We’re working our way through Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Williamson, published in 1989.
The church exists today as resident aliens, an adventurous colony in a society of unbelief. As a society of unbelief, Western culture is devoid of a sense of journey, of adventure, because it lacks belief in much more than the cultivation of an ever-shrinking horizon of self-preservation and self-expression. (p. 49).
The authors introduce the theme that Christians are “resident aliens,” that is, we aren’t citizens of the USA or even this world but of heaven, living in this world in order to pursue an adventure laid before us by God himself. And this, they say, is both better and more exciting than the Western notion of how to live.
The American Experiment accomplished many great things, but the results are now not so great.
What we got was not self-freedom but self-centeredness, loneliness, superficiality, and harried consumerism. Free is not how many of our citizens feel—with our overstocked medicine cabinets, burglar alarms, vast ghettos, and drug culture. (p. 50).
Rather than finding salvation in Western culture or even democracy, we should see ourselves as a colony of heaven. But we must be more than a colony —
To be a colony implies that God’s people settle in, stake out a claim, build fences, and guard their turf. Of course, in a hostile world, a world simplistic enough not to believe but sophisticated enough to make its attacks on belief in the most subtle of ways, there is reason for the colony to be en guarde. Yet when the church stakes out a claim, this implies that we are somehow satisfied with our little comer of the world, our little cultivated garden of spirituality or introspection, or whatever crumbs are left after the wider society has used reason, science, politics, or whatever other dominant means it has of making sense of itself.
Our biblical story demands an offensive rather than defensive posture of the church. … Jesus Christ is the supreme act of divine intrusion into the world’s settled arrangements. … The message that sustains the colony is not for itself but for the whole world—the colony having significance only as God’s means for saving the whole world. The colony is God’s means of a major offensive against the world, for the world. (p. 51).
The church and the Christians that make up the church form a colony, a beachhead, an outpost of heaven in a very unheavenly place — all for the purpose of changing the world.
When we are baptized, we (like the first disciples) jump on a moving train. … We become part of a journey that began long before we got here and shall continue long after we are gone. Too often, we have conceived of salvation—what God does to us in Jesus—as a purely personal decision, or a matter of finally getting our heads straight on basic beliefs, or of having some inner feelings of righteousness about ourselves and God, or of having our social attitudes readjusted. In this chapter we argue that salvation is not so much a new beginning but rather a beginning in the middle, so to speak. Faith begins, not in discovery, but in remembrance. The story began without us, as a story of the peculiar way God is redeeming the world, a story that invites us to come forth and be saved by sharing in the work of a new people whom God has created in Israel and Jesus. Such movement saves us by (1) placing us within an adventure that is nothing less than God’s purpose for the whole world, and (2) communally training us to fashion our lives in accordance with what is true rather than what is false. (p. 52; emphasis added).
The highlighted sentence impacted me when I first read it — and I’m still struggling to find a way communicate just what that means to me. We are not starting from scratch. God has been working through his church for nearly 2,000 years — and there have been great leaders and servants throughout the ages, many long forgotten to all but God. And we are invited to join this adventure, to participate not only with the apostles, but with the martyrs killed by the Romans, with the great missionaries who converted Great Britain and northern Europe and much of Asia, with the Christians who ended the slave trade, who established humane mental institutions and most of the hospitals in this world. We get to be part of that! We get to be part of their community!
We not only rub shoulders with these heroes, but we get to participate in the adventure ourselves. We can all somehow or other participate in the Spirit’s work through the church to redeem the world. Like many of those I mention, your name may be forgotten to all but God, but fame is not the goal. Pleasing God is. And loving a lost and suffering world is. And we get to be a part of God’s plan to transform not only a few Christians but the entire Creation.
Early Christians, interestingly, began not with creedal speculation about the metaphysics of the Incarnation—that is, Christology abstracted from the Gospel accounts. They began with stories about Jesus, about those whose lives got caught up in his life. (p. 55; emphasis added).
This is big. The Gospel writers don’t begin by teaching the Trinity; they begin with story. They situate Jesus in God’s true story, going back to Creation, and they tell Jesus’ story. There are moral instruction and parables and history, but the goal is not a certain level of abstract knowledge but enough of an introduction to Jesus’ story so that we can enter his story, begin to follow him, and so learn about him.
We cannot know Jesus without following Jesus. Engagement with Jesus, as the misconceptions of his first disciples show, is necessary to understand Jesus. In a sense, we follow Jesus before we know Jesus. Furthermore, we know Jesus before we know ourselves. For how can we know the truth of ourselves as sinful and misunderstanding, but redeemed and empowered without our first being shown, as it was shown to his first disciples? (p. 55).
Again, this is big. We best learn about Jesus through following him, not reading about him. Yes, the reading is important — nearly essential — but the reading only helps us interpret what it means to follow Jesus. That is, we don’t really understand the meaning of forgiveness until we’ve needed to forgive someone, struggled to do so, and finally managed it. Then we know not only forgiveness but also what it must have been like for God and Jesus to redeem us by first forgiving us! Before the struggle, we might have been able to pass a three-page test on the doctrine of forgiveness, but despite our knowledge of the doctrine, we’d not truly know the meaning of forgiveness until we learn to forgive.
The authors then get personal —
Christians have children, in great part, in order to be able to tell our children the story. Fortunately for us, children love stories. It is our baptismal responsibility to tell this story to our young, to live it before them, to take time to be parents in a world that (though intent on blowing itself to bits) is God’s creation (a fact we would not know without this story). We have children as a witness that the future is not left up to us and that life, even in a threatening world, is worth living—and not because “Children are the hope of the future,” but because God is the hope of the future. If we lack good reasons for having children, we also lack good reasons for deciding not to have them.
Christians are free not to have children not because of most contemporary rationales (“I don’t want to be tied down.” “I would not bring children into this messed up world.”), but because we believe in the power of God to create a people through witness and conversion rather than through natural generation. (p. 60).
Our decisions — even our most personal, intimate decisions — are to be made in light of God’s story and our purposes in it. It’s not about loss of control; it’s about knowing why we are here and why we’ve been saved. It’s submission to God’s story — finding our place in the great adventure.