Along with Shane Claiborne, founder of The Simple Way intentional community, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a key figure in the new monastic movement in the United States. New monasticism seeks to build new communities among marginalized people, “in the abandoned places of Empire.” Wilson-Hartgrove is also one of the most recognizable of a generation of progressive American evangelicals that has emerged over the last couple of decades, advocating, among other things, for an end to capital punishment in the United States. The Anglican Journal spoke with Wilson-Hartgrove about his theological journey, finding faith among the powerless, and the nature of evangelism.
This interview has been edited for length.
It’s been written that you “grew up believing that Jesus was a Republican,” but now you’re known for embracing causes associated with the political left. How did your political thinking come to change over time?
I have come to understand that I was raised in a community that was very much targeted by the political organizers of the New Right. They saw faith-based organizing as essential to holding together their white voting coalition in the United States following the civil rights movement. Not only is that not the immediate takeaway from what the Bible says, but in many ways that whole movement is counter to the gospel, and has hurt the church and the church’s mission in the United States. If you look at the surveys of millennials and generations after that, there is a lot of suspicion and disgust toward what they understand to be a bigoted, judgemental and violent Christianity. So in order to follow Jesus, in order to be Christian, I have to resist the political formation of Christian nationalism that was pushed on my home community and that, frankly, was not even good for us. It hurt a lot of other people, but it has also hurt us. In many ways I think the version of Christianity that Christian nationalism has promulgated is actually destroying the Christian witness and a capacity to be Christian among those people who believe it.
How did you come to this realization?
Well what happened for me was, I was being trained as a foot soldier in this movement. I went to serve as a page in the U.S. senate for Strom Thurmond, when I was still a teenager. Strom Thurmond was a Dixiecrat from South Carolina who had led the Southern Democrats, the segregationists within the Democratic Party, into the Republican Party. By seeing up-close what he was actually doing, I came to realize that it really didn’t have anything at all to do with what my Sunday school teachers had taught me, or the scriptures that we had memorized, or the vision of Jesus—it was really about using churches in the South to hold on to political power. And so I began then to look for another way of being Christian. And I have to be honest—I probably wouldn’t still be a Christian, except that I met, back in North Carolina, the Black church and learned the story of the Southern Freedom Movement and its roots in the church. It was in that place that I found hope that there was another way of being Christian.
And how did you get from there to monasticism?
I immediately realized that this was more than just a changing of the way you think—it had to be a change in the way we lived. And it was in that context that I started living in Christian community, met Shane [Claiborne] and the folks at The Simple Way, other communities like that. Learning from all of those folks, I began to realize that there was actually a longer history of this kind of intentional discipleship, that I had been cut off from, as a Baptist, in the religious orders of the Catholic Church. So I met the Benedictines and began to think about that in terms of a monastic way of life.
That’s one of the things that interests me in the new monasticism: that it’s often evangelicals—who might be considered the most Protestant of the Protestants—embracing this tradition that many of the earliest Protestants were fairly hostile toward.
What I saw when I read Benedict was that he was a Biblicist, like the people who raised me. He quoted the Bible all the time, and he understood the Bible to require something of each and every one of us. That was also something I had learned growing up. And in the same way that the monastic tradition has had several iterations of reform—because people who gained and consolidated power strayed from that route and it became about other things—in the same way, I realized that my own evangelical tradition had been corrupted. And so I found a lot in common with the Benedictine roots and the reform movements within the Benedictine tradition.
I get the feeling that the new monasticism is about evangelism as well as mission—is that right?
Yes, absolutely. I think it’s critical to the witness of the church in the 21st century that we have ways of unlearning the habits of a very distorted gospel and learning to live and be good news in the communities where we are. And I think it’s absolutely essential that white people in this culture, and people who have power, whatever the pigmentation of their skin, learn from those people who have been marginalized, who have been overlooked, but have received the good news Jesus preaches to the poor, from that position. Because I find a lot of energy and a lot of hope in those places.
You’ve found that marginalized people are able to see things in the gospels that many of us, shall we say, comfortable people don’t really see?
