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The Speech and Practice of Christianity

Confession: I enjoying reading theology and am particularly persuaded by many of its profound arguments. On multiple occasions, however, I have sworn to myself that I’m going to go in other directions that would be more financially rewarding and less burdening but, try as I might, I have continued the dialogue. On the other hand, I consider myself quite the hypocrite when I attend church because, back in my study, I love theology but I abhor its incarnation. It’s not so much that I take myself to be inhabiting a contradiction but more that the speech and practice of Christianity do not align. I cannot admit that this is any original reflection, but even if the hypocritical pattern is universal its particular substantiation in any given time and place is unique. For me, specifically, I hoped in the promise that the church is an anticipation of an eschatological kingdom of perfect community; harmonizing and integrating the differences between individuals and society. As such, the church should be an alternative community in-itself and a witness to the surrounding society of what politics, economics, society could be. In this manner theology would out-narrate secular social theory and the church would out-perform neo-liberal society. But alas, it took a year of travel and withdrawal from intellectual pressure to admit that my own experience did not match how I had been trained to think.

Julia Kristeva makes a similar note on this form of discrepancy in the church’s history. While grace for sinners might be its motto, in practice the situation is much different. The de jure and de facto realities are reversals of each other. It is rare that confession in church will be answered with the glorious counterweight of grace. Grace seems to be in name only.

Little by little, acts of atonement, of contrition, of paying one’s debt to a pitiless, judging God, are eclipsed by the sole act of speech….Acknowledgment and absolution count for everything, sin has no need for actions in order to be remitted….not by virtue of merit….felix culpa is merely a phenomenon of enunciation. The whole black history of the Church shows that condemnation, the fiercest censorship, and punishment are nonetheless the common reality of this practice (Powers of Horror, p. 131)

This comment is apropos of the wisdom shared in recent book put out by ‘The Other Journal’: “God Is Dead” and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself.  Merold Westphal, one of the many contributing authors, notes that it is actually believers who are most responsible for the unbelief of non-Christians. His point is not so much that theologians don’t have good rational arguments for Christianity but that believers present “an unflattering presentation of God and [exhibit] actions that run contrary to the very God they affirm.” This is true of the church body just as much as it is of individual Christians.


Pacifism in the Legacy of Hauerwas

Since this essay is regarding peace in the legacy of Hauerwas it should be pointed out immediately to those unfamiliar with Hauerwas that his theology is substantially oriented towards the critique of liberalism contrasted against the alternative that non-Constantinian Christianity provides. With that said, it quickly becomes apparent that Hauerwas thinks “justice” is a bad idea. Ever since the church and state became intertwined in 313 CE with the conversion of Constantine the temptation of Christianity has been to show its relevance by imitating the social order and concerns of the state with a vaguely religious tint. This has led to the conflation of humanism with the gospel. It is now generally assumed that what it means to be a Christian is simply an elaboration on what it means to be a human. This is most visibly seen in the appropriation of secular justice by Christianity. In this instance justice is defined independent of our knowledge of God and applied to Christianity. At most, the agenda of Christian ethicists has been to justify liberal systems of justice using faith convictions, only to forget those convictions after such a theory of justice has been accepted.

This is done by Christians who fear social marginalization. Not wanting to sound overly sectarian, they articulate an ostensibly neutral conception of justice that any intelligent person, regardless of beliefs or nationality, could agree on. The error of such an agenda is that no unbiased perspective exists. Rather, our worldview is always a product of how we are culturally situated in time (e.g., no children or disabled persons are present at Rawls’ “original bargaining game” which would put into question our values of self-sufficiency and autonomy). The outcome of such disinterested objective Rawlsian justice, subsequent universal rights included, is that anyone who threatens a particular concept of justice is liable to be corrected by force. Liberal conceptions of justice according to Hauerwas diverge from how Christians assume others should be cared for and treated. Such an appropriation also avoids confronting the exercise of power and domination by the nation-state.

