Sunday, January 15, 2017

What About Christian Radicalism?

In 1970 a young man, Arthur G. Gish (b. 1939), published a book titled The New Left and Christian Radicalism. It was a slim, but powerful, book.
A couple of years later, another young man (me, b. 1938) read and was greatly influenced by Gish’s book. I have written about it before: the “Amish beard” I have worn since 1972 was partly due to my reading it (see this 2010 blog article.)
Just this past November, I again made reference to Gish’s book (see here), saying that it was “one of the most influential books I read in the 1970s—or maybe have read in my lifetime.”
The first comment I received on the latter article was from Thinking Friend Phil Rhoads. He wrote, “I wish you could give us a synopsis of Gish's 1970 book referred to.”
Well, I can’t give a full synopsis in this brief article, but I have elsewhere posted a brief summary which you can open with this link. In this article, though, I wish to think more about the meaning and feasibility of “Christian Radicalism.”
Gish’s book has two parts: The first has two chapters: an analysis of the New Left that was active in the U.S. in the 1960s and an explanation of 16th century Anabaptism.
The second part of Gish’s book has three chapters, each of which begins with a striking statement:
                To be a Christian is to be a radical (p. 79).
                To be a Christian is to be an extremist (p. 94).
                To be a Christian is to be a subversive (p. 113).
Radicalism is closely linked to seeking revolution. Thus, Gish’s fifth and last chapter is “A Theology for Revolution”—but it is quite clear that he advocates only non-violent revolution. He is a thoroughgoing pacifist.
I have often quoted Gish’s assertion that “violent revolution is occurring because nonviolent revolution is not occurring” (p. 139). 

But is revolution along the lines Gish envisions possible in the contemporary world? It certainly didn’t happen in the 1960s or 1970s. And while it was somewhat a different kind of revolution Bernie Sanders and his followers sought last year, the result of the presidential election was just the opposite.
Here are some conclusions I have come to in reflecting upon Gish’s book about Christian radicalism:
(1) It is much easier to have a vision of radical (revolutionary) social change when 30 years old than 40 or more years later (notwithstanding Bernie). Most revolutionaries (peaceful or violent) and radicals (whether Christian or not) have been relatively young.
Jesus began his ministry when 30. Che Guevara’s revolutionary activity started when he was 28. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was born 88 years ago today, first became actively involved in the civil rights movement when he was 26. And so it goes.
(2) The type of revolution brought about by radical Christians, as envisioned by Gish, will be long in coming. It is not going to be a matter of a few years; it will take decades or even centuries. Kent Annan is the author of a new book titled Slow Kingdom Coming, and he makes a valid point: God’s Kingdom is coming, but it is coming very slowly. 
(3) The vision of radical Christianity that Gish set forth is an ongoing challenge for all of us who seek to be genuine Christians. It is easy to be drawn into conforming to the surrounding culture. It is easy to grow complacent, lazy, and/or tired. Serious consideration of Gish’s book helps us, still, to see visions and dream dreams (cf. Joel 2:28).


  1. Here are appreciated comments from local Thinking Friend Sue Wright:

    "Good reminders of what it means to be a Christian when being moderate seems most acceptable these days and radical -- well, radical-- somehow looking unglued. Oh, that we would all become unhinged from our everyday existence and go extreme in our following the ways of Jesus. Thanks, Leroy, for steering us down a more enlightened path."

  2. You bring back memories. My M.Div. thesis was titled, "The Liberating Power of Dissent," and while I don't remember whether I actually cited Gish's book, I know I read it around the same time, and was quite taken by it at the time. Unfortunately the New Left was the Last Left in America. However, as you imply, much continues to go on in the world, especially by Christians, but I would add as well other people--Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, humanists, etc.--carrying on the work of the kingdom of God. Will it ever really percolate up into the halls of power? One can only hope. The thing about social change, though, that I would point out, contra Kent Annan, is its unpredictability. Sometimes major change comes shockingly fast. So who knows?

    1. I said in this morning's email to you Thinking Friends that I doubt many have read Gish's book I wrote about. I am not surprised that you are one of the few who has read it, and I appreciate the comments you posted.

      There have seen some major social changes since Gish's book was published in 1970. The war in Vietnam ended. Roe v. Wade was decided by the SCOTUS. There have been important advances toward gender equality, racial equality, and especially equality for LGBTQ people.

