Today I interview Tripp York on his controversial book Living on Hope While Living in Babylon.
You’ll see that Tripp likes to upset the apple cart. For those of you who are new in the Patheos cyberplasm, like all of my author interviews, this interview is not an endorsement of everything Tripp has written.
If you disagree, the comments are open for the next 5 days. Remember to state your objections civilly to Tripp. Our beloved Blog Manager doesn’t approve any comments that contain personal attacks.
Tread carefully and wear protective head gear.
Instead of asking, “what is your book about,” I’m going to ask the question that’s behind that question. And that unspoken question is, “how are readers going to benefit from reading your book?”
Tripp York: Ha! I don’t know that they will “benefit” at all! At least, I hope they don’t. That is, if we are thinking of the term “benefit” in the sense of ‘to profit or to gain’. I think most of the folks I examine in my book neither profited nor gained much in life—at least according to the parameters as defined by neoliberal capitalism or, you know, Joel Osteen. If anything, I hope that it provides them some resources for why they may want to question what it means for any follower of Jesus to be concerned with benefitting from anything other than something like dying to one’s self. (I’ve been told the cross is heavy and hurts like a champ. I wouldn’t know.)
What motivated you to write this book?
Tripp York: Primarily my need to graduate from grad school! (Laughs) More in line with what you’re asking, however: I’ve long been interested in the philosophical roots of anarchist communities. I’d like to blame it on having a Mennonite background, but, the truth is, punk rock led me to my fascination, and horrifying concern, with all forms of centralized (and decentralized) power.
Many thanks to bands like Crass and The Clash for helping a 14-year-old begin his process of appropriately narrating the powers and principalities. However, I quickly realized that there were some interesting connections to the secular radicals concerned with the development of the nation-state and a Jesus who tells us that his kingdom is not of this world. I thought, “I should write a book on this.” So, you know, I did.
Tell us a bit about the experiences that shaped the insights in the book.
Tripp York: My experiences? I’m not even sure where to begin. Mostly books, music, and trying (and failing) to live a non-predictable, non-patterned life. Ever read Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk? He nails the laid-out nature of our lives. There are no more surprises, if there ever were.
Anyway, just trying to be an active participant in a number of communities, for instance, like The Catholic Worker and some intentional Anabaptist communities, to try and figure out how to think well about everything I was reading. Also, and again, having the good fortune of growing up around a bunch of skateboarders in the late 80s who introduced me to punk rock. And I am very serious about that point. This is not the kind of music that simply screams, “Question authority!” Those kinds of sensibilities are scripted in our daily lives, and, not so ironically, serves the very forms of power we claim to be questioning.
But punk rock, along with the Mennonites, provided me with a vision, as well as a community—far from perfect, of course—of, primarily, seeing how you can just do things yourself (DIY ethic) and not rely on those “above” you to do it for you. The Mennonites had no choice but to learn these skills, since they lacked, historically-speaking, any sort of governmental (certainly, now, corporate) power to provide for and protect them.
And the punks had to figure it out because as, primarily poorer working-class kids, we were never going to be class president and you learn, fairly early on, that those sort of high school politics are basically just a microcosm for how the world works. We didn’t care for that world so, rather than just protest it, which is not difficult to do (made far easier if you can post about it on Instagram), punks decided to do the much more difficult work of creating a different way of being in the world. And that, to me, is at the heart of anarchism, or, really, what it means to be anarchist (a label, by the way, which I eschew).
Basically, you know, write the book you want to read, be the band you want to hear, grow the food you want to eat, create the world you want to live in, and so on and so on. I think this translates well for how Christians should approach their present-day situation where the current goal of most everyone, Christian or not, seems to be to procure power, to force other people to bend to their convictions, which, when properly executed in a democracy, eventually amounts to a “win” for the home “republican/democrat/libertarian/socialst/insert-any-other-label-that makes-you-feel-like-a-real-person-here” team. That’s our programming, anyway. How dull.
How are you using the term “Babylon” (from the title). What does it mean for today and how exactly are Christians “living in Babylon” right now?
