Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Christian Colony's Pledge of Allegiance

Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World. By Lee C. Camp. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2003. 208 pgs. $14.99.





Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony. By Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1989. 175 pgs. $16.00.



Though John Howard Yoder spent much of his career with a strange disinterest in academic publishing or scholarly recognition, he managed to leave an indelible mark on the landscape of contemporary biblical theology. His most well known work, The Politics of Jesus was among Christianity Today’s most important Christian books of the 20th C. and has continued to challenge prevailing evangelical assessments of just war and the relationship between church and state. Two offerings of Yoder’s progeny, one old and one new, carry the torch he lit in 1972 when PoJ was first published. In these volumes Stanley Hauerwas (professor of theological ethics at Duke Divinity school) and Lee Camp (assistant professor of Christian ethics at Lipscomb University) have sought to bring the insights of Yoder’s more technical work to a broader audience.

Although both works commend pacifism as inseparable from Christianity, the central thesis explored by Camp and Hauerwas can be appreciated by even the most committed just-war advocate; namely the vision of the Church as God’s kingdom, an alternative community to the kingdoms and cultures of this world. It is because these books herald that message so boldly that everyone who calls himself a conservative evangelical should probably read them every day and twice on Sunday. There are two flimsy poles anchoring the net of those who proudly wear that label. On one side there are the mega-Church marketers who offer salvation along with a free oil-change (while you drink a Gospel-ccino at the cafĂ© located in the church foyer) and on the other side there are those whose identity is so wrapped up in defending a list of propositions that if everyone were to suddenly agree, they would instantly kill themselves. What’s missing on both ends, of course, is the concept of a confident commonwealth marked out every bit as much by its practices as its propositions.

But the vision offered by Camp and Hauerwas is not the “best of both worlds” from these two outlooks, a melding of evangelistic zeal from the church growth movement and the community-exclusivity of the doctrinal vanguard. It is, rather, a radical critique of both of them in the hopes of an entirely new synthesis. The root of that critique is in the contention that from at least as far back as Constantine the Church has been co-opted by competing powers that remain under God’s judgment. By identifying our primary heritage as American (or anything other than the people of God – spiritual descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) we have implicitly bought into their story of the world, which is in direct conflict with the Biblical story. In so doing the Church loses its identity as an alternative path. Hauerwas notes: “Each age must come, fresh and new, to the realization that God, not nations, rules the world. This we can know, not through accommodation, but through conversion” (pg. 28). The cash value of this for evangelicals is to expose all of our unholy alliances which we routinely use as escape hatches from the Sermon on the Mount (i.e. American democratic ideals, conservative republicanism, consumerism, patriotic nationalism, etc.). These alliances (which both authors refer to as “Constantinianism” or “the Constantinian cataract) not only pervert Gospel definitions of concepts like freedom, religious liberty, fiscal responsibility and so on, but they virtually erase the lines between the church and the world in all matters public and political.

This, of course, relegates the Church to the backwoods of irrelevancy in public life; just one insipid offer of personal fulfillment among many. Instead of the Church being the evidence of God’s work in reclaiming the world, it becomes an optional resource for personal inspiration to those who would seek it. It’s no wonder that “witnessing” in this framework has become something less than testifying to God’s in-breaking kingdom evidenced in the formation of Spirit-filled communities who follow Jesus (not Caesar, not religious leaders, and not themselves) as their Lord.

Of the two books Camp does a much better job of appropriating these observations for popular consumption. By discussing these topics under the rubric of discipleship Camp delineates how pursuing God’s kingdom as a radical alternative to worldly common sense makes a difference in worship, baptism, prayer, communion and evangelism. It is seldom seen among conservative evangelicals how the agenda of the political right runs counter to our highest ideals as Christians, namely the worship of the One true God. Camp’s words poignantly reveal the conflict in quoting conservative political journalist George Will: “Will’s central thesis – a forthrightly idolatrous claim – is of great concern: ‘A central purpose of America’s political arrangements,’ Will claims, ‘is the subordination of religion to the political order, meaning the primacy of democracy.’” Although this chapter questionably marries this kind of analysis with the necessity of pacifism, it remains a pungent indictment of moral majority/religious right Christians. Camp’s insights on communion, table fellowship, the sharing of wealth and Jubilee theology is foreign to (and devastating for) the piously self-indulgent evangelicalism to which I belong. The opening quote from Albert Camus in Camp’s chapter on evangelism summarizes the sentiment of both books: “The world of today needs Christians who remain Christians.”

