With the Grain of the Universe

Dr. James Jakob Fehr says the Mennonite Church is an attempt to revive the original form of Jesuan c

One intriguing approach to reading the Bible goes behind those doctrines like sin or divine grace that strike many of us as hackneyed and dreary and asks how specific concepts were actually intended and understood “back in the day”. You know, before the theologians began brewing their spells, and by the strength of their illusion drew us on to our confusion. It is interesting to discover, for example, that the Hebrew concept of the soul is not an aspect of the human that is distinct from our fleshly existence, but includes essentially our breathing, our appetites and emotions. Consider under this perspective how one must re-read “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul?” Much of the best and most arresting contemporary theological literature adopts this approach.

There is, however, another equally interesting interpretive method that is more seldom the object of serious scrutiny. It asks whether the New Testament authors had a political agenda for the people of God. Indeed, given what we know about the biblical message: that the prophets championed the disadvantaged, that Jesus criticized mainstream value-systems, and that God himself is characterized as opposing the structures of power and domination, we might well ask: Could these themes still have application for the church today? – Oops, dreadfully sorry to have disturbed your afternoon tea. But let’s consider what the Mennonites have made out of this notion.

Imagine that Jesus gathered disciples, not in order to have a docile audience for his magic acts, but in order to train a community of men and women in acts of engagement with the world. Imagine that he was not interested in adoring spectators, but wanted his trainees to continue his feats of confronting power circles and domination systems with peaceful and non-coercive acts of love. This is what following Jesus means to Mennonites. – To some this training programme may sound daft, to others it may sound heroic. But if that was Jesus’ intention, then clearly something got his community side-tracked along the way. The Mennonites have a word for that: Constantinianism.

The Mennonite Church is an attempt to revive the original form of Jesuan community that began in Palestine and that has lived on in various guises during the Middle Ages and after the Reformation. This form of community needed revival, because of the fatal alliance that the Church forged in the 4th century. After Constantine the Great purportedly used bloody violence in allegiance to the Christian God (a God of peace and love, who revealed himself in the self-sacrifice of his Son), the Church decided to use this opportunity to further her interests. She became an institution in allegiance to the state. She began to persecute those who did not believe “properly”. She developed a system of domination of her own.

It may be that such compromises are inevitable. It may be that any counter-cultural institution, when it grows unwieldy, forms unholy alliances. But it is not the way of Jesus, who claimed that those who lose their lives are the true winners. A revolution of stubborn, steadfast love creates just, merciful, humane communities. Using war and violence can bring short-term rewards. But in the long-term, only the peace-work of reconciliation and healing overcomes all the side-products of violence. In other words, mechanisms of domination and power run against the grain of our world. A political and social system of non-coercive love goes with the grain of the whole universe. Or as we confess: With the resurrection of Jesus, God defeated the politics of violence.

James (Jakob) Fehr is the newly appointed Director of the German Mennonite Peace Centre. He has served as an academic researcher and a Pastor in the Mennonite Church in Germany (AMG)
Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories