Eggplant – Walking Away with Jesus
As an at least somewhat politically aware American, I frequently have thoughts (and come across the thoughts of others) about the relationship between Christianity and the United States of America. One of the most prevalent of these thoughts is the idea that the United States is a “Christian nation,” which depending on whose thoughts I’m reading might mean that our governmental structures are products of (European) Christian tradition, or our nation was founded on “Judeo-Christian values,” or the United States is meant to be led by Christians and for Christians, or God chose this nation to bring the divine light to a benighted world, by force if necessary. I find it noteworthy that I have yet to encounter a real argument for the thought that the United States is a Christian nation because it’s the government and society Jesus would have organized. That in turn raises an always interesting thought experiment: what would a truly Christian society, something that would lead Jesus to say “yeah, that’s my Kingdom,” look like today?
The obvious answer is to study the Acts of the Apostles (which I hope we all will be doing this April and May with the Good Book Club), but I find it very challenging to imagine how that earliest church might practically translate into contemporary society. For example, among the earliest disciples in Jerusalem, “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32), and that has worked reasonably well for some small, self-contained communes, but not for large nations.
I recently finished the novel Walkaway by Cory Doctorow. Although it is not talking about a Christian society (and, indeed, does not include a Christian perspective even when people achieve something like immortality by digitally recording their brains), I nonetheless find it a very provocative contributor to this thought experiment. Walkaway is set in a near future where the problem of wealth and power accumulating in the hands of a select few is even more pronounced than it is now and 3D printing has evolved to the point where whole buildings can be fabricated from readily available materials. In such a world, Doctorow imagines increasing numbers of people walking away from their default reality, abandoning dead-end jobs or chronic unemployment, debts and taxes, property and possessions to live in the unpopulated wilderness. The walkaways operate in a post-scarcity economy: by ignoring intellectual property rights around the plans for printing buildings, furniture, food, medicine, and everything else, everyone’s basic survival needs are met and at least some communal comfort is provided without one person’s needs coming at another’s expense. The rich periodically send forces to attack walkaway settlements, killing or arresting those who do not flee, in an attempt to discourage others from walking away and further eroding their power base.
In one of the book’s most compelling scenes, the woman who’s done the most work toward operating a walkaway tavern/boardinghouse returns from the woods to find that another group of walkaways have arrived and begun to reorganize the establishment as a meritocracy (that food, beds, and comforts are doled out according to the work a person does rather than being given freely to all). Their leader, who had previously argued with her about this subject while living there, hopes that she will either accept their changes (under which she easily ranks as the hardest worker) or fight them for control. Instead, she announces her intention to walk away, telling him “You’ve made it clear that you’re so obsessed with this place that you’ll impose your will on it. You have shown yourself to be a monster. When you meet a monster, you back away and let it gnaw at whatever bone it’s fascinated with. There are other bones. We know how to make bones. We can live like it’s the first days of a better world, not like it’s the first pages of an Ayn Rand novel. Have this place, but you can’t have us. We withdraw our company.” Like the apostles in Acts 4, she and the friends who join her have concluded that people are more important than property and they will always sacrifice property in order to benefit everyone.
What makes Doctorow’s society of walkaways particularly striking is its willingness, in the name of building a better world, to discard ideas about society that I take for granted: that money is a necessary medium of exchange and store of wealth, that a relationship (even if it’s only fictive) exists between merit and power, that competition between people is necessary for societal improvement, that some manner of coercive force is needed to maintain order, that my specialness entitles me to more than you. The resulting society includes a number of features that might fit a Christian nation better than anything in America currently: the behavior of giving people what they need without considering whether they can afford it or do something to earn it (Luke 6:30), the refusal to wield guns or lethally defend property (Matthew 26:52), the mentality that there is an abundance if only we can trust each other to share it rather than hoard it (John 10:10), the understanding that common values are of more importance than common nationality (Galatians 3:28).
In all this, there might well be a contemporary blueprint for following the example of Abraham (Genesis 12:1) or the seventy disciples (Luke 10:4), walking away from the only society we’ve ever known without bag or sandals in order to follow our Lord, but I’m certainly not advocating that (or prepared to do it myself). However, thinking about the juxtaposition of Walkaway and Jesus’ teachings does make me wonder if things that have been part of the United States from the beginning, like our monetary system, our understanding of private property, or our personal and corporate notions of defense, might be actively holding us back from being a truly Christian nation. As one character in the book observes, drawing from game theory, if you expect your neighbor to answer the door with a gun, you’re likely to answer the door with a gun yourself, and vice versa, but that same feedback loop also applies when offering a casserole. As Doctorow put it, “You get the world you hope for or the world you fear – your hope or your fear makes it so.” What fears might we walk away from, in order to be a more recognizably Christian nation?
The Rev. John Adams