Archives For September 2010

Shalom in Braddock, PA #dmingml

September 29, 2010 — 1 Comment

Mayor John Fetterman speaks at the 2009 Pop!Tech conference about how community is returning to Braddock, PA.

This small community situated near Pittsburgh, PA, flourished half a century ago, but since then as lost 90% of its buildings to decay and demolition, and 90% of its population. Since 2006 Mayor Fetterman has been working to bring community back to Braddock. His question is, “What can be done to reenergize and enfranchise a community that has lost 90% of everything it once was and remains in a rapidly deteriorating state of disrepair?”

The answer revolves around one word: “repurposing.”

Strategically the approach is two-fold:
1. Focus on the community that exists. 90% gone means that 10% is still there. That 10% must be involved in catalyzing any way forward. It would be a mistake to neglect those voices.
2. Engage individuals outside the community to help rebuild and energize it. Solutions won’t come exclusively from within.

Fetterman has led the community to look past the reality of abandoned lots, houses, and buildings to imagine what they ought to look like. He has taken old churches and turned them into community centers, old furniture stores into loft residences and artist studios. He is the first to admit that the work isn’t done and the landscape of the community continues to change. Yet although he’s unsure of what the future holds, he still leads the community toward a vision of what Braddock ought to be.

This is a vivid example of what Hunter would call “faithful presence.” Fetterman has developed a network of people, himself an elite in that network, who are taking the long view of shalom – peace, wholeness, flourishing, delight. He is seeking the peace of the city for the benefit of all.

Christians might want to repurpose Fetterman’s question, “What can be done to reenergize and enfranchise a community that has lost 90% of everything it once was and remains in a rapidly deteriorating state of disrepair?” If, as Hunter asserts, American Christianity has lost its effectiveness in changing culture, then what is the way forward?

Here also, a repurposing of Fetterman’s strategy might be appropriate: Focus on the community that exists and bring in perspectives and energy from outside the community to reenergize it. Solutions won’t come exclusively from within. Focus on what ought to be as a lens for view what is. Even in the midst of uncertainty about what the future holds, move forward toward a picture of shalom.

For more on Braddock, PA visit

“Oughtness” #dmingml

September 28, 2010 — Leave a comment


Shalom is us showing up and being church in our day.  Not defined by consumerism, individualism or the misuse of power, but by our gospel identity of being formed ‘in Christ’.  Shalom is us incarnating the servanthood of Christ in the most challenging issues that our neighbors are facing.  Shalom is caring about justice in a world of poverty.  Shalom is staying in a place of need when it’s more convenient to leave.  Shalom is loving your enemy.  Shalom is listening to your critics, being silent under judgment.  Shalom is about the other, not you.  Shalom is the way out, it is the way of freedom in a world of oppression.  Wherever you are, whatever you do . . . shalom.

To speak of “shalom” is to also speak of the coming kingdom. The relationship could be described like this: “shalom” is the presence (now and future) of the kingdom; the Spirit is the path/means to the kingdom; the Gospel is the proclamation of the kingdom.

So, yeah, really – it’s these four words. You don’t have a full picture of the work of the Spirit without the meaning of the kingdom. You don’t have a picture of the presence of the kingdom without the meaning of shalom. And of course the Gospel connects us to the mission of Jesus and through Jesus the missio Dei. To be missional is to pray for and proclaim the kingdom by demonstrating shalom — justice, peace, salvation — in the power of the Spirit, inviting others to belong and to believe and to follow Jesus.

It seems like I’ve been running across shalom a lot lately. Hunter talks about it in his book, bloggers I follow have been talking about it. But what exactly is it?

The most helpful explanation I’ve come across is in a book by Calvin Theological Seminary President Neal Plantinga:

The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets called shalom. We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight — a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and s the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things out to be.”

So, what does living shalom look like from your seat?


To Change the World was published in early 2010 and has made quite stir. There have been dozens of reviews of the book and interviews with Hunter that have popped up on the web since the book’s publication in April. Books & Culture, Christianity Today, The Christian Century, The Other Journal, and Hearts & MInds Books all have pieces dealing with the thesis and potential impact the work. I blogged through the book as part of my doctoral work, generating a post for each essay. These were a bit long, but have some great conversation in the comments thread. I’ll post links below. My purpose here is to give you a quick, easily digestible summary of the book so you can impress your friends at the next potluck.

