Review of “To Change the World” (Essay 2, Chp. 5 “The Neo-Anabaptists”)

Posted: July 29, 2010 by Scott Kistler in Book Reviews, Christ & Culture
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The neo-Anabaptists get their turn now.  Neo-Anabaptists, like the original Anabaptists, oppose any church and state cooperation and believe that the church is always capitulating to the demands of worldly society, including the market economy.  They seek to form a Christian community that is a radical Christian alternative to society.  They root this in the example of Christ and the early church, and believe that Christ’s nonviolence requires pacifism on the part of Christians.  Hunter gave a helpful explanation of the neo-Anabaptist notion of “principalities and powers”: “institutional or systemic patterns of thought, behavior, and relationship that govern our lives and the spiritual realm that animates them” (157), including government.  Although they were meant to “mediate the creative purposes of God in the world,” they are fallen and oppose God, even though He uses them to keep order in the world.  The church is the alternative community that stands against these powers, proclaiming Christ’s victory over them.  But the church does not seize power in this world.

Hunter argues that the neo-Anabaptists are actually quite captive to politicization themselves: by their harsh criticism of the powers, they draw their identity from opposition to them.  Thus, their witness becomes political as well.  Hunter also notes that they look at the landscape of American Christianity and conclude that “the majority of American Christians and the churches they attend … are mostly corrupted by neo-Constantinianism and/or an unthinking rapprochement with global capitalism” (164).  This view of the church and church history is unfortunate, because it ignores the fact that many of the people that they criticize have been doing their best to be faithful in quite confusing and difficult circumstances.  The neo-Anabaptists, in contrast to the original Anabaptists who were unfortunately persecuted by other Christians, by and large live in a society that gives them the freedom to advocate these views.  The medieval Christian who took up the sword to help his lord defend against the invading Vikings was making his choices in a less comfortable environment.  I agree with Doug Wilson that Hunter seems to agree more with the neo-Anabaptists than the Christian Right or Left.  Hunter’s criticisms are quite penetrating, too.

I do want to interact with one of Doug Wilson’s critiques of this chapter.  Responding to Hunter’s description of market coercion, Wilson writes:

Coercion from the market? But the market (rightly understood) is defined in terms of non-coercion. If the assumption is that those markets are state-run or state-manipulated, then that is a real problem, but the problem is the state, not the market. But if the coercive power of the state is not involved in market transactions, and the market is free, then there is no coercion by definition — not unless you want to define Krispy Kreme running out of a man’s very favorite kind ten minutes before he gets there as coercion. It might feel like coercion to him, I grant you, but it isn’t.

I really appreciate Wilson’s commitment to economic freedom through and through.  He’s vigorously opposed to both government intervention and crony capitalism.  But I think that there’s a problem with this position too: in real markets, this view is too simplistic.  Large concentrations of wealth confer great power, which skews the operation of the market.  I think that Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, makes a decent point about capitalism (granted, it’s from a social democratic point of view, but still):

But there was no lack of violence and suppression in the capitalist world, and I realized more and more how the very basis and foundation of our acquisitive society and property was violence. Without violence it could not continue for many days. A measure of political liberty meant little indeed when the fear of starvation was always compelling the vast majority of people everywhere to submit to the will of the few, to the greater glory and advantage of the latter.

I think that Nehru overstates the point, and I don’t think that the violence of communism is comparable to capitalism, as he does.  But I don’t think that any real market has ever fit the ideal that Wilson describes.  Plus, we have the entire advertising industry devoted to encouraging people to want more and more and a culture of consumerism that exerts powerful influence on people.  Calling the American market economy coercive may be a sloppy use of the term “coercion,” but that cultural power makes a difference.

Peter Leithart posted a few notes on the origins of the “free market” in the West.  You can find them here and here.  What’s interesting is that market reforms came about in very unconservative ways.  Everywhere except Britain, the abolition of serfdom and feudalism resulted from or came after the French Revolution, the bane of traditionalists.  Here’s an excerpt from the second Leithart link:

In The Quest for Community, Robert Nisbet – no wild-eyed lefty he – argues, following Karl Polyani, that “Laissez faire . . . was brought into existence.  It was brought into existence by the planned destruction of old customs, associations, villages, and other securities, by the force of the State throwing the weight of its fast-developing administrative system in favor of the new economic elements of the population.”

He adds, “There is, indeed, a sense in which the so-called free market never existed at all save in the imaginations of the rationalists….”

So the market may not be coercive, strictly speaking, but it’s still important to think about the way that it operates in society.

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