Tripp York: I am using it in a dual sense: first, I am making reference to the city discussed in the Book of Revelation and how that can be read as a metaphor for all cities (kingdoms, nation-states, empires, etc.). Satan offers Jesus control over these powers, but Jesus, and probably Satan, too, knows their time is limited. I have two prints of Dore’s art in my office (along with a photo of Kathleen Hanna–just thought I would throw that out there) where the first one depicts Satan offering Jesus all the kingdoms of the world.
I love that passage, by the way. Luke 4:5-8. Satan straight up tells Jesus that all the kingdoms of the world have been relinquished to him (I believe, based on empirical evidence alone, we can agree on that one), and that Satan gives them to anyone he pleases—which, apparently, are those who worship him. So, you know, happy voting!
The other piece of artwork is the destruction of Babylon. And, yet, we spend all of our lives fighting and hating and cursing one another because they didn’t vote for the right person as if voting for the right person is going to save us from our biblical fate. Such hubris.
The second sense of Babylon I am employing is the notion that the church, as a ‘kind’ of polis, has become its own twisted Babylon. Christians and their search for, and seduction of, power.
Thinking that if they just put into office those politicians who say “Jesus” louder than other politicians (“Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven”—praise God, am I right? AM I RIGHT?!?), then all will be right in the world. In this sense, the church, as a commonwealth, is one helluva principality and power—as well as utterly deluded.
But, you know, to quote Wendell Berry: “Be joyful in light of the facts.”
Again from the title, what is the “hope” you are referring to exactly?
Tripp York: That, despite all appearances, we’re not doomed! (Laughs) For me, anyway, if it weren’t for the witness of people such as Fr. Roy Bourgeois, Steve and Kim Baggerly, Dorothy Day, John Dear, and so forth, then I’d probably quote that famous saint all seminarians have been taught to hate over the last forty years (if you need a hint, his name is Paul): “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
Actually, you should probably go ahead and eat and drink anyway. Postpone tomorrow.
Many people who live in the USA feel blessed to live in a free country with many opportunities. For this reason, many try to come to the USA, and few ever wish to leave it. Do you think such people are committing idolatry? If yes, how. If not, how does one know when they are committing nationalistic idolatry?
Tripp York: I don’t think anyone is committing idolatry by wanting to live in any part of the world where they can enjoy the basic necessities of life. Granted, many of us here, in the U.S., have well beyond what constitutes those basic necessities. I believe it was the 5th century bishop St John Chrysostom who claimed that whatever one has that goes beyond what the necessity of life requires equates to theft from the poor. That’s a pretty hardcore ethic.
He was probably right, of course. He gets that from Jesus and the prophets, and, you know, a robust theology of creation, but, yeah, hardcore nonetheless. And if Amos, Isaiah, and those other prophets are correct, then we are certainly in big trouble. What is that lovely passage in Ezekiel 16? The one discussing Sodom and Gomorrah? Something about having pride (check), excess of food (check, check), and prosperous ease (check, check, check), but did not aid the poor and needy (check, check, something about a wall, check), that God had to remove them. Yeah. We’re in trouble.
But, again, there is nothing wrong with wanting, or needing, that is, to fulfill life’s basic needs. So, why wouldn’t so many people come to a nation that is hording (see Amos, please) so many of the goods that belong to everyone?
For those who feel “blessed” to be here, especially those who have always lived here and have lived here well, I would merely ask that they do a little research as to how it has become possible that we live such an extravagant life and how such a life comes at the expense of others (please start with the very brief documentary: S.O.A: Guns and Greed—it’s a solid primer that you can probably find on YouTube that will then lead you into 40 different, equally important, directions.)
How does one know if they are committing nationalistic idolatry? That is a tough one. Though, not always. Nationalism is certainly the second largest religion in the world. Market capitalism being the largest, of course. There’s no doubt that people kill, sacrifice, die, and give their lives for both of those religions at a rate far greater than any of the so-called traditional religions. Indeed, there seems to hardly be nothing that cannot be justified when it comes to love of country (and money).
