Saturday, October 13, 2012

Review of "The New Left and Christian Radicalism" by Arthur G. Gish

I particularly like "Draft Beer/Not Boys"

The New Left and Christian Radicalism is a book that appears to have only gone through only one edition- and that originally published by Eerdman's in 1970. That being the case, how on earth did this obscure paperback fall into my hands? Simple: it was in a giveaway box on the sidewalk (free books are my kryptonite). It took me a while to get around to it, but man was it worth the wait...

Gish's project is to compare and contrast (but mostly compare) the Radical New Left movement of the late 1960s with the Radical Anabaptist Reformation of the 16th century. Both, he argues, are concerned with a total transformation of the culture and a lifestyle that involves total commitment to that end. Both are concerned with absolute purity and justice, and with never compromising with a fallen world or a fallen system in the name of the lesser evil. And both are utterly unwilling to compromise with sin and evil in the world, especially in their social incarnations.

The Pros:
Gish is a lucid writer who is clearly engaged with his subject matter and aware of the work being done by the New Left movement (or at least he was, he apparently passed away in 2010 in a farming accident). Even better, despite his enthusiasm for the New Left, he's not unaware of the drawbacks, failings, and blindspots of the movement.
The New Left is, according to Gish (and I think he's right), a movement concerned with the failure of the affluent American system to live up to its own stated ideals of liberty and justice. We promise freedom, and then drop napalm on children in Vietnam. We promise justice, but then refuse the vote to minorities. We promise rule by the people, but then have a government almost completely dominated by the rich and powerful elites. Worst of all, there is no means of change by working within the system (the Old Liberal ideal), since the system itself is corrupted by the same forces that keep obstructing freedom, justice, and the rule of the people. What we need is a total systemic overhaul. This overhaul should not come through violent revolution [this was in the days before the Weather Underground took over the New Left movement, and nonviolence was still the order of the day], but rather through peaceful protest and setting good personal examples of what life should be like.
In just the same way, the Anabaptists stood up to both the Protestants and the Catholics in the 16th century, arguing that what was needed was not simply to switch from a Catholic state church to a Lutheran, Zwinglian, Anglican, or Calvinist one, but a radically new idea of church and society altogether. Also working through peaceful methods (certain exceptions aside), the Anabaptists strive to set the example and to live up to the idea that being a Christian means a radical transformation of our lives in this world, and in turn working for a radical transformation of society.
What the Anabaptists have to offer the New Left is what the New Left cannot agree upon on its own: a vision of what society actually should look like. As with so many counter-cultural movements, the New Left is excellent at criticizing but poor and proposing solutions. The Anabaptists, on the other hand, have had four hundred years to think the issue through, and have several suggestions which Gish thinks line up quite nicely with New Left ideals (and have the added benefit of being Christian). This includes principles such as:

  1. Change must come from the bottom-up: a new social order requires the people to take matters into their own hands. Top-down change would require the government to be the agent of change, and the government itself is corrupt and so cannot fix the problems of the culture.
  2. We must have a solid understanding of both the old order we're trying to topple, and our own identities (something which the New Left is not so good at, given their low view of sin). 
  3. We must not compromise with the system- just as the Christian must never compromise with sin. 
  4. We must set the example by modelling the life we are calling others to live. This means living as if all the promises made in Christ have already been fulfilled. 
These are just a few of Gish's suggestions, but ones which capture the general thrust of his thought. 

Obviously, I am fairly sympathetic to this worldview. It's not so much that I'm a hippie or anything like that, it's just that I believe as a Christian and as a political philosopher that the New Left makes a lot of valid points about American society. We are too materialistic. We strut around the world like we own the place. We do thrust our nose into the business of other nations, despite our claims that people should be free to determine their own destinies. The war in Vietnam was unjust (and I have serious reservations about Afghanistan and Iraq, for that matter). And, well, I could go on. In fact, I'd take it even one step more than Gish, and agree with Augustine that the state (whether America or any other state) is a part of the city of man, and consequently necessarily defined by sin and headed for destruction. We should chalk it up to God's (common) grace that we have even the few blessings that we do- we certainly don't deserve them.

Gish also offers several excellent reminders that Christians are called to live all our lives in a radical and Christ-centered way. We are not allowed to compartmentalize, especially since doing so leads to the temptation to compromise. We say "I'm a Christian, but I live in a fallen world, so I guess in terms of politics I'll have to do what is expedient (or even easy), rather than what I know is right." Gish utterly rejects this worldview, and tells us that if we live in a world where we can't do what is right, as Christians it is our responsibility to try to change the world so we can. No free passes for us! Gish writes:

To be a Christian is to be an extremist. Moderation is a Greek ideal, not Christian. Christian faith is not a halfway measure; it talks about going two miles instead of one, of plucking out eyes that disturb, of dying on a cross. it is to risk death, to love enemies, and to pray without ceasing. As one biblical writer put it, "Would that you were hot or cold! So because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth" (Revelation 3:15-16)... the Christian is not satisfied with maintaining a tension between the good and the possible. He does the good regardless of consequences or effectiveness. Faith involves intensity and commitment. We are called to love God with our whole being. (94-95)

The Christian life -including our involvement in politics- is to be one of total dedication to Christ and the life we are called to live in him. 

The Cons:
There are two major drawbacks to Gish's book, which may have been corrected had he spent another hundred pages or so working through his ideas. 
First, the book could have used a little more Gospel. Or at least, a little more exposition of the Gospel. The hints given here and there suggest that Gish sees Christ as an example and the cross a declaration of victory (akin to the New Perspective movement that would come later), rather than as an atoning sacrifice provided by God for his people. And while I suspect that Gish was a bit more theologically liberal than I am usually comfortable with (he cites Paul Tillich far more than anyone should who is not explicitly writing a critique of his thought), I can't quite say he believes a different Gospel. Reading more of his works may sort this out in the future. I don't think this negates his overall points, it just would give us a better foundation to stand upon as Christians as we criticize the culture. 

Second, much of what he looks for in society should be found in the church. (I had a similar objection to a more recent liberal book I reviewed.) It's unfortunate that he left out a discussion of the church, given that the ecclesiastical body really does have a role to play in the Christian's political thought. Ultimately, we should not look to the state as a fountain of justice, freedom, and democracy, but rather we should see those things on display in the church built upon the Gospel. The state will someday come to an end when its role of temporary stewardship is concluded, but the church of Christ will last for all eternity. To that end, we should work first in the local church to correct the wrongs we see, and only second in the state. 

Overall, this is an excellent and fascinating approach to Christian political thought. This should be read in conjunction with other works on the New Left, including The Times Were a Changin' and The Sixties.

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