An exclusive RadicalDiscipleship.Net interview with Ryan Newson, professor of religion, philosophy and ethics at Campbell University. He is the author of Radical Friendship: The Politics of Communal Discernment, coming out on April 1.
RD: Describe how this project started.
RN: This project began during my doctoral studies when I was immersed in Anabaptist theology and political theology, respectively. As I read Anabaptist theologians in depth, I was drawn to a communal form of reasoning about spiritual and moral questions that seemed to haunt that tradition—always lurking even if it was not always perfectly implemented. This picture of radical disciples drawing near one another in order to figure out what God would have them do, or who God would have them be, was magnetic. It reminded me of the form of Christianity that had always appealed to me, and that I had seen practiced by house churches in Camden, NJ, and New Monastic communities in Durham, NC, and Catholic Worker communities in Silk Hope, NC. In particular, I was attracted to the way in which this practice had the potential to guide communities into new waters without fear, acquiescence, or retreat. It certainly carried much more power, it seemed to me, than the way many of my fellow Christians approached questions of discernment: through a wooden, legalistic application of scripture.
As I was discovering communal discernment, I was also reading several political philosophers and theologians who talked about the need to foster political competence in our current context. If radical political action was to be effective and sustainable, and if people in the United States were to have any chance at resisting forces that seek control, we were going to have to discover practices that could instill such competence in us. Political philosophers like Sheldon Wolin and Romand Coles were calling for practices at the local, grassroots level of political action that sounded to me a lot like analogues to what Anabaptists reclaimed in the sixteenth-century in the wake of the German Peasants’ War. Basically, I began to wonder if there was some way to faithfully and coherently combine these two areas of study—radical democratic competence and communal discernment—and Radical Friendship is the result.
RD: What’s it mean to be “a radical friend” and do you have any?
RN: I do have a few such friends! Happily, in the wake of Trump’s election, I see many such friendships beginning to form in my own city of Raleigh, NC. By radical friendship, I mean a kind of relationship that moves the people involved closer toward the good, toward virtue, toward competence, even in a context in which each of these things are hard to come by. In associating friendship with political concerns (meaning “political” in the broadest sense), I am tapping into a tradition that goes back to Aristotle, who had a lot to say on this subject. But I combine “friendship” with the term “radical” in order to signal that the sort of friendship I am interested in is qualified by the theological commitments inherent to the radical Christian tradition—nonviolence, self-sacrifice, community, confrontation of the powers, etc.—as well as the commitments of a movement known as “radical democracy.” In other words, I want a vision of friendship that is as politically weighted as what we typically mean by “enemy,” but without the sort of closedness, even priggishness, that is associated with Aristotle’s politics. Jürgen Moltmann has famously called this “open friendship,” and it’s a helpful phrase.
Thus, a “radical friendship” is one that guides and sustains a person in the work of witness to the Reign of God, justice, and reconciliation in a context that is increasingly antithetical to such work. It is not necessarily marked by the rather shallow enjoyment of mutual pleasure that we normally equate with friendship today. My argument is that this kind of friendship is a fruit of communal discernment, but that one can also see these kinds of friendships spring up all over the place, between parties that one may not expect. I provide two such examples in the last chapter of the book.
RD: Who are some of these radical friends (in Raleigh or elsewhere)? Name names. We need more positive gossip in this world!
RN: A chapter of the IAF (Industrial Areas Foundation) is beginning to form here in Raleigh, and I am quite excited to get involved with this group. I was introduced to this meeting through Mikeal Broadway of Shaw University School of Divinity—a friend—who continues to spur me on intellectually as well as agitate for my involvement. This group will surely lead to friendships across convictional lines—this is its explicit goal—in a way that mirrors a wonderful organization, Durham CAN (Congregations Associations and Neighborhoods), which this budding group is issuing from. A friendship in my congregation, Carolyn McClendon, is also important to me. She is involved with several good organizations in Raleigh, including “Love Wins” Ministries (look it up). Other friendships I feel less comfortable sharing, as they are more personal and I haven’t discussed it with them, but they are relationships I have forged with people from other communities or no community in particular, having met at a family friend’s house, or at a protest, or (in one case) at one of the “Moral Mondays” gatherings led by Rev. Dr. William Barber. Basically, there’s a lot bubbling right now that is good, that is issuing from grassroots democratic engagement and with which Christians should participate. Despite my deep fears about the current administration and the direction of this country, these movements give me hope.
RD: Who, specifically, do you hope reads this book? Who did you have in mind while writing it?
RN: I am writing as a Christian theologian, first and foremost. This is a work of theology, what is often called political theology, and that kind of work cannot be done “neutrally.” So that is my primary audience: Christians who are interested in democratic engagement, or perhaps are just interested in addressing the sense of cultural malaise we are currently experiencing—what I call “political incompetence” (following Willis Jenkins). For the majority of Christians, I hope they read and perhaps reassess contributions that can be made by this particular, smaller wing of the church that is variously called baptist, Anabaptist, radical, free church, or whatever. For Anabaptists, I hope that they would read and appreciate anew a practice that they have engaged in, and see the potency and potential of the practice, if considered in a particular light. Perhaps radical democrats more generally will find something of interest in my assessment of the current political predicament—I certainly hope so!—but I am bringing radical democracy and Christian theology into conversation in a way that will be of primary interest to Christians, political theologians, and Christian activists.
RD: How might the practice of radical friendship take on intensified importance in the Trump era?
RN: I definitely think the practice takes on a heightened sense of importance in the wake of Trump’s election, although I also want to emphasize that the threats posed to authentically democratic competence are only intensified by his election. That is, it would have been just as necessary if Clinton had been elected, though certainly not in the same ways, and will be long after he leaves office.
Three things come to mind: First, there are signs of a growing protest culture in the United States, which is very good, but the danger of burnout is real, as is the danger that such demonstrations function as a kind of release valve to energies that need to be harnessed. Thus, I believe a practice like communal discernment and the friendships that emerge from its practice are an important part of harnessing the growing dis-ease with the forces that stand behind Trump’s rise. It allows for a focusing of these energies on local, tangible challenges that relate to the wider challenges of Trump’s administration, without denying the importance of demonstrations and marches. It can elongate and make sustainable an energy that we desperately need.
Second, I sincerely believe that such friendships are possible across convictional lines, including many of the political lines we draw for ourselves. Insofar as early on, the Trump strategy seems to be to divide and conquer by pitting ordinary people on separate “teams,” radical friendship combats that precisely by enabling these bonds to be reformed underneath the level at which they are typically frayed. This is but another way of saying that in our fractured times, we need practices that forge solidarity.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that anything goes or that we should all just “get along”—some views need to be “blocked,” in the words of Romand Coles—and as such, a third reason it is important centers on the discernment of truth in a post-truth world. Given the steady stream of misinformation designed to confuse and divide people, practices like communal discernment are going to be vital in the coming years, whereby we as communities do our best to cut through the haze, off of social media and in face-to-face interactions. Friendships with people with whom we disagree will be vital if we are to curb, and then reverse, the trend toward the creation of siloed circles of “knowledge.” Christians who have engaged in communal discernment have something to offer in this regard.
Ryan Newson teaches courses in religion, philosophy, and ethics at Campbell University, and lives in Raleigh, NC with his wife and two children. He is also the co-editor of The Collected Works of James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (Baylor University Press, 2014). In his spare time, he plays guitar, piano, and harmonica with friends.