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Radical Religion, an American Tradition

Book Review: “Prophetic Encounters” reminds us that we are part of a long and rich tradition that is more than a series of isolated movements for social change.

Prophetic Encounters Book Cover

Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition
by Dan McKanan
Beacon Press, 2011, 320 pages, $34.95

In ordinary times the life of a radical can feel extraordinarily lonely. Even more so if one is not only radical but also religious. After all, with a few exceptions, the voice of the religious far left has been largely absent from political discourse in recent decades. 

Dan McKanan’s new book, Prophetic Encounters, shows us that we are not alone. He reflects on the history of nearly two centuries of religion and radicalism in America and, in doing so, reminds us that we are part of a long and rich tradition that is more than simply a series of isolated movements for social change. 

McKanan traces American radicalism from the era of the “Working Men” of the 1820s, when artisans gathered in local churches to organize and, using largely theological rhetoric, to challenge the economic injustices of their time. He argues that American radicalism has always been intertwined with religion, drawing from it both inspiration and support. In fact, McKanan suggests, radicalism in this country has been itself almost a form of religion, with its transcendent visions of a new and just society, its ritual singing, and the ways in which it offers participants a sense of powerful new identity.

Many members of the white middle class had their lives transformed by encounter with the writings and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Central to McKanan’s work is the notion of encounter between people. He describes three types. The first is an encounter of identity through which people who have experienced oppression or been marginalized come together, hear one another’s stories, recognize themselves in the other, and develop a shared sense of belonging. 

The second kind of encounter happens when individuals of relative privilege encounter marginalized communities, sense the power that comes from their having come together, and begin to identify with a particular individual who represents that community. That is how, for instance, many members of the white middle class had their lives transformed by encounter with the writings and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

And the third kind of encounter, collective encounter, happens when individuals choose to immerse themselves in marginalized or struggling communities, as when Dorothy Day, longing for meaningful encounter with poor immigrants, founded the Catholic Worker movement.

All of these kinds of cross-boundary encounters can be akin to conversion experiences, transforming the lives of individuals and communities. McKanan writes of the power that comes from such encounters, saying that when people “encounter one another deeply, in the midst of their struggles for freedom and equality and community, prophetic power is released.” It is this power that can transform both individuals who experience it and also the world in which they live. In various times and cultures, he writes, this power has been known as “spirit, mana, god.”

When people “encounter one another deeply, in the midst of their struggles for freedom and equality and community, prophetic power is released.”

“Radicalism thrives in times of crisis,” writes McKanan, and indeed, today we are living in a time of multiple and interconnected crises—economic, political, and environmental. However, he argues, in recent decades we have spent more time resisting the Right than encountering one another, and there is a different kind of energy that comes from that kind of engagement, which generally is so concerned with the present that it fails to generate a positive vision for the future. 

Since, as he argues, encounter has historically been the real source of power for social transformation, -McKanan ends his book wondering about the future of the radical tradition in America. In looking at contemporary struggles such as those involving immigration, same-sex marriage, and environmentalism, McKanan raises questions about the ultimate place of these movements within the context of that tradition.

MLK
MLK's Lessons For Occupy
At the time of his death, Martin Luther King Jr. was planning a campaign around economic injustice—including a mass encampment of poor people in Washington, D.C.

Prophetic Encounters was published before the Occupy Movement brought a new generation of American radicals out into the public square, and one might well imagine that the events of the last year have restored McKanan’s hope. The tent cities and creative demonstrations of solidarity and collective resistance that have defined the Occupy Movement to date have provided copious opportunities for encounter—between student activists and the homeless, for instance, and among those who are unemployed or who have been victims of home foreclosures. 

“Everyone needs a history,” writes McKanan, “especially those who seek to change the future.” Prophetic Encounters provides that history as well as a framework for understanding the transformative and generative experience of those who occupy.


Wendy L. Bell wrote this article for Making it Home, the Summer 2012 issue of YES! Magazine. She is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Harvard, Mass.

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