The bureaucratic nature of both capitalism and our government assures us that there are no checks and balances when it comes to justifying any and all behavior that either 1) makes money and/or 2) secures the supposed peace of the nation-state. Basically, the entirety of Jesus’s teachings have been swept aside in the name of both of these twin gods. After all, how else would you explain why in a nation where more than 70% of her citizens purport to be Christian, we actually have to have a discussion about the permissibility of torture?!
Let me go ahead and clear that up for everyone reading this: if you think torture, for any reason, is justifiable, then you are an atheist. And I do not mean that to sound pejorative to all my atheist friends—indeed, many of those folks are actually opposed to torture! I only mean that if you claim to follow the teachings of Jesus, and you think you can justify torture, then you are, to quote Jesus, a liar.
The problem is that people read the Bible through the lens of the nation-state (or, I should say, the political philosophy, known as classical liberalism, of which both liberals and conservatives originate), guaranteeing that the two do not conflict. That’s why it’s next to impossible to produce a prophetic church in our culture, much less one that can make sense of the prophets (who would not only be having a field day over the North American church, but would all be like Jeremiah—in a constant state of mourning).
It’s why so many Christians on the so-called “left” somehow imagine that the countless missiles launched by the Clintons and Obamas are somehow more discriminating than if they were launched by a republican, as if every single democrat president has not murdered countless human beings. I mean, can you imagine . . . Obama swore an oath on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Bible! What the effity eff eff, right?! (Edited for the sake of my mother—in case she reads this interview.)
First of all, Jesus clearly tells us not to swear oaths . . . how anyone swears an oath on a book that explicitly tells us not to swear oaths is a mystery to me (just more evidence that the state owns our minds and our bodies, and that the teachings of Jesus are all fine and dandy unless they conflict with what our governors, presidents, senators, judges, generals, and CEOs dictate). Second, King was a pacifist who brutally critiqued both US foreign policy and capitalism. No, dude. You don’t get to do that. You don’t get to take one of the FEW saints the church produced in the 20th century and co-opt him for your ruthless machinations. Not cool.
And, on the other side, it’s why institutions such as Liberty University find themselves in a perpetual emotional state of “we just won the lottery!” over this last presidential election.
These “supposedly” conservative Christian universities, and many like-minded denominations, have somehow squared all the teachings of Jesus, his teachings on nonviolence, love of neighbor, love of enemy, the care of the weak, the exile, and the immigrant, his protest against the self-righteous, his critique of the religious, his insanely subversive teachings on wealth, and on and on and on, with a person, the president, the leader of the so-called free world, who tirelessly belittles and bullies everyone who does not bow to him.
This is a man who laughs at the physical flaws of other human beings. Who describes people who are created in the image of God as being beneath him and not worthy of care and protection. He calls people stupid and small, whose entire judgment of a person is predicated upon TV ratings and whether or not they fawn over him, and, yet, in a complete concession to the hope of even a modicum of worldly power, people like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Part II have bent over backwards to convince whoever is listening that this guy has taken up the cross, denied himself, and is following the brutally holy path that Jesus says is narrow and rarely traversed. He’s just a regular St. Francis, that guy.
Of course, they don’t really believe this, mind you. They are not that oblivious. No one is. It’s not possible. They are, simply put, hucksters who want power and couch such power in the name of Christian liberty. Well, the only liberty you have as a Christian is the kind of liberty that Jesus refers to as servanthood, which is not to be confused with the kind of liberty promised by the constitution which guarantees you the right, if you are so inclined, to pad the pockets of the NRA.
But, what are you going to do?
Praise the Lord, Twitter, and Goldman Sachs, apparently.
In your understanding of biblical history, when did the nation-state begin and was it God’s original idea? If not, why? If so, how do you know?
Tripp York: Well, the nation-state is a relatively recent phenomenon (perhaps only dating back to the 19th century—I’ll leave the specifics to the political theorists among you). Was it God’s original idea? Of course, not. I mean, I hope God does not look like a bunch of wealthy white European dudes who are going to script the justification for the subjugation and legal ownership of other human beings based upon the construction of race as a biological phenomenon (then again, that’s not completely unheard of in the Bible).