James Davison Hunter is Labrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory at the University of Virginia and Executive Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He’s written several books on culture and American public life.

Hunter opens with an essay titled “Christianity and World Changing” in which he takes apart what he understands to be a fatal flaw in the way Christian organizations talk about their goals. He says that too many of these organizations (from James Dobson’s Focus on the Family to Jim Wallis’s Sojourners) claim that they are somehow going to “change the world” by changing the hearts and minds of the individuals in it.

This simply won’t work because culture change doesn’t happen this way. These organizations suppose that there is little Christian influence in the world because people either don’t have the right Christian worldview (think of a set of lenses through which one sees the world) or they just don’t act on their convictions. Hunter says that these are the wrong things for world change in the first place.

Christians have been putting too much stock in the power of individuals to make drastic, lasting changes to the broad culture. They mistakenly believe that if enough people believe the right things then a grassroots movement will occur that will change the world. Hunter says that this is wrong and that history has never been changed in lasting ways through grassroots efforts.

Instead, he says, culture is changed through institutions. Those institutions are changed through “elites” (I like the word “influencer” better) who have power and access to others in power. For real culture change to happen, elites and institutions must be involved, and those efforts must go beyond changing their hearts and minds.

In his second essay, “Rethinking Power,” Hunter lays out how three different Christian groups have sought to use power to try and change the world. The Christian Right has sought to use political power to elect legislators and judges who will help write and enforce laws that are consistent with conservative moral values. In doing this, they are hoping that by making certain activites illegal, people will be forced to live more righteously. The Christian Left has also sought to use political power. However they have been trying to recapture a Christian responsibility to care for the poor and disadvantaged, and want to write and pass laws that directs our government to share in the care. The Neo-Anabaptists have defined themselves in the way they resist the power of the State and try to separate themselves from involvement in government affairs and vice-versa.

All three of these viewpoints, Hunter notes, are grounded in stories that revolve around injury. He uses the French world “Ressentiment” to refer to the anger, envy, hate, and rage that motivates the actions of these three groups. All of them perceive that they have been hurt by the actions of others and their actions are born out of that hurt. This results in the identities of these groups becoming grounded in a narrative of injury.

His final essay, “Toward a New City Commons: Reflections on a Theology of Faithful Presence,” is his stab at a different way forward. Instead of living out stories that are defined by what injuries Christians have suffered at the hands of other groups in this country, they need to live out stories of “affirmation and antithesis.” On the one hand Christians should be affirming that what God created was good. Culture is, as Andy Crouch puts it in his book Culture Making, “what we make of the world.” It was the mandate God gave us in Genesis 1:28. When culture is created that testifies to God’s goodness in the world, that culture is good. On the other hand, not all culture that is created will reflect that. Some culture will oppose God. Christians need to be able to know and name the difference between the two (antithesis).

Developing the ability to do that requires communities and institutions. Such communities should be marked by what Hunter calls “faithful presence.” This is really the point of the whole book. He looks at Jeremiah 29:4-7 and challenges Christians to create communities that will live out these verses by seeking the welfare of others (even those outside their faith) while remaining committed to pointing to God’s work in the world. Through these communities and institutions, leaders will be cultivated that will, when given the right set of circumstances, change other institutions to greater reflect God’s goodness in the world. That is how world change should happen.

I enjoyed this book and found it both challenging and thought provoking. Hunter writes at an academic level that many people (including myself) are not accustomed to. His challenge to the idea that changing the hearts and minds of individuals is not productive for culture change has brought him under fire. He is not saying that hearts and minds don’t matter (in fact, in his book he literally says, “This is not to say that the hearts and minds of ordinary people are unimportant”), only that as a strategy for changing the world it is ineffective.

I found the discussion on ressentiment helpful as well as the argument about moving forward in “affirmation and antithesis.” Hunter’s prescription of communities of “faithful presence” is, I believe, right on the money. Yet I can’t help but feel that the book falls a little flat near the end. Hunter comes close to just proposing a new way that the hearts and minds of individuals should be oriented. He leaves the reader riled up about what has gone wrong in American Christianity up to this point, and then they hang there trying to figure out what, exactly, this “faithful presence” is supposed to look like in their church, their business, their non-profit. To his credit, he offers some examples of organizations that are doing “faithful presence” well, but the descriptions are so brief and vague (not to mention he never names these organizations) that they are, generally, not helpful.

