Two Cheers For Radicals

I like radicals. Admittedly they make me uncomfortable, but I’ve concluded that’s a good thing. Last month I visited Jubilee Partners, a radical Christian community near Athens, Georgia, where several score people live on a 250-acre property.

Jubilee sign

They eat together, share battered cars, lawnmowers, and other material goods, and grow
much of their own food. They visit prisoners and provide a cemetery for homeless people Jubilee and executed prisoners. They organize peace delegations to regions of conflict. Mainly, though, they work to resettle political refugees from such places as Myanmar (Burma), Central America, Bosnia, Iraq, and Somalia. Thanks to their efforts, the small, white-bread town of Comer has become a melting pot of diversity.

While visiting Jubilee Partners I had a flashback to the 1960s, when Christian communes were sprouting up all over, like wildflowers (or weeds, depending on your point of view). We had major causes to care about—the Vietnam war, poverty, civil rights, pollution—and radicals led the way in disrupting the lethargy of the 1950s and focusing attention on these issues. Some of them paid a price, in prison time and even martyrdom, before society and lawmakers began to listen and then to change.

Time

Not everyone looks back on the Sixties with nostalgia. The radical message got mixed in with other cultural shifts (such as sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll) and in reaction much of the country and especially the church moved in a more conservative direction. Ever since, the media have played up groups like the Moral Majority and the Tea Party, all the while ignoring pockets of radical Christians who by their witness and example stand for global justice and a simpler lifestyle.

In my youth we lived under the shadow of nuclear war, and radicals painted scary scenarios of the apocalypse, none of which came true. Nowadays radicals raise the specter of global warming. In a magazine given to me at Jubilee Partners, a spokesman asks what Americans must do to reduce our carbon emissions to a globally sustainable level of two tons per person:

For starters, it would mean no air travel (period), mostly local transportation on foot or bicycle, vegetarian diets, locally produced food (even in winter), no air conditioners (anywhere), elimination of individual ownership of luxuries (including TVs, computers, washing machines), and reducing the average home size by at least half. Changing to high-efficiency light bulbs, driving a Prius, recycling, and buying carbon offsets are like taking a BB gun to a charging elephant.

Ouch. The rest of the world seems obsessed with restoring economic growth while these folks are calling for just the opposite. My defense mechanisms kick in and I think about the computers and printing presses involved in producing that magazine and the jet planes that carry radicals from one conference to another. Then, more soberly, I think about my own lifestyle, extravagant by global standards, and the guilt sets in. Good guilt that spurs me to action.

ezekielThe Bible has its own collection of radicals, known as the Prophets. In their own day they seemed half-mad. The normally urbane Isaiah walked around stripped and barefoot for three years to make a political statement (imagine how the Washington press corps would treat such a protest today). Ezekiel lay on his side for 390 days, bound by ropes, facing a clay model of Jerusalem. (Orthodox rabbis still forbid anyone under the age of thirty to read the first three chapters of Ezekiel.) Weird? When a tornado is snaking directly toward your neighborhood, you don’t deliver polished speeches: you jump up and down and scream like a madman. Even so, despite their extreme tactics and words most of the biblical prophets had little effect in their own day; their impact was felt in later generations, including our own.

Shane-Claiborne2In contrast to the crusty prophets of the Bible, the contemporary Christian radicals I have met are some of the most congenial people I know. Shane Claiborne disrupts violent confrontations in his underprivileged Philadelphia neighborhood by demonstrations of juggling and other clown tricks. Kent Annan took his new bride to Haiti, where he tried to live at the same level as the average Haitian; his book Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle recounts his adventures with both humor and wry realism. Don Mosley, founder of Jubilee Partners, sends organic blueberries to cancer sufferers in order to build up their antioxidants. The late Millard Fuller had a reputation as a hugger and a role model for gregarious activism.

MillardMosley and Fuller both renounced their millionaire legacies and together founded Habitat for Humanity, which has built or repaired 600,000 homes around the world. On my travels overseas I have met other Christian radicals who combat sexual trafficking; bring healing and comfort to victims of famine and disaster; dig wells and set up water purification systems; invent bicycle ambulances for places where no roads exist; provide housing for outcasts with leprosy; run homes for AIDS orphans. They often live without modern conveniences such as air conditioning or even running water, and brave tropical diseases and other dangers.

