“Knitting While Detroit Burns?”: The Reformed “Both/And” versus the Anabaptist “First/ Then”

portlandia-310You’ve got to love the phrase “Knitting while Detroit burns?” Jamie Smith is one of the best at turning a phrase and this one beautifully visualizes what a lot of people think about Anabaptists and the push for the local. With regard to justice, we Anabaptists supposedly take the church into retreat from society at large in order to focus on the local. In pursuing all things local, we withdraw from engagement with macro policy concerns. This seems to be the worry behind Jamie engaging Brandon Rhode’s article in CT with his piece entitled “Knitting while Detroit burns?” Jamie is afraid the young Millennials’ push for local, and its reaction against their parents’ triumphalism, will eventuate in a rejection of macro civic/policy engagement. Instead he pushes for a “both/and” approach where the church engages society both through local work and macro civil policy.

Most ‘Neo-Anabaptist’ thinkers (I use this term to distinguish this group from purist historic Anabaptists. Yoder and Hauerwas being main influences here) agree with Jamie. For us the church’s engagement with the larger civil order is a both/and, local/macro endeavor. Nonetheless, there is a difference between how a Reformed person like Jamie and a Neo-Anabaptist like myself parse the both/and. For us it’s not as simple as “both/and.” We reject the “either/or” for a “first/then” approach. For us the engagement of larger civic policy concerns must first begin in local engagement and discernment. Then, out from the local hermeneutic of the community, we engage wider society concerns armed with the wise judgments and modeling made possible in a community committed to live (and discern) under the Lordship of Christ. Jamie articulates a “both local and macro” engagement strategy while the Neo Anabaptists prefer a “first local then macro” “local precedes macro” engagement strategy. Why is this important? I suggest there are a few theological reasons.

  1. Neo-Anabaptists see the civil order as preservatory. The church however is a direct participant in the redemptive order of Christ’s reign inaugurated in His life, death, resurrection and ascension to the right hand. Though the civil order, including the exercise of the sword, may have been instituted by God after the fall, it is still an accommodation to sin. It is therefore discontinuous with discipleship. It cannot be redemptive. It plays a role in redemption in that it preserves sufficient order to allow for the church to live and give witness in space and time. But it itself is not redemptive. It therefore makes sense we start by discerning the justice of the world via the redemptive order of Christ and then proceed out from there where indeed God can be working in the world. It is a “first/then,” not merely a “both/and.”
  2. Neo-Anabaptists understand that we have no direct access to the category of creation. Creation has been tainted by the fall. Our human reason is fallen as well. For sure, there is still good in creation. But Anabaptists take the Reformed understanding of the falleness of reason to its logical conclusion. We cannot know directly the will of God off of nature. We are prone to being submerged into the rebellious powers and principalities. Unless of course, we can gather, in mutual submission, to the Lordship of Christ working via the Spirit, to discern what God is doing here in our lives together and in the contexts around us. Here truth is ferreted out in a hermeneutic of the community. Here we can test and learn justice, recognize it when we see it in the wider culture, and bear witness to it and join in with it. This is why Hauerwas (along with Balthasar and others) says stuff like “We are sure Jesus is present in the world, but around the Eucharist we know He is present, and from here can discern Him in the world”(my paraphrase). So for sure, this is a “both/and” but this is also a “first/then.”
  3. Neo-Anabaptists understand the church’s entrance into culture as an incarnational process. Certainly I cannot speak for all Anabaptists on this one, but it seems the way of God as revealed in Jesus Christ is humility, vulnerability, presence and then of course embodied witness. Our engagement of culture comes first through humble service, presence, listening and embodying another way. Then, having discerned God at work, we can respond faithfully in wider cultural engagement. Our witness, embodied in the language and life lived together, lends power, integrity, credibility and even understanding to our engagement in the wider culture. So here again, we have a “both/and” but here too we are encouraged towards a “first/then” approach to engagement.