Absolutely. For example, one of the stories from my book is about this pastor, José Chicas, who’s been living in sanctuary with us in our church for almost three years now since the beginning of the Trump administration, when they tried to deport him even though he’s lived here for 32 years, and has raised his family here, has a home here, has worked in this community, has pastored in this community. And so he’s very much standing at the edge of the Red Sea, wading in, trusting that God’s going to make a way. Even though the lawyers say there’s no way out. It’s a real example to me of what faith means. You can live the story out when you’re in the position of the people the story was written for. But I think I’ve also come to realize that that’s good news for me, you know? That with him I get to learn what real faith is—it’s not just something that I assent to, or believe in my heart or makes me feel good. It’s something that has real power to overcome the forces in this world that are bent against the people God created.
And that’s what you saw in Benedict’s writing also?
Absolutely, that’s the heart of Benedict. I got to go to Italy and spend a week in the places where Benedict lived, and one of the things I realized is that Benedict was very much like me in that he was the son of privilege. What Benedict realizes is that the world in which he is privileged is a world which is falling apart. And I think that’s very much the realization of my generation, you know—millennials who came of age right at the peak of the extractive economy that this country is founded upon, and right when we are realizing that that extractive economy is going to destroy the world. And when you realize that you’re privileged in a system that is going to destroy everything, you have to come to terms with, well, what do you do? And Benedict said he was going to go back and learn from those people who had left Roman society and gone out to the desert to learn the way of Jesus in prayer. So he goes and lives in a cave and begins to imagine a different way of life. So I see Benedict very much as imagining a new world within the shell of the old, and I think we are living in a moment when that’s very much needed, because we’re in a similar situation.
One of the things that the Anglican Church of Canada is trying to come to terms with is its involvement in the Canadian government’s Indian Residential School system, in which Indigenous children were educated far from their communities, often forcibly, and there were all kinds of horrific abuses. How does a Christian community like the Anglican Church of Canada recover the authority to evangelize after something like that?
Well, we need to be re-evangelized. Whereas here in America we have slaveholder religion, you have very much a kind of colonialist religion, and one that assumed that the white church had the good news and that charity meant making Indigenous people like you. And I think in any case like that, we have to return to the people who have been harmed and practice restorative justice, which is always about addressing the harms that have been done, but also engaging in a relationship where you learn new patterns, and are directed in those new patterns by the people who were harmed. And so I think the church needs to be re-evangelized by people who have real spiritual wisdom. I think communities that have been harmed by our distorted message need to help us learn what it means to truly be good news. I think those people must become our teachers. We’re not going to figure this out on our own.
I think if you’re able to confess that something was so wrong with the way you understood the gospel that in preaching it you hurt other people, then at some point you have to be honest enough with yourself to say that if it hurt other people, it’s probably hurting us too, and so we need to do some soul work, some communal work, some re-imagination to see what the good news really is. And you know, that’s not easy work. But that’s what I think is essential if the church is to re-discover the mission of God and be part of it in our activities.
It’s sometimes said that Anglicans aren’t very comfortable with evangelizing. Where do you think it fits into the Christian life? Is it an essential part of it?
Absolutely. I just think it’s so often misunderstood. Evangelism as I understand it is proclaiming, in our words and in how we live, God’s good news for all people and for the earth. Any time we proclaim or participate in that good news, that’s evangelism. As a young evangelical of course I was trained in all these methods of trying to package the message so that people could hear it in a brief form and then pledge their commitment to it. And I really don’t understand that to be good news to a lot of people. I’m not saying that all of the intentions were bad. But I think it was very much based in this model of, “We have something that you need; if you do these things, you can have it too.” And I don’t think that’s what the gospel is—I think the gospel is an embrace that we’re invited into, and that to the extent that we share that embrace with others, invite people into God’s embrace, we are doing evangelism. It really isn’t about whether we get people to affirm or assent to some system that we’ve come up with to try to count who’s in and who’s out.
It’s not about cultural colonization. Making somebody who’s not like me more like me, in the several measures that we’ve often used in the colonialist imagination, doesn’t make them any more Christian. But if together we can discover the image of God in one another and grow together into beloved community, then we are doing evangelism.