Although Christians may agree and cooperate with others on many issues, Hauerwas recognizes that we must be clear about our commitments up front and the possibility that we may not always be allies. We embrace that there are traces of truth in all of humanity since we affirm a theology of creation and incarnation, but God’s fuller revelation comes through his Word and his people. This means that we will always be tempted to misdescribe the world apart from his Spirit.

One of the significant ways in which Christianity is an alternative to liberal politics is that whereas the latter’s self-given task is to eliminate suffering, God promises to redeem it. Ever since the Enlightenment suffering in itself has lost all social meaning. Today it only merits sympathy and the promise to end to it. Implicit within this attitude is a declaration to cease suffering by means of violence against all who cause suffering and against all whose suffering cannot be cured. As an alternative, God neither promises to cease or explain suffering but to redeem it. With this assurance we are free to vulnerably participate in God’s redemptive work rather than trying to make sure that history turns out right by any means necessary. In this sense the fetishization of control and results stands in sharp contrast with the enduring hope and patience of Christians.

It is often assumed and expected that Christians make a difference in the world by participating in its organizations and power structures, but Hauerwas wonders if this has anything to do with Jesus’ refusal of violence and worldly influence. It is apparent after all, with the perspective of Christianity’s history in mind, that we are guilty of committing a lot of wrongs in the name of “responsibility.”

Hauerwas believes that this kind of virtue only comes through training in a community that renounces mastery, control and speed. Instead of anxiously trying to fix things in God’s name we can live as peaceful and humble people in anticipation of God’s eschatological promise that everything will be redeemed in the end. Of course this sort of “doing nothing” rests on the presumption that God exists and Christian convictions actually matter. In this case, peacefulness is faithfulness in itself rather than merely a means to a greater good.  

In a world where violence is the norm and peace is the exception Christianity must embody political alternatives that the world would not be capable of imagining otherwise. Pacifists are often slandered with quandary situations such as “What would you do if…?” that are meant to expose the unworkability of peace in the real world. But this sort of challenge exposes the self-prophetic nature of those asking such questions because they deterministically presume that violence is the only answer. Therefore, in order to provide practical responses for these situational ethicists Christians must have visible expressions of peaceful coexistence that they are able to point to lest the world give in to cynicism and despair over having no alternatives.

The alternative polis that Hauerwas repeatedly points to throughout many of his works is the L’Arche communities begun by Jean Vanier. The fact that Hauerwas frequently references alternative examples in contrast to humanistic society, such as L’Arche, exemplifies the fact that Christianity is more about description and story telling than explanation. It has always been at its best after all when radically attempting to incarnate the kingdom of God. Despite the degradation of the co-opted Constantinian church today Christianity is never without faithful witness somewhere. It is in this sense that Hauerwas believes the church serves the world (despite the fidestic, tribalist, and sectarian criticisms he receives). He emphasizes the significance of the church because the world is desperately in need of some shining examples. But in a world of normalized violence it is inevitable that Christians who pursue peace will be identified as fanatics.

Perhaps the most noteworthy example of how Christians have faithfully resisted the world’s temptation to gain significance throughout time has been martyrdom. The importance of martyrdom, according to Hauerwas, is that God determines its meaning rather the world. Thus, because we no longer fear that the meaning of our lives is given by the world, remembering the stories of those who gave their life for Christ shapes us to be people who are committed to the slow, difficult practice of peace, patience and humility. And by committing the “socially insignificant” martyrs to memory we are capable of imagining and embodying a different way to sojourn through an alien culture as a set-apart people.

In addition to “what if…” statements another cynical test directed at pacifism is that it is an easy or lazy way out of difficult and complex situations. It should be noted that pacifism is not to be confused with passivism. Rather, peace-seeking and reconciliation is a slow, difficult journey that does not force others to bend to our will. Furthermore, if we are to adequately offer an alternative to the violence and impatience of the world then we require a place to take time and build trust with others; a process which requires vulnerability and the exposing of our wounds.