      But the Kingdom of God is not yet here. And, yes, there may well be some major social changes that come "shockingly fast." But my guess is that 10-15 years from now when I come to the end of my earthly life, it will still likely be said, The Kingdom of God has not yet come.

  3. The imminent political environment could shock us into major social change. Or maybe the entire western world is going into regression? Either way, I think we are entering a period of shockingly rapid social change. I'm not optimistic about an early coming of the Realm of God. I think it is perpetually before us, sometimes attracting us toward it. Sometime, with its absolute demands, repelling us. Leroy, I think you would find interesting an article in the current issue of "The Nation," regarding Harvey Cox. I view Cox as a Christian Social Radical, meeting the criteria set forth by Gish as described in your blog. I would be interested in your reaction to the article on Cox if you can find it and read it. Charles Kiker posting as anonymous due to my cyber difficulties.

    1. Charles, thanks for posting your important comments and for suggesting my reading the article by Harvey Cox, which I did not know about but have now read.

      I have long been a "fan" of Cox, reading his book "The Secular City" not long after it came out in 1965 (and not long after I met you for the first time). Actually, I was more impressed with that book when I read it the second time, probably a few years after I read Gish's book in 1972.

      I thought the article was fairly good, and I was glad to learn about the new books by and about Cox. I thought it was interesting that the article talked about him being "descended from Quakers" but did not mention that he was (and still is, perhaps) a Baptist.

      In addition to "The Secular City," I also read with profit, and have a number of times quoted, "God's Revolution and Man's Responsibility" (1965) and "On Not Leaving It to the Snake" (1967) (I have just ordered a inter-library loan copy of the latter and may do a blog article about it before long.)

  4. Local Thinking Friend Ed Chasteen, who has long been an admirer of Don Quixote, shares the following significant comments:

    "Don Quixote was an old man when he set out to right all wrongs. When he was told by friends that wickedness wears thick armor and advised to quit, he responded: 'And for that you would have me surrender? Nay, the enchanter may confuse the outcome ten thousand times, still must a man arise and again do battle, for the effort is sublime.' Effort, not outcome, is the measure of success.

  5. The concept sounds more like fighting words. The proposed actions in bold should be normative, not radical, Christian, or extreme.
    I have encountered extremists in religion and politics who typically reside within the polarities. A scary lot.

    Those who seek trouble should be avoided. If threatened, take appropriate action. Beware of lies. “The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy.”
    Befriend those seeking friendship. Assist those in need. “I came that they may have life abundantly.”
    I prefer the latter.

    Evil is still evil, even if one claims it is good.
    Good is still good, even if one claims it is evil.
    I’m from Missouri, and have lived long enough to see through the words of those who seek trouble.

    Let humanity help feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, be merciful to prisoners, comfort the afflicted, visiting those needing assistance, sharing hope.
    And be as wise as serpents and harmless as doves, not throwing pearls before swine.

    Christians should love the LORD their GOD, love their neighbor, love their enemy, love one another; and help the widow, the fatherless, the refugee, and the poor; and share the good news of the Kingdom of God.
    Live as a sheep and not a goat. But beware that some goats and wolves dress like sheep, but betray themselves by their words and actions. (If one has been bit or butted, one knows. Sometimes the shepherd is away looking for a wandering sheep.)

