Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Radical Christianity: A Reading List

Every so often, I’m asked to explain how I’ve arrived at my position of devout Christianity and implacable anarchism.

How can I reconcile a Christian vision while embracing a socially and politically radical one?

How can I attend Mass and solemnly kneel before the Eucharist wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt?

How can I decry violence and refuse to condemn out of hand putting a brick through a Starbucks window?

How can I respect authority and support those who break into military bases and destroy US warplanes?

How can I call myself a devout Catholic and long for the final destruction of the Church hierarchy, women priests, and full, open LGBT inclusion in the Church?

How can I call myself a pacifist and hold up as an inspiration a Catholic priest who joined the Colombian ELN guerrillas and was killed in action fighting the Colombian army?

Well… It’s complex…

But the bottom line is this: I’m drawn to the radical Christian tradition, that rich seam of Christian praxis that, throughout history, has chosen to dissent, question, and yes, to resist.  

The radical Christian tradition always exists as a parallel, an alternative, an opposition to the traditional, centralized, hierarchical, comfortable, influential, and, above all, powerful expressions of Christianity.

It looks at Jesus and doesn’t see a role model of middle-class morality but a challenging figure whose last words to his followers before his execution for treason were ‘when you get arrested, don’t worry about what to say. God will give you the words…’

It’s a tradition that says, if Jesus was raised from the dead, then nothing is impossible and nothing can ever be the same. The empire that killed him can’t simply go on as normal on the Monday after.  

No. If what we say about Easter is true, things have got to change. And if the powers that be want it all to stay the same, then we resist.

I’m often asked to suggest some books that might help people to best understand my outlook, and I usually think of one or two titles off the top of my head. But for this post I wanted to really try to think of the ten books that were the real life-changers, the true paradigm-shifters.

They’re all available for sale online. I checked.

Needless to say, these are not the only books that have influenced my thinking on this subject, but these are my indispensables, and ones that I’d love others to experience.

And, again, no getting on my case for what’s not here. This is my list; make your own.    

So here they are, in no particular order. ..

Anarchy and Christianity, by Jacques Ellul

‘All the churches have scrupulously respected and often supported the state authorities. They have made of conformity a major virtue. They have tolerated social injustices and the exploitation of some people by others, explaining that it is God’s will that some should be masters and others servants… ‘

This slender volume (109 pages) packs an incredible punch. French theologian Jacques Ellul is a master of economical writing, never wasting a word. But he nevertheless deftly lays out his philosophy of political dissent and non-cooperation. In a nutshell, he doesn’t say that every Christian needs to become an anarchist but, in light of his reflections from the biblical text, they’d be foolish to rule it out. Ellul sees no basis in scripture for hierarchies or power, and therefore he envisions a Christian faith that is anarchistic- actively resisting every inclination of the modern state; not liberal or reformist, but radical.

The Future of Liberation Theology, Marc Ellis and Otto Maduro, eds.

‘This God of the Bible sets one other prior condition for any Christian theology: listening to the cry of the oppressed. God is the God of the cry of the victim of injustice. God hears the cry. A theology deaf to the poor weeping for their innocent suffering is also dumb before God and before society. A theology which is dumb before the oppression of the majority finds it hard to escape charges of cynicism and triviality’- Leonardo Boff- ‘The Originality of the Theology of Liberation’

My doctoral work was based on the legacies of Latin American liberation theology, so I had a very hard time narrowing down a potential list of dozens of titles to one or two. But if my bookshelf were on fire, this is what I’d most desperately try to save. This astonishingly broad collection came out of Maryknoll School of Theology’s ‘Summer Institute for Justice and Peace’ in 1988, and is a very good place to begin exploring the foundations of liberation theology from a healthy majority of its greatest thinkers. The depth of insight here is striking, particularly as ‘liberation theology’ has become somewhat of a catch-all definition for any Christian writing vaguely about politics and activism. The writings here lay out a new way of doing theology, theological reflection with a new focus, priority, method, and direction. It’s a scholarly work, but its scholarship is rooted in praxis and dedicated to social transformation.

