Reclaiming the Christian Identity: What does it Mean to be a “Resident Alien?” – Part 4

Resident Alien (dark blue)“The fundamental issue when it comes to Christian ethics is not whether we shall be conservative or liberal, left or right, but whether we shall be faithful to the church’s peculiar vision of what it means to live and act as disciples.  Indeed, to our minds, there is not much difference between Jerry Falwell’s ethical agenda and that of the American  Protestant Mainline.  Whether they think of themselves as liberal or conservative, as ethically and politically left or right, American Christians have fallen into the bad habit of acting as if the church really does not matter as we go about trying to live like Christians.”

– Hauerwas and Willimon in Resident Aliens

Over the past two weeks, we here at Blood Stained Ink, have been exploring the theology of Stanley Hauerwas, primarily as it is found in his most influential book to date, Resident Aliens (The first three parts can be found here, here and here)Today, as we move forward in the discussion, we must finally turn our attention to the question of why our politics don’t and shouldn’t work for the broader culture.

Christian ethics, like any ethics are “tradition dependent.”  That is, they make sense, not because the principles they espouse make sense in the abstract, as perfectly rational behavior, which ought to sound reasonable to any intelligent person.  Christian ethics only make sense from the point of view of what we believe has happened in the life death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  [1]

We need to look at that statement again: Christian ethics only make sense from the point of view of what we believe has happened in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  So what Hauerwas and Willimon are saying here is that our politics – our way of life – simply cannot be reduced to a set of principles that all rational men and women would, by sheer force of reason, come to see as “true.”  Rather, our ethics, our politics, are shaped by our story; and as such, they are completely foreign to the cultures that surround us.

Nowhere is this made more clear than in the teachings of Jesus the Christ in His famous “Sermon on the Mount.”  Notice, if you will, how He begins:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.  Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be satisfied.  [2]

Typically speaking, when we approach this passage, we make a subtle (and often unintentional) hermeneutical decision whereby we translate this passage into moral imperatives.  You should serve those who are poor in spirit because God loves them.  You should comfort those who mourn.  You should defend the meek because they matter.  But what we miss when we approach the text in this fashion is that these statements are in the indicative – not the imperative – mood.  In other words, these opening remarks serve as a description of what is already “true,” not as a set of commands pertaining to how we should act.

Now think about what that means to the dominant culture where those that “matter” are those that are strong and independent, self-sustaining and powerful.  If preached properly, how would the people in such a culture hear these words?  Hauerwas and Willimon want to rightly argue that they would hear them as an assault on their values because our society is not a society that values the poor in spirit, the grieving or the meek.  In our societies, the meek – the terminally ill, the unemployed, the unborn, the mentally and physically challenged, the elderly, etc – are seen either as problems to be solved or, baring that, as inconveniences to be eliminated.  So the Sermon on the Mount, which serves as the foundational cornerstone of our communal ethics, becomes a direct challenge to the “story” and the values of the dominant culture; and our ethics, which are shaped by our counter-cultural story, will not be comprehensible to the world at large.  Hauerwas summarizes this nicely when he offers the following:

The most interesting, creative, political solutions we Christians have to offer our troubled society are not new laws, advice to Congress, or increased funding for social programs – although we may find ourselves supporting such national efforts.  The most creative social strategy we have to offer is the church.  For here, we show the world a manner of life the world can never achieve through social coercion or governmental action.  We serve the world by showing it something that it is not, namely, a place where God is forming a family out of strangers.  [3]

So what does this mean?  Well, first off, it means that if our ethics are shaped by our story and our story is fundamentally different than the story of the world, than our ethics will be incomprehensible to the world.  Secondly, it means that if we attempt to force our ethics upon the world, and the world does understand them, the world will experience our efforts as nothing more than coercion and as a naked grab for power.  Finally, it means that if the world sees us a people desiring of power, they will see us as no different than countless other tyrants who have tried to enforce a personal vision.  On the flip side, if the world sees our ethics played out in a communal setting, where the meek and the sorrowful and the poor in spirit are valued and given the seat of honor at the table, it will see in us something fundamentally different: an alternative to the story that currently narrates their lives.  It will see our God not as a God of the oppressor, but as a God of the oppressed and the downtrodden.  And perhaps, just perhaps, by seeing us in this light, they will come to see their own need for a salvation that is far deeper than anything they can currently imagine.

What do you think?  


[1]   Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens, 71.

[2]  Matthew 5.

[3]  Hauerwas and Willimon, 83.

This entry was posted in Books: Fiction and Non-Fiction Alike, Church and Culture, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.