Reclaiming the Christian Identity: What does it Mean to be a “Resident Alien?” – Part 1

Resident Aliens World Map (light blue)“Christianity [has always argued that] this universe is at war.  But it does not think this is a war between independent powers.  It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.  Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”  [1]

C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity

Stanley Hauerwas is widely believed to be one of the most influential working theologians in the world today.  [2]  Having taught at both the University of Notre Dame as well as Duke Divinity School, he has written broadly on subjects including: systematic theology, philosophical and political theology, education, the church, and ethical theory.  Over the next two weeks, Blood Stained Ink is going to devote itself to exploring Hauerwas’ most popular work entitled Resident Aliens.  In the opinion of this author, it is one of the most important theological books to have been published in the last half century; and as such, any church that willingly fails to take it seriously is a church that is openly acknowledging the fact that is has little to no interest in considering what it means to be a Christian in the 21st century.

As a point of departure, let’s begin by examining an early claim that Hauerwas makes regarding the state of the church and its relationship to American culture.

A few may still believe that by electing a few ‘Christian’ senators, passing a few new laws, and tinkering with the federal budget we can form a ‘Christian’ culture, or at least one that is a bit more just.  But most people know this view to be touchingly anachronistic.  All sorts of Christians are waking up and realizing that is is no longer ‘our world’ – if it ever was.  [3]

What makes this claim particularly interesting is that Hauerwas and his co-author Willimon published this book in 1989, the same year that Pat Robertson used the remainder of his presidential campaign funds to create the Christian Coalition, a powerful advocacy group dedicated to “mobilizing Christians for effective political action.”  So even as many Evangelicals and other conservative Christians were re-entrenching and re-arming themselves for the next front in the seemingly never-ending “culture wars,” Hauerwas was arguing that the “war” was already “lost” at the time of the Fall; and that this nation, indeed this world, was never “ours” to begin with.

Now before you assume that Hauerwas is calling for an end to political engagement, please understand that nothing could be farther from the truth.

Christianity is an invitation to be part of an alien people who make a difference because they see something that cannot otherwise be seen without Christ.  Right living is more the challenge than right thinking.  The challenge is not the intellectual one, but the political one – the creation of a new people who have aligned themselves with the seismic shift that has occurred in the world since Christ.  [4]

You see, just as Hauerwas is calling for an end to the “culture wars” that have often tainted and stained our ability to witness in this world, so too is he calling for an end to the liberal view of humanity that has infected the church – a view that sees us as enlightened, autonomous individuals who find our value in our freedom and in our ability to express our power.  For Hauerwas, the power of the Christian witness is not going to be found in our ability to enforce a vision of ethics upon a people who do not share our commitment to the Christ.  Rather, our ability to witness is going to come by forming alternative communities that are governed by “the laws” of the Sermon on the Mount – laws that shape a way of living and of being that directly challenge the hearts of those who live and walk amongst us.

What do you think?  Do you think that C.S. Lewis is right?  Do you think that we live in “Enemy-occupied territory” that is at war with its Creator?  And if so, do you think that a willful decision to disengage from the “culture wars” in the interest of focusing upon the formation of alternative communities can be a more effective way of bearing witness to the Gospel?

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[1]  Lewis, C.S.  Mere Christianity, 45-46.

[2]  In addition to being the first American invited to deliver the Gifford Lectures in over 40 years, in 2001 Hauerwas was also named “America’s Best Theologian” by Time Magazine.

[3]  Hauerwas, Stanley and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People who Know that Something is Wrong, 16-17.

[4]  Ibid, 24.

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3 Responses to Reclaiming the Christian Identity: What does it Mean to be a “Resident Alien?” – Part 1

  1. emptyjones says:

    Scott, your inner hippie is coming out. “Alternative communities.” Delicious. Good stuff, all around.

    One main question: you say that Hauerwas is not calling an end to political engagement, only to culture wars and shortsighted viewpoints. So, then, what does political engagement by these alternative communities look like?

    • Well, as you can see from the title, this is called Part 1. So we’re going to go into that as we continue to explore the book chapter by chapter. But here’s the thing. Hauerwas is essentially calling on us to recognize that the Church itself is a political community governed by Christ-shaped ethics that are defined in the Sermon on the Mount (and elsewhere). So rather than trying to enact our politics in the broader culture, which is alien and in open rebellion against God, we enact our politics within our own communities. And our political communities shape the broader community only when the broader community (amongst whom we live and breath) see us, see how we treat one another and choose to enter into relationship with us (and with Christ!). In so doing, we bring justice and peace to the world, not through power and influence, but through hospitality, generosity, mercy, etc… Make sense?

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