There can be no simple “cultural mandate” then in the sense that we get to sit from a perch overlooking the city and tell the people via our brilliant analysis what they should or should not be doing. There is no “culture war,” because God is in control of history, and the church is the bearer of that truth humbly without coercion. God will bring in His Kingdom through the way of the Lamb who sits on the throne. The provision of good ordered government is a sign of God’s patience. He preserves the world while the work of redemption and restoration patiently goes on His timetable. For these reasons, we Neo-Anabaptists think the words “cultural mandate” (often found in Reformed/Kuyperian writing) are dangerous. It too easily can forget the “first/then” of the church’s engagement with society. It too easily can lead to Jerry Falwell, George Bush or (dare I say) Jim Wallis.

None of this means that we do not vote or we do not work for good roads or a better banking system. We do not necessarily need community discernment every time we have a national election or a referendum for better roads. But we do now have the regular practice available, when an issue comes up, to discern it communally. Our church once discerned to work against a road being put in near our church building because of its effects on our neigborhood. We have the option available to withdraw from voting, war and even taxes when the system we are a part of has become so corrupt that we must resist it. We have good habits of being critical towards rather than simply participating in and thereby supporting macro-policy systems that are corrupt.

Lest someone think this is ineffective, let he or she should look at where the hospital system came from, where democracy was learned (according to Yoder at least), where the current hospice system ideas came from, where the first colleges and universities came from. They came from the church not government. If we look at what provoked the civil rights movements, we see the practice of non violence and social justice learned and developed within the Black churches. MLK may have learned non-violence via Gandhi, but Gandhi learned it from Tolstoy :) . These tactics, locally born, have proved their merits in the changing of society for God’s Kingdom purposes. Yet it starts local first, then moves to the wider macro concerns of society.

As opposed to Smith’s “both/and” for Detroit, can we imagine what would have happened to Detroit if several thousand Anabaptist radicals had moved in, developed local employment, repaired homes, nurtured urban gardens, found ways to repair roads with less expense etc. etc.  Indeed this is exactly the kind of justice activism Detroit and the United States as a whole is in sore need of in our current history.

For all these reasons, it seems that James K A Smith’s Reformed “both/and” requires the Anabaptist “first/then.” What say you?

For more on this approach to justice in some practical depth see chapter 9 in Prodigal Christianity.  See also Chris Smith’s response article to Jamie’s piece here.

If you liked this post check out “Are the Neo-Reformed/Evangelicals Niebuhrian?”

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Posted in Incarnational, James K A Smith, Justice, Kingdom, Neo-Anabaptist, Uncategorized
19 comments on ““Knitting While Detroit Burns?”: The Reformed “Both/And” versus the Anabaptist “First/ Then”
  1. danwhitejr says:

    Thanks for putting this to words. “Local precedes macro” I find this to be the hardest point of discipleship when it comes to missionality. There is something about local that exposes us, challenges our longevity and demands we move from advocacy to deep inhabiting.

    Great job giving voice to this Anabaptist nuance.

  2. Robb Davis says:

    I strongly affirm your argument here. Yoder’s perspective was that the church was not called to present the parameters of an ideal social order to the state or society more generally. Further, he argued that the church’s witness to the state is not based on “taking positions” but rather flows naturally from the way it lives and engages in healing and reconciling practices in the world. Further, the witness to the state is always about calling it to achieve its (the state’s) own ideals for justice (as they are consistent with God’s reconciling plan).

    I have taken this to mean, for example, that the church does do not merely take a position on homelessness–a position that it articulates to policy makers. Rather, the church walks with homeless individuals and when it sees the state (at any level) failing to achieve its (the state’s) own stated objectives about dealing with the poor, it challenges the state to change (to “repent”) and offers suggestions about what might be done. The challenge and the suggestions flow from its lived experience with homeless individuals. This witness has an authenticity because it grows from local praxis.

  3. Zach Hoag says:

    This is so well timed. Sending some conversation partners over here pronto. Thanks bro.

