A Conversation with Brian Merritt, Christian Anarchist

Chattanooga, TN (TFC) – Brian Merritt is a evangelist for Mercy Junction Ministries in Chattanooga. He is  a Christian Anarchist. He worked as a Chaplin at Occupy DC and, is part of International Peace projects.

Editor’s Note: For the following interview, TFC questions are in bold, and the answers follow in normal font.

Can you give a brief introduction into who you are and your basic beliefs?

I am the Rev. Brian Merritt evangelist for Mercy Junction Ministries in Chattanooga. We meet at Renaissance Presbyterian Church on the historic Westside. I am a Christian Anarchist influenced by the Reformed Theologian, Philosopher and Sociologist Jaques Ellul. Often his ideas of Christian Anarchism were self described as Christian Realism. I am also strongly influenced by Dorothy Day’s Catholic worker movement, Gustavo Gutierrez, the Bruderhof and Leo Tolstoy.

Who is Jesus to you?

Jesus was the prophet and teacher whose example of life is transformative. Christ was a lawbreaker showing that humans take precedence. Jesus was a preacher who taught preference to the poor, merciful, peacemaker[s], meek, hungry, righteous, and claimed to be embodied in those considered least in society. His confrontations with the wealth and power leave no ambiguity to the discomfort those running our world need to have in the face of judgment.

Jesus’ preaching is not something that is outside of me personally. Jesus and the Hebrew prophets call me to be accountable to every life situation and measure it with wisdom led by Love, Mercy, Justice, Peace, Service, Joy, Gentleness, Kindness, Grace, Patience, Repentance and Reconciliation. Jesus’ death proves his humanity and the depth of love for humanity that he was willing to show. Resurrection is the possibility of putting off our old selves and being something transformed by the renewing of our minds.

What is anarchism to you? And how did you get into it?

As is probably obvious, I am not a secular anarchist. I do not hold to an unhindered individualistic humanism, nor am I utopian. For me, anarchism is the yearning and work toward pure freedom. It is for me the freedom from rigid ideology, religious oppression, political manipulation, ethnic prejudice, state sponsored violence, technological enslavement, misguided optimism in progress, self destructive behavior, isolating individualism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, the idols of nationalism, domestic violence, addiction and anything else that holds us in fear of our neighbor. I do not believe that we find this freedom inside individuals, but in something greater than ourselves. This is what frees us from the limitations that mar us as individuals and allow us to see only a limited space of reality. To me when we come together in small collectives assenting toward freedom we are acknowledging a Spirit that is yearning for things that can transform our societies.

What do you think of Tolstoy, Dorothy Day, the Diggers, the Catholic Workers, Liberation Theology and other radical Christ based organizations?

These have all been strongly influential to my thinking as a follower of Christ. I discovered Tolstoy’s stories and liberation theology when I was studying to be a missionary at the fundamentalist Moody Bible Institute.

Brian Merritt. Photo Credit justiceunbound.org

Brian Merritt. Photo Credit justiceunbound.org

In high school Tolstoy’s essay on “Civil Disobedience” shaped the pacifism that I espoused for many years. It was in Tolstoy’s story the “Three Hermits” that I found an answer to the fundamentalism that my upbringing espoused. More than his essays, his short stories challenged me in ways that are hard to explain.

I voraciously read the Latin American, African American and African Liberationists during my missionary studies. They presented the strongest challenge to fundamentalism by those who took the Bible seriously. I consider Leonardo Boff, Ernesto Cardenal, Gustavo Gutierrez, Alan Boesak, Desmond Tutu, James Dolan, Dorothee Soelle, Johann Baptist Metz, James Cone and Ismael Garcia my main theological conversation partners.

I experienced Dorothy Day later. Although I don’t always agree with her stern Roman Catholicism, the Catholic Workers and Peter Maurin’s views of refuge and acceptance are central to my own ideas of ministry. Their unwavering moral vision is something too often lost in our commercialized Wal-Mart Churches.

How do you see the Christian Right in America?

I see them as a sad reflection of both individual’s psychological yearning for certainty and the authoritarianism that can happen when an ideology becomes the main point of one’s thinking. It is sad to see things like love, grace and salvation being cooped to preach anything but “good news.” If it sounds, smells and looks like hatred, fear and exclusion then it most certainly is something opposite of the preaching of Jesus, Paul and Peter. It is difficult as a person of faith to see such self deteriorating readings of the Bible corrode the possibility of transformation. I have deep empathy and love for them. I know that they can change, because I did.

Do you have any views on deep ecology as it related to spirituality?

Yes, I was telling one of the people in my worship community that ecology is actually the moral area that I find the deepest emotional connection with at the present moment. In working the soil almost daily I find it impossible to as Thich Nhat Hanh reminds me to ever be separated from the earth in which I am connected. We are physically connected to the earth, land and plants by gravity, it amazes me that we scar it so terribly.

I am mostly vegan out of a troubled moral understanding of the capitalism in our food system and the exploitation of animals in that system. One merely needs to drive by the chicken processing plant in Chattanooga to become troubled in how desensitized our society has become to the violence brought on by living creatures.

Who are some of your favorite writers?

I read a lot of poetry and short stories. Poets that I am obsessed with are Marina Tsvetaeva, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Philip Levine, Ted Kooser, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Vachel Lindsay and Chinese poetry.

Short stories writers that I enjoy are Paul Bowles, Balzac, Anton Chekov, Leo Tolstoy, Raymond Carver, Willa Cather, Bernard Malamud and Flannery O’conner.

I used to read Chekov’s Uncle Vanya every birthday. It is my favorite play.

Right now my spirituality reading is Karl Rahner and Eberhard Arnold.

I am quite into the magical realism that has emerged in the 20th and 21st century novel. I am currently reading a short story collection by Nagub Mahfouz and The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates.

What kind of music and other art has inspired you?

I am often inspired by country music, but not usually by mainstream country. I love post-modern classical, folk, Jazz and good gospel. My ipod has been playing Ron Sexsmith, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, Johann Schutz and the incomparable jazz composer Andrew Hill.

The visual arts are very important to my view of the divine. I collect ethnographic and folk art. I am very interested in the creative impulse as it comes from those untrained by institutions of art.

What would you tell other radicals looking to help fix this broken world?

We must replace the narratives of destruction, violence, cynicism and nihilism with hope. It is a hopeless and loveless world that will hurl us all toward destruction.

Any shout outs or links you want us to drop?

Organizations that I respect: Christian Peacemakers Teams at CPT.org, Chattanooga for Workers, Renaissance Presbyterian Church, Church of the Savior in DC and Fellowship of Reconciliation.