Absent from the book is any mention of Abraham Kuyper, the 19th century Dutch Prime Minister and theologian, and neo-Calvinist saint who famously remarked, “In the total expanse of human life there is not a single square inch of which the Christ, who alone is sovereign,does not declare,’That is mine!'” Hunter responded to Kuyper’s absence from his book in an interview with fellow author James K. A. Smith. Look at the final question. Much of what my neo-Cal friends argue for sounds an awful lot like Hunter’s “faithful presence.”

In all, the book is excellent for its scope and challenge. It is not a “beach read,” so be ready to spend some time mulling it over. I’d suggest starting with some of the reviews mentioned above (especially the one at The Other Journal) or see my expanded thoughts on each essay: Essay I, Essay II, Essay III. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book as well.

This is the third in a series of posts interacting with James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. You can find the first post here and the second here. These posts are part of a larger discussion on Hunter’s work that is happening in the Global Missional Leadership cohort of George Fox University’s Doctor of Ministry program. You can join in the discussion at and by using the #dmingml tag in your tweets and facebook status updates. I should note that all citations of Hunter’s book will make reference to a Kindle location, not a page number, by using the format “loc. #”.

 Now we’ve come to the third and final essay of Hunter’s book. Titled “Toward A New City Commons: Reflections on a Theology of Faithful Presence,” this essay represents Hunter’s best attempt to move beyond what is wrong and what can’t happen, to a set of solutions and engagements he believes, if implemented, will change the trajectory of Christianity in the late modern world.

He begins the essay with a reminder that “for all Christian believers, the call to faithfulness is a call to live in fellowship and integrity with the person and witness of Jesus Christ” (loc. 2673). This challenge is not new to our generation or our society, but it is tempered by our cultural realities. Consumerism and democratizaion have so permeated even the most mundane routines that it has led the average American to a life marked by contradictions. They are “committed and hopeful yet . . . also strongly distrustful of the major institutions and their leaders, dubious about the future of the nation, and often confused about their own nature and purpose of life” (loc. 2694). This presents a challenge to faithfulness. What does it mean to be a faithful Christian living in 21st century America?

Before answering that question, Hunter launches into a discourse on two related challenges, which compound and often cloud the way forward. The first of those is the challenge of difference. This challenge is rooted in pluralism, and the result is a fading away of any single dominant religious belief or perception of what is true. Instead there is a smorgasbord of belief and practice from which to choose, and pluralism resists weighing  the value of those choices. The second challenge is one of dissolution. Words have lost their meanings or, rather, their meanings are continually subject to redefinition and reinterpretation with little or no attention paid to traditional or orthodox usages. Words can no longer be trusted to adequately portray the ideas, concepts, and truths to which they point. The net result of difference and dissolution is a freedom of will unattached to any higher power, “a culture of banality that is manifested as self-indulgence, acquisition for its own sake, and empty spectacle that makes so much of popular culture and consumer culture trivial” (loc. 2891).

The response to these challenges by the main Christian camps, notes Hunter, has been “defense against,” “relevance to,” and “purity from” them. The Christian Right has championed the “defense against” paradigm, viewing difference and dissolution as threats that must be actively opposed, typically by legislation and adjudication. The Christian Left has employed the “relevance to” paradigm, trying to point to that which makes Christianity distinctive in the culture, especially a focus on justice and mercy. The Neo-Anabaptists have embraced the “purity from” paradigm, seeing difference and dissolution as darkness and attempting to separate their community of light from the darkness, often through nonviolent protest and resistance to the State.

In Hunter’s estimation, all three of these responses are inadequate for pursuing faithfulness. He is quick to point out specific examples of people and organizations that have been, and are, pursuing faithfulness through their presence in the world, however, he asserts that these are the exception, not the rule. If we are to see more people and organizations living out faithfulness, what is needed “is a leadership that comprehends the nature of these challenges and offers a vision of formation adequate to the task of discipling the church and its members for such a time as ours” (loc. 3079).

The primary task, then, is the formation of disciples. This “requires intentionality and it entails the hard work of teaching, training, and cautioning believers with wisdom in the ways of Christ so that they are fit for any calling and service to him” (loc. 3094). The problem is not that this kind of formation doesn’t exist. It is that too often it fails to recognize that another kind of formation is also happening: Christians are being formed by a post-Christian culture marked by the difference and dissolution discussed above.

