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To Change the World IX: The Practice of Faithful Presence


This is the final post in a nine-part series for the Spectrum Summer Reading Group. The nine posts are drawn from the chapters of To Change the World by James Hunter. You can find the reading schedule here.

In To Change the World James Hunter challenges three influential models of Christian political engagement, which he finds to be tragically flawed and ultimately fatal to Christian witness. These three approaches he describes throughout the book as “defensive against” (exemplified by fundamentalists and the Christian Right), “relevance to” (exemplified by the Christian Left), and “purity from” (exemplified by those he labels “neo-Anabaptist”). In contrast to each of these paradigms, Hunter argues for a theology and practice of what he calls “faithful presence.” Clearly, however, believers in each of the three camps he is critiquing would also describe their labors to transform the world as forms of “faithful presence.”  What exactly, then, does Hunter mean by this phrase?  How does his vision of faithful presence differ from those of others?  The final two chapters of To Change the World are devoted to clarifying what a theology of “faithful presence” might look like in practice. By the end of the book, however, many questions remain. It is not at all clear to this reader that Hunter articulates a position that is significantly different from some of the best of Anabaptist or neo-Anabaptist thought.

Nihilism Comes to the Church

Authentic New Testament Christianity, Hunter declares, is in fundamental tension with the prevailing spirit of the age, which he describes as nihilistic at its core. “Nihilism may not be all-pervasive but it is endemic to the late-modern world,” he writes. “It is most apparent, of course, in the violence and empty spectacle of large swathes of popular culture.  But it is also built into a social order whose dominating logic, symbols, language, and metaphors give expression to market utility” (264). The reduction of nearly every area of our lives to economic calculus and cost-benefit analysis generates “meaninglessness, ugliness, estrangement, heartlessness, and outright cruelty” (264).

Unfortunately, nihilism is endemic not only to “secular” modernity but also to much of Christianity itself (which is unavoidably a part of its surrounding historical and cultural milieu). Contemporary American Evangelicalism—with its slick re-packaging of spirituality as mega-church spectacle or niche seeker service, as well as its obsession with celebrity-centered worship in which charismatic preachers dispense the Gospel as theater and infotainment—provides perhaps the most glaring illustration of how deeply the banality of mass consumer culture has penetrated the church. Yet Hunter detects a nihilistic impulse in almost every major form of contemporary Christian thought and practice in the West today, meaning that the church is in no position to assume responsibility for, or leadership over, the world’s political and social structures. “Were Christians to be in a position to exert enduring cultural influence,” he contends, “the results would likely be disastrous or perhaps mostly so” (274).

One of the clearest evidences that Christians are not ready to assume responsibility for the world is the very fact that they would like to do so.  Both liberal and conservative Christians are nihilistic, according to Hunter, insofar as they betray a spirit of resentment at their marginalization from public life as well as a Constantinian will to power, namely, a corrupting (as well as futile) desire to assume the reigns of control in society in order to solve its problems, restore a (mythical) lost “Christian nation,” and/or usher in the Kingdom of God. 

It is here that Hunter’s argument takes a somewhat surprising turn, for some of his strongest criticisms are directed at those one might have thought would be his closest theological allies.  Neo-Anabaptists such as Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder are less obviously susceptible to Hunter’s indictment than others since they emphatically reject the political game of seizing power and control and are willing to accept a “marginal” role for Christians in the world as the necessary cost of refusing to “patriotically” support the Empire’s institutions of lethal force.  To be a disciple, these thinkers suggest, is to be a “resident alien” who can no longer passively endorse or participate in the violence of the nation-state and so must also reject any coercive, colonizing agenda to assume control of society through its economic, military, and political institutions.  But Hunter finds fault even with the Anabaptist tradition for what he describes as a “relentlessly negative” politicizing of the meaning of the Gospel. 

Even as the neo-Anabaptists reject the political game they do so in radically political terms, conceiving the church as an alternative polis in opposition to “secular” sources of allegiance and authority. Their sense of identity “depends on the State and other powers being corrupt and the more unambiguously corrupt they are,” Hunter declares, “the clearer the identity and mission of the church” (164). Ironically, the neo-Anabaptists are also Constantinians, in Hunter’s reading, for while they refuse the path of dominating society, they take for granted that Constantinian domination of one kind or another is the only possible social reality.  They then proceed to define themselves negatively over and against it.  Neo-Anabaptism, in Hunter’s analysis, is thus simply a mirror image of that which it opposes.  It is completely “dependent on [Constantinianism] for its self-understanding” (280).

Settling in for the Duration

By contrast, Hunter maintains, “God’s Kingdom, of course, is not political in character but spiritual, moral, relational, vocational, and environmental” (269).  Christian “faithful presence” should today be “postpolitical” in character. This is confusing language since only two pages later Hunter writes that the measure of Christian efficacy in the world requires that we face the question: “do the specific social milieus and physical surroundings where we live and work become more beautiful, more civil, and more just?” (271). Many readers will have a difficult time seeing how concern for making the world more civil and more just can be anything other than political.  Were not the abolitionist and Civil Rights movements forms of profoundly Christian political engagement? Yet Hunter seems to understand the word “political” in a very narrow sense as those kinds of actions that in one way or another participate in the rhetoric and tactics of domination and coercion. Believers, in his view, should learn to “be silent for a season” and strive to embody shalom through “public acts” rather than “through law, policy, and political mobilization” (281). 

