In this episode, co-hosts Joanna Shenk and Mark Van Steenwyk interview Nekeisha Alexis-Baker (founder of JesusRadicals.com, activist, organizer, and thinker). Note: this interview was recorded months before the Iconocast became a part of JesusRadicals.com.
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Nekeisha:Ok well I will try and keep it really brief then. I am originally from Trinidad. I grew up in New York City for most of my life. Currently living in Elkhart, Indiana where I was a student at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. I have a Masters degree in Theology and Ethics.I currently work here doing graphic design. and in addition to being married to a really good guy…I do a lot of work with Jesus Radicals, and some local work here and I’m really happy to be the first guest on your podcast. So I’ll throw that into my bio for you.
Mark: So you mentioned Jesus Radicals. Jesus Radicals is for those that don’t know, kind of a network or a gathering together of people that are interested in both Christianity and Anarchism and maybe how they relate. Is that a fair description or is there anything you’d like to add to that:
Nekeisha: No, I think that’s a pretty good description.
Mark: So maybe you could tell us a little bit about where Jesus Radicals came from.
Mark: The origin story if you will of Jesus Radicals.
Nekeisha: Yes. It’s kind of funny how it came together. Whenever I look back on the seven-eight years it’s been in existence. I’m always like, “Well, wow! How did we end up here?”
The first iteration of Jesus Radicals was basically a tribute website to students at Wheaton College who had gone to “Students of America” protest and a way of putting up the photos and telling that story. I think it was the first time that Wheaton students had done that and Andy Alexis-Baker, who was an acquaintance at the time, had helped to organize that. And so the first iteration of the website was “Wow. This radical thing has happened in this particular place and how do we chronicle that?” From that point, the website sort of grew, we thought it would be interesting to have a library on topics related to Christianity and Anarchism. I was not an anarchist at the time but came to learn more about that politics and came to adopt it for myself. In conjunction with the website sort of getting a life of its own, we ended up having a gathering at our congregation just to talk about it and fifty people showed up. Most of them, weren’t from our church, so it was like, “Ok, this is interesting. There are people who are curious about these two topics.”
And that gathering has continued for about, this will be our eighth year. Totally out of our hands. As far as, what it started out as and what it has become.
Joanne: And would you mind telling a little bit about you and Andy, and how you worked together on this and as much as you want to on your background and how y’all connected in the first place.
Nekeisha: Ah that’s an interesting story. I would have to check with him before I got into the finer details of how we met. But as far as religious and political kind of affiliations I think Andy has always been an Anarchist and he adopted Christian faith—he came from a Christian background—but really adopted it for himself as he matured. I kind of grew up in a Roman Catholic background, was rebaptized in an African-American church and became Mennonite later on in life through meeting him. So he was a Mennonite at the time and Anabaptism has a pretty radical history. Within learning about those things and being introduced to Anarchism and those two things sort of coalesced for me. Hopefully that sort of helps with that.
Mark: Tell me a little bit about your Anarchist journey. How did this intrigue you? It’s not the normal story perhaps, the typical story for people to—as part of their own faith journey maybe wrap it up with Anarchism. Usually that’s a scary word to people.
Nekeisha: Right, mhm. I think as a person of color coming into a U.S. context from a context that was you know being a Caribbean Island, primarily of people of color and being introduced quite forcefully too the politics of race and the politics of justice I think I’ve always kind of cared about where the underdog sort of fits in the scheme of things. But coming into the context where that became more apparent, made me intrigued about justice issues. My highschool kind of experience as well, I went to a pseudo-experimental public highschool. We were reading Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” for our history textbook.
Nekeisha: That has the potential to radicalize you a tad.
Mark: A little bit yeah.
Nekeisha: And really I think one of the critical things was really being introduced to the Bible again. I remember reading The Sermon on the Mount for what felt like the first time and feeling like “Geez, who put that in there when I wasn’t looking? Where did that come from?” So the journey into Anarchism really has grown out of my own concerns about justice and my own sort of reformulated thinking. Re-learning what Christian faith is about and the deliberately aspects of that, justice aspects of that, the non-dominating aspects of that and sort of meeting someone who was already Anarchist and had begun formulating those things together and seeing those connections. Those kind of conversations opened me up to that.
Joanne: I’m interested in kind of going off of that background. What it’s been like then specifically with the Jesus Radicals group, as a person of color, as a woman, when—what I know about the Jesus Radicals, being at the conference this past year it’s a lot of white people (Anglos) and I don’t know what the ratio is male to female but often I feel like it’s more white, men, white males that are writing the Anarchist material. What has it been like to navigate that territory?
Nekeisha: I think it’s been a little bit different in the sense of, because it is something that I am doing—maybe not necessarily leading—but because Andy and I are working on it as partners and I’m sort of, for a lack of a better word “in charge” or the one doing the organizing around some of this. That makes it a little bit different than entering into it sort of as someone who maybe just shows up at the conference. So I do realizing that there are some power dynamics there as one of the organizers of it. I would say though, we’ve really become more and more intentional, particularly in the planning of the conference about saying that we need to have voices of people of color, we need to have voices of people present, we need to have voices of secular Anarchist there because there are a lot of us who are entering into this that have a lot to learn from people who have been doing this kind of thinking and political engagement for awhile. In terms of planning the conference we will hold and say, “Ok, we’ve got too many white male speakers on our slot. We’re not proceeding until we start to get more voices from people of color, more voices of women.”
And that has felt empowering to me, I think it’s kind of interesting that you know black women aren’t usually the “poster children” for Anarchism—much less Christianity and Anarchism. So I realize that I’m in a peculiar kind of place.
Mark: Just to jump in here real quick. You know I’m trying to put on my ears from fifteen years ago when I would have been mainstream evangelical, by most people’s estimation.
Nekeisha: Mhm, right.
Mark: Even though there was some radical strands already there. Listening to you talk about things of naming ways, you know different kinds of oppression that happen. You’re talking about the story of people of color or women and trying to undo some of that oppression. You’re talking about Anarchism and how that relates to Christianity and I’m thinking fifteen years ago or even more, or typical Middle-Americana sort of listener, those are things that don’t seem to always naturally connect with Christianity. I know this is a big question, this is a big issue people spend a lot of ink trying to address and write about but what is it about Christianity that kind of flows into these sort of concerns? Authentically flows. Because I’m assuming there’s people that might be listening that think,”Gee, you know, why are you trying to cram two disparate things like Anarchism and caring about blah blah blah oppression with Christianity?”
How do they relate to each other that’s actually natural? Or is it a forced sort of thing?
Nekeisha: Right. Mhm. Well for those people one of the resources that I would recommend is Jacques Ellul’s “Anarchism and Christianity” where he really, how he delves into this sort of stuff is to look at what is happening Biblically and that’s huge. Going back to the point that I made of relearning of how to read the Bible. What, how we understand, for example, the people of Israel. You know we like to focus on King David, King Solomon. We don’t really like to focus on for example 1 Samuel 8 right? Where the people are asking for a king and God is saying, “You’ve rejected me, thank you very much. This is a great evil.”
So what Ellul does is some thinking on how the original tribes of Israel organized themselves, what their structures were like. It’s anachronistic to call it Anarchist but some of the practices of those groups and the way in which they organized themselves looks a lot like what some Anarchists advocate in far as organizing oneself. As far as leadership did or didn’t work, how the groups sort of coalesced, it’s a lot to try and get into but I would recommend that as a resource. And to say that there are Biblical hints about what it means to be a particular kind of people that looks, that has some similarities to what Anarchism is advocating. In Acts for example, where you know the first church or after Pentecost, people are sharing all of their things in common.
There’s attention of detail paid to making sure that everyone has the same amount of food, same amount of access. What that kind of community looks like is different than the kind of communities we call church now. A relearning of what is in the Biblical texts and seeing things that we might have seen before. I think that has been apart of the process for me.
Joanne: So in some ways it’s like a Howard Zinn approach to the Bible? The people’s understanding of the Bible and the critiquing who is writing the Bible and who are they writing it for.
Nekeisha: Yeah. And also what Jesus is trying to do. What is Jesus’ mission? To free the captive. To liberate the oppressed. The works of mercy, well those are a form of direct action that Anarchist talk a lot about. You don’t wait for a bureaucratic somebody to go out and feed people or clothe people. And the Catholic Worker movement really embodies this—you engage directly with where the needs are and where the people need to be supported. But like you said, it’s a huge question and this might seem like a little picking and choosing, but I think if people do their homework and read the scripture with some good conversations like Ellul or Dorothy Day (who was also an Anarchist) or Leo Tolstoy (who was Anarchist) a lot of things will be uncovered that people don’t necessarily like to look at because it challenges structures that we have put in place.