(NOTE: this work exists in two forms: a 500-plus page edition titled ‘The Future of Liberation Theology' and a 226-page version titled ‘Expanding the View: Gustavo Gutierrez and the Future of Liberation Theology’. It’s going to be much harder finding the longer text, but you should put in that effort.)

Radical Christian Writings: A Reader, Andrew Bradstock and Christopher Rowland, eds.

‘My Good people, things cannot go well in England, nor ever shall, till everything be made common, and there be neither villains nor gentleman, but we shall all be united together, and the lords shall be no greater master than ourselves. What have we deserved that we should be kept thus enslaved? We are all descended from one father and mother, Adam and Eve.’- John Ball, English clergyman, 1381.

Expressions of radical Christianity are nothing new. This fine volume draws together a wealth of writings from across two millennia, bringing together Church Fathers, Levellers, Anabaptists, feminists, Abolitionists, French Communist priests, German antifascist pastors, anarchist theologians, Civil Rights strugglers, anti-Apartheid fighters, Latin American guerrillas, and LGBT activists. Through it all, there is the incredible notion that the message of Jesus means the transformation of everything, utterly incompatible with slavery, injustice, marginalization, and oppression.

Sword of the Spirit, by Dhyanchand Carr

‘We need to undo the tremendous damage our quietism to the very image of God among people. The image of god as an arbitrary sovereign monarch who sets up and tolerates evil powers and value structures and who tells the oppressed people that they should humbly suffer is a false image. It has nothing to do with the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who is an abdicating God and desires human societies to grow into God’s own maturity and to reflect the corporate reality of God. So for God’s own sake we need to be constantly involved in destroying all false images of God. That can only be done by being true to God’s passion for justice and by reflecting God’s humility and corporateness in all structures we create.’

This book by a Tamil theologian is a good place to begin exploring Christianity outside of its dominant Westernized forms. Most Christians in the world are not white, not wealthy, and might live as minorities in unstable or oppressive conditions. With all that in mind, their theological approaches to Western notions of obedience to political authority, the importance of wealth, hierarchical structures within the church, and Christian public influence can differ significantly, and European and American Christians would do well to engage with them.

Remembering Forgetting, by Ciaron O’Reilly

‘Philosophically, we were Christian-anarchist-pacifist. We attempted to combine the praxis of intentional community, hospitality to the poor, and non-violent resistance to the institutions of death and privilege. We linked with the Catholic Worker movement on the move since 1933 and with the faith-based ploughshares movement. We took a cue from Jesus to resist the temptations of wealth, power, and status with which he had wrestled and had rejected in the desert. We were careful not to be seduced into managing the poor or managing dissent, but chose to operate on the margins where the spirit and conscience have room to move.’

I first met Australian activist Ciaron O’Reilly in Ireland when he and others started the Dublin Catholic Worker. It was just after 9-11, and the US was ramping up for war. I was working with the Irish anti-war movement and was fascinated by Ciaron’s mix of deep spirituality, anarchism, and active resistance to the war. That resistance came to a head when he and three other Catholic Workers cut through the fence at Shannon International Airport and took hammers to a US warplane en route to Iraq. They then knelt on the runway and waited to be arrested. Their trial dragged on for years, until an Irish jury found their actions justified and acquitted them all, much to the fury of the US government. In this book, Ciaron lays out a vision historic Christian pacifism and active resistance to war and power. It’s a compelling read.

Jesus and Politics, by José María Casciaro

‘Jesus tells them quite clearly that he is not the nationalistic Messiah-King which Satan wants, but the humiliated and transcendent Messiah-Son of God, who saves by ways quite distinct from those of men and devils.’

Casciaro gives a detailed and easily-read exploration of the politics of Palestine in Jesus’ day, and how Jesus’ own self-understanding transcended it. A very interesting section goes into the possible politics of his disciples, and postulates that at least three of them probably zealots, a radical party that endorsed armed insurrection. Basically, Casciaro thinks Jesus didn’t just associate with tax collectors and sinners, but wasn’t afraid to count as close friends those the powers that be would have labelled terrorists. Yet Jesus urges them beyond the desires for political revolution to something much deeper and ultimately far more transformational. Casciaro’s positive engagement with the dreaded term ‘terrorist’- a word over which so much hysteria has been poured- is reason enough to give this book a look.

