Wednesday, October 3, 2012
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Every time I read a book written by a former conservative evangelical Christian, I find myself getting incredibly smug. I don’t like it, mind you, but it is pretty hard not to feel that way when I watch them wrestle with questions that more middle to left leaning mainline churches have had answers for a long time, mainly because we never threw out things with which the ancient Church had already wrestled. I can usually beat down the smugness by reminding myself of all the crap we mainliners are struggling with, such as becoming utterly irrelevant to the world at large.
Sadly, that was the second response I had to Aaron D. Taylor’s Alone with a Jihadist: A Biblical Response to Holy War. My first response was probably the same one that everyone else who failed to pay attention to the subtitle had. When I picked up this book, I assumed I would be getting a blow by blow description of Taylor’s time spent with the jihadist Khalid. If you want to see that, you should seek out the film Holy Wars by director Stephen Marshall, for which this conversation was taped. I have not yet viewed the film, so the interpretation of the conversation I make here is based solely on Taylor’s description.
Instead, what you will get is one chapter about the conversation, and about fifteen more chapters of what happens to Taylor’s thinking over the following year as a result of the encounter. Admittedly, what happens as a result is hope filling—or it would be if we could get a few million mega-church members out there to have the same conversation and reflection. The truth is, Khalid Kelly, and Irish convert of Islam who lives in London, found a hole in the most basic thinking of conservative Christianity and drove a truck through it. Hmm. Perhaps that is not the best metaphor to use under the circumstances.
Anyway, I really wanted to see some give and take between Kelly and Taylor, with the Christian helping deepen the Muslim’s understanding of his faith and vice versa. The problem is, the Christian Taylor was then practically an unarmed man. He got beaten badly, and he knew it, so the scenario in my head could not take place.
What was his undoing? Kelly asked Taylor to explain how Taylor would use the Bible to implement a government. Try as he might, Taylor could not come up with an adequate answer because Kelly did not want moral philosophy but practical and law based answers to questions of how one responds to prostitution or robbery. Worse, he pointed to Western governments, the ones set up by majority Christians, and declared them wholly inadequate to resolve social problems.
But that’s pretty much all we get of the conversation. If this were a debate, Taylor lost. Big time. And he knew it. Now, readers of this blog who have an adequate sense of the full history of the church—which, unfortunately, too many conservative Protestants do not—might have avoided the trap Taylor fell into, which was trying to justify the failures of Western civilization as being due to people misusing the freedom they are given. Kelly’s answer to that was to recognize that freedom as a failure to carry out God’s will; freedom, he says, is a man-made (sic) ideal, while God demands obedience.
Now, here is where the smugness comes in. My response to Kelly would be to say that Christianity was never intended to create a government, and that his assumption that that is what God wants us to do is not one I accept. I would’ve happily owned to the fact that Christian government has been a disaster, but that is because Jesus never called us to create a government in the first place. And I certainly would have jumped in to say that nothing about Western civilization could be argued as the Christian form of government despite the fact that many people claim it is. In other words, I would have rejected Kelly’s major premises and outlined an entirely different understanding of the relationship between faith and government.
Which is exactly what Aaron Taylor does for the rest of the book. Chapter two outlines his recognition that Kelly was right in his assertions. His biblical analysis is that Christianity has never been called to set up governments, so of course the ones it has attempted not only have failed (are failing?), but those attempts have been a diversion from our call in the first place. From there Taylor explores the uneasy relationship between the Christian and the state, unjust laws, and significantly, the notion of coercion. In short, he not only recreates the model that the early church followed—i.e., little involvement with government and obedience to the laws as much as possible without compromising the faith.
He makes a compelling case for pacifism; admittedly, I am with him on that one, so he does not have to sell me on it. Once again, I am aware that his audience of choice is not me.
But then he steps into the concept of Christian anarchy.
So let me just say now that Christian anarchy is a concept that I have trouble wrapping my head around. Perhaps it is because I chiefly associate anarchy with chaos. So, I did some dictionary work on this. The most benign definition for anarchy is simply the lack of government. All the other definitions have to do with disorder, rebellion, and confusion. Add to that the quick willingness of so many modern anarchists to use violence in the attempt to achieve their aims, and you can understand why I am reluctant to go down the Christian anarchy road.
But let’s go back to that original definition and ignore the ones that have grown up over time. I don’t have a problem with doing that. Heck, I have done the same thing with the word radical, so I cannot be disparaging when others do the same with different words. Is Christian anarchy really what Jesus espouses? Here is where I think Taylor falls down. Jesus’ call to live in the kingdom of God.
The problem for me is that, at its heart, anarchy is a political system that I no way hinges upon Christianity. Once we espouse something called Christian anarchy, we have moved anarchy to the foreground and left Christianity as the adjective. Hence, a political understanding of the world takes precedence.
Besides, I have known anarchist groups. And what I have seen in every case is that, despite the ideal of there not being a leader, they all have clearly identifiable leaders even if they are unwilling to acknowledge who they are. Just watch a group of anarchist for fifteen minutes, and you will know who the leaders are. In other words, they all have developed a form of government.
Is there such a thing as a Christianity that does not have rely on secular explanations to justify itself? That’s a debate I would love to see. Unfortunately, despite a very hopeful writing that demands Christians, mainline and evangelical alike, to reconsider the role of the church in relation to the state, Taylor assumes the answer is no. I still want to make the case that the “Kingdom of God” is not a dependent concept but one that changes the world in ways we cannot yet see. Even if I like much, perhaps even most, of what Christian anarchy has to say. I just cannot go there.
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