The key to Christian formation that supplants cultural formation is community which must “embody a vision of renewal and restoration that extends to all of life . . . a vision of order and harmony, fruitfulness and abundance, wholeness, beauty, joy, and well-being” (loc. 3100). In short, “the vision of this community . . . is the vision of shalom” (loc. 3106). Such a Christian community will heed the call to embody shalom, and the tensions that result, because they desire to pursue faithfulness to God in a world that is not as it ought to be. They understand that, at its core, this means they are to “live toward the well-being of others, not just to those within the community of faith, but to all” (loc. 3134).

At this point, Hunter offers one of the most helpful dialectics found in this book: the call of Christians to live in “affirmation and antithesis.” A life of faithfulness will always be strung between the tension of testifying that “culture and culture making have their own validity before God that is not nullified by the fall” (loc. 3160) – affirmation – and at the same time “recogni[zing] the totality of the fall, . . . [that] all human effort falls short of its intended potential, all aspirations exist under judgment, and all human achievement is measured by the standards of the coming kingdom” (loc. 3210) – antithesis.

The Christian community – specifically the church – is called to the work of the formation of individuals who can recognize, and live in, the tension of affirmation and antithesis. As one whose job it is to create environments of discipleship and formation for my church, I leapt out of my seat when I read,

Beyond the worship of God and the proclamation of his word, the central ministry of the church is one of formation; of making disciples. Making disciples, however, is not just one more program – it is not Sunday School, a Wednesday night prayer meeting, or a new book one must read. Formation is about learning to live the alternative reality of the kingdom of God within the present world order faithfully. Formation, then, is fundamentally about changing lives. It is the church’s task of teaching, admonishing, and encouraging believers of the course of their lives in order to present them “as complete in Christ,” “fit for any calling” (loc. 3241-45) emphasis added.


Now for the last turn that Hunter makes in the book. He unpacks a developing theology of faithful presence. Key in this is understanding how such a theology is to address the challenges of dissolution and difference. Hunter’s answer is rooted in the incarnation. God demonstrated his faithful presence when he pursued us to the point of physical incarnation, identified with us in our temptations and sufferings, and offered life to us through his sacrificial love. Those movements of pursuit, identification and the offer of life through sacrificial love are what the church’s faithful presence must reflect.

This, then, necessarily affects our relationships with each other, the tasks we undertake, and the spheres of influence within which we move. All of these must reflect God’s faithful presence and benefit the well-being of others. This leads believers “to yield their will to God and to nurture and cultivate the world where God has placed them . . . [because] a theology of faithful presence first calls Christians to attend to the people and places that they experience directly” (locs. 3481 & 3483).

Hunter transitions, then, to a discussion on leadership. In sum, leaders are needed to guide the Christian community into faithful presence. Leadership is not as simple as the leader-follower dichotomy. Those who lead follow someone, and those who follow are often leading others. “[T]he burden of shalom falls to leaders. Thus, the obligations of shalom fall to all of us to the extent that we wield any influence at all” (loc. 3725).

At this point he makes clear that he is not advocating an individual will-to-power leadership mentality. He fairly well dispatched of that notion in Essay I. While leaders are crucial, faithful presence must be realized institutionally. Here he references back to his first and second essays where he asserts that institutions, not individuals, change culture through the collective power they wield. Leaders within those institutions (Hunter calls them “elites”) are the ones that direct the application of the institutional power. For Hunter, institutions and networks are the key not because they are above the effects of difference and dissolution, but because institutions actually possess the power and ability to change the world.

Finally, he offers a model of engagement that centers on Jeremiah 29:4-7. Here, it is best to let Hunter speak for himself:


A theology of faithful presence calls Christians to enact the shalom of God in the circumstances in which God has placed them and to actively seek it on behalf of others. . . . The enactments of shalom need to extend into the institutions of which all Christians are a part and, as they are able, into the formation of new institutions within every sphere of life. A premise of this view is a recognition that Christians share a world with others and that they must contribute to its overall flourishing. This imperative is captured by the image of of a “new city commons.” . . . commitment to the new city commons is a commitment of the community of faith to the highest ideals and practices of human flourishing in a pluralistic world. (loc. 3846-56)

