Is our religion about fixing America?

Sep 20, 2017 by

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During the 1980s, I worked as a civil legal aid attorney for indigent men and women. Their legal claims concerned debt relief and access to health care, food and housing.

More than any other time in my life, during that decade I contributed to the project of fixing America. I did this by making the rule of law available to people who could not afford to hire legal counsel.

Toward the midpoint of the ’80s, I began to read Stanley Hauerwas, the Methodist scholar from Texas who wrote about Christian ethics via an Anabaptist perspective. I’ve never been quite the same since.

Though I was a member of an Anabaptist congregation, I was startled by what Hauerwas had to say. The Christian life, he said over and over again, is not about fixing America. Nor is it about getting to heaven or maximizing one’s potential as an individual to be a wonderful and creative person. Instead, it’s about embracing a communal experience — the church — incarnating an alternative way of living in the world.

Here are three Hauerwas quotes from that era.

Christians must again understand that their first task is not to make the world better or more just, but to recognize what the world is and why it understands the political task as it does . . . Theologically, the challenge of Christian social ethics in our secular polity is no different than in any time and place—it is always the Christian social task to form a society that is built on truth rather than fear (A Community of Character, University of Notre Dame Press, 1981 at 74).

I am in fact challenging the very idea that Christian social ethics is primarily an attempt to make the world more peaceable or just. Put starkly, the first social ethical task of the church is to be the church—the servant community . . . By being that kind of community, the church helps the world understand what it means to be the world. For the world has no way of knowing it is world without the church pointing to the reality of God’s kingdom (The Peaceable Kingdom, University of Notre Dame Press, 1983 at 99-100).

To recover a sense of how Christian convictions may be true (or false) requires a recovery of the independence of the church from its subservience to liberal culture and its corresponding agencies of the state. For without the distinctive community we call the church, there is no place for the imagination of Christians to flourish (Against the Nations, Winston Press, 1985 at 6-7).

By the end of the ’80s, I was sufficiently persuaded by Hauerwas that I left my legal practice and went to work for the church. I never returned to the practice of law.

Hauerwas became well known during the ’90s. In 2001, Time magazine anointed him “America’s best theologian.” Now, living in Scotland and near the end of his illustrious career, Hauerwas is still writing. His work can be counted as one of the sources of inspiration for the Benedict Option, the strategy of Christian renewal promoted by Rod Dreher.

Yet Hauerwas also is often sharply criticized (see here and here), and his message is out-of-step with current churchly emphases on affirmation, inclusion and the blurring of the line between the church and the world.

In a recent interview, Premier Christianity asked Hauerwas about his most famous quote — “the first task of the church is to make the world the world.” He replied:

“Years ago, at the outbreak of the first Iraq war, I was to give some lectures at the Washington cathedral for the continuing education of Episcopal clergy. I said, ‘I hope if President Bush came over here from the White House and wanted you to share the Eucharist with him, you wouldn’t commune with him.’ They said, ‘What? We’re people of grace!’ And I said, ‘But, how will he know he’s the world? How will he know that bombing human beings made him the world? He won’t know he needs forgiveness.’ That is what I mean by our task to ‘make the world the world’.

“I mean, read the Gospel of John. The light has come into the world to darken the world and help the world see the darkness, because it’s very hard in darkness to see darkness. And so it’s an ongoing discovery for us to define in what ways we are the world. So it’s not like the world is ‘out there’, and we Christians are OK. I mean, the world is in us, and how to discover it means you’re going to need the help of brothers and sisters in Christ.”

In the previous post at this blog, John asked us to consider assumptions of supremacy that are part of our American identity. We’ve been marinated in those assumptions our entire lives; it’s silly to claim we haven’t absorbed them to some degree. Now what do we do?

Obviously, if we believe in a god, this is a place where we would look to him/her for help. Purging ourselves of the imperial assumptions we swim in each day isn’t the sort of thing we can do by ourselves; we need a power greater than ourselves — yes, greater than the empire.

Problem is, many of us have placed our faith in the god of America, the divine being who provides the blessings of freedom, liberty and choice. Listen to Hauerwas from his 2013 essay, “The End of American Protestantism.”

“Americans continue to maintain a stubborn belief in a god, but the god they believe in turns out to be the American god. To know or worship that god does not require that a church exist because that god is known through the providential establishment of a free people. This is a presumption shared by the religious right as well as the religious left in America. Both assume that America is the church.”

If America is our church, then the god of that church is not likely to be of much help in subverting our assumptions of American supremacy. And if we really want to be cleansed of such assumptions, we will need another god and another kind of church. Again, here is Hauerwas in the same essay.

“The (faithful) church does not believe that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story. Rather the church believes that we are creatures of a good God who has storied us through engrafting us to the people of Israel through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians do not believe we get to choose our story, but rather we discover that God has called us to participate in a story not of our own making. That is why we are called into the church as well as why we are called, ‘Christian.’ A church so formed cannot help but be a challenge to a social order built on the contrary presumption that I get to make my life up.”

Compared to American religion, this sounds narrow and restrictive, doesn’t it? It’s easy to see why Hauerwas’ account of the Christian life can be perceived to be unattractive.

Yet the task of fixing America — and giving up all those war-producing claims to supremacy — remains. In the end, we have to choose: are we content to remain on the path we’re on, or do we want a god who will save us from ourselves?

Berry Friesen lives in Lancaster, Pa., and is part of East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church. Along with John K. Stoner, he co-authored If Not Empire, What? A Survey of the Bible.


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