We’re working our way through Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Williamson, published in 1989.
American church was said, by commentators like Martin Marty, to consist of two types—the “public” church and the “private” church. The “private” church were those conservative evangelicals who thought that the business of the church was to stick to saving souls and to concern itself with the purely private world of religion. The “public” church (including our denomination) felt that Christians were obligated to go public with their social agenda, working within given social structures to make a better society.
American ecclesiology, however, is not adequately described as a dichotomy between private and public. This is true not only because, since the seventies, increasing numbers of evangelicals have gone public with their social agenda, but because both conservative and liberal churches, left and right, assumed a basically Constantinian approach to the issue of church and world. That is, many pastors, conservative and liberal, felt that their task was to motivate their people to get involved in politics. After all, what other way was there to achieve justice other than through politics? (p. 31).
Remember the Moral Majority? During the 1970s, conservative Christians became very active in America’s national politics — as Christians. Few Americans knew or cared where or even whether Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon went to church. But Jimmy Carter was a Baptist from south Georgia — a Southern Christian! And many, many evangelicals and fundamentalists voted for Carter because he was a practicing Baptist, even a Sunday school teacher.
But Carter proved to be an ineffective, unpopular president and very left wing. The evangelical community decided they would vote Republican the next time around — and were led in their effort by Jerry Falwell, a Baptist pastor. Falwell organized the Moral Majority and successfully motivated conservative Christians to vote against Carter and in favor of Reagan. Now, Reagan was a conservative Republican but hardly a devout, church-going Christian in the Southern, evangelical mold. But he was opposed to abortion and reflected many other conservative values that resonated with Christian voters.
Voter registration drives, sample ballots, and political sermons soon became common fare in evangelical churches.
We believe both the conservative and liberal church, the so-called private and public church, are basically accommodationist (that is, Constantinian) in their social ethic. Both assume wrongly that the American church’s primary social task is to underwrite American democracy. (p. 32).
In other words, both the conservative evangelicals and liberal mainline churches got involved in politics because they figure that the best way to bless the world is through the federal government. Do we have an abortion problem? Elect the right politicians. Do we have a poverty problem? Elect the right politicians. If you want to see the world blessed through the church, well, the church will bless the world through lobbying for the right laws and voting for the right candidates.
The primary entity of democracy is the individual, the individual for whom society exists mainly to assist assertions of individuality. Society is formed to supply our needs, no matter the content of those needs. Rather than helping us to judge our needs, to have the right needs which we exercise in right ways, our society becomes a vast supermarket of desire under the assumption that if we are free enough to assert and to choose whatever we want we can defer eternally the question of what needs are worth having and on what basis right choices are made. What we call “freedom” becomes the tyranny of our own desires. We are kept detached, strangers to one another as we go about fulfilling our needs and asserting our rights. The individual is given a status that makes incomprehensible the Christian notion of salvation as a political, social phenomenon in the family of God. Our economics correlates to our politics. Capitalism thrives in a climate where “rights” are the main political agenda. 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. (pp. 32-33).
Read this last quotation very carefully. Democracy is about individual rights. We vote our individual desires. Parties push us to demand higher taxes on others and lower taxes on ourselves. Politicians get elected by giving subsidies to one group, funded with taxes imposed on other groups.
We assert our individual rights even when our rights are destructive to society and others. We have the right free speech and thus we have the right to topless bars, even if topless bars are bad for marriages and society. And because the courts defend individual rights (this being the nature of the Constitution), we citizens think we have a right to rude, hateful, unconcerned, inconsiderate, and selfish. And, indeed, under the laws, as a rule, we do.
The result is that churches become consumer-oriented organizations, competing for customers against other churches — perceiving the other churches in town as competitors and the lost and straying Christians as consumers to be catered to and competed for. Somewhere in all that, Satan and damnation cease to be the enemies. We’re too busy developing a better worship service than the Baptists to have time to worry about him.
The authors quote Lesslie Newbigin —
Once the concept of “human rights” has established itself as an axiom, the question inevitably arises: How and by whom are these rights to be secured? With growing emphasis, post-Enlightenment societies have answered: by the state. The nation state, replacing the old concepts of the Holy Church and the Holy Empire, is the centre-piece in the political scene in post-Enlightenment Europe. … If there is any entity to which ultimate loyalty is due, it is the nation state. (pp. 33-34).
You see, we perceive our rights as coming from the federal government. Therefore, our highest loyalty is to the government. The original notion was that rights come from God — “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” But we now see rights as granted by the government because the federal courts defend our rights. Congress passes new laws giving us even more rights. And we respond by giving our highest loyalty to the government.
Do you doubt this? Newbigin continues —
In the twentieth century we have become accustomed to the fact that—in the name of the nation—Catholics will fight Catholics, Protestants will fight Protestants, and Marxists will fight Marxists. The charge of blasphemy, if it is ever made, is treated as a quaint anachronism; but the charge of treason, of placing another loyalty above that to the nation state, is treated as the unforgivable crime. The nation state has taken the place of God. Responsibilities for education, healing and public welfare which had formerly rested with the Church devolved more and more upon the nation state. In the present century this movement has been vastly accelerated by the advent of the “welfare state.” National governments are widely assumed to be responsible for and capable of providing those things which former generations thought only God could provide—freedom from fear, hunger, disease and want—in a word: “happiness.” (p. 34).