This, of course, comes with considerable tension for the church. Not least of which is the language that is needed for this kind of engagement with culture. Herein lies one of Hunter’s greatest grievances. The language that has been used to describe Christian engagement with the world in which they live has been oriented around domination instead of presence, thereby setting up an adversarial stance instead of a faithful one. This is the nexus of the book’s sarcastic title, “To Change the World.” Hunter views a shift in language as essential:

[We must] abandon altogether talk of “redeeming the culture,” “advancing the kingdom,” “building the kingdom,” “transforming the world,” “reclaiming the culture,” “reforming the culture.” and “changing the world.” Christians need to leave such language behind them because it carries too much weight. It implies conquest, take-over, or dominion, which in my view is precisely what God does not call us to pursue – at least not in any conventional, twentieth- or twenty-first-century way of understanding these terms. (loc. 3864-68)


So, it is not an issue of semantics, as some of his critics have suggested. For Hunter, it is of critical importance that we expunge these phrases from our vocabulary because they are ultimately unhelpful and too often result in misdirection. Instead, the language of faithful presence should center around “enacting shalom” and “seeking it on the behalf of all others” (loc. 3961).

Now, dear reader, I must ask for your forgiveness. This post has gone on too long. Yet I still have a bit more to say. Up to this point I have recapped (perhaps in too much detail to use the term “recap”) Hunter’s arguments in his final essay. Now, if you’ll indulge me bit longer, I’d like to add some of my own thoughts on the book in general and the idea of “faithful presence” in particular.

Broadly, I agree with Hunter’s prescription of “faithful presence.” The dominant modes of thinking and acting within the Christian community have yielded little in the way of cultural change over the past several decades. That must change. How that changes is as important as the change itself. However his attempts to envision what faithful presence looks, feels, and sounds like leaves much to be desired. As a result he comes perilously close to offering a new idealism to supersede the idealism he railed against earlier in the book. It is quite possible that readers will leave the book thinking that all they need to do is change their heart and mind to reflect Hunter’s ideals.

Hunter has received great criticism for the combative tone toward the “hearts and minds” paradigm of world change in his first essay. I think such criticism is justified, and there is little denying that his tone had the intended result. People have read the book (or at least skimmed it and read reviews by others). His assertion that the errant and counterproductive individual will-to-power hero myth for world change cuts to the quick for most Christian organizations. Their missions are built on the idea that God does use individual agency to implement change and God does care about hearts and minds.

This is the point at which Hunter is so often misread. He does not disagree that God cares about and uses individuals. Instead, he rejects the assumption that such use of individual agency for change is normative, and constitutes the most effective strategy for cultural change. Here, I agree wholeheartedly. American Christians have neglected to understand the importance of institutions and networks in preparing the circumstances in which God uses an individual.

Hunter’s challenge to Christians is one of faithful presence in creating and cultivating these networks. It is from within these networks and institutions that God will raise up individual actors to direct the flow of power and influence. I’ve said in other places that God does not call us all to be David, or Moses, or Paul, or Esther. If you reread any of these biblical hero accounts, you will quickly see that God was working to prepare circumstances and networks through which a single person would be utilized to great effect. Of course there are exceptions to this, but they remain exceptions.

As a brief example, read the story of Esther. Her greatness was not in her resolve to change the world. It was in her faithful obedience (in the face of great fear and uncertainty) to act in accordance to what she already knew to be right and true. She was the product of a network of faithful presence. Mordecai did not form an organization to gain access to the Queen so that he might win her heart and mind for the Jews. Her heart and mind were already won because of the influence of the collective faithful presence of her people, the Jews, by which she was raised.

We may not all be called to be an Esther, but we are all called to be a Mordecai. We are called to lives of faithful presence in our work, our relationships, and our spheres of influence. Instead of trying to convert the hearts and minds of individual influencers (or “elites,” to use Hunter’s term) we should be cultivating networks and institutions that shape those who will be influencers, so that when they find themselves in positions of great power, they will know what it means to act “in such a time as this.”



a future not our own

Posted in pilgrimage, prayer at 5:20 am by len

It helps, now and then, to step back
And take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
It is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime
only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
Which is another way of saying
That the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection…
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day grow.
We water seed already planted.
Knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
And there is a sense of liberation in that.
This enables us to do everything,
And do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
An opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the results…
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero



A timely reminder of the long view we must take of our work. This runs against the grain of trying to change the culture in one generation, and reorients us to a more biblical perspective on how, and when, change happens.