Mark: You mentioned Dorothy Day and I think for a lot of people their first introduction to this sort of intersection of Anarchistic sorts of thinking and Christianity, a lot of people find that with Dorothy Day. In a way that was my big introduction to, from a kind of typical Mennonite thing to more of an Anarchist thing with Dorothy Day. Could you just maybe talk a little bit about the landscape of Christianity and Anarchism in conversation like post-Dorothy Day. Because it seems like there’s some momentum picking up that’s coming from somewhere and people are finding it more appealing to look at this sort of intersection. Maybe you could kind of just sheep a little bit about that from your perspective.
Nekeisha: Well like I said, Ellul is a big factor in that conversation. I think people finding his work and I would say, even though he isn’t an Anarchist, John Howard Yoder probably is a big entry point. He was a big entry point for me in terms of rethinking the military, rethinking war, rethinking powers and principalities. He has a really good solid critique of structures and how Christians should and shouldn’t relate to the State. And so I don’t know that he would ever have called himself Anarchist, but he and Ellul were in conversation, and his work is influential in this kind of thinking.
There are some newer people who are thinking about this stuff. There’s a newer book that I have an essay in—”Religious Anarchisms”—which looks more broadly than Christianity but there are new Christian writers who are trying to think through some of these things. There is another book that just came out, I’m totally am not remembering the title, but he is also the editor of “Religious Anarchisms” that he has his own book—his dissertation that just came out exploring some of these connections too. So there are newer people doing this kind of work and I think doing some of the Biblical, the scriptural, the theological thinking and sort of mining Anarchist thinking to see where we have points of agreement and where we can sort of learn from that.
Joanne: Mhm. One thing that Id’ be interested in hearing you talk a little bit about is oppression and how we understand what oppression is, or that can be a root of the Anarchist impulse. to saying, “There’s unhealthy power dynamics going on. We need to relate to each other in new ways.” or, “We need to bring transformation and change in new ways.”
I know for me growing up more in a conservative Evangelical environment. When people talk about the oppressed, it was the poor, it was people who were different than me, often times it would be people in other countries. And so, when Jesus talks about letting the oppressed go free, then I would have been thinking, “Ok, how am I sharing the good news with the oppressed?”
and not thinking about like, “How am I the oppressor?” or, “How am I entangled in some of these oppressions.”
I mean this is like again a big conversation topic. I mean you can kind of choose where you want to enter in. But how would you describe in North American Christianity how we engage this topic or this understanding of oppression?
Nekeisha: Hm. I mean I think like you I would have thought oppression as being just really personal relationships—sticking on the personal relationships section. I mean like if I’m not being mean to other people or if I’m not doing bad things to other people then clearly I don’t belong in a category that would put me in “oppressor”. But coming to sort of understand these things as being more systemic which also is the Anarchist critique. There is something in the systems that we create in which it is necessary to the system to have some people who are on top and other people who are not. Capitalism, it’s not with capitalism for example you know we sort of “woe is me” about there are poor people. But capitalism depends on certain kind of class differences. It depends on certain class structures.
The sort of Anarchist anti-civilization critique would even go in deeper. There is something inherent in civilization for example in cities that are inherently oppressive. A city depends on drawing resources from other places in order to sustain itself. A city like Manhattan would shrivel up very quickly if outside sources of food, of energy, etc. etc. were deprived. And so how are you going to supply the city? Well you are going to need to do it as cheaply as possible and that is going to require certain amounts of labor, certain structures that keep people working for as little as possible, etc. etc. etc. And so, oppression not just being about how you and I relate—which is critical—but also being about,
“What are the structures that we create and participate in”
and are those structures ones that depend on certain people being sort of trampled on and certain people being in power and can we start thinking about what it might look like to recreate structures that are more liberating, more equalizing, are less domination as much as is possible. Anarchists get the bad rap that, “Oh you just want chaos.” or, “You don’t want any order at all.”
And I sort of explain it as, it’s not no order it’s a different form of organizing oneself. That’s hard to explain because it is so particular. You’re not going to have an Anarchists The United States of America.
Joanne: It’s not how that works.
Nekeisha: I mean hopefully that gets at some of what I understand of oppression has been broadened.
Mark: Well I see that we’re running close to the end of our time because you have a meeting to get to. This might seem a little abrupt change in direction but I really wanted to spend some time talking about the national anthem. This thing that’s going on for those who don’t know, Goshen College after a long while of not playing the national anthem at sporting events decided, “Hey let’s start playing at least an instrumental version!”