  6. Thanks for the precise on the contributions of Gish.
    A challenging topic for discussion and a more challenging value to live out every day. Still more challenging is the decision on how much effort on how many areas of activity one is going to exercise this conviction. To be a “Christian radical”, I think One needs to consider “vocation” and “callings” as well as “discernment”. How much will one be involved in active, “radical” opposition to what is wrong or needing to be changed.
    I have been exposed to and influenced by what I would consider good examples of “Christian radicalism” since my youth. I learned about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement and have been a subscriber and reader of the “Catholic Worker” from my teens. At the time I was beginning community service the Berrigans and associates were active. Pope John XXIII asked for action in “Pacem in Terris” versus nuclear warfare.
    Christians and non-Christians were an influence on “radical” action. The life of Gandhi in the 40s (impressed me, the biography and later (1982) the movie. Gandhi’s basic concept was the Hindi “non-violence”. Close friends of mine worked with Saul Alinsky (Rules for Radicals, 197l) when he came to Kansas City. Alinksy was an atheist. He also used power as a wedge; he was not non-violent. I worked as a community organizer, training VISTA volunteers in the 70’s, working for change without violence and for democratic participation in and sharing of power. Over the years. I have been influenced by the Pax Christi movement and writers like Jim Douglas (The Nonviolent Coming of God, 1991).
    All this said, I do not consider myself a “Christian radical”. I have never killed anyone or physically fought with anyone (since being an adult), but that is not enough. I don’t think “radicalism” is agreeing with a concept or living non-violently in common everyday life. It seems to me to be a special “vocation”, a “calling” more than mere discernment. A radical would seek out the perpetrators of violence and misusers of power over others and be involved interactively with them. A radical moves out of arenas of comfort and confronts the practices and systems of power and violence. Not many real radicals live to old age, I suspect. What do you and others think?

    1. Larry thanks for your substantive comments, and I apologize for not replying sooner and for not replying more fully now.

      I think I would have to say that there are many different kinds of Christian radicals, but in the way I define that term they are always non-violent but always seeking to rights the wrongs of the world around them. (They are non-violent because the "radix" they rooted in, Jesus, was nonviolent."

      Probably not many real radicals live to an old age. But some do. For example, Dorothy Day, whom you referred to, lived to be 83. But others died or were killed much younger--such MLK, Jr., another radical Christian who was assassinated when he was 39.

  7. Can we really separate nonviolent radicalism from violent radicalism? Or is that like trying to separate liberalism from neoliberalism? Sometimes words are lost and should be retired from their former uses. I recently read an article trying to define Islamist Terrorism with a focus on the distinction between 'Islamist' and 'Islamic.' That may be necessary, but it points to the problem of trying to create a nuanced distinction when the public does not understand the distinction. Perhaps we could call the Christian equivalent Christianist Terrorism, to distinguish people who assassinate abortion doctors from the large majority of Christians. Although, those people who say "At least unborn babies will not die" make up a painfully significant portion of Christianity. Then there is Vice President-Elect Dominionist Mike Pence and his friends. What can we call them besides radical? America is back to the joy of Rushdoony. For an interesting perspective on this from a native American point of view see this link:

    Christianity was born, as was its Protestant variation, in a time when church and state were painfully at cross purposes. Many churches have struggled to create democratic structures in their governance, but these rest on slender theological foundations. Out in the larger world, Christians have vascillated between seeking dominion over the state, and abandoning the state. Sometimes we seem to want the state to be evil just so we can have an excuse not to be involved. Democracy is so painfully messy! Still, when Jesus is telling us to pick up our crosses and follow Him, He is invoking a state symbol, the Roman cross. What if picking up our crosses leads us to a strange and unexpected world of democracy? Is thinking actually more painful than bleeding? Is dying easier than living? Jesus lived among lepers, prostitutes, and tax collectors. He died between thieves. Does he really expect us to be all "holier than thou" when confronted with the option of living a life of messy stewardship? Or would He have us tinker with the gears of government to see if we can make the very beast yield up a bit of the kingdom?

    When David agreed to fight Goliath, King Saul offered him Saul's own heavy armor to wear. If David had done so, no doubt he would have died a noble death, and songs would have been sung remembering his foolish bravery. He did not, however, but took off the awkward armor, and found five smooth stones for his sling. After all, he had killed lions with that sling. David was ready to get messy. (1 Samuel 17)

    I have no problem with Leroy's idea of nonviolent radical Christianity. I just have a marketing issue. A good oxymoron can light up a paradox. A poor oxymoron can bury a good idea. At a time when everything sane and decent has been Trumped, clarity is crucial. We need a New Christian Enlightenment, but with a better name than the one I just offered!

    Footnote: The article I referenced above about Islamist Terrorism is "That Radical Islamist Terrorism Question" by Faisal Saeed Al Mutar in Free Inquiry, vol 37 issue 2, February-March 2017. The article is only available online to FI subscribers, so I have not provided a link.