In the comments on Len’s blog the attribution is corrected: It is from Bishop Ken Untener, not Archbishop Oscar Romero.

In the midst of reading and writing about Hunter’s Essay II in “To Change the World” about how American Christians on the Right and Left speak out of the injurious language of Ressentiment, I stumbled across this interview with N. T. Wright who uses the evolution/creation debate as a fantastic example of how those narratives are being worked out. It’s worth the 4 minutes.

This is the second in a series of posts interacting with James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. You can find the first post here. These posts are part of a larger discussion on Hunter’s work that is happening in the Global Missional Leadership cohort of George Fox University’s Doctor of Ministry program. You can join in the discussion at and by using the #dmingml tag in your tweets and facebook status updates. I should note that all citations of Hunter’s book will make reference to a Kindle location, not a page number, by using the format “loc. #”.  

Hunter’s second essay is, “Rethinking Power.” In it he moves from criticizing the way Christians typically overstate the scope of their ambitions by focusing on too much on individual agency, to dissecting how Christians typically view and use power. The essay looks primarily at three Christian camps: the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the Neo-Anabaptists. He devotes a chapter to each and explores how they all define their identities, frame their goals, and seek to exercise power.

He contends that all three of these groups find their identity formed, largely, through “ressentiment.” He borrows this term from Nietzche, noting, “His definition of this French word included what we in the English-speaking world mean by resentment, but it also involves a combination of anger, envy, hate, rage, and revenge as the motive for political action” (loc. 1442-3). This is an important concept for the reader to understand because all that follows in Hunter’s second essay is based off of his claim that ressentiment is the central element in which the narratives that follow are grounded. Ressentiment uses the language of injury past, present, and the future threat of, and leads to claims of entitlement. Let’s take a brief look at how Hunter sees this at play in each of those three Christian groups.

The Christian Right
This group is motivated by a desire for a rightly ordered society that is based out a particular understanding about how America was founded. This functions as “the point of reference against which the present is measured” (loc. 1513). Emphasized in the retelling of America’s founding is an emphasis on the Christian values and motives of the founders. At the very least the founding fathers were informed by a shared Christian tradition, and some in this camp go so far as to assert that it was the intent of the founders to establish America as a Christian nation. There is a perception that America is an extension of the people of God mandated in the Bible. Following this line of reasoning, America’s prosperity is tied to it’s faithfulness to it’s identity as the people of God.

The harm to America lies primarily in the growing deviance from biblical morals and values. Increasing secularization, growing acceptance of homosexuality and abortion, and the removal of the traditional family as point around which society is built, mark the moral decline. This is resulting in the marginalization of Christians that is quickly headed toward legalized “anti-Christian bigotry” (loc. 1588) and efforts to disenfranchise the Christian voice in America.

The perceived sense of injury is centered in the very Christian way of life being threatened. The enemy is the liberal media, the political Left, and special interest groups with anti-family and anti-Christian agendas.  To combat this active hostility, the Christian Right turns to politics. Their strategy is two-fold: prayer and action (loc. 1624).

First, believers are urged to pray for those in the country’s leadership, that their hearts would be turned to God and they would act to rescue America from this moral decline. Second, the believer is urged to vote their beliefs and values. The most powerful thing and individual Christian can do to rectify the moral decline is to elect people to representative government who believe like they do so that they can change the laws and compel people back into right living.

There is great hope in politics as the solution. Much hinges on the Christian Right’s ability to mobilize voters to elect the right candidates in order that those politicians will be in place to nominate and confirm Supreme Court justices to the bench who will codify and reinforce the values and beliefs that will return America to it’s roots as a Christian nation.

The Christian Left
This group is motivated by a desire for equality and community for all people that is based out of a biblical prophetic tradition that emphasizes God’s desire for all people to be free from oppression and injustice. This is rooted in “the future vision of the eschaton itself – the realization of the kingdom of heaven, where justice, peace, equality, and community exist in their ultimate state of perfection – that is the abiding ideal” (loc. 1816).

The perceived sense of injury is centered in the “harm done to the weak and disadvantaged of our society and world” (loc. 1876) through which there is appeal to prophetic threats of judgment for a nation who does not provide for its most vulnerable citizens. The enemy is the Christian Right who have harmed the faith by not fully representing the whole of Christianity. They accuse the Right of forsaking biblical faith in favor of political power through co-opting Republican neoconservative ideals. 

