is the real hero of overcoming injustice. (more…)

Right Worship

“One reason why we Christians argue so much about which hymn to sing, which liturgy to follow, which way to worship is that the commandments teach us to believe that bad liturgy eventually leads to bad ethics. You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend.” – Stanley Hauerwas, The Truth About God: The Ten Commandments in Christian Life, p.89

‘A True Global Culture of Peace’

If there’s one thing I envy the Catholic hierarchy, it’s their ability to respond quickly and compellingly to particular situations as they arise. On Tuesday, the Vatican published statement addressing the UN committee on disarmament, who is working through its discussion and draft resolutions this week and next. (The UN site keeps a running tab of press releases from the committee if you’re interested.) In a work of sharp analysis, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace speaks challengingly and specifically about its hopes.

…The Holy See acknowledges the many initatives undertaken by the United Nations and by regional organisms and civil society to avoid the race in armaments, to promote mutual trust between states through cooperation, information exchange and transparency in possesion and purchasing of arms. Nevertheless the Holy See urges the international community to assume its responsibility in establishing an obligatory legal framework aimed at regulating the trade of conventional weapons of any type, as well as of know-how and technology for their production.

And they go on to name a specific proposal they want to endorse.

Now, I’m sure that the MCC United Nations Liaison Office is speaking with similar precision. But if only we had some way to express our own collective convictions as Anabaptists!