God’s original idea seems to be a state of perpetual peace where we care for the gift that is creation and live in community with one another where we are not bound by social contract theories that replace covenants with rights that require ongoing governmental interference for the adjudication of said rights all while creating a constant state of war against one another and the planet.
Granted, maybe God did come up with such an idea knowing that God wouldn’t require the flood the second time around. Emoji smiley face wink wink.
God doesn’t want to give Israel a king, because God knows, being the rather observant deity God is, that the Israelites will become like all other nations: they will worship their king and not God. Roll around to the New Testament, and you have a number of the religious elite spouting crazy things like, “We have no king but Caesar.” Since the 4th century or so, I’d say that has been the mantra of a good many Christians.
Indeed, eventually, this mindset would lead to people identifying with being either a republican or a democrat and hating their neighbors—all for love of those gentile benefactors who Jesus explicitly tells us not to be like!
Many of the people who you list as Christian “anarchists” were — and are — very much involved in institutional, hierarchical church organizations. How do they square this seeming contradiction?
Tripp York: That’s a great question! Many of them struggled with it, too. But, for all its virtues and vices, and even more vices, the church is all we got. As Dorothy Day said, “The church is the cross that Christ was crucified on.” Yet, it still provided her with the resources to become the Dorothy Day we all know, love, and admire. Clarence Jordan suggested the same thing. I’d say, just try and find a church whose interest is in practicing hospitality to the stranger, and who refuses to depoliticize salvation where it becomes this heretical individualist account wholly separated from the things Jesus says matters to his kingdom. Look for a church that takes care of the widows, the orphans, and the aliens.
Look for a church that might ask that you become poor. A church that is more concerned with showing love to those in need rather than a terrified little church who thinks they “won” because their favorite politician became president. A church that actually attempts to practice the Sermon on the Mount. I mean, that should be bare minimum, right? Granted, such churches, when you do find them, are scary. I’ll admit, I like the ones that just make me feel better about myself and all the ridiculous stuff I have. Church as therapy. Hooray!
In your opinion, is it wrong for a Christian vote? If so, why? If not, why not?
Tripp York: That is a HUGE (channeling Bernie and Trump—see what I did there?) question. I’d say, check out my book, Third Way Allegiance for an essay/response to this question. Or, you can go to this link where a modified version of it, initially printed in Christian Ethics Today and now on my buddy’s page, The American Jesus, is located (and that makes it free!): http://zackhunt.net/2012/10/25/jesus-politics-why-christians-should-not-vote-by-tripp-york/
In brief, however, I’d be very, very wary of it. At the least, cautious and hesitant. See above link for why.
In your opinion, is it wrong for a Christian to enter the military for the specific purpose of defending the people in his country — and other countries — when under attack. If yes, why? If not, why not?
Tripp York: I am not going to say that people who enter the military are doing anything wrong. As I often jokingly tell my students, “Many of my best of friends are in the military!” (Laughs) But it’s true. Perhaps not in the Aristotelian sense of the word “friendship” but on so many other levels that matter, we are truly friends. I lived in Norfolk for 6 years. Norfolk is one of the most heavily militarized places on the planet.
Of course, while I spent some time with the Catholic Worker there, I also made an immense number of military friends who both challenged my thinking and, I’m happy to say, were challenged by a few of my own disordered thoughts. Indeed, I have found that the majority of people presently serving in the military are very open to these kind of discussions. They are critically minded people who ended up in the military for a wide range of reasons. Many of these folks are as openly critical of the US government, and all of her many “interventions” throughout the world, as the staunchest pacifists. These wonderful people have really helped me to be a better thinker on a number of topics.
