Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Third Way

Consider these words by Myron S. Augsburger: “I am neither a conservative rightist nor a leftist liberal but a follower of the Third Way, the Kingdom of God. This gives me freedom to select from right or left and to reject from right or left, seeking first of all the way of the Kingdom of God.” (Evelyn Hanneman is the Operations Coordinator of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, an organization I have belonged to for many years, and Augsburger’s words are part of her e-mail “signature.”)

Augsburger is a Mennonite churchman who has served as evangelist, pastor, and university professor; he was also president of Eastern Mennonite University from 1965-1980. He is the author of more than twenty books, including some historical novels. I have enjoyed reading (twice) I’ll See You Again! (1989), a fictionalized biography of Felix Manz, the first Anabaptist martyr. And I have just finished watching “The Radicals” (1990), a movie based on Augsburger’s Pilgrim Aflame (1967), the story of 16th-century Anabaptists Michael and Margaretha Sattler.

As an admirer of the Swiss Brethren, the first Anabaptists in Zurich, I am appreciative of the work of the Mennonites who have carried on much of the spirit of that group which was a part of the “radical Reformation.” And I like Augsburger’s statement, although I struggle to grasp all its implications.

As you who read this blog know, recently I have written about what’s wrong with both conservatism and liberalism and have touted what I call the “radical center.” But perhaps what is needed in the political arena, especially for those of us who are Christians, is commitment to a Third Way, a path that is neither politically right, left, or center.

Perhaps many Christians, including myself, have become too greatly interested in politics and too little interested in promoting the Third Way, the way of Jesus and the way of the Kingdom of God. Perhaps one of the major problems of many Christians in the U.S. today is that they have allowed their political views to shape their understanding of Christianity rather than allowing the Christian faith to shape their political views.

In their attempt to influence the political order, many Christians have ended up being used by politicians or a political party. That certainly seems to be true with the Christian Right which sought to influence the Republican Party—and succeeded to a certain extent.  
It seems now, though, that the conservative wing of Christianity has been largely co-opted by the Republican Party for its own benefit. Consequently, it seems that some Christians’ views of social issues are shaped more by the stance of the Republican Party than by the teachings of Jesus.

But the same seems to be true for many who are liberal Democrats. The commitment of some Christians to the agenda of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party skews their understanding of the Christian faith. That is a concern raised by Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, and one reason he is criticized by some (or many) liberal Christians.

I want to give more serious thought to the implications of Augsburger’s emphasis on the Third Way, and I invite you to join me in that endeavor.


  1. Now I have a theory about why no one has posted yet, Google ate my first post! So in case it does it again, I'll be brief.

    Finding a "third" way is a simple, noble goal, but there is no simple way to do it. Both left and right in America are heavily populated by Christians, and what divides those Christians goes so deep as to reach emotional roots that are very difficult to articulate. Yet teasing out those roots is the only way I see that we might reach beyond the divide. Otherwise we just have an endless series of superficial battles over evolution, higher criticism, abortion, gay rights, and so forth. Both sides know they are right, so not much communication happens.

  2. The posting today was interesting. Many have addressed this third way, and have offered good insight for breaking weak paradigms within “Christian” religion, left, right, and whatever. This is much of my sojourn. I am not much interested in Christian left, right, or whatever, but rather truth. Left, right, and whatever seem more built on shifting sands of mores rather than ethics, and personal interpretations rather than truth – foundations of sand which led to splits and splinters and have yielded something like Ian Anderson’s poem Aqualung: “In the beginning man created god, and called him… and we’ll get what we want, ‘cause we’ve got him by the balls…” a very blasphemous but insightful, long poem. The historic, orthodox Church seems to be built on solid foundations of scripture and tradition, much like orthodox Judaism, but is unbending iron which cannot sway with the moving of the Spirit. Jesus was not kind to either the left or the right of his time, but most today would argue that he favored the left, right or whatever (their personal cause).
    The “Church” could certainly use some unity, if we could figure out what “the Church” and “Christian” are. JP2 made a good run at it with the concept of “separated brethren”, but..
    And there is still plenty of arrogance and unforgiveness to go around.

    Having worked with left, right, and whatever churches, I see some in each who truly seek Christ. But they are few. Most have a left, right, or whatever agenda (and a lot just serving time by showing up as a feeble act of religion). It is probably OK to have leanings toward one or all in some aspects, but by and large the agendas may not be worth defending. Just the foundation of truth.

    Christ and the Church must be real and alive – there is too much evidence. If only we could fully grasp the Kingdom of God and its place on earth… which brings us back to our personal heros of the faith who challenge us to pursue it – like Steven Wanji, Damon Schroeder, Doug Grandon, or Myron Augsburger.

  3. Of course, everything hinges on how one identifies "the way of Jesus and the way of the Kingdom of God." However, in any case, I don't think we really want to reduce the Way to one way alongside the wings of contemporary American political thought.

    We're talking about how we participate, if at all, in the world. Participation in a world of conflicting interests means taking sides and accepting responsibility for that. The early Anabaptist movement (still some today) saw how problematic that is and opted for separate communities. They were right about one thing: You can't participate and keep your hands clean. This is where Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer offered exceptional insight.

    I would suggest that a crucial challenge progressive Christians must face today is that from the New Atheists who condemn even liberal religion because it provides cover for the illiberal. In other words, can we blithely affirm one Christianity that includes even the most jingoistic extremists? We can't criticize moderate Muslims for not taking stronger stands against Islamism if we ourselves don't take strong stands against Christianism.

  4. The following e-mail was received from Joe Barbour, a local Thinking Friend whom I saw just yesterday at the bimonthly meeting of retired missionaries. I post this with his permission.

    "Certainly you pointed us in the right direction. Thanks so very much. Where we are politically or socially is not the real issue in life. Our relationship to Jesus Christ is where life hinges. The deeper the better for us and God too. As I recall that the very name Christian was derisive in the beginning to identify believers as “little christs,”speaks so much as to what we are to be all about.

    "Thank you so much for pointing that out in your blog today."

  5. In Christ there is no East or West,
    In Him no South or North;
    But one great fellowship of love
    Throughout the whole wide earth.

    In Him shall true hearts everywhere
    Their high communion find;
    His service is the golden cord,
    Close binding humankind.

    Join hands, then, members of the faith,
    Whatever your race may be!
    Who serves my Father as His child
    Is surely kin to me.

    In Christ now meet both East and West,
    In Him meet North and South;
    All Christly souls are one in Him
    Throughout the whole wide earth.

    I thought of this old hymn while reading the blog today. I feel it describes the “Third Way” very well. I had a professor at Ouachita who would say- “Knowledge begins with the naming of the thing”…. I appreciate the way Augsburger named what I have tried to describe about my own political feelings. Leslie Taylor Tomichek