Shane Claiborne once told me a moving story about reading my book The Jesus I Never Knew while on a Peace Team mission in Iraq to try to deter the impending war. Hearing that did little to assuage my guilt, for I wrote the book in the comfort of my home while a radical reader risked his life trying to put my words into practice.

Here’s what I like best about radicals: most of them don’t see themselves as radicals at all. They see themselves as simple pilgrims following Jesus, for in a mere three years of active work Jesus the original radical changed the world forever.  Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia Partners in Americus, Georgia—a community that had a profound impact on President Jimmy Carter as well as Don Mosley and Millard Fuller—discounted his radicalism, insisting it was ordinary faith:

Clarence Jordan

“So long as the word remains a theory to us and is not incarnated by our actions and translated by our deeds into a living experience, it is not faith. It may be theology, but it is not faith. Faith is a combination of both conviction and action. It cannot be either by itself…. Faith is a life in scorn of the consequences.”

Sign at JubileeRadicalism has its dangers, of course, and negative examples abound on both sides of the political spectrum. Most of us seek some kind of balance or golden mean. On the other hand, without radicals to prick our consciences now and then, would anything ever change? And God knows this world needs change.

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13 Responses to Two Cheers For Radicals

  1. Susan Moore says:

    “Most of us seek some kind of balance or golden mean”, those words describe the thinking of the kind of grey area that modern Christians strive to live in. The area where a Christian can appear ‘normal’ to the world and therefore fly under the radar and not be noticed, on a good day, as anything more than a person with a good conscience. And yet we do not want to provoke the ire of God, so we choose to live with just enough faith so that hopefully on the Day of Judgment Jesus will recognize us as His own and welcome us into His kingdom of heaven. That delusional thinking is the most glaring sign of the fallen world in the most mentally-ill people on the globe -modern Christians. It is the same thinking of the Israelites that wandered in the wilderness –the thinking of wanting a power to deliver them from evil, but then not obeying Him, the thinking of wanting a compassion that would bind up their wounds, but then not loving Him.
    I know this to be true because I used to be one of them. For thirty-six years I suffered with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from stuff that happened to me as a child. I, too, just wanted to be normal. My first flash-back hallucination occurred when I was 10. When I was 12 I read the Bible cover to cover, prayed, and was saved by grace. I knew that God could heal me because He made me (we have authority over that which we create). But like a good, fallen human, I just wanted to be normal. So I studied books, went to nursing school, and continued to read the Bible and grow in faith. I prayed for Jesus to keep me employed so that I could pay for my expensive medications and specialist. He is faithful and true. Because I am a prideful idiot, I suffered for 38 years with flash-back hallucinations, nightmares, panic attacks, and self-cutting. Because of the constant flicking of my memory back and forth in time, I could not keep track of time. I attempted suicide multiple times, and became angry at God when He would not take me home. I loathed men, and blew every relationship, including a marriage and a church.
    And then He healed me.
    Because of a childhood experience with ritual abuse, I was nearly impossible to get into a church. The people’s faces would distort into rage, and the walls would move around and the building would look like a place of former abuse. I avoided anyone or anyplace having anything to do with religion. And yet I grew in faith in Christ. When I was 40 I was obedient and went into the church He had told me, in no uncertain terms, to ‘go and speak to people there.’ When I had the courage, I practiced going to that church. Then He told me how He wanted me to serve Him through that church, and I moved out of state. If He had told me to clean the bathrooms or shovel the snow, I could have done that. But what He told me would require me to be intimate with His people, and sacrificially love them –to love them like He loves me.
    Throughout my life Jesus has never changed His compassionate and joyful demeanor. As a young Christian, that used to annoy the bananas out of me. I would poke at Him and try to manipulate Him into showing me His true self, but His demeanor never changed. Eventually I resigned myself into understanding that that was His true self, and I began to find comfort in Him.
    In the new state I moved too, I met a Christian man and told Him my life’s story. I asked Him to pray for me, He said He would. I felt desperate, I knew I could not serve my Lord in the way He intended as long as I was mentally ill. So I asked another Christian man I had met to pray for me, too. Within a week of asking them to pray for me, I was sitting in the parking lot waiting to go into my appointment with the specialist in PTSD. I was praying in my truck. I realized I could not do this thing, I could not make myself be normal. I had to choose between being mentally-ill and trying to be normal and fix me myself, or resigning myself into the hands of my Lord in faith. I simply shrugged and said, “You’ll have to use me as I am, or heal me yourself.” I went in and said good-bye to the therapist, then went back home.
    I have not suffered one hallucination, panic attack, or nightmare since then. My medications were toxic to me, and I flushed them down the toilet. I immediately perceived my normal body, and began to eat without difficulty. I had no reason to hate myself or anyone else, including men. I could think in a linear way, based on time –my friends noticed the difference before I did. I must tell everyone about Him –the only God who is faithful and true. Out of overwhelming gratitude, I told Him I would do anything for Him. The first thing is to get rid of idols. Every single one of them, and vigilantly and aggressively keep them out. He will have no other God’s before Him.
    Being a follower of Christ does not mean that we, as a gawking crowd, follow along behind Jesus and choose to do what we want to do out of all that He has done. No, it means we have the Spirit of the living God in us. It means that we place our feet exactly where He places His. Jesus was the most radical being that ever walked on this earth. Therefore, by our nature as His children, and aliens to this world, a follower of Christ is a most radical being, too. Anything less than that comes from our fallen, human nature, not from our Spirit-led, Spirit-filled one.
    As one of the ways that I try to tell everyone about Him, I took classes, and wrote and produced my testimony online. It can be read at: http://thecommonlanguage.com . It’s Roman numeral ‘I’, titled, ‘Healed.” Roman numeral ‘II’ is titled, ‘The Current and Present Healing Power of Christ’, and was written for my Pastors. Oh yea, after I was healed Jesus brought me back to the same state and church from which I had fled. And I now love them, as He loves me.
    Susan Moore

