Radical Friendship

The Politics of Communal Discernment

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Ryan Andrew Newson
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , April
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In his book Radical Friendship: The Politics of Communal Discernment, Ryan Andrew Newson adds his voice to the ongoing conversation about the nature and fate of contemporary capitalist liberal democracies while raising questions about how Christians, especially those who trace their traditional roots back to the radical reform movements of the 16th century, are to practice civic engagement in a way that is genuinely faithful, positively subversive, and hopefully transformative of both “church” and “world.”

Ultimately, Newson wants readers to understand that the distinctively Anabaptist practice of communal discernment nurtures ways of being with others that have the potential to counter dominant neoliberal cultural practicesand ideas that sustain an unhealthy, near totalitarian, condition of widespread political incompetence. In a condition of widespread political incompetence, citizens are apathetic or minimally engaged, their understanding of politics is disturbingly restricted to matters of national (rather than local/municipal/state) party politics and presidential and congressional elections, and they are ill equipped to address political matters of common concern given that they are often “unable to intelligently communicate, let alone cooperate, with one another across differences” (7). While Newson is not alone in identifying and expressing concern about these trends, he does claim to depart from other political theologians by locating the source of this disfunction in the foundational assumptions that are present in political liberalism itself, a critique that is built heavily upon the analysis of liberalism articulated by political theorist Sheldon Wolin. This is an important move for Newson in light of the long held cultural restrictions on religious arguments in the public square that were claimed to be essential for flourishing, within the context of a liberal society are legitimately called into question once the foundational assumptions of liberalism are exposed to critique. Once these restrictions are questioned, there is an opening for religiously influenced perspectives to enter into public, political space and, for Newson, this means that Christians should feel encouraged to engage more actively in democratic life, and that democratic practices could benefit from their participation.

Newson is careful to describe the practice of communal discernment in such a way that it avoids both a closed-off sectarianism and a hands-off, non-judgmental (and therefore non-invested) form of moral relativism. Throughout the book he draws attention to the ways that this practice is fortuitously aligned with the values of radical grassroots democratic activism, which starts from the ground up and engages in practices and activities that operate outside of non-democratic institutional processes. Like radical democratic action, communal discernment is born of concrete circumstances and active engagement in one’s broader community. Additionally, if Christians are habituated by engaging in the practice of communal discernment to listen to others with patience and humility and to value the perspectives of the marginalized and powerless, this will make it more likely that Christians will be able to see the surprising ways in which others outside their own convictional community are revealing the truth of a world redeemed that is proclaimed in scripture.

To accomplish all of this, Newson tackles different pieces of the argument in each chapter. The first chapter is focused on identifying the roots of the political incompetence that characterizes the political climate of the United States. It presents a clearly-written and succinct analysis of contemporary perspectives in political theology and provides an intriguing sketch of the historical development of liberalism and its inevitable fusion with the logic of capitalism. For those interested in these questions and this history, the chapter provides much food for thought and ample, well-chosen, resources for further investigation. The next two chapters explore the practice of communal discernment more closely. In chapter 2, Newson locates the “promise and possibility” of communal discernment in the practices of Anabaptist radical reformers of the 16th century. His analysis of this period reveals that communal discernment as a practice implies that Christian life is responsive to contextual—and therefore changing—realities and that a central task of the Christian community is to collectively discern how best to respond in a way that is faithful to scriptural norms and values. It is this responsive and communal process that nurtures moral competence. Chapter 3 tackles the challenging practice of “the ban,” which deals directly with whose voices ought to be included or excluded in discernment. It provides a thorough and careful investigation into the value and ultimate purpose of “binding and loosing” for a community attempting to discern the right course of action in matters of faith and moral significance. Newson is attentive to the role of power in this process and articulates an understanding of the practice that attempts to limit the potential for an abuse of power through an emphasis on the value of humility and the scriptural demand to prioritize the needs of those with the least power. Chapter 4 explores the role of communal discernment as a specific counter-practice that is capable of contributing to the subversion of a complex and “interconnected web of practices” that sustain and “dominate” the created order that exists in a contemporary neoliberal and politically incompetent society (158-59). Finally, in chapter 5 Newson draws from specific examples to show the ways in which the practice of communal discernment is both fueled by and gives rise to the kind of open friendship capable of bringing diverse persons together for transformative and subversive radical democratic activity.

Radical Friendship is clearly written, well-researched, and well-organized. For those interested in new work in the area of political theology, particularly if they are interested in an approach that is rooted in Anabaptist practices, this is a quick read that offers good food for thought. This would be a fitting resource for graduate students pursuing a career in church leadership who are interested in the meaning of faithful political engagement, or for those who are studying the relationship between religion and politics in contemporary American religious thought. It would also be accessible and appealing to current church leaders, again particularly those who identify with the author’s convictional community, who are thinking about whether, and how, to engage politically.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Abbylynn Helgevold is Instructor in the Department of Philosophy and World Religions at the University of Northern Iowa.

Date of Review: 
March 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ryan Andrew Newson teaches religion and philosophy at Campbell University. He is the coeditor of The Collected Works of James Wm. McClendon (2014, 2016), Practicing to Aim at Truth (2015), and author of several scholarly articles.

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