Their strategy for righting these wrongs is to seize back power from the Christian Right. At this point the outworking of the agenda of the Left is almost indistinguishable from the Right. They also urge believers to vote the right candidates into office so that legislators can craft policy that will attend to the injustices that their faith compels them to address.

The Neo-Anabaptists

At the outset this group shares some points in common with the Christian Left. They, too, are grieved by injustice and poverty. They also hold a contempt for the Right. Their view of the State, however, marks a sharp departure from the Left (loc. 2042).

The neo-Anabaptists are compelled by a vision of Christianity that looks to the early Christian church of the apostolic age for it’s ideals. In terms of a stance on politics, the early Christian church was forming in a hostile political environment that was opposed to this new faith movement. This hostility and opposition to Christianity remains a key component of the neo-Anabaptist outlook and shapes how they view political engagement.

They decry the civil religion of both the Right and the Left, seeing both groups as trusting too much in the power of the state as the means to maintaining faithfulness. They accuse both the Right and the Left of perpetuating a neo-Constantinianism that is powered not only by a too cozy relationship between the State and Christian politics, but by American capitalism as well.

The power is manifested most clearly in the manipulation of desire through marketing and the inequitable and often exploitative power exercised by corporate management over workers. The Constantinian error here is that American Christianity has whole-heartedly and uncritically embraced its logic and practices to its own detriment and the detriment of the detriment of the world it seeks to serve. (loc. 2097-99)

The result is that Christians have conflicting allegiances to both Christ and democratic capitalism.

Their hope and solution rests in a renewal of a Christological ecclesiology. Only by recognizing the complete lordship of Christ can Christians begin to find their way out from under the thumb of the political and capitalistic machines. The meaning of lordship begins with understanding the role of suffering in the Messianic story. There was a willing submission to injury and insult by Christ, and this is reflected by the neo-Anabaptist commitment to nonviolence and pacifism in matters ranging from war to market coercion.

This is  encompassed by a broader resistance to the State, in any form. Implied here is a sense that the call of the church is to be set over against the aims of the State. The church should not seek to garner the power of the State (as the Right and Left seek to do) but should actively resist the State’s exercise of power of their communities. The church should offer alternative communities that are centered on an identity of worship, preaching the Word, and observing the sacraments.

Yet for all their talk of resisting political involvement, the neo-Anabaptists are engaging in politics, nonetheless. Their attention to more and better ways to subvert the State in the name of alternative community is still a political play. It is one of disengagement and separatism instead of voting and power grabbing. Indeed, “their identity depends on the State and other powers being corrupt” (loc. 2240).

Now for my two cents.

Hunter’s framing of the Christian Right, Left, and Neo-Anabaptists in the language of ressentiment is an important one because, I think, it holds some truth to it. Especially in the realm of political engagement, but elsewhere as well, Christians are prone to define what they are for in the language of what their counterparts are against. If I’m pro-life I’m implying that those who disagree with my stance are anti-life. If I’m pro-choice, then my counterparts are anti-choice.

Even more distressing than using the language of negation as the vocabulary for posturing is the spiritual and psychological damage that is caused when a group of people are using injury and victimization to define themselves. Their very identity then becomes rooted in what has been done to them. This is not an identity rooted in redemption or the hope of restoration.

The Psalms can teach us much about how to respond to wrongdoing. There are numerous examples of how the psalmist turned from grievance to praise. Psalm 22 is an excellent example. David enumerates the wrongs that are being perpetrated against him: mockery, insult, physical threat, and fear. But he doesn’t stop there. He reframes his identity as one who will declare God’s name and praise him in the midst of suffering. Why? Because

All the ends of the earth
     will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
     will bow down before him,
for dominion belongs to the Lord
     and he rules over the nations.

All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
     all who go down to the dust will kneel before him –
     those who cannot keep themselves alive.
Posterity will serve him;
     future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness
     to a people yet unborn –
     for he has done it.
         -vv. 27-31


When Christians only look to the wrongs that have been perpetrated against them as their raison d’être, they miss out on the hope and glory and power of the resurrection. Good Friday is only good because of the Sunday that followed. Paul expands on this in Romans 8, in what is, arguably, the culmination of the most important passage he contributed to Scripture,

     I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
     We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, ho have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. – vv.18-25


It is this “hope for what we do not have” that needs to define our actions as Christians instead of the injuries that we do have. And we musn’t be too surprised when our efforts to change the world into the Kingdom fall short. “Hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has?”