The “timefulness” and “placedness” that trust requires at a place like L’Arche where other people have a claim on our lives is profoundly inconvenient to those who are steadfast in emancipating themselves from commitments. That is why patience is predicated upon hope which urges us to work towards a world that could be rather than settle for what it is. Christians must also be truthful because peacefulness can easily become a cover for subtly different tactics, such as manipulation. Hence, Hauerwas refuses to be cordial if it only covers up conflicts. It is for these reasons that Christianity requires training by an ecclesia in order to reshape our imaginations that have been dulled over time by the persistent claim that violence is the only option. It is only by embodying an alternative social reality of peace that we will be able to show the world a different way that it would otherwise not know.

Origins of the Secular Age

William Cavanaugh, in the essay “The City: Beyond Secular Parodies” which can be found in the book Radical Orthodoxy: New Theology, argues that the modern state is a bad imitation of the church in that it offers salvation to its participants. He locates this promise in the writings of theorists such as Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke who all agree on a  competitive condition of nature. Therefore, in their words, the only way individuals can be saved from this inevitable social violence and protect their their person and property is to enter into social contracts with others. Furthermore, religion should be limited to private opinion and belief because if it should actually make a practical difference the result would be inter-societal discord; e.g. the “Wars of Religion” (Cavanaugh makes an important point that religious wars have actually had much more to do with money and land conflicts than beliefs). Cavanaugh concludes that while the state might at best keep individuals from interfering with the right’s of others, it does not have the ability to “enact a truly social process.” In other words, it is unable to unify people as contributing participants working together towards a common purpose like the church can.

On the other hand Jeffrey Stout in his book Democracy and Tradition argues that the “secular state” has much more humble origins. Rather than emanating from high theory, secularization was the practical result of differing theological perspectives. According to Stout, by the end of the seventeenth century Christianity was having trouble finding agreement on what biblical interpretations were authoritative so they resolved their differences by turning to grounds other than their religious beliefs to settle disputes. Simply appealing to the “Bible’s answer” or a “plain sense” to Scripture did not work because a plurality of hermeneutics existed . Hence, religious diversity – even with shared common texts – gave way to secularization and the need to dialogue with others in public over the reasonableness and persuasiveness of our practical commitments.

The Politics of Jesus

YoderThe phrase, the politics of Jesus, is somewhat peculiar to most contemporary evangelicals because it is assumed that Jesus did not have anything to say about politics and perhaps if he did, it is only for his age and has no relevancy for today in our cultural milieu. Jesus is predominantly dismissed as having no social ethic so we fault by going to other sources, such as natural law, to answer political questions. Therefore Jesus is limited to effecting the individual believer rather than societies. Jesus only dealt with spiritual and personal matters, not social matters it is argued. But what isn’t political about the word kingdom which Jesus used so regularly and without accident?

“Jesus’ concept of the coming kingdom was borrowed extensively from the prophetic understanding of the jubilee year,” Yoder argues (36). It is a social and political reality where people are freed from oppression and suffering in this age. The parables and prayers of Jesus stem from this theme of Jubilee. Slaves are made free, debtors are forgiven monetary debts, and land is returned – all social realities of jubilee. Jesus was killed for the political implications of the gospel he preached and he didn’t correct people when they accused him of such. It is for these reasons that the “Gospel record refuses to let the modern social ethicist off the hook. It is quite possible to refuse to accept Jesus as normative; but it is not possible on the basis of the record to declare him irrelevant” (99). Jesus had a lot to say that has political implications for us Christians today. By looking to the early church, prior to Constantine coming to power and establishing Christianity as the religion of the empire, we see this sort of political implementation evident.

Unfortunately the gospel has been influenced far too greatly by individualism which has limited Jesus to the “heart” and it is assumed then that we have to go to other sources for social ethics and political insight. So what is the social political reality that Christ called into existence through his life? It is the church. The church is to be an alternative kingdom that stands in contrast to the rest of the world. This is often not the case though because in reality the church often ends up mimicking the surrounding culture with its own Christian version (much like the Christian music industry). Our sanctuaries look like theatres, our messages are therapeutic to help you have the best life now full of happiness and cash, and our presentations are slick, polished, and timely just in time for you to get home in order to catch the kickoff of that day’s game. But the gospels and epistles present a different reality of the church. The world teaches individualism but the church teaches self-sacrifice, discipleship, and a shared life. The world teaches power and coercion, even violence, but the church teaches peace and reconciliation. Not only does the church teach these truths and virtues but it embodies them as well.