  4. Thanks for taking my little blog post so seriously. I’m in meetings this week so don’t have much time to respond, unfortunately. But a few things on the run:

    1. I think your “first/then” tack seems to assume that you can “first” be some sort of micro (“pure”?) community and “then” engage wider (macro) realities. As an Augustinian, I don’t have any illusions about a “first.” There’s just “now.” And in the now, we are always already subject to, dependent upon, and engaged with macro realities; therefore, better to be explicit and intentional about HOW we are engaged with those. (And as I articulate in a forthcoming article, I think Augustine also says we should, in some ways, be fundamentally ambivalent about what we expect can be accomplished.)

    So your “first” seems like an illusion. It might also be why I think your utopian of Detroit overrun by Mennonites just sounds like la-la land to me. Indeed, I think you’re proving my point: this “activism” would change very little. My point isn’t about “taking over”; it’s about being responsible for loving my neighbor in such a way that I also seek to change macro structures, if and where possible, to bend the world toward the reign of the ascended Christ. (See: Oliver O’Donovan. Yep: I’m pro-Christendom IN O’DONOVAN’S SENSE.)

    2. I don’t know what “the local hermeneutic of community” means but it sounds vegan.

    3. One of our most basic disagreements regards what we might call the “ontological status” of civil order. You see it as postlapsarian, whereas I take it that cultural institutions like families, commerce, and yes, governing, are called for by the (good) creational order itself. They are called forth by created finitude, not just sin (though obviously also affected by sin, and now tasked with addressing sin).

    Obviously we’re not going to settle this difference in the comments section of a blog. But readers should ask themselves whether they want to buy into the assumption that such cultural institutions are postlapsarian. Be careful.

    4. You seem to (wrongly) assume that the Reformed tradition’s vision of the “cultural mandate” is somehow un- or even anti-ecclesial. I don’t think this is the case (though I grant mutations of it would seem to suggest that’s true). Ultimately, I think this is an Augustinian project. And as I articulate elsewhere, I think Augustine’s vision is fundamentally ecclesio-centric (see http://www.scribd.com/doc/93115214/Reforming-Public-Theology-Two-Kingdoms-or-Two-Cities-Calvin-Theological-Journal-47-2012-122-137 ). Nothing I said in my little blog post suggests otherwise. (Can we remember, by the way, that I wrote a blog post, tasked with keeping it at 800 words? Obviously I couldn’t say everything.)

    5. Finally, I’m left with this question: Imagine I never used the word “Anabaptist” in my intial blog post. Would you have anything to say? Would you still disagree?


  5. Robb Davis says:

    Dr Smith – I cannot and am not trying to speak for Dr Fitch… but to me

    1) First/then has nothing to do with creating a (pure) community first in a chronological sense but it implies grounding engagement in the macro (policy) in the reality of lived community. It is not about purity but rather about authentically understanding the reality of what fallen structures can and will do to diminish human flourishing.

    2) Postlapsarian or not, structures of human making (even if given by God for good) ARE fallen and we must approach them, not in fear, but mindful of the spiritual power (even power over life and death) they represent.

    3) I am not a vegan but I value working out a fuller understanding–a creative interpretation of the thrust of scripture within a local community. There is wisdom and giftedness in that community that completes my understanding of what God is doing in the world–in my community.

  6. I don’t know what “the local hermeneutic of community” means – yup that nails the difference.

  7. Kurt Rietema says:

    The local then macro approach has played out like this in my immigrant neighborhood–we’ve helped broker funding partnerships between privileged church friends to help get our undocumented friends into just housing, we’ve hooked them up with vehicles, with job connections, etc. But the one thing we couldn’t fix no matter how earnest our efforts at neighboring or community development were, was the fact that they are here without legal authorization. I had to come to place where I realized that in order to best love my neighbors as myself, in order to want the same protection, rights, and opportunities that my own kids have, I needed to engage the Powers, I needed to advocate on behalf of better laws, I needed to go to Washington. I was fully unprepared for this, way out of my comfort zone, out of my expertise. Not to mention, it made my evangelical supporters nervous that I was somehow deviating from my mission. In their minds, I’d become an activist. But, engaging the powers was an act of love. Rooted from and in the local.

