It is an honor to be in dialogue with Rick Ufford-Chase, who unflinchingly walks the talk of radical Christian faith and practice.
As I read his reflection I was reminded of a blog post by Pete Rollins, of whom I am an unabashed fan. Rollins wrote some time ago about religious extremism, and argued that the trouble with fundamentalism isn’t that it’s too violent. It’s that it’s not violent enough. He’s not using the word violent in the sense of bloody. What he means is that many flavors of radical religiosity seem extremist, but in fact they are part of the same old cycle of violence… the same powers-and-principalities game that still holds the world captive. These strains of fundamentalism aren’t really trying to overthrow these powers, but to assume that power for themselves.
As an example of what he’s talking about, Rollins writes:
Take the example of so many wars today. Amidst all their violence they are more often than not fought in order to preserve the way things are, to protect people in power, or to accumulate more resources. Thus their horrific violence at the subjective level hides the fact that they preserve the deeper objective violence of the system itself. The bloodshed thus helps to maintain the injustice that currently exists, ensuring that structures of oppression remain unchallenged.
We might sum up Rollins’s thoughts with Audre Lorde’s famous statement, that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Something radical is needed. As Christians, we believe that nothing less than the world-transfiguring, cosmos-rending death and resurrection of Christ is needed to make all things new.
In that sense, I agree with Rick that folks like the Christian Peacemaker Teams, who go into conflict zones at great risk to themselves, are truly “violent” in the sense that Rollins is talking about. That is, they are witnessing through their peaceful presence to a new world that is not yet here, but can be—a kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Rick acknowledges that many acts of civil disobedience are “carefully choreographed,” low-risk affairs, especially in the U.S. where public protest is mostly tolerated. Given this, I’m not sure such actions can even be placed in the same category as the Arab Spring or the Christian Peacemaker Teams, where there is grave risk involved. I am awed every time I read about young undocumented immigrants being arrested over anti-immigration policies around the nation. They stand to suffer severe and lasting consequences of their actions. That is what captivates the imagination, not celebrities and upper-middle-class college students being arrested in Lafayette Square.
I’m not a complete consequentialist, but I do lean that way—I favor actions that will maximize good and reduce suffering in the world. And so I ask: is civil disobedience truly the most faithful and productive use of privileged folks’ privilege? With privilege comes power—how can we be good stewards of it? (And I say this as someone who’s followed the work of Bill McKibben for years. I am a huge admirer and fan of the man, and not just because we share a name.)
Perhaps the bottom line for me is this: in the 21st century, with all its bizarre complexities, we need to think as expansively as we can about what radical discipleship looks like. I serve in the suburbs, with its minivans and mortgages and lacrosse practices. What does it mean to follow the “absurd” convictions of Jesus there? Some months ago I preached on Paul and Silas in jail. A parishioner greeted me afterwards, quite agitated and full of questions. She had twin toddlers at home with another on the way. She felt convicted by Paul and Silas’s willingness to go to jail for her faith, but she didn’t know what to do with that conviction. Truth be told, neither do I.
I can assure you that this woman takes her faith very seriously. This was not a question designed to let herself off the hook. She really wanted to know—given the little lives that God has entrusted to her, how does she put her life and her body where her convictions are, in ways that are not bland and inconsequential? What do we suggest for her?