So, how have you (or have you?) seen ressentiment in the Christian camp you  identify yourself with? It’s all too easy to talk about what “they” are guilty of. What are you guilty of?

EDIT: The original title of this post was “You Won’t Change the World, pt. 1” and was changed after the church I worked for at the time took umbridge with that phrasing. Their mission statement was “Gather the People. Tell the Stories. Change the World.”

This is the first in a series of posts interacting with James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. These posts are part of a larger discussion on Hunter’s work that is happening in the Global Missional Leadership cohort of George Fox University’s Doctor of Ministry program (the title of the program was changed to Leadership in Global Perspectives after this post was originally published). You can join in the discussion at (now and by using the #dmingml (now #dminlgp) tag in your tweets and facebook status updates. I should note that all citations of Hunter’s book will make reference to a Kindle location, not a page number, by using the format “loc. #”.

Hunter’s book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World promises to be one of the year’s most important books for anyone interested in how culture change happens. In three “essays” Hunter takes on the fallacies inherent in the notion that Christian idealism is the way to change culture. For an excellent review of the book, see James K. A. Smith’s post “How (Not) to Change the World” at

In the first essay, “Christianity and World Changing”, Hunter lays out the fatal flaw in the aims of Christian organizations who make the claim that they exist to change the culture or transform the world. Almost without exception the strategy of organizations, whether church or parachurch in nature, for culture change begins with changing the “hearts and minds” individuals. This is based off an assumption that sweeping cultural change can happen if only one can first get people to believe rightly.

Hunter refers to this as the “apparent problem” upon which these organizations base their strategies. He sums up their thinking this way:

The apparent problem, in brief, is two-fold: First, Christians aren’t just Christian enough. Christians don’t think with an adequate enough worldview, Christians are fuzzy minded, Christians don’t pray hard enough, and Christians are generally lazy toward their duties as believers. By the same token, there are not enough people who actually do fully embrace God’s call on their lives, praying, understanding, and working to change the world. (loc. 340)

The problem with this “problem” is that it is grounded in a Hegelian-informed idealism, clothed with individualism, and trimmed with a Nietzsche-esque will to power understanding of how change can and should happen (see loc. 353 and 365). In short, if anyone just believes rightly and sets his or her mind to changing the way things are into the way things ought to be, then the world will be quickly (James Dobson, for example, is fond of saying that culture can be changed in just one generation) and drastically changed. Hunter asserts that this is a misappropriation of individual agency, “implying the capacity to bring about influence where that capacity may not exist or where it may only be weak” (loc. 375).

I see this happening in the church by the way we choose which stories to tell – biblical or otherwise. When talking about culture change from the pulpit, pastors are quick to use Nehemiah, Esther, David, or Moses as examples of how through one person drastic change was brought about. There’s no denying that these (and many other) biblical characters were agents of cultural change.

However, what is too often extrapolated from these stories is that each one of us is a Nehemiah, an Esther, a David, or a Moses, and that if we are not having the kind of impact on our culture as they had on theirs it is because we are not acting responsibly enough or believing rightly enough. The assumption is that there is a latent power to drastically change the world lying dormant within each of us, trying to break free if only we would get our acts together and let it out.

The problem with that application is two-fold. First, it ignores the empowerment of the Spirit of God in those biblical heroes. These were men and women singled out by God as his agents of change. They were not successful in changing culture because they unlocked some power within them by believing rightly and trying hard enough. It was empowerment by God and significant orchestration by God of their surrounding circumstances that led them to be used as agents of broad change.

That leads to the second flaw, the denial of these character’s proximity to power. Hunter deals with this in his second essay, but it is worth touching upon now. Nehemiah was serving in the court of the king, Esther was married to the king, David was living in the house of the king before becoming king himself, and Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s house before his self-imposed exile. These were not your “average Joes” leading grassroots movements. They were aligned with the dominant power structures and knew how to both use them and buck them effectively.

So, while it is quite important that the hearts and minds of individuals are changed to align with the Kingdom of God, that simply isn’t enough to change the world. There are other factors that must come into play beyond thinking and believing Christianly. Hunter gets to those in his next two essays.

I want to hear from you. What are your thoughts on the notion that not everyone can “change the world”? Do you disagree? Why?