    What I think Jamie is arguing, and I would affirm from my own experience, is that there is something comfortable, even quaint, about staying in the local. Staying at that place of loving my neighbors through backyard carne asadas, securing just housing, exchanging cucumbers and childcare is a tempting place to be. That I can handle. That “feels” like ministry, on a human scale. But what really diminishes life to the full for my undocumented neighbors is woven into the fallen systems and institutions of our world, a place that is detached from my neighbors and actually prefers never to know them. The question that Jamie is proposing is whether we’re willing to muddy ourselves in that world we (rightly) hold with suspicion and for which we feel wholly unprepared to affect. My Anabaptist friends who are in other immigrant neighborhoods to the north are doing the same kinds of things to welcome the stranger, like having neighborhood cookouts and working towards just housing. But they won’t hear of engaging the broken policies that keep their immigrant neighbors forever down. This is what Jamie is getting at.

    I’m glad you’re articulating an Anabaptist theology that doesn’t dismiss civic engagement because too many people are unnecessarily suffering because the church (particularly the white, privileged church) is silent. Talking theology in the blogosphere, it’s clean and clinical to say that the civil order cannot be redemptive, but if comprehensive immigration reform were to pass tomorrow, I guarantee you that up and down 35th street it would sure feel redemptive.

    • Dan Jr. says:

      I appreciate your perspective but this statement “there is something comfortable, even quaint, about staying in the local” floored me. I can’t help but believe the exact opposite from missional experience. In my city, truckloads of young people are passionately pursuing restorative justice by stumping for political legislation but it’s like pulling teeth to get a real live person to incarnate in the brokenness in our own neighborhoods. Incarnation that moves deeply into the neighborhood and practices presence to a painful degree is anything but quaint and comfortable. I think this is precisely the predicament we are in. Very few want to press into the unsexy work of loving their literal neighbor. I think our idealism would be greatly challenged, exposed, humbled and ultimately refined if we stayed local.

      • Kurt Rietema says:

        We need to get your people together with my people then! I think I know what you mean, there is a certain camp of activists that see little dissonance between marching for justice one moment and then retreating to McCormick and Schmick’s for happy hour the next. They don’t truly own the pain of the people they’re fighting for. But for most young evangelicals (and post-evangelicals) I encounter (present company included), we’re of the stripe that Jamie is referring to. We’ll start community gardens, open up a coffee house, reclaim abandoned houses, but to engage with the Powers is to sell out to our imagination of the church fully invested with, in and for the community. And it is beyond the capacity of the toolkit which has been handed to us.

        I’ve been actively working on immigration reform among evangelicals for the past 9 months and I know dozens that are ready to jump in and serve and want to muddy themselves in the problems of other individuals. But it’s pulling teeth to get any of them to do something as seemingly benign as making a phone call to a representative. The former is something to write home about–a story you can share with your friends. The latter is unsexy and corporate.

        I’m glad to hear you don’t have the same problem that I have. It’s just that my experience resonates with what Jamie and David are highlighting. Not an either/or. Just out of curiosity, is this coming from your own experience in a particular neighborhood or is this an anecdotal perception? My perception had been similar to yours–that young evangelicals are actually interested and are willing to act on social justice issues. My experience has regrettably been debunking my hypothesis. The support it but they support it in silence. Dr. King’s words are particularly true for me right now, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

        • Dan Jr. says:

          Really appreciate your response. When I say local I don’t imagine “community gardens, opening up a coffee house or reclaimed abandoned houses” although that’s cool and helpful.

          I travel around a bit coaching small seedling-communities so I’ve met with about 15 over the last 2 years. Consistently I hear leader/pastors sharing their frustrations over lack of localized incarnational mission: the raw, real-time, presence with literal neighbors and neighborhoods. This has been my experience as well, added with my small sampling of feedback from around the country. This stubbornness to live connected, generous, vulnerable lives with our neighbors is from my vantage point the greatest deficit and most neglected space. I observe that many still stay detached from their neighbors even if they are planting gardens, calling representatives or marching at a justice parade for downtown.

          When you quoted MLK, are you using his “silence” as silent in stumping for a candidate or policy that would support a specific justice view?