I would only ask that IF a person, who wants to join the military, is going to couch it in terms of it somehow being an extension of their Christian practices, then they have to, at the very least, consider the abundance of passages from the prophets telling us to war no more, to turn our weapons into plowshares, that, as a nation, the people of God (not as Americans, Canadians, Germans, etc., none of those tribal identities, but as a people of God—such peoplehood does not respect the artificial boundaries we create) will no longer learn war, that they must at least consider what it means that Jesus (and Paul) tell us again and again that his followers must love their enemies, that they must turn the other cheek, that they do not return evil for evil, that they must not resist evil, that those who live by the sword will die by the sword, that vengeance belongs only to God, and on and on and on.
And if your first response is to simply ignore all of those passages and say, “Well, there is plenty of war in the Old Testament” or that “Jesus looks like he is about to open up a can on everyone in the Book of Revelation” then either you may be cherry-picking scripture for your own needs or you just unwittingly admitted that the Bible contradicts itself and, therefore, it should not be trusted (by the way, I think there are other options—that was just a rhetorical stab on my end).
I also highly recommend to your readers to check out the work of my friend Logan Mehl Laituri. Logan is an Iraq War veteran, turned Christian pacifist, who shows the utmost respect for his fellow veterans while also challenging them on the teachings of Jesus. Stan Goff is another military veteran (indeed, I believe Stan served in Special Forces) who has written much on this subject. I trust their wisdom, as veterans turned Christian pacifists, over what I may have to offer. Check out their books, respectively, For God and Country and Borderline.
When it comes to nationalism, in my experience and observation, I find very few Christians under the age of 35 who are nationalistic. This seems to be a characteristic of older people. So when you were writing your book, was your target audience Christians in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s?
Tripp York: A target audience? (Laughs) Oh man, listen, when I wrote that book, the Christians were all saying, “Christian anarchism? What the hell is that?” And the anarchists were all saying, “Christian anarchism? What the hell is that?” Yeah. My target audience was about 32 weirdos. 33 including you.
Look, do I think that God is an anarchist? Of course not. But neither is God a capitalist, a libertarian, a republican, a democrat, a socialist or any of the other names we have created in order to force a certain kind of world, of our own making, onto others. This is what it means to take God’s name in vain.
When you use God as a means to procure public office, which almost all public officials do, to enact the things you want to enact, and tag God along for the ride, then you’re breaking the third commandment. You’re not just breaking it, you’re openly flaunting your complete disregard for it and, yet, somehow, it keeps getting people elected.
I guess that makes for a smart politician, huh?
How have you practically fleshed out what you’re teaching in your own life? It’s one thing to decry capitalism, it’s another to live in America and live a lifestyle that matches that denunciation. Teachers are models as you know. So please tell us how you have modeled what you’re teaching.
Nice. This is the best question yet. Best being toughest!
First of all, the majority of us, regardless of what we may say, are capitalists. That is, we practice it, it’s what we “do,” it’s how we live, we are capitalists. Speaking of students, I once had a very eager and intelligent student ready to “set the world on fire,” to quote the once-teenage-anarchist Laura Jane Grace, who proudly showed up to my office sporting a shirt from a publisher I had mentioned to them called AK Press. AK Press is a wonderful publisher doing some wonderful things.
Anyway, this publisher also carries all sorts of merchandise—because, you know, it’s not a revolution if you can’t wear it—and so this kid proudly walks into my office wearing a “Destroy Capitalism” t-shirt. He asks me, “Do you like it?” Pointing to the message on his shirt. I said, “Yeah, yeah, right on. Soooooo . . . how much did you pay for it?”
That was the punchline, right? That was the punchline! Unfortunately, the student didn’t get it and quickly said, “It was only, like, 19 bucks!”
So, yeah. There is no shortage-for-purchase of anti-capitalist material. Books, zines, stickers, buttons, clothing apparel, etc., etc., all colluding with the very object of its supposed protest.
Point being, I try not to be so much defined by what I am against as what I am for. And I think that is at the heart of the people I cover in my book, folks like Clarence Jordan, the Berrigans, Dorothy Day, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
They are not simply “against” war, racism, sexism, and structural poverty, rather, they are for a way of life in which all people are liberated from oppression, who are nurtured for who they are, and are at peace with one another, regardless of race, sex, nationality, or any other potential divider. The above Christians are all informed by the Eucharist, which means they are for creation, for peace, for hospitality to the stranger. They are for the works of love and mercy.
