© 2011 John Casimir O'Keefe

Are you a Reformer or a Revolutionary?

I have asked myself this question a great deal over the past few years. I have struggled with finding a balance between being a Reformer and being a Revolutionary and have realized that there is no balance. As of late, I am drawn to the idea that I am far more a Revolutionary and far less a Reformer.

A Reformer is someone dedicated to “fine tuning” the current system by working within the system, Reformers lead reformation movements. While they may see the need to redress a serious wrong, or injustice, they do so without striving to change the current system as a whole; there can never be a “radical Reformer.” Because of this, even those wrongs that strongly need to be redressed are never truly redressed; because compromise is at the heart of a Reformer. You see, a Reformer’s desire is to seek to improve the current system, as it stands and within the guidelines of the system they desire to effect. For them, there is no need to “scrap” the system just “fix” it. They are willing to “go against the flow” but they are unwilling to leave the stream.

A Revolutionary, on the other hand, seeks to redefine the system and is willing to scrap the system when it is determined that the system is broken, they lead the revolution. They have a radical heart, seeking radical change. They are willing to give all to the cause of a revolution. A Revolutionary seeks basic and radical change to meet the needs of others. A Revolutionary does not seek to improve the system, but to radically change the system; they are willing to dismantle the system if need be. When a Reformer feels the reforms have been met, they stop what they are doing and settle back into the system. They are willing to get out of the steam and walk a very different path.

Those in power within the system view Reformers as “trouble,” as someone to have long talks with about issues, and seek compromise. While those in the system view Revolutionaries as “pain in the ass,” because they know the Revolutionary desires not to talk about things, but desires action to take place.

Those in the system can tolerate Reformers because, in general, they are just like those in the system but they see a slight need for a small change. On the other hand, the system cannot tolerate Revolutionaries at all because they are demanding radical change, and they desire that change quickly. You see, Revolutionaries desire deep, real, lasting, radical, fundamental changes not only for a cause, but also to the system. Those in the system, vested by the system, do not desire such a change because in that, they lose power.

So, why am I sharing all that with you? Well, because I have settled in my desire to be a Revolutionary, and I seek to join the revolution. Knowing that is where I stand, knowing I have a heart of a Revolutionary I find that I am getting more and more uncomfortable with the Emerging Conversation, because on the far end, they seek at best a reformation – not revolution – and on the other end, they seek book deals and speaking engagements to sell those books. Because of that, the ideas central to a revolution are not central to the ideas of any Emerging Group; because when you are a Revolutionary book deals and speaking engagements do not come by very often. What I thought was a revolutionary heart of Emerging Groups, has turned into a group seeking reformation, if that.

Now, let me say this, I write books, and I have even spoke at a few events (not many since I came out as a Revolutionary). I have nothing against writing a book, but if the whole idea behind writing a book is self-promotion and ego, then writing a book is not the answer. The books I write tend to be so radical that finding a publisher is next to impossible. For me, Emergent Village and other Emergent groups are, if we are lucky, seeking a reformation and not a revolution. They desire to work within the system, to “tweak” the system to allow a “hyper-evangelical” voice in the system – but they are not interested in a radical revolution of the faith to truly welcome those who are marginalized and disenfranchised into the system. In fact, what I have found is that many in Emergent Village are not very radical at all. They desire not to upset the system I thought we were striving to change. One of the reasons I believe this to be the case is because they were, with very few – if any – exceptions, all raised in the church. You see, I have no church upbringing, so I do not see things the way they do – they are still vested in “the system.”

When we see the difference between a Reformer and a Revolutionary we can see that Jesus was in fact a Revolutionary and not a Reformer. Many of the people I have spoken with in Emergent Village tend to see Jesus as a “reformer of Judaism” but his words and actions reflect a Revolutionary mindset, seeking a radical change in the way we see our relationship to God, God’s relationship to us, our relationship to others and even our relationship to ourselves.

Jesus moved us from Law to Grace, which upset the power structure of the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the day. This was a radical shift in thinking and living. While the power elite had no issues when Jesus was just talking about love, they quickly turned to stand against him when he started to question the law, and stood to say that the law as fulfilled – meaning that no one had to follow the law any longer, because we all lived in grace. This caused a huge disruption in the power of the religious elite, because before Jesus they were the center of all that the law had to say, and what they said goes. Jesus comes along, sharing grace and love and telling people that their relationship is between them and God, and there is no need to a “middleman” – well, the middlemen did not like that at all.

