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‘Resident Aliens’ & the Benedict Option

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas (Jim Forest/Flickr)

One of the most helpful books I’ve read recently in thinking about the Benedict Option is Resident Aliens, a 1980s bestseller by the Protestant theologians Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon. In fact, the book I’m writing on the Benedict Option will basically be an elaboration on the key themes of Resident Aliens, which is a short, punchy book. They are, on my reading:

1. That the end of Christendom is not so much a crisis for the church as an opportunity for greater fidelity. The church must cease being chaplains to the Enlightenment liberal status quo.

2. That we Christians are “resident aliens” within the larger unbelieving culture, and must never forget that, just as the Hebrews in Babylonian exile did not forget Jerusalem (i.e., who they were, and who they were not).

3. That the church today, both on the cultural left and the cultural right, has forgotten its story – especially the radicalism of the Christian story — and must re-learn it.

4. “The church is the colony that gives us resident aliens the interpretive skills whereby we know honestly how to name what is happening and what to do about it.”

5. Real Christianity is so demanding we cannot live it alone. “The church not only gives us the support we need in being moral, it also teaches us what being moral is.”

6. The colony (that is, the church) exists primarily to form disciples – that is, to make people who are Christ-like. We must ask ourselves what kind of community would it take to form people who live like Christ?

7. One of the main tasks of pastors and the laity is to ensure “the survival of a colony within an alien society.” If we lose the colony, we lose our way on the journey.

8. The church must prize discipline and asceticism over comfort and self-indulgence. This is a revolutionary stance.

9. We turn inward not for the sake of defensiveness, but for the sake of protecting what we need to go on the offense. The church can never be “out of the world,” but the greater danger is that the world is too much in the church. “We had lost the theological resources to resist, lost the resources even to see that there was something worth resisting.”

10. “The church must not withdraw to its own little enclave, we are told. It must be involved in society, in helping to make American society a better place in which to live, working to change the structures of injustice.

“We believe that such talk fails to appreciate how difficult it is to define justice, how the political structures themselves limit our definitions of what is just, and how odd it is to be Christian. The story which comprises the American capitalistic, constitutional democracy and the story which elicits the church are in greater conflict than these Christian transformers of culture know.

“In our asserting the integrity of the church to be en guarde with respect to American society, some would charge us with retribalizing Christianity, calling the church back to a sectarian posture is has long since left behind in America. … We counter that the tribalizing of Christianity is done by those who identify Christianity with the liberal, Enlightenment notion of individual rights given by the modern nation state. Tribalization comes about when people take their loyalty to the United States, or the Roman Empire, or Cuba, or South Africa more seriously than they take their loyalty to the church. Tribalism is the pinch of incense before the altar of Caesar.
“We praise any pastor, in Philadelphia or Ephesus, who cares for the colony enough to give his or her people the armament they need to resist tribalization by pagan societies, which live as if God were dead.”

If you want to read the whole thing, buy the book. You won’t regret it. It was written by two Mainline Protestants for Mainline Protestants, especially pastors, but its core lessons are useful for all Christians.

I’m going to talk a bit about Resident Aliens at the retreat I’m attending tonight and tomorrow morning. I’m thinking now about a practical but utterly life-changing way the vision of church, and church leadership, that Hauerwas and Willimon lay out worked for me. This is a story that is familiar to most of you readers, but it is worth telling, and adding to, because it vindicates what the two authors say – and, in turn, the Benedict Option concept. I apologize for repeating myself, but having just lived through the result of believing and acting as if Jesus were real and the Gospels demands were true, not just true-ish, I feel compelled to say it again, if only to make sure I’ve understood it myself.

As you might expect, four days after burying my father, I’m still struggling to get used to a world without him in it. And I’m still wrestling with the meaning of the priceless gift I was given by spending his last eight days serving him and loving him. I say “wrestling” not that it’s much of a struggle, but that it was a story I will be thinking about and, I hope, allowing to change me for the rest of my life.