How then are we to regard the government placed over us, for aren’t we to recognize that authority? As Yoder puts it, “What is ordained [by God] is not a particular government but the concept of proper government, the principle of government as such” (201). We are therefore called to subordination but not necessarily obedience. “Subordination means the acceptance of an order, as it exists,” but not unreflecting obedience. “Subordination is significantly different from obedience. The conscientious objector who refuses to do what his government asks him to do, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, or the Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but still permits Caesar to put him to death, is being subordinate even though he is not obeying” (212).

What is also important for Yoder is the use of law in the Bible. Law is not primarily intended to strike our hearts with fear of failure, as commonly perceived by Protestants, thus leading us to an inevitable and necessary redeemer who takes away our individual sin and granting us a personal secure spot in heaven. Rather the law, both in ancient Israel and for the church post-Pentecost, is primarily for the purpose of distinguishing God’s community as a different social reality in the world. “The work of Christ is not only that he saves the soul of individuals and henceforth they can love each other better; the work of Christ, the making of peace, the breaking down of the wall, is itself the constituting of a new community” (223). For the early church this was most evidenced by the inclusion of both Jew and Greek, male and female in the church – a new social reality. Do we have the courage today as the early Christians did then to live into an alternative community and an alternative story in contrast to the rest of the world?

Vicit agnus noster, eum sequamur – Our Lamb has conquered; let us follow him.

Modern Households and the Good Samaritan

In the book Sex and Love in the Home by David McCarthy “The Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:29-37) is interpreted anew and prolifically provides an alternative vision to the more narrow “face-to-face” hermeneutic. To give you some context for his interpretation I will give you a brief summary of the book. He structures the book around two concepts of the family: a closed household and an open household.

The closed household is one that is typified by an attitude of self-reliance, self-sufficiency, autonomous and complete in itself separate from social and public life. It views domestication and practical concerns antithetical to passion and romance. Therefore marriage is seen as an escape or retreat from ordinary life where spontaneity and freedom are valued. In order to keep sexual desire aflame we participate in the consumer market to provide novelty and new possibilities of enjoyment. The closed household is founded on love between husband and wife rather than social alliances. It is typified by the dream of the suburban nuclear family inhabiting its own exclusive social sphere where there are clear boundaries distinguishing the inside and outside of the private and isolated household. This is further exaggerated within the home where rooms are segregated private spaces and we can decide to come out into public spaces if we freely choose to. In summary, the closed household is considered a self-contained whole and the marriage as a complete union.

The open household in contrast values the risk of interdependency within a network of community. Passion is set within a larger story of shared life and family is overlapped by the complexity of social life where household boundaries are porous. Furthermore, informal and uneven reciprocal neighborhood exchanges take place (such as helping one another fix things, watch each others kids, remove snow, and exchange hand-me down clothes). These asymmetrical gifts come through a web or relations that can be painfully casual at times and cultivated through partnership in ordinary duties of neighborhood and home. Common endeavors and activities are enjoyed together and “falling in love” is set within this larger context of practices. Household and neighborhood roles are also complex, fluid, imbalanced and evolving rather than rigid and pre-defined. This follows Paul’s idea of community where our roles are varied but overlapping and valued for contributing to the good of the whole body. Neighborhood reciprocity also gives all adults a parenting role. In summary, the family should be fit within a broader network of relationships rather than the self-contained free-floating dyad of husband and wife. 

It is in this context that McCarthy brings up the parable of the Good Samaritan. He argues that most readings of the parable are limited by interpreting the Samaritan’s love to be unilateral in that it is a singular compassionate act given towards a passive neighbor in need. Instead of this disinterested unilateral conception of neighbor-love the author argues that we need to broaden our conception of love to include mutual and reciprocal neighborly exchange. In theological terms, no love is without communion just as God’s Trinitarian love is communion. “So- called altruism, as giving purely without return, does more to undercut the agency of the recipient than to empower him or her. Altruism is an isolated focus on the giver’s own purported selflessness. Receiving the gift, in contrast, entails the risk of being transformed by another.” McCarthy reasons that we usually value unilateral love because we set God’s altruism as a prototype for love given without return, when in reality “God’s intra-Trinitarian love of Father, Son, and Spirit is a communion, which is expressed outward in the world through the biblical history of salvation. God’s love is an invitation to common life.” He concludes that Christian love is realized when we provide hospitality to the hungry and thirsty, the sick and imprisoned and receive them as though they are Christ, which is a privilege to those receiving them.

