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York, Tripp. Living on Hope While Living in Babylon.

With engaging prose and good-natured wit, Tripp York tells the life stories of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, Clarence Jordan, and the Berrigan brothers in his book Living on Hope While Living in Babylon: The Christian Anarchists of the Twentieth Century. With these brief biographical accounts, York has churned out a highly engaging Christian political theology that he calls "Christian anarchism," which opposes "the triple axis of evil" - materialism, racism and militarism (xvi). The book began as York's master's thesis and morphed to less theory and more biography as his students challenged him for examples. The people he has chosen to examine saw the interconnections between materialism, racism and militarism.

After two introductory chapters, York begins "Catholic Workers Unite!" by reviewing classical anarchist critiques of capitalism and recounting how Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin implemented an anarchist vision within Catholicism as a challenge to the church. In the Catholic Worker model, houses of hospitality provide for the destitute and give the well-off opportunities to share, while roundtable discussions sharpen people's theoretical understanding and farms help them unlearn "the notion of work as a practice of turning a profit" which "turned it into a job" and to see work instead as a part of a common good (47). In this chapter, York skillfully portrays the longest-standing "Christian anarchist" movement, which has over 200 hospitality houses in the United States alone.

For his example of resistance to racism, York examines Clarence Jordan, who founded a nonviolent multiracial community of goods on a Georgian farm in the midst of Cold War tensions and white hostilities. This community attracted considerable opposition, including death threats and boycotts of the farm. Although Jordan did not self-identify as an "anarchist," York includes him in the book for the ways he attempted "to create a culture that out-narrated [the dominant culture] by its own way of life."

Finally, York tells Phil and Dan Berrigan's stories as examples of Christian anarchist response to U.S, militarism. Draft card burnings and hammering on nuclear warheads put these two Catholics in jail for long stretches of time. But like Peter who escaped from prison in Acts, they did not always submit without a flight!

Although York fruitfully mixes biography with editorial comments throughout, the book falters in three areas. First, the way he employs secular anarchist thought throughout the book conveys a disquieting triumphalism. Though he cites classical secular anarchists like Bakunin, Proudhon, and Kropotkin, he does so merely as a prop for "Christian anarchism" (xiii). There is little dialogue with or learning from non-Christian anarchists, thereby perpetuating the myth that anarchism is only Christian and that Christians have nothing to gain from other parts of this movement. For this reason, the term "Christian anarchism" is problematic because it melds Christianity and anarchism together in a way that allows Christians to claim to be "true" anarchists. That is why the philosopher Jacques EIlul purposely distinguished between the two by calling his book Anarchy and Christianity.

Second, though well-versed in classical anarchism, York does not pick up on the ways anarchism has dramatically changed since its inception and how that shift might help Christians theologize and live in new ways. Today, there are several anarchisms, including anarcho-feminism, green anarchism (anarcho-primitivism) and the anarchist people of color movement that could have added depth and challenge to some of his points. For example, York argues that seeking the welfare of the city (Jer. 29:7) "is a staple requirement of Christian discipleship" (34) based on a classical anarchist framework that values the industrial Revolution and primarily vilifies the capitalist state. However, anarcho-primitivism provides a window into another biblical tradition that critiques and subverts the city: fratricidal Cain built the first city and from there proceeds war, patriarchy and division of labor that have haunted every civilization (civilization is a network of life built around cities). Babel, Sodom, Gomorrah, Babylon and Jerusalem multiply the violence and injustice. Jesus almost completely avoids the city, and when he enters Jerusalem and confronts the powers of evil, the city kills him. Anarcho-primitivists draw from modern anthropology, which strikingly supports the Genesis myth on the origins of war, patriarchy and the division of labor that York examines. In light of this reading, the church-as-polis cliche: (35) inscribes Western violent civilization into ecclesiology; fresh ecclesiological images should be sought.

Third and finally, the subtitle--"Christian Anarchists of the 20th Century"--led me to think that the book would include a broader group of people. The title might not have been York's choice, but anyone who is remotely familiar with Christianity and anarchism before reading the book will be surprised that Jacques Ellul, Leo Tolstoy and others are not included. York's explanation for this--so that he would not err in his claims about non-Americans--is unsatisfactory. Like the other stories he told, their stories are widely available, and Ellul's own life and thought in particular would have significantly challenged York's classical anarchist presuppositions that our civilized, technologized life is just the way things have to be.

To summarize, York is an artful writer and each of his biographical chapters skillfully introduces faithful Christians who have practiced classical anarchist politics. These stories are available in more depth elsewhere, but these are good introductions. Still, York could have written this book without any reference to secular anarchists or anarchist thought and it would not have made much difference. As an anarchist myself, the lack of serious engagement with past and present secular anarchist thought is disappointing. In short, Living on Hope While Living in Babylon: The Christian Anarchists of the Twentieth Century is best when supplemented with works by Jacques Ellul and other anarchists.

Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary


York, Tripp. Living on Hope While Living in Babylon: The Christian Anarchists of the Twentieth Century. Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock. 2009.
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Author:Alexis-Baker, Andy
Publication:Mennonite Quarterly Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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