They are even, following the command of Jesus, for the enemy. This, of course, points this at odds with forces such as war, racism, and capitalism. But, ultimately, what this means is that, while we will always be somewhat complicit in so many of those things we find problematic, we still must inquire as to what are the small and large things we can do to, not necessarily combat those forces, but to offer an alternative to those forces (which, we hope, does combat those forces, I guess you could say). It was the German anarchist Gustav Landauer who said that anarchism is not about destroying the state, but about creating other ways of being in the world. How easily could, or should, that have been stated by a Christian?
Now, to answer your question. My spouse (also a teacher, a professor of biology) and I have spent a good number of years working toward the creation of a farm animal sanctuary. It’s a place where neglected, abused, and unwanted farm animals can live out their days in peace.
We call it Dominion, as we think, based upon the account of the garden in Genesis, as well as the vision of the peaceable kingdom depicted in Isaiah 11, that this is what dominion, properly understood, looks like. See? Rather than write yet one more chapter in a book, or make an intellectual argument about how to interpret the biblical concept of dominion, we decided to create something real, something tangible, a place where dominion is practiced—as we think this place is our best argument for that we imagine to be true.
We are also in the process of learning how to be proper farmers so that we can grow our own food while producing an excess that can be shared with those in need. We exist as, hopefully, a house of hospitality for humans and non-humans, as a place for the sharing of music, ideas, books, food, and fellowship. This is something we have created—we, not just her and I, though we have worked our booties off for it—along with the never-ending help from our family and friends, in order to create a small pocket of, not so much resistance, but something different in this world.
Something that, to quote Wendell Berry, “does not compute” with the way the world works. We are not looking to make money (that is as anti-capitalist as you can get, I guess), rather we are looking to live sustainably, to live aesthetically, to live graciously, to live in such a way that what we are doing can be a model, to use your language, for others in the sense that others can not only participate in this experiment, but they can create their own experiments—to be inspired to create the world that they want to live in.
Then again, my book, record, and surfboard collection is huge and, admittedly, sinful, so I have a long way to go!
Speaking as an author myself, I usually have a specific goal in mind for my readers to think and do (taking action) when they finish each of my books. My question — when a reader finishes your book, what do you want them to think and do exactly? What’s the end-game objective? Please be specific.
Tripp York: Experiment with the Sermon on the Mount. Be open to the saints (secular, catholic, or what-have you). Be open to the possibility that you’re wrong. Be open to the possibility that I’m wrong (I’m sure you’re already there). Be open to failure (most of the holiest know that feeling all too well). Grow a garden, give food away, resist the temptation to give into hate (for perfect love knows no fear—but what does the Bible know, right?), change it up and try peacemaking for once, love your neighbor, love your enemy, love the alien—illegal or otherwise—because NO HUMAN BEING IS EVER ILLEGAL. The notion that any person created in the image of God could either be legal or illegal was created by the powers that be. It’s a stately, and certainly demonic, invention.
Free your mind from the colonization of thinking within the obtuse parameters of ‘right’ and ‘left’, of conservatives and liberals. That’s a centuries’ old trap and I’m tired of being owned by Locke and company.
Surprise everyone and stop profaning the sabbath. What a miracle that would be. And, please, stop looking to the government and her bureaucratic officials for purpose and salvation. It’s not there.
Oh, and listen to bands like Propagandhi, Against Me!, Fugazi, and Defiance, Ohio. You may also want to have a bourbon. Repeat as needed. Let me know how it all works out.
What else would you like readers to know about your book?
Tripp York: That my book, The Devil Wears Nada, is much better, much funnier, and only a slightly snarkier read than, say, this interview. Oh, you were talking about Living on Hope, weren’t you? That book is okay. It’s worth borrowing, probably not buying. The Devil Wears Nada, however, well, that book is worth stealing!