Hunter goes on to make clear that he is not proscribing Christian engagement in political activism or legislative battles in all times and places. He is, rather, calling for a moratorium on certain kinds of political action that have failed to transform the world as Christians (on both the Left and the Right) had hoped, that have resulted in a general discrediting of Christianity in the eyes of many outsiders to the faith, and that have also in his view failed to keep Christians true to their calling. But what exactly is this calling if not the way of the neo-Anabaptists with their politics of radical alternative community formation at the margins of society?

Hunter begins in Chapter 5 of Essay III (“Toward a New City Commons”) by re-interpreting the Gospel Commission of Mark 16:15 (“go into all the world”), which he takes as a summons not to geographical evangelism, as in many traditional readings, but rather as a charge to Christians to enter into all spheres of social life. Believers, he declares, ought to exert creative leadership within and on behalf of the “secular” institutions on which society is based, including institutions of law, commerce, education, health care, the arts, and science. He envisions such faithful presence in the midst of society as “the concrete manifestation of shalom” offered ideally in a spirit of faith, hope, and love that speaks “to basic human needs shared throughout the human community” (262).

Hunter’s account of “faithful presence” in Chapter 6 draws heavily upon the book of Jeremiah as a source of wisdom and guidance for Christians today. After the armies of Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem, pillaging its temple and deporting the vast majority of Jews to Babylon in 588 BC, the Israelites might have become irreconcilably bitter and hostile toward their captors. The message of the prophet Jeremiah, however, was one of audacious shalom in the midst of exile. “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce…But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:4-7). God calls for his people to live in a place of creative tension in the midst of Babylon, Hunter concludes, “not to be defensive against, isolated from, or absorbed into the dominant culture, but to be faithfully present within it…to maintain their distinctiveness as a community but in ways that served the common good” (278). 

The basic lesson of Jeremiah for the church today, Hunter writes, is “that Christians share a world with others and that they must contribute to its overall flourishing” (279).  The eschatological horizon implied in a Jeremiah view of Christian engagement with the world is one that demands the theological virtue of patient forbearance—“Christians and the world are settling in for the duration” (270). Such a view of Christian presence in the world requires an entirely different vocabulary from the language of “redeeming the culture,” “transforming the world,” or “building the kingdom” that one so often hears.  “Christians need to leave such language behind them because it carries too much weight,” Hunter writes. “It implies conquest, take-over, or domination, which in my view is precisely what God does not call us to pursue—at least not in any conventional…way of understanding these terms” (280).

Seeking Babylon’s Welfare: Neo-Anabaptism Revisited

There is much in Hunter’s vision of “faithful presence” that I find compelling and necessary. To Change the World is filled with sobering insights into the state of contemporary Christianity and its discontents. At the same time it seems to me that Hunter has failed to articulate what “faithful presence” means with the kind of clarity that certain questions—especially the question of Christian participation in the violence of the state—urgently demand. Are there not some vocations in the modern world that believers simply cannot participate in without fatally compromising their primary vocation as witnesses to the shalom of the biblical narrative? Is it possible, for example, to fully embody Christ’s peace while serving as a lobbyist for Big Tobacco or as a sniper in the U.S. Marine Corps? Hunter’s book will provide scant counsel to believers searching for answers to practical vocational questions like these. It also seems to me that Hunter fails to do justice to the neo-Anabaptist position, at times resorting to distorting polemic and caricature (as when he writes, for example, that neo-Anabaptist theologians find “little good in the world that deserves praise and no beauty that generates wonder and appreciation” (164)).

In his 1997 book, For the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical, John Yoder outlines a vision of Christian participation in society that is remarkably similar to Hunter’s—so similar, in fact, that one cannot help but wonder how Hunter could have failed to directly engage with it (since it is included in Hunter’s bibliography). The first part of Yoder’s book is entitled “Presence ‘For the Nations’” and it includes a long chapter (“See How They Go with Their Face to the Sun”) on what the Babylonian exile and the prophet Jeremiah might have to say to Christians “exiled” in the modern world today.  I will quote at length from Yoder’s essay to illustrate the close parallels between his understanding of “faithful presence” and Hunter’s. 

“Jeremiah does not tell his refugee brothers and sisters to try to teach the Babylonians Hebrew,” Yoder writes:

“The concern to learn goes in the other direction.  Jews will not only learn the local languages; they will in a few generations (and for a millennium and a half) be serving the entire ancient Near Eastern world as expert translators, scribes, diplomats, sages, merchants, astronomers.  They will make a virtue and a cultural advantage of their being resident aliens, not spending their substance in fighting over civil authority…When Jews in Babylon participated creatively, reliably, but not coercively in the welfare of that host culture, their contribution was more serious than ‘bricolage.’ There was no problem of shared meaning, since they had accepted their host culture and become fluent in it.  Their own loyalty to their own culture…was not dependent on whether the Babylonians accepted it, yet much of it was not only transparent but even attractive to Gentiles. Living in Babylon, then…was not a problem for them. The surrounding Gentile culture had become their element. The polyglot Jews were more at home in any imperial capital, more creative and more needed, than were the monolingual native peasants and proletarians (and priests and princes) in that same city” (71-73).

Reading these lines one cannot help but ask: Why does Hunter assume that neo-Anabaptism is so implacably hostile to all that isn’t the church or that it has nothing positive to contribute to its surrounding culture other than the sharp notes of prophetic rebuke?  And what does Hunter’s account of “faithful presence” give us that is not already fully contained in Yoder’s description of the Jewish experience of the exile and, by analogy, the Christian experience of living as creative agents of shalom both in and for “Babylon,” amid all of the tensions and ambiguities of the modern world?

Ron Osborn is a Bannerman Fellow with the Program in Politics and International Relations at the University of Southern California.  His recently defended doctoral dissertation is entitled, “Nihilism’s Conscience: Grounding Human Rights After Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche.”

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