January 20, 2014

Neo-Anabaptists, Martin Luther King Jr, & Pocahontas

Neo-Anabaptist critics of American civil religion and “empire” commonly claim they are the true defenders of The Church against nearly everyone else, all of whom purportedly have bent their knee to Caesar. This perspective is often an odd amalgam of post 1960s academic anti-Western, anti-American ideology with an ultra Protestantism that imagines Christianity was forever corrupted by Emperor Constantine in the Fourth Century. These mythologies ignore or derogate the wider historic, universal Church in favor of a self privileged, small community of contemporary academics and activists. Arguably Donatist in theology, this neo-Anabaptist stance politically and creatively rehashes some of the secular far Left’s worst canards about the ostensibly unique evils of Western Civilization.

A recent example is a column “God and Country? Or A King and A Kingdom”
in Tony Campolo’s Red Letter Christians by Gary Alan Taylor, who starkly divides American Christianity between faithful believers and the majority who blindly follow a “nationalized Gospel.” He challenges Christians “to allow the American story to be told from a different perspective” and to “uncover the dark side of liberal democracy,” allowing “phrases like ‘widowed land’, ‘invasion’, ‘conquered’ and ‘enslaved’ [to] enter our national dialect.”

According to Taylor, “if we are going to be honest with our heritage, the historical Jesus as a poor Colonial oppressed by imperial Rome is much more similar to Powhatan, Pocahontas or King Phillip than any of our vanquishing European ancestors.” Interesting that he likens Jesus to two Indian chiefs who were themselves conquerors who ruled by the sword, or more specifically, the tomahawk.

Chief Powhatan originally controlled six tribes in pre-colonial tidewater Virginia, expanding his empire to thirty tribes. He subjugated or annihilated his tribal enemies. Initially he tolerated the English Jamestown settlement because he saw the tiny band of adventurers occupying only worthless swamp land and potentially offering him lucrative trade opportunities. His daughter Pocahontas, who became a Christian, famously and reputedly happily married a colonist, creating an approximate peace with the English. After his death, Chief Powhatan’s brother attempted surprise massacres of the Virginia colonists in 1622 and 1644 whose goal was to exterminate every English man, woman, and child, i. e. genocide. He failed but just barely.

King Phillip, ruling over a similar empire of tribes in New England decades later, confronted and similarly attempted to annihilate the Puritan colonists. But the New England settlements were at that point far too large to eradicate, although many colonial villages were destroyed before King Phillip was himself defeated and killed.

How do we see Jesus in the tomahawk of warrior Indian chiefs who conquered other tribes and tried to exterminate the colonists? Why is English, or Western, or American force of arms necessarily wicked, but the warfare of non Western peoples immune to critique? And which ultimate civilization more benefitted humanity, a continent of thousands of native tribes in perpetual combat against each other, or the multi-ethnic, multi-racial democratic, commercial republic that later emerged, welcoming tens of millions of immigrants from around the world and creating unimagined opportunity for countless poor and oppressed?

Among other countless deficiencies, neo-Ababaptist political theology ignores the providential role of rulers, nations and empires. It imagines God’s purpose only for the Church but not His assignment for other human institutions like government. It also minimizes Christian teaching about universal human depravity, finding evil only in politically incorrect Western political systems but not in the typically far more repressive alternatives. Most egregiously, this school of thought confines the pure faith to its own intellectually elitist sectarian ghetto while condemning most of Christianity as Constantinian heresy.

Today celebrates the birthday of Martin Luther King, whom doubtless neo-Anabaptists honor for his nonviolence. But King was also an unapologetic American exceptionalist, priest of American civil religion, celebrant of American sacred documents like the Declaration, singer of American patriotic hymns, and a believer in coercive statecraft as agent for social and political liberation. King was an unalloyed product of Christendom. Essays like “God and Country? Or A King and A Kingdom” fail to recognize God’s purposes for government even in the hands of always frail humans.

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