          • David Fitch says:

            Dan Jr.
            Rich great comments … like “This stubbornness to live connected, generous, vulnerable lives with our neighbors is from my vantage point the greatest deficit and most neglected space.” I wholeheartedly concur this is the no. 1 challenge of planting missional communities in and among contexts.

  8. David Fitch says:

    Good to hear from you. Thanks for responding.

    1.) It makes sense that you side with O’Donovan. And there’s much for even an Anabaptist to applaud in O’Donovan’s work. We remember that Yoder wrote “For the Nations” in response to Hauerwas “Against the Nations” … so he’s closer to O’D’s“Desire of the Nations” than given credit for. In the end, however, (and here’s where I agree with Hauerwas) O’Donovan still needs to address how to discern the good via creation after the fall and the other objections I listed. I think he’s blind to it, non unusual for an Anglican in his spot. In addition, I would say that the Radical Democracy literature of the past ten years with all the political theorists around it, display that not only is the “local politics strategy” viable but necessary in the face of Global capitalism and other socio-economic forces.
    2.) Sorry about that. “Hermeneutic of Community” is a rich Yoderian phrase he spends much time developing. It’s vernacular among Anabaptist types.
    3.) Yep. I agree. I should have clarified that Anabaptists see “the sword” as postlapsarian. Government itself, civil organization is/certainly can be seen as part of the created order. And the sword, after the fall, may itself be instituted by God and divinely mandated for preserving order. It is nonetheless this “sword part” that is postlapsarian and discontinuous with discipleship. I don’t know if this changes anything in regards to where we differ, but it may.
    4.) Nope. I don’t assume the Reformed tradition’s cultural mandate is anti-ecclesial. It is the assumed posture of the church that is the big difference between each side’s dependence upon the church. Included in this posture are things like the posture of kenosis, servanthood, refusal of violence, and humility, and a certain relation to power and the way we participate in power. Admittedly, this notion of ‘posture’ is a slippery concept and the subtle difference can get lost between the Reformed approach (and what I have called the Niebuhrian tendencies of some Reformed theology) and the Anabaptist.
    5.) I think your post was brilliant. It offered a place to nuance this issue in a way that is becoming increasingly important to our churches in the current cultural climates. It’s been a valuable conversation for me and others. I’m glad you argued the way you did.

    BTW I’ve used your “Two Kingdoms” article in a class I teach. Excellent work as always.

    Peace …

  9. You’ve very gracious, David, thanks. Of course precisely because we’re so close, our differences matter all the more, right? I appreciate the engagement.

    This is all going to be the focus of volume 3 of my Cultural Liturgies project, which I’ll be working on for a couple more years trying to figure out what I want to say! These sorts of exchanges are kind of my “laboratory.”

    Thanks again.

  10. I guess I am confused by the postlapsarian discussion. I don’t see, in just a simple reading of Genesis how ANYTHING- other than creation itself- can be called creation. I am sorry, but i don’t read of God saying “Let there be society, empires, nation-states, and government…. And they were good.” Seems like a good Augustinian would lean heavy on Romans- especially Romans 13 and say that governments just are, and God uses them to bring about good for those outside the church. We might invoke then, the Augustinian argument that grace is God’s working for good even in the midst of fallenness.

    The grand temptation of macro activism (and yes, even Anabaptist localism) is the Pelagian impulse to assume that some how WE are doing the redeeming through our governing and activism.

    In that regard, lets all dive into City of God and talk together as Anabaptists and (Neo)Reformed. I think we share a strong sense of Two Kingdoms, but I might dare to say that maybe the Anabaptists might have a more “Augustinian” reading of the two- especially in regards to this question of Pelagian optimism related to governments.

  11. p friesen says:

    I’m delighted to see what you’ve written here. I might have a little push back re #2 on the Creation story. Yes, I get what you are saying about the cultural mandate, but there still is a Creation mandate to govern as God’s image, and Jesus reveals the path to good governance. I’d say our message to the fallen powers of earth, ordained by God, must be that we hold up Jesus as the model of leadership we expect them to emulate in order to get our vote, and we make the issues he addressed in word and deed the issues to which they give priority. Times may have changed, but the same basic human needs are quite the same then and today. This would involve leadership training, social policy, economic priorities, and, of course, national defense.