Here are a couple other quotes that help encapsulate what McCarthy is getting at:

The Christian tradition has emphasized communal love outside of the practices of marriage, particularly love within troublesome contexts, not exotic or heavenly places, but among the poor and amid disagreements and sin. Modern romantics set the meaning of love in the face-to-face wonder of wedding vows, but the Gospels use the image of the wedding banquet, as a place to deal with themes of hospitality and hope for the downtrodden (25)

On a local level, networks of households can create a complex and interesting texture of social life, but it is not the role of family to transform the world. It is the social role of family to be dependent upon a larger social body… In theological terms, family is called to be part of the social adventure we call the church (111)

Unleashing the Scriptures

Hauerwas, in Unleashing the Scriptures, offers the bold statement that urging Christians to read the Bible on their own is a bad idea.

The Bible is not and should not be accessible to merely anyone, but rather it should only be made available to those who have undergone the hard discipline of existing as part of God’s people (9)

His point is that without transformation by proper training we are not bible1capable of reading the Bible correctly because we will read it with the hermeneutics of liberalism. In other words, an individual will read the Bible as he or she wishes. Therefore, a Christian must be a member of an interpretive community, the people of God, in order to authentically interpret the word of God. In contrast to the reformation doctrine of sola scriptura which assumes Scripture is accessible to all, Hauerwas – allegedly representing the catholic church – believes that without initiation into the Holy Tradition we will be agents of nationalistic ideologies. The outcome is the continuation of hegemonic cultural religion.

It is a common strategy of Hauerwas across his writings to unduly emphasize that theology requires training from a master. It seems that this must be held in balance with making our own judgments and questioning long-held beliefs as well. Not for the purpose of abandoning them but to imaginatively investigate them and test to see if they ring true and worthy of worship. This is particularly the case when the people of God, the agents of salvation, become part of the problem. I do not think we necessarily have to take these at odds with one another either because critical thinking requires training from a source beyond ourselves (for further elaboration see Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 31).

Envy's Narrative Scripts

romulus and remusPaul M Blowers in his “Envy’s Narrative Scripts” published in Modern Theology Jan ’09 elucidates the way in which our emotions are shaped by narratives we have been acculturated by; both for ill and good. The contemporary cornerstone to accounts of envy, as I see it, is Réne Girard’s mimetic desire. Girard, in a nutshell, saw that desire was organized based upon what others’ desired. For instance, a sweater is a valued because others desire it. This leads to rivalry because fellow desirers are viewed as competitors. Girard, like the monastic sages Blowers examines, understood that rivalry goes both ways: it can function as healthy emulation as well as anxious jealousy. What patristic writers seem to agree on is that the line between the two is often minimal and obscure. But there is little agreement on the cure for the distressful and disastrous variety of human rivalry. Bowler focuses on how narrative scripts in particular functioned to describe and overcome invidious behavior and replace these emotions with virtuous ends such as charity, humility and mercy. The cure comes through the same method as the poison: envy. The cure is far from a panacea though because the very remedies used to overcome envy can become the new objects of competition (e.g., a race for the most humble character). Blowers concludes with this summary:

Envy and its cognates had to be displaced by virtuously “rivalrous” emotions like emulation or godly ambition, such as were informed by salutary judgments, shaped by the Bible’s own narrative scripts, and projected toward worthy ends

Healing comes through narrative scripts enacted in community, such as the ones found in the Bible and church history, that offer a “new vision” and perspective to the envious emotions and passions. In an email correspondence with Blowers regarding the messy and mixed up nature of narratives he clarifies that “the key is to try to fix on clarifying scripts.” I think that’s a good way of putting it.