Ryan Newson’s Radical Friendship invites readers to step into the tradition of political theology and to examine the practice of the spiritual discipline of discernment in Christian congregations. He builds on voices from Aristotle to Romand Coles to create a framework for understanding the practice of discernment, and then he gives contemporary examples of how the practice is an embodiment of political theology.
As a Quaker, well-versed in practices of communal discernment like congregational meetings and committees for clearness, I was drawn to Newson’s Baptist framework. As a theologian, I was also drawn to his political theology, which builds upon the thought of Hauerwas, McClendon, and Yoder and offers helpful critiques of their theologies in the context of their lives. And as a friend (and a Friend) to Newson himself, I have been eager to see this book published, because I think it can guide Anabaptists and other Christians into deeper reflection and concrete action. Examples like Ann Atwater, C.P. Ellis, and Mission Mississippi might teach us what such a radical friendship looks like.
Political theology in the age of Trump becomes more necessary and important with each passing day. Churches need guidance for discerning together what political action and community change can look like so that they do not drown in the injustices done to people of color, LGBTQIA persons, low-income communities, and others. The work finds itself situated in a democratic context. Newson’s many and warranted critiques of liberalism, in dialogue with Sheldon Wolin, Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Romand Coles, and others, join his voice to the chorus of voices envisioning radical democracy. Newson’s view of democracy allows him to reflect on how local ecclesial spaces can continue the work of engaging local government. He understands how theological conversations around concepts like binding and loosing impact our understanding of power in both church and governmental spaces.
As Malinda Berry’s essay notes, Newson joins a tradition of Mennonites, Quakers, and others who look to communal discernment as an alternative to what Newson calls the “moral incompetence” of our day.1 This, however, is not to romanticize the practice of discernment. Anabaptists have a long, albeit quiet history of practicing communal discernment, but often one with limited success. I agree with his assessment that Quaker models of engagement can at times be too focused on civility over justice and politeness over radical honesty and true confrontation (157). In my own Quaker contexts, some of the Friends I know most committed to pacifism are also at times least committed to engage issues of justice and community organizing. Nevertheless, both Quakers and Mennonites have faithfully and continuously advocated for nonviolent engagement while also struggling on behalf of marginalized communities.
Newson’s work, which reminds us of the significance of this project in dire times, also calls for an honest look at power dynamics within ecclesial spaces. In Anabaptist communities, power can sometimes be a four-letter word. We have no problem referencing Wink’s Powers trilogy or understanding sinful structures in governmental and secular spaces, but we rarely want to address how even the process of discernment can privilege some voices over others. Newson begins to discuss power within the church in his interpretation of biblical texts on binding and loosing (Matt 18), but the conversation must go further than he takes it. How welcome do people of color, LGBTQIA persons, and other members of marginalized communities feel in church spaces, let alone invited to shape processes of communal discernment? Gender, class, and income-level often drive ecclesial discernment processes more than Christians would like to admit. Newson’s framework strikes me as a good, albeit idealistic, guide for radical friendship—perhaps I am too cynical, or maybe his Baptist spaces are just healthier than my Quaker ones.
What I appreciated most about Newson’s deeply theological yet concretely practical book is that Newson writes, to quote Hamilton, “like he’s running out of time.” This message matters because of our political climate, and because even revered theological teachers like John Howard Yoder were not immune from abuse of power and exploitation of the vulnerable. Newson writes as a voice for those who all of us with power need to continue to be advocating for in our spaces of influence. I appreciate a vision beyond liberalism or neoliberalism that turns inward to our local communities of difference as a vision for the world. May it be so.
I especially have in mind the Quaker work Practicing Discernment Together by Lon Fendall, Jan Wood and Bruce Bishop and David Niyonzima’s global example of the Friends church in Burundi, Unlocking Horns: Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Burundi↩