Lesslie Newbigin, The Other Side of 1984: Questions for the Churches [Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1983], pp. 13-15.
When we go to war against Iraq, we ask how much it costs us and how many American lives might be lost and whether they really had weapons of mass destruction. We don’t ask how many Christians live in Iraq or how many innocent Iraqis might die. We don’t ask whether the cost in Iraqi lives would be worth the possible benefits of the war. I’m not a pacifist, but I do believe Iraqi lives have value. Surely we should at least ask the question.
Most of our social activism is formed on the presumption that God is superfluous to the formation of a world of peace with justice. Fortunately, we are powerful people who, because we live in a democracy, are free to use our power. It is all up to us. The moment that life is formed on the presumption that we are not participants in God’s continuing history of creation and redemption, we are acting on unbelief rather than faith. Does not the Bible teach that war and injustice arise precisely at the moment we cease testifying that our world is in God’s hands and therefore set out to take matters in our hands? (pp. 36-37).
When we believe that peace and justice come from ourselves — that is, our government — we have dethroned God and become functional atheists.
American Christians, in the name of justice, try to create a society in which faith in a living God is rendered irrelevant or private. For some, religion becomes a purely private matter of individual choice. Stick to saving souls and stay out of politics, it is said. On the other hand, activist Christians who talk much about justice promote a notion of justice that envisions a society in which faith in God is rendered quite unnecessary, since everybody already believes in peace and justice even when everybody does not believe in God. (p. 37).
Do you see the problem? If the means of peace and justice will be found in the halls of Congress, we don’t need God. Moreover, we can join with atheists and Muslims to lobby for peace and justice. God is just a convenient tool to motivate people to vote and support the right candidates, but God does not really set the agenda because no one expects God himself to do anything. It’s the government that gets things done.
Thus, we see the solution to “hate crimes” in legislation, not the church and certainly not prayer. The solution to poverty is Congress. When protesters choose to occupy Wall Street to demand justice, they go to Wall Street and petition Congress. They don’t expect the church to do anything. We should be disappointed that they see the church as too impotent to be worthy of protest.
But God has chosen his own solution, and it’s the body of Christ on earth — the church.
We argue that the political task of Christians is to be the church rather than to transform the world. One reason why it is not enough to say that our first task is to make the world better is that we Christians have no other means of accurately understanding the world and rightly interpreting the world except by way of the church. Big words like “peace” and “justice,” slogans the church adopts under the presumption that, even if people do not know what “Jesus Christ is Lord” means, they will know what peace and justice means, are words awaiting content. The church really does not know what these words mean apart from the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. After all, Pilate permitted the killing of Jesus in order to secure both peace and justice (Roman style) in Judea. It is Jesus’ story that gives content to our faith, judges any institutional embodiment of our faith, and teaches us to be suspicious of any political slogan that does not need God to make itself credible.
This is a much bigger point than at first appears. It’s no mere philosophical nuance. When we define “peace” and “justice” based on what we want — democracy style — we fail to participate in a truly Christian worldview. Rather, we have to find meaning in Christ. If we need Congress to tell us what’s fair, well, we’re worshiping the wrong god.
But in reality, most Christians and most denominations take their political views from one political party or the other.
People often complain that the political agenda of conservative Christians looks suspiciously like the political agenda of conservative secularists—the Republican party on its knees. And it seems inconceivable that an agency of any mainline, Protestant denomination should espouse some social position unlike that of the most liberal Democrats. The church is the dull exponent of conventional secular political ideas with a vaguely religious tint. (p. 38).
If a Church of Christ member can find no difference between the Republican Party’s positions and those of Christ, then he likely doesn’t understand either very well. The same applies equally well to Presbyterians and the Democratic Party.
The church does not exist to ask what needs doing to keep the world running smoothly and then to motivate our people to go do it. The church is not to be judged by how useful we are as a “supportive institution” and our clergy as members of a “helping profession.” The church has its own reason for being, hid within its own mandate and not found in the world. We are not chartered by the Emperor. (p. 39).
In other words, we do not set our agenda based on what the government needs help doing. Nor is our agenda set by the “felt needs” of those outside the church. The purposes of the church aren’t defined by the larger society in which we live.
We think that we could argue that being in the world, serving the world, has never been a great problem for the church. Alas, our greatest tragedies occurred because the church was all too willing to serve the world. The church need not worry about whether to be in the world. The church’s only concern is how to be in the world, in what form, for what purpose. (p. 43).
The church serves the world all too well at times. We help the state pursue its agenda. We help the political parties pursue their agendas. And rather than being the Kingdom of God on earth, we lower ourselves to be a special interest group to be mollified and manipulated to elect candidates and gain worldly power for parties.