    1. Thanks, Craig for your (as usual) thought-provoking comments, and i apologize for being so slow to respond.

      The word "radical" is used in many different ways, and perhaps I should have done more in this article to define how I use the term, such as I did in a related article (with the same image) posted ten months ago. (Here is the link to that article:

      If radical Christianity means going back to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, then violent acts done in the name of Christ are not radical in the way I use that term, for violence is antithetical to Jesus' teaching. Nor, it seems to me, can the Dominionist ideas of Pence and others on the Christian Right be considered radical in the Christian sense, although they are pretty "radical" in the popular sense.

  8. In good Anabaptist tradition I don’t think that to be a Christian one has to be (politically) a radical, or an extremist [re: Muenster]. Still I think the Christian life is often (socio-culturally) subversive to the status quo.

    “This troubled world” is our home. We love in the presence of fear. In/by/through love we work and hope for renewal not removal; for the changing of persons not the canceling of persons. Our ‘home-folk’ are those trying to do the will of God in the world to repair the world; not those trying to escape the world or, God forbid, destroy the world. I am grateful for those faithful people who came before us. I hope those “who come behind us find us faithful.” We will be ‘removed’ soon enough.

    I admit an attraction to the idea that in God’s realm of righteousness there is a ‘reversal’ of the status of the powerful and the lowly. Yet I am troubled: the language of an inverted world of God’s leadership (last-to-first; first-to-last; humbled-to-exalted; exalted-to-humbled; the hungry filled, the rich emptied, etc.) does not truly subvert the order of things and thus provide a context for true conversion. Rather it appeals to the (understandable) resentment of the oppressed toward the oppressor (very much reflected in the world of Jesus). In this world, as Hauerwas has said, “We desire to dominate and thus are dominated.”

    I think bible translations of Acts 17:6 unnecessarily perpetuate this inverted understanding by rendering ‘anastatosantes’ as ‘who have been turning (the world [‘oikoumenen']) upside down.’ True, the idiom usually is taken to mean ‘upset’ (and that would be a better translation); but the tendency (reinforced by the imagery of ‘the first becoming last and the last becoming first’) is to narrow the meaning of ‘upside down’ to reversal. In this story Paul and Silas are disturbing/unsettling the-way-things-are by widening (not reversing or inverting) the boundaries of God’s love to all sorts of people (true ecumenism?). Those who are upset by their persuasive talk appeal to the-powers-that-be (the Romans) to stop them. It is no surprise that the strategy is to claim that Paul and Silas are fomenting anti-Caesar sentiment with talk of Jesus as king. Then, as now, to be a leader meant ‘power-over’ people. But among us it is not to be that way; among us to be a leader means ‘power-for’ people.

    Loving the enemy, doing good to the persecutor ‘subverts’ the way things (typically) are in such a way that first-to-last; last-to-first ways of thinking are ‘converted’ into everybody first (no fixed first and last), everybody lifted up, everybody filled ways of thinking. Good news for everybody! We are being transformed from our all-too-human selves into more-fully-human selves through our commitment to being 'unsettled' people seeking to move from complacency and fixed ways of seeing to new places and ways of being. Still, it is a difficult challenge to become God's beloved/be-loving community in the midst of our own needs to reverse first and last.

    I am persuaded that the story of Jesus tells of “An Unsettling God” [Brueggemann] who is the inspiration for a non-elitist perspective. I am increasingly moved by the “draw the circle wide” dimension of the way of Jesus which lays the foundation for subverting the ‘presumed to be fixed’ hierarchical relationships among us all. Our complicity with the power of elitism reminds me that, in Bertolt Brecht’s words, “We, who intended to prepare the soil for friendliness, / Could not ourselves become friendly.” My hope is that (in Brecht’s continuing words) “When at last it comes to be / That humans are a help to each other,” we followers of the way of Jesus will increasingly be among those humans.

    1. Dick, I much appreciate your significant comments and for being so slow to respond--and there is much worthy of response. But let me make just a couple of brief comments at this time.

      I agree that the Anabaptist refusal to be directly involved in politics or to become political radicals has a lot to say for it. But the "Neo-Anabaptism" suggested by Gish is an important emphasis, I think.

      As for the debacle of Münster, while it has often been linked to Anabaptism, and was connected in a way, it was early on considered an aberration by the main stream of Anabaptism. Menno Simons, for example, was repeatedly highly critical of what went on in Münster.