Two weeks ago I sought to show how the church in America has become subject to a condition of moral, cultural and spiritual exile. Like Israel of old, we are now living away from our true home, separated from our real calling–to live out the life of Christ with one another (cf. John 13:34–35). We have forgotten who we really are, through the cozy relationship that we enjoyed between culture and church, and now we have collectively lost our distinctively Christian way. Because of this loss I suggested that we are now living in a time I referred to as the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church.”
Last week I wrote about our “alien” status and what this means for us in 2013. Fundamentally, living as “aliens” in the world means that we have been called to a new way of living, not simply to a new way of thinking and understanding. Most of Christianity is content to live the Christ-life in the mind, in the area of a few beliefs. We can accomplish this with no deep relational connectivity to Jesus in everyday life. The present ministry of the Holy Spirit is more of a theory than a powerful reality of daily life. This is not only true privately but it is obviously true publicly. Because we live by theories we have lost our “saltiness” and are now being trampled down by the culture in a myriad of ways. Much of our Christian response has actually come down to how we will attempt to “force” the surrounding culture to conform to our Constantinian Christian stance. We battle, both left and right, every two years. We battle regularly in the courts. Many have become culture warriors who are glued to the 24/7 “cable” news talk about what is transpiring in our world. I have urged Christians repeatedly to stop spending so much time watching and listening to people of a deep ideological bent who will tell you what “our” story really is as followers of King Jesus.
Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, the two authors that I’ve cited rather freely in these recent posts, move from the stance that I’ve just outlined to suggest that if Christianity is not fundamentally about our intellectual beliefs then it is primarily about politics. This astounding claim, which at first seems contradicted by everything I’ve written, needs some serious consideration if we are to understand the very important point that they make about our alien status, a point that I happen to agree with on the whole.
“Public” or “Private” Christianity?
In the 1960s the mainline church told us that the real business of the church “is in the world.” Most of those church leaders, and I read and listened to them at the time, made statements about the “sleeping giant” of the church that could become a “potentially positive force for good in society if the church could just be awakened out of its lethargy” (Resident Aliens, 30). Martin Marty, an astute observer of religion, said the American church consisted of two types of Christianity–the “public” church and the “private” church. I grew up in a “private,” conservative, Southern Baptist church. We thought the primary business of the church was saving souls and teaching converts how to be good Christians in their private world. The “public” church (which included the older, mainline Protestant churches and a few more progressive Catholic leaders) felt Christians should go public with a social agenda that would change the world, working to make the various structures of American life into a better society for all.
Hauerwas and Willimon suggest that American ecclesiology was not adequately described by these two simple dichotomous categories. One reason that this is obviously true is that since the 1970s large numbers of conservative Christians (evangelicals) went public with a social agenda and became “public,” to the deep chagrin of more liberal Christians. Now we have churches, left and right, assuming a basic stance toward what they are called to do to make a better society. The problem this created is not understood very well on either side. Both paradigms are profoundly flawed because they are both built on a Constantinian approach to church and state. Pastors, and other Christian leaders, working inside of both of these models felt it was their duty to motivate people to get involved in politics for the good of society. “After all, what other way was there to achieve justice other than through politics” (31)?
The great apologist for the “public” church viewpoint was Reinhold Niebuhr. Interestingly Niebuhr has been cited by President Obama as the major Christian influence in how he understands faith and politics. One major problem with this Niebuhrian perspective is that modern conservatives now sound like followers of the same “realism” in faith and politics. The challenge that Resident Aliens calls us to is much more “decisive” (32). Both of these perspectives, the “public” or “private” church, are what Hauwerwas and Willimon call “accommodationist . . . Both assume wrongly that the American church’s primary social task is to underwrite American democracy” (Resident Aliens, 32). Read that quote again, slowly.
The Problem Is Individualism
We must understand that the primary entity of democracy is the individual person. Society is formed to supply our needs! What has happened is that the content of these needs has shifted radically since the 1960s. In the “vast supermarket” of modern desires the working assumption is that we must be free enough to choose what we want and defer the question of what is worth having, or what are the truly right choices. In this context: “What we call ‘freedom’ becomes the tyranny of our own desires” (Resident Aliens, 32).
By making our freedom and personal choices to be primary we have become strangers who go about living (even dying) for a view of the world we find the most compelling to us. The problem is that “us” is now extremely diverse, both culturally and religiously. The “older” American has broken apart and is not coming back.
In the free market, which itself is one product of freedom in a generally healthy way, we have turned the church into a consumer-oriented organization. The suburbs helped to build churches into massively new forms that created our mega-churches where stress often falls on full service options and adequate parking for everyone. “The church becomes one more consumer-oriented organization, existing to encourage individual fulfillment rather than being a crucible to engender individual conversion into the Body” (Resident Aliens, 33).
The Danger of Personal Power
Because we now live in a society deeply rooted in our personal and social freedom to express individual power (rights) we might not like the current administration but we can still work to remove leaders by another election. We are the best nation on the planet because we, like no other nation, have this unique power. In the process we have come to adore personal power above almost everything else that we possess. Choice is our most fundamental right. (Listen to the abortion debate where the language of “choice” has taken center stage!) “Our society, in brief, is built on the presumption that the good society is that in which each person gets to be his or her own tyrant. [(Bernard Shaw’s definition of hell: Hell is where you must do what you want to do.)] (Resident Aliens, 33).
In the early twenty-first century we cannot say enough about the freedom of the individual to protect a state where “the rights of the individual” are preeminent. The fundamental assumption behind our culture, and thus the way most of us think without ever thinking much about this, is that every person has an “inalienable right” to develop their own potential to the greatest possible extent. This “truth” is both marvelous and damning, like so many truths. It has produced the bitter fruit of both in America.
Tomorrow: Who Secures These Personal Rights?