Christian History Is Always Renegade History

My Southern Baptist heritage — rather than leading me to embrace the social views of the “Religious Right” — instead formed me in the long run to be sympathetic with the perspective of the Anabaptists and the Radical Reformation, often associated with renegade groups like the Mennonites and the Amish, who have been known to risk their lives to embody the way of life Jesus described in places like “The Sermon on Mount” (Matthew 5-7). You quickly find yourself talking and acting like a renegade if you try to take seriously Jesus’ words and example to “love your enemies,” “if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well,” or “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” The renegade spirit of both Jesus and the Radical Reformation is summarized for me on the first page of the Preface to John Howard Yoder’s landmark book The Politics of Jesus, where he writes that the way of Jesus is “in creative tension with the cultural functions of our age or perhaps any age.”

I sensed a similar renegade spirit, when a friend recommended that I supplement my high school U.S. History class with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, a book I cannot recommend highly enough. Zinn famously retells U.S. history from the perspective of blacks, women, American Indians, war resisters, and poor laborers. This renegade perspective seems all the more important today, when NPR reports that “this year’s election will probably be the first time in 30 years that the number of women serving in Congress declines” and CBS reports that “New Senate Will Have No African-Americans.”

(Diana Butler Bass has written A People’s History of Christianity, which serves as an introduction to a Christian renegade history, but a more comprehensive account remains to be written to have a book equal in stature to Zinn’s text.)

I was inspired to write this post about renegade histories when I read Thaddeus Russell’s recent blog for Huffington Post titled, “Why I Got Fired From Teaching American History.” Russell was fired for publishing A Renegade History of the United States. He writes:

I gave my students a history that was structured around the oldest issue in political philosophy but which professional historians often neglect — the conflict between the individual and community, or what Freud called the eternal struggle between civilization and its discontents. College students are normally taught a history that is the story of struggles between capitalists and workers, whites and blacks, men and women. But history is also driven by clashes between those interested in preserving social order and those more interested in pursuing their own desires — the “respectable” versus the “degenerate,” the moral versus the immoral, “good citizens” versus the “bad.” I wanted to show that the more that “bad” people existed, resisted, and won, the greater was what I called “the margin of freedom” for all of us.

Russell further names some of the social environment that cultivated the point of view he brings to history:

I was raised by pot-smoking, nudist, socialist revolutionaries as an egghead white boy in black neighborhoods in Berkeley and Oakland. I nearly flunked eighth grade and finished high school with a C average. Then I went to the anarchist, ultra-hippy Antioch College in Ohio, which accepted all their applicants, didn’t give grades, and didn’t have a history department.So even though I managed to pull myself out of that background and into and through Columbia for a PhD, then onto a job at an elite college, I was highly uncomfortable moving from the world of weed to the world of tweed.

Russell’s background, perspective, and firing, raise questions for me about U.S. church culture. Do you remember the national shock in 2006 at the ability of the Amish to forgive so quickly in the wake of the tragic school shooting in Pennsylvania in 2006? The “renegade” Amish culture is precisely what allowed them to actually practice the way of Jesus, which most of us merely admire: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Russell’s firing is a reminder that we need to risk the consequences of being renegades sometimes to develop the alternative perspective necessary to actually have good news to share about the renegade way of Jesus, which Yoder taught us is “in creative tension with the cultural functions of our age or perhaps any age.”

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