It seems like it was started by some conservative talk show host focusing on this and how I guess Goshen College doesn’t love America. So concerned people starting calling and put pressure on them to get this changed. You’re a part of a kind of counter rallying. Right?
Mark: I mean maybe you can kind of share a little bit about that and then also talk about why does this matter at all? What is this, do you hate America? What’s going on here, why should we care?
Nekeisha: Right. Well to flesh out a little bit of the background, basically, the college had been thinking about whether or not to play the national anthem before this sort of conservative talk show flare-up although I’m sure that factored into their decision. Having done some talking to people about this, it’s really complicated to how that decision came about. I don’t want to make it seem like the college just woke up one day and decided to do this. That said, they have at least 114 year history of not playing it and why this is important is just a huge theological issue.
For me it’s a question of, what does it mean as a Christian to declare an allegiance. The national anthem and the flag and nations in general—this is not just an issue about America—they demand a certain level of allegiance, a primary allegiance really, from their citizens. It’s nice that you have your religious stuff but it shouldn’t conflict or contradict the ultimate goals of the nation state. It’s symbolic yes the national anthem but theological speaking it’s also formative and it really is who do we hold to be primary within our faith concerns.
We at Jesus Radicals have sort of again stumbled into this resistance, or sort of call to rethink what the college is doing as sort of Anabaptists, Mennonites ourselves so some of this comes out of our denominational affiliation (where we call home). But it’s larger than that. It is an issue that Christian people to be thinking about. You know when we say to ourselves, that our citizenship is bigger than any nation, that we are a transnational body of Christ that extends both borders of nation states but also across time, that something about the Early Church informs who we are, something about the Hebrew scripture informs who we are, the cloud of witnesses that will come after us, that these things are all connected, what does it mean then to, before these sporting events play this hymn to the nation—this worship song to the flag. We have a petition online that has at this point over a thousand people signed to it and we are planning some peaceful forms of witnessing offline for the college around this, not with the intent to shame or embarrass but rather to help people be true to the 114 year old history that they have and to the Anabaptist history that preceded that and to the Christian story, at least the kid of underdog Christian story that came before even that. We invite people to go to the website to check that out as well.
Mark: What is the website?
Nekeisha: It’s JesusRadicals.com is the website and people can find the petition there and some articles and some responses from myself and from Andy articulating why this is a theological issue as much as it is a political issue.
Mark: With our remaining minutes here, talk a little bit more about what is happening with Jesus Radicals, what kind of energy are you spending on different projects that we might want to know about.
Nekeisha: Mhm, well the biggest thing is that our conference, our annual gathering is going to be in Portland, Oregon this year. So I am working with other organizers, three people in different locations: Andrea Ferek, Andy Lewis, a friend of ours that goes by the name of Bison in Portland, to organize the conference there and the theme I believe that we have decided upon is “In the Beginning: Anarchism and Christianity from the root” and so getting at the origins of some of the things that we are resisting. Some of the topics might be things like war, race, how have these things originated and acknowledging that it is important to know the history of stuff if we’re going to actively be able to do something different or enter and resist what’s here. So that ends up being one of the big things that takes up a lot of my time and the other organizers time and then just doing some planning around, some thoughtful and prayerful planning around the actions we want to do to kind of engage Goshen College in a dialogue about the national anthem thing. Those are the main things. We have our forum that people have good conversations and people are invited to join that. I think that’s it. We’ve got some non-Jesus Radicals related things that we do too but that would be a little bit of a list today.
Joanne: And I have some one final question.
Nekeisha: Yes, ma’am.
Joanne: I’m wondering what it’s like being a vegan living in Elkhart, Indiana.
Nekeisha: I don’t know if someone might want to edit that out. It’s very easy to do it at home. It has been pretty easy to talk to people about it, particularly the way I frame it as a theological issue, also as an Anarchist issue as well. But you know when you go out to the local restaurant chain, there are so many of them around here, and you ask if they have vegetarian food and they ask you if you eat chicken. It’s kind of hard to delve into a deeper discussion about not consuming eggs and milk. There is one really good Indian restaurant, that we have a hankering we go out to eat there. But as far as cooking at home it’s been brilliant. I love it. It’s a joyful way of life.
Mark: Well thank you for joining us today, Nekeisha.
Nekisha: Thank you, this has been fun!