The Kingdom of Heaven is Within You, by Leo Tolstoy

What is this state for whose sake such terrible sacrifices are demanded? And why is it so absolutely necessary? Since the end of the eighteenth century almost every step in advance made by humanity has been hindered rather than encouraged by governments. Such was the case with the abolition of corporal punishment, of torture, and of slavery, as well as the attainment of liberty of the press and the right of public meeting.’

Leo Tolstoy’s Christianity was an entirely ethical one which ignored church dogma and embraced universal love and brotherhood. This led him to denounce violence in every form and the state, he argued, was violence in its more organized form. From there it was a small step to political anarchism, for Christianity as Tolstoy saw it was totally incompatible with the state with its endless coercive structures, military, and police. Tolstoy’s vision offers a compelling challenge to many western evangelicals, who often hold patriotism and civic and national pride nearly at the level of spiritual devotion.

Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation, by José Míguez Bonino

‘The participation of Christians in the revolutionary struggle is not merely an aspiration: it is a simple fact. Among the guerrillas, in the political parties, in the shanty towns, in the university, among the peasants- wherever the revolutionary ferment is at work, there are Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, working shoulder to shoulder with other men. They are found in jail, among the tortured and murdered, with the persecuted and exiled. And, when some measure of success is achieved, they are there with the others working for a new society and a new man.’

If I were asked to pick one volume that best captures the essence of Latin American liberation theology (other than an edited anthology), I’d pick this one. Bonino’s book is a concise, easy to read, but rich snapshot into a historical and theological moment, when Christianity produced a direct challenge to structural oppression. It’s difficult for us to imagine the full scale of the Latin American ‘National Security’ states, where bureaucracy, the military, the land, the industry, and the Church were part of a cohesive system of power, control, and very often terror. Bonino exquisitely lays out the Christian answer to such a situation, a vision of the God of scripture as the God of life and liberation, outside the system, not on the side of the powerful but in the midst of the poor. It was a thoroughly revolutionary vision, and an absolutely compelling one.

Fidel and Religion, by Frei Betto

‘The name of Jesus Christ was one of the most familiar names to me, practically from the time I first had use of reason... Yet I really didn’t acquire a religious faith. All my effort, my attention, my life was concentrated on the development of a political faith. Yet never did I see a contradiction between the ideas I upheld and the idea of that symbol of that extraordinary figure who had been so familiar to me’- Fidel Castro.   

In May 1985, Brazilian priest and theologian Frei Betto traveled to Cuba where he gave several lectures and talks to students, priests, and lay people. He also met with President Fidel Castro for a series of nine conversations on the topics of politics and religion. And what conversations they are, very often beginning at ten at night and concluding as the sun comes up. These are not canned interviews that we might expect from a head of state, eager to steer away from controversy- polite, amiable, but ultimately shallow. Castro fully engages with his usual mix of voracious intellect, scrupulous attention to details, and the argumentative skill of the young, fiery lawyer he once was. This is true dialogue of the highest order, full of respect, candour, and complexity.

Jesus in Bad Company, by Adolf Holl

‘The truth is that Jesus was not at all reliable. He roused people’s anger and provoked unrest, was a stumbling block and a cause of scandal. He escapes every attempt to pigeon-hole him. He is severe when one might expect him to be mild, yielding where one might expect him to be decisive. He prayed in the temple and called for its destruction, upset his own family and then included close relatives in the circle of his disciples… ‘Jesus the King of the Jews’: even the notice pinned to the cross was an appalling embarrassment. It is not surprising they finally nailed him there: at least he’d make no more trouble.’

German Catholic priest Adolf Holl strips away from Jesus all the solemn, quiet decency in which centuries of Church hierarchies have framed him to reveal a complex, difficult, and divisive figure, one who offers nothing but difficulty and hardship. So why do so many comfortable, middle-class Christians follow this guy? Holl argues that they don’t; the Christ of the Church, he insists, is not the Jesus of the Gospels, and if we actually followed him, the whole history of Christianity would look very different.  Yet Jesus is still there, asking us to decide. And for those that do, nothing is ever the same.

Alright, that’s your reading assignment. Off you go!

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