    Susan, this is an excellent reminder that for wounded people (which includes most of us), “normal” is radical. I celebrate with you your healing, and thank you for posting this.
    Philip

  2. Timothy K. White says:

    That last sentence brings us to the brink of my own critique of the new radicals (to use CT’s phrase). But that will be in part 2.

  3. Handerson says:

    Vince, that certainly would be true of those who have more of a rlostienahip with the Bible than with God. It would be inaccurate to say that just happens in the Bible Belt, but that certainly would be one of the key places it happens. There is an old hymn “Holy Bible, Book Divine” whose title suggests that people think the Bible is as close as they will really ever get to God. In this, they forget Holy Spirit, who is Jesus to us.

  4. Greg Denholm says:

    Claire, I enjoyed your post very much. You must be a writer. Thanks for making me think. So here’s what I’m thinking about…

    If we’re being honest, most of us consumer-driven Westerners lean radically towards ourselves most of the time and away from God. (We even invent theologies that allow us to do the former while actually doing the latter—the prosperity doctrine comes to mind.) So in that sense, we are more radical than we think. Into our self-centredness, Jesus comes—and keeps coming if we keep asking—to restore balance.

    When we use the label ‘radical’ to describe anyone, we most often use it about others because it is a relative term and we are naturally self-centred; we arrive at it by comparing them with ourselves. By definition, a ‘radical’ is someone who is more extreme than I am.

    As far as I’m aware, the word is used in two senses. One is complimentary: we use it to describe people whose obedience is more extreme than ours and who are really laying it all on the line; and the other is critical: we apply it to those whom we perceive as lopsided in their world-view and lifestyle. I suspect we sometimes use the word with both intentions operating simultaneously. In the latter case, we are usually trying to justify our extremeness towards Self; we have to find some way of making our own mindset and way of life seem reasonable. Not to say that it isn’t, but was Jesus reasonable?

  5. Claire says:

    I hold that balance in life is a pretty good goal. I’ve seen ‘radical’ Christians who were pretty unbalanced in their zeal to follow Christ. For some people with psychological and social problems, religion offers a good excuse to go to extremes. Couple that with a power-hungry leader and you get cult-like communities where life can get pretty Biblically repressive.