The derivative question of how Christians should think about war and violence is an important one, and these books offer substantial challenges to those who uncritically accept the necessity of participating in war, even among Christians. What fails to emerge from the criticism, however, is a comprehensive picture of how governments should conduct themselves in light of the sin that governs all individual human conduct. The “let the Gentiles do it” sort of attitude which dominates both works successfully avoids a theonomic solution to the problem, but never seriously grapples with the various ways in which loving one’s neighbor seems to entail promoting specific public policies. The question of how Christians should evaluate the merits of particular governments, as well as the degree to which they are carrying out their God-given function are left unanswered. Related to this weakness is the fact that both books fail to give an account of how Christian ethics can hold the nations of this world universally culpable and yet only be applicable for the community of faith.

Shining brightly through these sorts of theoretical weaknesses, though, is a breathtakingly Biblical view of the Church and its role in the world. Its time for the leaders of the evangelical world to wake up to the fact that the problems we commonly face in the church – division, moral decline, the moral failure of church leaders etc. – has less to do with to do with doctrinal aberrations than with our fundamental failure to follow Jesus. Consider the words of Yoder (quoted in the opening of Camp’s book):


Jesus was not just a moralist whose teachings had some political implications; he was not primarily a teacher of spirituality whose public ministry unfortunately was seen in a political light; he was not just a sacrificial lamb preparing for his immolation, or a God-Man whose divine status calls us to disregard his humanity. Jesus was, in his divinely mandated prophethood, priesthood and kingship, the bearer of a new possibility for human, social, and therefore political relationships. His baptism is the inauguration and his cross is the culmination of that new regime in which his disciples are called to share. Hearers or readers may choose to consider that kingdom as not real, or not relevant, or not possible, or not inviting; but . . . no such slicing can avoid his call to an ethic marked by the cross, a cross identified as the punishment of a man who threatens society by creating a new kind of community leading a radically new kind of life.

7 comments:

Stephen said...

I'd like my Gospel-ccino a bit watered-down, if you don't mind...

TheBlueRaja said...

Would you like some frothy rhetoric with that? It comes free with a Biblical Discernment Ministries T-Shirt . . .

Sameer said...

Amen and amen. So do you have any particular ideas about how those weaknesses you mentioned ought to be addressed?

Sameer said...

By the way, President Bush arrived in Nampa today. I wonder if he reads your blog...

Flathead said...

Have you read "Performing the Faith" by Stanley Hauerwas? This might fit in well with your assessment of what is lacking in our communities of faith. It seems to me that the doing of the faith or the performing of the faith (i.e. sanctification) is more difficult these days because as Hauerwas says: "Now to be a Christian is transmuted to 'inwardness'." Bonhoeffer adds: "It [the church] has to make itself distinct and to be a community which hears the Apocalypse. It has to testify to its alien nature and to resist the false principle of inner-worldliness. Friendship between church and the world is not normal, but abnormal. The community must suffer like Christ, without wonderment. The cross stands visibly over the community."

TheBlueRaja said...

I haven't read much Hauerwas, I must confess - several articles, and the like but no books beyond "Resident Aliens". It sounds, from the quotes you posted, that his vision of the Church is pretty well summarized in that book. Thanks for your post!

TheBlueRaja said...

Sameer, I honestly don't know how these weaknesses should be addressed; but I do know that it'll be difficult to address them if the consensus position refuses to do some more careful listening to the theological reasoning provided by men like Yoder, Augsburger and Hauwerwas. Though it seems to me that though the Just War tradition is very sensitive to the issues that stand behind the weaknesses I mentioned, they're not very good at grappling with the Gospel as a kingdom-oriented message, and they inadvertantly polarize politics from faith in their attempt to merge them into a "realistic" call for action. The implied accusation of pacifiscm seems to be that the Bible sullies "realism" and practical love of neighbor.

I would love to hear the input of others on this topic, however -- I may post some questions later today that would invite some of that input.

As for President Bush, not only does he read my blog every morning, but before he decides to invade a country he posts a note asking for proleptic forgiveness.