What the Church Needs: Calling Bullshit and Imagining the Impossible

This week, while I’m at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, I was asked to respond to the question What do you see in Anabaptism that is needed for the church today? It’s one of the themes for the week; there are lots more people saying intelligent things about it, and I’ve tried to collect some of them here. Given the nature of the question, I’ve put on my rose-colored glasses and examining Anabaptism at its best.

Anabaptism today offers two major contributions to Christian conversation. The first is that Anabaptists have a unique framework well-suited for the theological task of calling bullshit. This task is a theological task, and a critical one in our time—I’ll say more about this in a minute. When I was in seminary, one of our assigned readings was a thin book by Harry G. Frankfort called On Bullshit. I want to read an excerpt from the opening chapter:

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit…. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and avoid being taken in by it…. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what function it serves.”

Frankfort is a philosopher, so he’s very specific in his definition of bullshit. Bullshit is a category totally unrelated to truth, and totally unrelated to lies. Truth (and lies) are specific tasks which rely on the truth being in its place—either known or hidden. Bullshit rests on the premise that truth is irrelevant to the conversation. It’s that impulse to say something authoritative on a subject you know nothing about, because someone asked you a question and is expecting an answer.

In postmodernism, truth is already precarious. Postmodernism is so hesitant to commit to any truth statement, it is often taken in by bullshit when it should know better (“maybe George Zimmerman’s not racist..” It’s okay to make truth claims). Bullshit is the pit we dive into when we have to deconstruct our faith, and on reaching the bottom say, “instead of building up something new, let’s just stop here and not worry about faith anymore.” Bullshit says, “now that you’ve dismantled your racist, sexist, heternormative assumptions, why bother putting them back together? Here look, listen to some Iggy Azalea.”

Anabaptists are uniquely equipped to deal with bullshit for two reasons. One is my favorite and often-overlooked article in the confession of faith: “We commit ourselves to tell the truth, to give a simple yes or no.” Article 20 is often neglected, but it is critical to our faith: say what you know. stop where you don’t. It is the spiritual discipline of not knowing everything.

Our second weapon, if you will, against bullshit is our counterculture. Anabaptists approach mainstream theology with a hermeneutic of suspicion. We aren’t afraid to throw bullshit on the trash pile. Or the compost heap. Choose your own metaphor.

This is what we hold onto: the peace witness, the radical relationship we have with the land, simple living, skepticism toward capitalism and materialism. These elements don’t just make us countercultural, they make us highly sensitized to bullshit. And we ought to call bullshit—on flimsy immigration policy; on the military industrial system that disproportionately draws people of color into armed service; on food that comes out of packages instead of rich soil. The church deeply needs us to call bullshit. Let’s speak a little louder.

The second talent of Anabaptists, which the church today desperately needs, is a deliberate gullibility for imagining the impossible.

There’s an essay collection, entirely secular, called The Impossible will Take a Little While. Yet the title is Anabaptist. We approach the world expecting the impossible—expecting perhaps it will take a little while. Remember when they said separation of church and state was impossible? Remember when they said conscientious objection was impossible? Anabaptists are there, saying, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” The impossible never bothered us.

Again, we have a dual foundation for this. First, we are in the world but not of the world. This also goes back to my beloved Article 20, on Truth and the Swearing of Oaths, which says, “Jesus… warned against using oaths to try to compel God to guarantee the future.” The powers and the principalities—the forces of oppression and greed and evil—try to persuade us that the present reality can only yield one future, a future in which evil reigns. But we’re not persuaded by present circumstances.

Reality is not an issue for us; we hold a low opinion of reality because we are not of reality, we are of a faith that goes beyond the seeable things. What I mean is, we are people of hope. We imagine past the narrow-minded limits of what our culture says can’t be done. And in a time of terrorism and pending environmental collapse, the world desperately needs someone who can insist that the present circumstances have little to do with the future.

Because we are kingdom builders. Not only is there hope, but we are active in it. Hope is in our hands—the way antebellum Anabaptists shuffled slaves along the underground railroad; the way contemporary ones stepped into prisons and made reconciliation a viable possibility; the way my unglamorous friends turn their mud every March and plant their seeds slowly, growing them the hard way, with blistered hands, and give away their abundance, not persuaded by the voices who say “It’s impossible feed a planet with such simple mechanisms.”

We say, “Yes. And the impossible takes a little while. But I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

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