Reclaiming the Christian Identity: What Does it Mean to be a “Resident Alien?” – Part 2

Resident Aliens (brown)“We could cope—the world could cope—with a Jesus who ultimately remains a wonderful idea inside his disciples’ minds and hearts. The world cannot cope with a Jesus who comes out of the tomb, who inaugurates God’s new creation right in the middle of the old one … Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.”

– N.T. Wright in Surprised by Hope

Last week, here at Blood Stained Ink, we began a new series unpacking the theology of Stanley Hauerwas as it is found in his most influential work, Resident Aliens.  “Having challenged the notion that Christianity is fundamentally a system of belief,” Hauerwas wants to argue that “Christianity is mostly a matter of politics.”  Now setting aside, for a moment, the inflammatory nature of that statement, we must ask the question:  what kind of politics have defined the church and how are the politics that  Hauerwas envisions functionally different?  Let’s listen in:

Christian politics has therefore come to mean, for both conservative and liberal Christians, Christian social activism.  Of course, conservative and liberal Christians may differ on the particulars of just what a truly Christian social agenda looks like, but we are one in our agreement that we should use our democratic power in a responsible way to make the world a better place in which to live … [Ironically enough] activist Christians who talk much about justice promote a notion of justice that envisions a society in which faith in God is rendered quite unnecessary, since everybody already believes in peace and justice even when everybody does not believe in God.   [1]

In other words, what Hauerwas is concerned about (at this juncture of the book) is not so much the content of our politics per se (e.g. poverty alleviation, abortion, etc…) , but rather, our willingness to engage in a process that subtly – and sometimes not so subtly – calls for us to leave the particularities of Christ behind in the interest of advancing “the common good.”  Many Christians want to argue that we are called to do right in this world, but for Hauerwas and Willimon, before we can do right, we must first hear rightAnd hearing right means that we must find our root identity not in a call to serve the world as our first order of business, but in a call to serve the world because our first order of business is following the exclusive claims of the Son of God.   Don’t miss that.  Hauerwas is not calling us to isolationism.  He is calling us to first identify with Christ; and then, only as a result of our identification, to serve the world by acknowledging and living out that which makes us unique and particular.

Here’s another way of looking at it.  Historically speaking, the church has engaged culture primarily through the adoption of one of the following two models.  The activist model is a model of faith that is “more concerned with the building of a better society than with the reformation of the church.”  Activist Christians hope to be on “the right side of history” as they join in movements that work for peace and justice.  By contrast, the conversionist model of the faith “argues that no amount of tinkering with the structures of society will counter the effects of human sin.”  For conversionists, attempts to promote social justice too often “bypass the biblical call to admit personal guilt,” and thus, conversionists argue that true reform can only come through the converted heart of the individual.   [2]

In Resident Aliens, Hauerwas and Willimon reject both of these approaches; and they want to point to the Confessing Church from Nazi-era Germany as a way of moving forward.

The confessing church is not a synethesis of the other two approaches.  Rather, it is a radical alternative.  Rejecting both the individualism of the conversionists and the secularism of the activists, the confessing church finds its main political task to lie … [in its] determination to worship Christ in all things … The confessing church, like the conversionist church, also calls people to conversion, but it depicts conversion as a long process of being baptismally engrafted into a new people, an alternative polis (city), a counter-cultural social structure called church.  It seeks to influence the world by being the church, something the world is not and can never be, lacking the gift of faith and vision, which is ours in Christ. The confessing church seeks the visible church, a place clearly visible to the world, in which people are faithful to their promises, love their enemies, tell the truth, honor the poor, suffer for righteousness, and thereby testify to the amazing community-creating power of God … [Ultimately], the overriding political task of the confessing church is to be the community of the cross.  [3]

What do you think?  Can Evangelicalism and the broader Christian community regain its prophetic status as a counter-cultural community deeply embedded in foreign nations?  And if so, what would need to happen for us to redefine our faith communities in this way?


[1]  Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens, p. 37

[2]  Ibid., 44

[3]  Ibid., 46-47

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One Response to Reclaiming the Christian Identity: What Does it Mean to be a “Resident Alien?” – Part 2

  1. Can Evangelicalism regain it’s prophetic status? Not until it dies to itself and is reborn in the image of its Creator.

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