  12. I am following this conversation from across the pond where in Scotland I am aware of a number of not least younger evangelical Christians and leaders who could be described as ‘anabaptist’, ‘neo-anabaptist’ (not sure I resonate with that term) or ‘baptist’ (small ‘b’ deliberate). For some of us influences may be more McClendon (hence small ‘b’) and Yoder rather than Hauerwas and Yoder.

    There is a lot going on in these different conversations and I simply want to push at my earlier comment that it seems to me that fundamental in the different perspectives is the one of the ‘Hermeneutic of Community’ or the ‘Hermeneutical Community’ – rather than ‘vegan’ (Jamie) this might be the ‘meat’ in the discussion (forgive the analogy I could not resist it).

    Writing about the Christians concern for God’s purposes in this world (reading this for small anabaptist reading group I host)Yoder posits local congregations as essential in discerning response not on pragmatic grounds but on the biblical and theological grounds of losing self in God’s purposes. I think what he says shows the centrality of this concept of the hermeutical community even if the language is not used:

    ‘I can get along without any theology, or with a pretty poor theology, if I find myself in the midst of a fellowship of persons concerned for one another and for God’s redemptive work in the world. In this sort of fellowship we find a new definition of what it means to be conformed to Christ as his slaves.
    This is the point of orientation for our nonconformity in this age. It is not a different set of principles, old or new. It is not an attempt to look at what the world is doing and just do it differently. It is not to see what the world used to be doing and do it again. Rather, it is in finding ourselves called by God into a new kind of fellowship with a new kind of people, whose involvement in God’s work in the world is such that the old ways of posing the question just don’t fit anymore.’ (To Thine Own Self Be True? Radical Christian Discipleship (35-36).

    It seems to me that this is the ‘first’ in terms of the anabaptist response yet it requires some qualifiers:

    The central thing here is not the community per se but the purpose of God centred on the person of Jesus Christ – the goal is to discern the way of Christ in and for this world and to support one another (individually and corporately) in bearing witness to that.

    A variety of (non-violent) responses are possible from this position: seeking to transform structures, humanise the impact of injustice, withdraw from participation in processes. I get the idea that wider action should flow from the present lives and practices of the Christian community (Yoder: Body Politic) and in this sense the local comes first but I do not think that this means that ‘local action’ as witness to the wider communities need always precede macro involvement (are you arguing that Dave I note you use the word ‘prefer’) – the necessary action will surely be the result of context and discernment as long as this is consistent with the life of the community in practice e.g. the community may decide that on a particular issue that macro involvement is the best way to bear witness to a situation? This said I welcome this emphasis on the local as a corrective to simply the macro.

    A real issue, however, and here is where the practical bites hard, is that in my experience many people struggle to find Churches as such communities of discernment. In my own situation Kurt this may be a reason while I too want to believe that young evangelicals wish to be involved that in practice often they are not. To state this is actually to reaffirm the importance of the hermeneutical community as the starting point for faithful witness to Jesus. On this issue of the importance of the faithful community for faithful action McClendon’s analysis of Bonhoeffer is fascinating. In my own context it highlights the importance of seeking to build such communities.

  13. Jim Vining says:

    This is a great conversation!
    While the distinctions between approaches are significant, and I am not yet sure where I land, I am glad that we are exploring options other than either/ or approaches.
    Thank you!

  14. JR Rozko says:

    This conversation reminded me of this insight offered by Hauerwas on Yoder’s “project…”

    “Yoder understood well, therefore, that you do not free yourself of Constinianism by becoming anti-Constantinian. For him the alternative to Constantinianism was not anti-Constantinianism, but locality and place. According to Yoder, locality and place are the forms of communal life necessary to express the particularity of Jesus through the visibility of the church. Only at the local level is the church able to engage in the discernment necessary to be prophetic.” (from: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2011/03/10/3159823.htm?topic1=&topic2=)

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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