The Benedict Option & Section 8
Note from Rod: A friend and reader wrote privately yesterday to object (in a friendly way) to my writing about Section 8 housing. I invited him to write something for this blog stating his case, and he took me up on it. Here it is. The author is Alexander Wilgus. I’m not going to respond to this here, because I want Alex to have his full say. Thanks, Alex, for writing; I appreciate the challenging words.
If the Benedict Option is about anything, it is about being willing to live counter-culturally in order to maintain the teachings of Jesus without compromise. It’s about drawing on the deep and long tradition of the Church to live out the life of faith in confidence. The enterprise is neither easy nor safe, but it is the Way of Life. The reason why the “BenOp” label has taken off is that it has put a contemporary name to what has always been the great adventure of the Christian life: life lived on Christ’s mission. I’ve been cheered as a pastor to see these conversations take off. I think they’ve been more good than bad.
One of the best parts of the Benedict Option conversation has been the call to look deeply into our traditions. If you do so, you will find that a central tenet of The Way was always an unreserved care and involvement with the poor. As it turns out, Church Tradition tolerates few limits on the enterprise. Reading the Fathers especially, one will see that it’s not right to describe love of the poor as a “duty” for the Church, I’d characterize it as an “eagerness.” It’s what made the apostate emperor Julian so angry: the Church did not only care for its own but for the pagan poor as well. The Church in Acts 6 created its own order (of which I am now a part) specifically to serve the poor. Among other items, my vows were “to work with the laity in searching for the sick, the poor, and the helpless, that they may be relieved.”
This why I cannot reconcile the “Section 8 housing” comment with Christ or his Church. It’s beyond just “was it insulting?” it betrays that eagerness, that stark but irresistible command to pour oneself out for the sake of the other as Christ did for us. I realize the comment itself was intended as a personal confession rather than an insult (though I think it ended up being insulting for a reason I’ll say below), and I don’t imagine it was intended to characterize the oeuvre of The Benedict Option, but I do think it provides a good opportunity to address an impulse I’ve noticed lurking behind BenOp conversations: how they often foreground a middle-class frame of reference.
Something I worry about for American conservative Christianity is that it takes place entirely within a middle-class frame. Not that I think it is bad to be middle-class, but if we assume it in our conversations around how to thicken Christian community, then we will also cease to imagine how thick Christian communities may thrive in places like Section 8 housing. If the sole answer to the cultural challenges that face us as Christians today is to defend and protect bourgeois havens, then I think we will be missing a great deal of what has made our faith so singular and distinctive–of course, that’s speaking in my “thinkpiece” voice; were I preaching a sermon, I’d say we’ll miss the work of the Holy Spirit himself! I worry that a middle-class frame limits our imagination of what the gospel can do, how the Lord may want to use us to transform the spiritual and economic landscape of our country, and how he wants our own hearts to be transformed and conformed to his likeness. The Christian religion did not come to dominate the Roman Empire because it had the loveliest traditions or the stablest communities. It did so in large part because it exercised a special kind of solidarity with the poor.
If our traditions offer us anything today to confront the dessicated West with, it’s that there is something beyond a pleasant life that is worth living for. If we listen to the Fathers–especially Eastern ascetics like St. Basil the Great or St. John Chrysostom–and not just appreciate them and read them but go and do likewise then we will learn that something like Section 8 housing opening in our neighborhoods is good news indeed because it represents an opportunity to actually live out the lives the Benedict Option is supposed to prepare us for. Even better, it turns out that the Church is very much alive in the poor parts of town. In many cases the “mission” is simply to reconnect, in a spirit of simple fellowship, with existing churches in these places; to pastors and laity who are pretty much doing what the People of God have always done in any time and place. I don’t think that ought to be the work of special missionaries but the Church at large. I think this is why the comment ends up coming off insulting, by the way; more than simply using Trump’s coarse parlance, it seems to assume that certain “cultures” or parts of town are simply defeated and have no spiritual resources worth drawing upon in our common object of resisting liquid modernity and all the rest of it. But I happen to know that they do.
If the Benedict Option means working to thicken our Christian communities to prepare them to live as Christ commands, then it has to include this call to love the poor parts of town and, at the very least, to be in relationship with Christ’s Church there. If, however, the Benedict Option turns out to have nothing to say to the poor, then it will have nothing to say to the world. It will turn us into antiquarian nones: Traditional But Not Religious.