Christians Ought Not to be Called Resident Aliens

February 9, 2012 § 1 Comment


‘Resident Aliens’, co-authored by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, was published in 1989 by Abingdon Press, and is still relevant. But so is the critique that can be leveled against it.

The book constitutes a powerful message to the church to be true to its calling. The authors show how on both ends of the conservative-liberal spectrum the Church fails to be true to itself. Conservative tendencies to equate the Gospel with a politically conservative stance combined with a literalist hermeneutic and Scottish realist epistemology falters as much as the liberal idea of doing ‘generic’ good and not feeling compelled to take the Biblical narratives seriously in a hermeneutic derived from the faith community itself. With the breakdown of Christendom (i.e. a Christianized society in which the Church enjoys the favor of the state) a new opportunity is offered to the Church to truly shine again in accordance with its divinely intended purpose: to be a colony of resident aliens, an outpost of the Gospel in a world hostile to the teachings and life of Jesus Christ. The Church, then, lives out an ongoing story that longs for God’s eschatological purpose. It offers an ethics that is revolutionary, alternative to the status quo, and eschatological; a virtue ethics that can only be discovered and understood by becoming part of and living out the particular story of Jesus and his Church.

Hauerwas and Willimon provide a beautiful rendition of an ethics typical of Anabaptist thought in which believer and Church withdraw from any involvement in the affairs of the state. While I appreciate the radical call to counter-cultural discipleship, I have some reservations about the world eschewing aspect of it. The Anabaptist option can be summarized as a rejection of both the liberal-conservative options in favor of the Anabaptist third way. But this exchange results in a new dichotomy, namely that of involvement with the world (whether as conservative or liberal) versus non-involvement (the anabaptist interpretation of the true to Jesus and the Gospel kind of way). I propose to reject that dichotomy as well. Very briefly, then, here is my argumentation:

A. There are problems with the Anabaptist/Hauerwas(/Yoder) paradigm. It looks like this: if all Christians withdrew from the world (admittedly, this is not what Resident Alien is all about), the non-Christians would build a society according to their own imagination and Christians would have no right to dispute that, since they refused to take their responsibility. Any critique of the world fails in light of the irresponsibility of non-involvement. The fallacy of this position becomes more poignant when you imagine all the members of a given society becoming Christian. They would all have to withdraw from politics and ‘worldly affairs’ leaving absolutely no one to take care of the institutions that govern the nation.

B. I believe there is a kind of involvement with the world that does not entail pandering to the world’s ideas of right and wrong or gratifying the desire to be politically correct and palatable to the world. In my argument I make a distinction between the church and the individual church member and engage in a little bit of Kuyperian thought.

(1) Humanity is characterized by an ability and tendency to organize socially. This organizational aspect is part of the created order. Government is one of many expressions of humanity’s organizing ability. It is an expression of the imago dei and as such part of the cultural mandate (the command to multiply and subdue the earth).

(2) The organizational character of human life results in different forms of organization at many different level: educational, governmental, recreational, ecclesial, judicial, etc. All these organizational forms or spheres are equally valid and important; they possess a certain autonomy from each other. One should not interfere with another, or encroach upon another’s territory. None should be dominating all others and all perform a function unique to human life.

(3) However, the organizational spheres are tainted by sin. Sin however does not have the last word. The eschatological vision given in Scripture is redemption of all of creation, including humanity and its organizational structures. Theory and praxis concerning the structures are therefore post-lapsarian, i.e. realistic about the corruptive effect of sin.

(4) An individual is part of more than one organizational sphere at one and the same time: family, university, tennis club, etc. In each the individual plays a different role and each role comes with a different responsibility with regard to each structure, just as each structure has its own role and responsibility for the well-being of society.

(5) The task of the church is to be exactly like Hauerwas and Willimon say: to be counter-cultural and prophetic. It is to live in accordance with the radical call of the Gospel. A Christian as a member of the Church is given the same role to play.

(6) Other spheres still need to function and the Christian, being part of these other spheres too, has a responsibility there as well as member of the other organizational spheres.

C. This does not make for an easy ethics. The Christian may be confronted with moral dilemmas she would not encounter in the Anabaptist model. There one is solely committed to the one ‘sphere’ of the Church and can relatively easily stick with the counter-cultural Gospel model. There is little conflict of conscience to be expected. However, this choice in my opinion can only be made at the expense of the sin of neglect of responsibility in the other spheres that together make up the total of redeemable human life. I realize there is a tension here, since the Christian is called to follow Christ with her entire being. Yet, it is that tension that is part of her struggle in a broken and tainted world. It is by embracing that tension that the Christian lives out her life and works provisionally toward the eschatological hope which, through the Church, is to be proclaimed to all of creation. It is done by being part both of the Church as well as the State. Tough choices may have to be made after gut-wrenching deliberations. It is part of being Christian; it is part of being human.

So if you ask me, yes, I am a resident alien, but only in the USA by virtue of my legal status as an international student. Apart from that I feel compelled to take my responsibility in all areas of life; not by means of compromise, but as a proclamation that all of this world belongs to Christ and in and through Christ I belong to all of it.

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