    I also get a little nervous about Christian radicals (of both political persuasions) as they try to tie political activities with following the will of God and then trying to get everyone else to follow their interpretation of what that will is.

    As you observed, the OT prophets were pretty big on pronouncing judgments — and how does that square with the “Judge not lest ye be judged” tone of the NT?

    Was Jesus a radical? I think yes and no, depending upon how you define radical. A political radical? Jesus didn’t even do civil disobedience of not paying taxes to an oppressive foreign power, let alone hold peace rallies in front of the Roman armory, so I rather doubt he would align Himself with ‘radicals’ who become human shields to prevent wartime bombings.

    (An aside: I guess I would have more respect for modern anti-war radicals if they went to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, etc., and protested against those countries’ human rights abuses, corruption, suppression of free speech, lack of freedom of religion, and lack of equal rights for women… but you know, I never see that. It’s always against the U.S., and so, for me, I tend to write them off.)

    A radical for social good by word and deed? Yes, I think Jesus fits that description of countercultural behavior, though one could argue that it was the false interpretation of God’s true intent that actually made the Pharisees the radicals against God’s true meaning. Perhaps Jesus was the ultimate ‘radical reconciler’ – quite a juxtaposition of terms, eh?

    As for the ‘radicals’ for social good that you cited… who combat sexual trafficking; bring healing and comfort to victims of disease, famine, and disaster; dig wells and set up water systems; invent bicycle ambulances for places where no roads exist; provide housing for outcasts with leprosy; run homes for AIDS orphans… those people I respect very much – though I would observe that not all in those efforts are motivated by Christianity – I suspect there are quite a few agnostics, atheists, and other religions involved.

    I guess I would ask you: how do you define what a radical is… and is not?

    P.S. You are my favorite Christian writer because you get all my little grey cells to engage with what you’ve written.

  6. David Bixby says:

    Thank you for helping me in my own journey to connect with Jesus in ways that surpass the rules and regs of my growing years. It’s hard not to be religious when that is what you learned early on. It’s taking some time, but I think God will get me through it.

  7. Greg Denholm says:

    The thing that scares me about this is that Jesus never talked about “radical obedience”; he just talked about obedience. Which makes me wonder whether I’m obeying at all.

  8. barbara says:

    Thanks for your challenge to the COB on June 30. May we (I) become more radical in living out our faith!

  9. Joanna Shumaker says:

    Mr. Yancy – I happened onto your blog and just wanted to say how much I appreciated this post. I just read your book, The Jesus I Never Knew, for my Gospels class at CIU here in Columbia, SC and the notion of Jesus as a radical is resonating with me as I reflect on my own faith walk. I am also reevaluating how I can become more radical and do more to take Christ’s message of hope and healing to those who need to hear it but may not have access, or maybe we just haven’t gone where they are. Thank you.

  10. Eleanorjane says:

    Great post and a great message that many of us need to hear. I every so often reflect on how outrageously lucky I am to be able to do things like turn on a tap and have hot water come out or go to the supermarket and buy pretty much whatever I want to eat. Unfortunately these realisations don’t do enough to spur me into action.

    I recently got a promotion and pay rise I said I’d give more to charity (especially a foodbank and those working with people who are homeless) but I haven’t actually organised the automatic payments yet. I’ll do it this weekend. Tell me off if I don’t!

  11. Jeff Smith says:

    “Hearing that did little to assuage my guilt, for I wrote the book in the comfort of my home while a radical reader risked his life trying to put my words into practice.

    Here’s what I like best about radicals: most of them don’t see themselves as radicals at all.’ ‘Philip sees himself as a’ simple pilgrims following Jesus,”

    You’re wonderful attitude of humility at the same time makes your contribution relevant and keeps you from seeing it to be so. How un-American of you, and on the Fourth of July.

  12. Barry Birch says:

    This 21 year program hasn’t always been easy but always fulfilling. It feels radical because it bucks the freebie hand-out system in America adding accountability and responsibility to the provision. The ‘Dignity of the Exchange’ as Toxic Charity defines it. NBC Nightly News helped uncover the uniqueness which resulted in Replication Seminars last August and again this August to help launch more radical concepts across America.

    re: birch community services, website link removed

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