We see this today, when the Revolutionaries stand to say radical changes are needed, the “middlemen” stand and fight back as hard as they can, because they do not desire to lose their power. In Emerging Groups we see this when they try to explain why they are not a radical voice for inclusivity in the church. I am of the mind that they believe if they stand for radical inclusivity they will lose their publishing deals and not to be asked to speak at events. They would lose their “middleman status” and in that, I believe they have become lukewarm. When a Reformer speaks most in the system are willing to listen, because they know a Reformer will work within the system and respect their power and never question how or why they have the power.

I think this loss of respect for the Emergent Village came to a head for me when I was speaking with one of the “leaders” in the group about helping me get the word out about “Misfits: Who Are You Including?” and was told that the book was a bit to “outside the ideas central to Emergent Village.” They felt that the book would “offend” some in their groups and they did not desire to take the chance. If there is one thing I know for certain, Revolutionaries take a chance.


  1. Posted 2011/08/11 at 5:37 pm | #

    Thank you for a great article. I also feel that for a revolutionary it is not enough to be ninety percent alive; we want to be one hundred percent happy. We know all this, but some repress it with the thought that we will lose something if we give up everything to God. We seem to barter and trade until death comes and we have still not realized the pure consciousness of God. In this way the Absolute is kept at a safe distance and we don’t have to sacrifice or change anything. The reformer seems to want the illumination of the fire, but not the consuming flames because it knows the blaze revolutionizes the mind, transforming it from the ‘doer I’ to the ‘pure I’ of being. In the revolutionary is seems the ‘pure I’ doesn’t want a small god to whom one can talk casually every once in awhile, but an all encompassing, ever present God that consumes and changes lives totally.

  2. Tami
    Posted 2011/08/11 at 11:47 pm | #

    Finally, someone explains the difference between these two!!!! This was intense reading. Thank you, thank you for your heart and passion for getting this out. I can’t imagine at what cost it came… There are more of us out here– come find us!

  3. Balance Points
    Posted 2011/08/12 at 2:33 pm | #

    Along the continuum of reformer to revolutionary I can certainly understand your analysis of the two and their distinct differences, because they are, in fact, quite different. Thank you for making it so clear, concise and easy to understand!

    But what about the oh, so subtle differences of character between all of the different revolutionaries? I know many who are, by definition, true revolutionaries, but pale to me by comparison. While they are willing to dismantle “the house” by large degree, I am willing to totally destroy the house by huge degree, almost to the point of no recognition. I am willing to see this done in order for the most primitive and basic foundation to be exposed, so that, well, a completely new building, piece by solitary piece can be built from its truest form.

    Am I the one who is “off my rocker”? I would rather have no place to lay our heads, than to lay our faith on crooked beliefs. I desire for the plumb line to be exact. For if the cornerstone is amiss, the entire house will be ajar and always shifting.

    “Safe” to me is a perception, not reality if we stop short of anything but the real Truth. And that’s what I see may take place if some of us who are professing to be “revolutionaries” accept anything BUT going in for the TOTAL overhaul of the way it has been in exchange for the real Truth.

    As Jesus did away with Law, by bringing in the Dispensation of Grace, took the risk, was willing to die for it, and did. I believe it is now time for us to go back through the Scriptures and dismantle anything and everything that may not be factual about Jesus and his life and what he was meant to do and has done, and how he showed us to live our lives. We need to finally begin to relate to and with him in the way he wanted us to, in a real way, once and for all time. If that means tearing the entire dogmatic Bible apart to do that, then so be it. It’s about not only including all of the races, all of the creeds, all of the LGBTQI’s of the world, etc., it’s about seeing everyone as equal. No one is more important. No one is less important. No one is more special. No one is less special. We are ALL equal. Just as Jesus wanted to identify with each of us…equally.

    When are we going to get the guts up to dismantle the dogmatic Bible in order to teach the REAL Jesus, this real Truth to the World?

  4. Posted 2011/08/18 at 8:20 am | #

    go get ’em BABY!!! viva la revolucion! i remember hearing a man speak fifteen years ago or so, saying that what we’re in is not a time of reform but a time of reformation. that this is a reformation at the level of the protestant reformation 500 years ago. that’s what phyllis tickle says, too. tweaking the system won’t do it. let it all go. that means the loss of safety and structures and guarantees. but for those of us who are called beyond the margins, being back in the matrix just won’t cut it!

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