In their book, Hauerwas and Willimon talk about how no church can be the church if its pastors and its congregation are unwilling to speak hard truths to each other and to themselves. To think of the pastorate as primarily a “helping profession,” and church as chiefly a therapeutic community, in the sense of guiding us to feel better about ourselves, as opposed to giving us what we need to be healed, is a betrayal of the Gospel and the church’s mission. If we believe that Christianity is true, the authors say, then we have to accept that there’s some very weird things we are obliged to believe and to do, no matter how hard.

Among them is the requirement to prioritize love over justice. This is what it means to refuse “an eye for an eye,” but to return hatred or rejection with love. As readers of my Dante book know, this was a tremendous obstacle for me to overcome in my own journey toward healing and wholeness, vis-à-vis my relationship with my family, and in particular with my father. My preoccupation with justice is at times one of my best qualities, and at times one of my worst. One of the most important moments of conversion in the book is when my priest, Father Matthew, told me in confession that for Christians, love is more important than justice, and that as a Christian, I am required to live as if that were so.

In other words: Get over yourself. You have to love, even if you don’t receive it in return, because that’s what God does for you. 

It’s not what I wanted to hear at that moment, angry as I was over some way my dad had wronged me that week. It made me frustrated, in fact. I wanted solace. I wanted my priest to feel as sorry for me as I was feeling for myself. But Father Matthew was uncompromising. Because I knew he was telling me a hard truth, I left the confessional determined to work at it even more. After all, God had already given me so much, had already purified my heart through a mystical experience in which I felt what I took to be an angel place a stone in my heart onto which the words GOD LOVES ME were carved. How weird is that? But it happened, and I knew it happened — these things tend to happen to people within the world of faith — and I had been enjoying the fruits of that gift of grace.

The Christian life is never about arriving, but about a journey toward holiness, a pilgrimage that will not end in this life. Father Matthew was telling me that I could not rest in what I had already gained. (Dante the pilgrim learns this too, near the summit of Mount Purgatory, when he is tempted by a witch in a vision.) Because I had a pastor willing to tell me a hard Gospel truth, and hold me accountable to living it out, I was, in time, able to yield enough of my own hard heart to God, who used the opening to pour into me the grace to place love over justice, at least in a tiny way.

In the end, the asceticism that began in that moment in the confessional, when my priest spoke the truth to me in love, enabled me to begin the hardest part of my journey – a journey that ended with that holy time with Daddy, when remembrance of all past hurts and injustices were burned away by love and mercy, and all I wanted to do – not felt obligated to do, but wanted to do – was to comfort him and love him. Let me be clear: I could not have done this on my own. I was powerless before the pain in my heart, my pride, and my frustration with his inability to change. God gave me the grace of a deeper conversion, and through his minister, my priest, God spoke words of discipline to me.

For the rest of my life, I will think back on the last week of my dad’s life, and the gift of serving him – a gift that was balm for my heart. My priest’s hard words were like a plow breaking through unyielding ground and making it ready to receive seeds of love – seeds that bore spectacular fruit at the bedside of a dying old man. My priest told me to do it not because it was easy, but because it was true.

This is the kind of church we need. I think Hauerwas and Willimon would agree with that. It’s a church where you get the medicine you need to be healed, not just to anesthetize the pain. At the end of his sermon this past Sunday, Father Matthew encouraged the congregation to “stay in the barque of the Church. The waters may get rough, but she knows the way through the storm.”

She does — if she has not forgotten her own story, and the radical demands that story, and the God-Man at the heart of that story, makes on those who choose to enter into it. The journey never ends. The conversion never stops. The church always needs reform. We are in such a time, though, that we North Americans have to ask ourselves if the church has what it takes to endure, to save ourselves from being assimilated out of existence by capitalism, liberalism, nationalism, individualism, consumerism, and all the -isms that are the mortal danger of our faith. Near the beginning of Resident Aliens, Hauerwas and Willimon write, of 20th century Christianity:

We had lost the theological resources to resist, lost the resources even to see that there was something worth resisting.

That is us, isn’t it?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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