Stanley Hauerwas on Confusing the ‘American’ We with the ‘Christian’ We

The video below is from a question and answer session with Stanley Hauerwas after a lecture he gave at Azusa Pacific University. His remarks are specifically in response to a question about Christian non-violence, but also speak well to the state of the church in the U.S. as we come off our most recent (and contentious) election cycle.

But an aside before getting to that: I want to be a better blogger, really I do. I am told that blogging regularly requires momentum, something that I can’t seem to really bring to critical mass for myself. Its not like I’ve nothing to write about. I’ve actually quite a bit really – thoughts are always churning through my head, but between the day job, the reading I do (which, while I consider it slow is still vociferous and something of a barely well-managed obsession :-)), and family time I find myself without a lot of uninterrupted time to put these thoughts into something readable. I’m told by a friend with whom I converse about theology and such that my insights and questions are helpful to him, not only in how he thinks about his faith but also in his spirituality (and of course the two are intimately interwoven) and he has exhorted, “Other people need to be able to hear/read what you’re saying. This is good stuff Russell. Why don’t you put this (whatever we are talking about) on your blog?” Well, there’s no quitting my job unfortunately, and the reading/conversations I have are a big part of what provokes my theological imagination. What’s left is family time and I have decided not to cut into that as much as absolutely possible and I think in the short and long run this is for the best. So, all that to say, I want to be a better (ie, more consistent and regular) blogger and less sporadic … but I’m not making any promises.

Ok, now on to the video…

I have a great love for the church. In fact, I see my vocation as being an ecclesial theologian – or that is, a theologian for the church in its 21st century, post-Christendom missional context (we could perhaps try to chase down what this looks like, and I have some thoughts, but I’ll save that for some other time). That being said, I find myself grieving quite intensely for the church in North American right now. On the heels of our presidential election it seems to me that far too much of the church has simply adopted the culture war (seen in terms of polarized American politics and its cultural forms as ‘cultural’ Christianity loses favor with the slow demise of Christendom), civil religion of Americanism/nationalism, and ‘Christian’ nation narratives far too readily.

These narratives have been evidenced in more than one conversation I’ve been privy to since the election that basically says that with the decline of the U.S. as no longer a ‘godly nation’ under Obama, Texas should secede and become its own ‘godly nation’ (I’m serious, this is the actual language that has been used). As far as I can see all three of these false narratives are at play in this kind of talk and are wholly and completely bad for the health, identity, and mission of the church. God has a people and an alternative polis or city with its own differently order ‘politics’ – that of cruciform love. This people and this polis is the church, not a supposed ‘Christian’ or even ‘godly’ nation-state in any form. More could (and needs to) be said on this, but the church, God’s ecclesia, is largely subsumed and co-opted under the weight of these alien narratives; the acceptance of which reveal, I think, that the church at large in the U.S. is in something of an identity crisis. Hauerwas gets to the heart of this identity crisis well in the video when he remarks that far too often,

…the ‘American’ we has been confused with the ‘Christian’ we.

I think Hauerwas speaks well here with much needed wisdom for the church in the U.S. May we heed his words.

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Obamacare, Cruciformity, and (un)Virtuous Conversation

Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that. Ephesians 5:1-2 Msg

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that. In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” Jesus, Matthew 5:43-48 Msg

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. Galatians 5:6 NIV

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:22-25 NIV

Distracted, Grieved, Burdened

I find myself terribly distracted. I have been trying for the better part of the day to get some other writing done … but I find my heart seriously grieved and burdened by the present state of the conversation over healthcare in the United States. Let me give the reader some context. First, in case you have been hiding under a rock or just got back from Antarctica, the ‘Individual Mandate’ of Obama’s healthcare bill was upheld by the Supreme Court. Second, this has (re)fueled a firestorm of debate, posturing, and rhetoric that is truly disheartening (which I’ll get to in a moment). Third, just as a matter of coincidence, I have come up on three months employment at my current job which means I am eligible for benefits – including health insurance.

This is potentially (but not in actuality) great since after going for far too long we might have a way to get the care Christie (my wife, she also goes by C.C.) needs for her Fibromyalgia, which requires maintenance by regular healthcare. Problem one here is that without good insurance we don’t have access to the care that she needs. Yes, there are nearby ‘income sensitive’ clinics (which can still be expensive and more than we can afford) but a local doctor at one of these told Christie it was in her head and they all tell us to see a rheumatologist (but wait, we need insurance for that). Problem two is that the plan provided by my current employer is a horrible value (ie, the plan stinks). Due to the high premiums, high deductibles, and large co-pays there is no way that we can afford it with my pay. So, while I am eligible for health coverage; because of financial concerns, we have to make the ‘choice’ to decline the coverage. Because of the confluence of events, some of the things I’ve heard since Thursday really hit close to home to me.

I would agree with those who say that Christians in the United States have largely been formed more by their affiliations in national politics (ie, Republican, Democrat, and even third party affiliation) than formed by a Jesus shaped spirituality – that they are largely more American in their orientation than anything else. The conversations among Christians this week have done nothing to dissuade me of these opinions. They have succeeded only in grieving me and making me wonder about the North American’s church’s ability to contribute to the conversation in a constructive manner.

What I’ve Heard

Those that know me, know that I shaped by temperament, calling, and education as a theologian (I am hopeful to do a PhD if ‘real life’ cooperates). To make a long story short, Christie’s health has taken a big downturn and I currently work in Christian retail (for a company that ‘shall not be named’ – whether or not you take this as a Harry Potter allusion is optional). The store I work at is pretty much representative of the broad base of Evangelicalism and its attendant subculture (in all its Christian bubble-ness). I meet all sorts of people and have lots of (very) interesting conversations. The shelves at the store are rather ‘thin’ and I overhear a lot of conversations. Some are these are good, some are amusing, and some are befuddling. This week, though, much of what I have heard has been disheartening.

It began earlier in the week, but came to a head on Thursday morning after word of the Supreme Court ruling became known. On Thursday and Friday these are the kinds of things I heard from fellow Christians…

“This is just socialism pure and simple … more of our freedoms down the drain.”

“You know that we are going to be forced to pay for abortions now, whether we want to or not.”

“We are now just six months away from complete rationed care … and not only that, the government is going to even start telling us how many kids we can have.”

“In fact, if you want to have too many kids, just like China, they will make you abort them.”

“And don’t forget the death panels, there’s already detailed plans for those.”

“Obama is just a half-breed monkey who lied to be president. He isn’t even a real American citizen.”

“This is just another step in Muslims getting a foothold in our country.”

“I will tell you the truth, anyone who voted for that Muslim (ie, Obama) sure isn’t a Christian and is probably going to hell!”

Ok, I’ll stop there and just add the observation that I heard no Christian in the Christian retail context in which I spend most of my week say anything close too, “Well, I realize this will mean I have to adjust my lifestyle but it’s good that some poor and needy people who otherwise wouldn’t have care can now get care.” I really think the kinds of things I heard coming from some Christians this week can only be driven by a strange mixture of fear, misinformation, ideology, a warped and misplaced nationalism/patriotism, and the over-determination of American politics on what counts as Christian. How else can we explain such (dehumanizing) vitriol? Far too many are more conservative (or liberal) politically than Christian.

In the end its more about someone’s convictions as an American than living in the way of the cruciform way of the cross of Christ. Whatever one may think about Obamacare (I have reservations myself, though they may not be what you’re expecting) the truth is that this is the very thing that contributes to Evangelicalism’s ‘empty politic’ (‘politic’ used here as the churches presence or ‘way of being’ in the world) as it works to replace the witness of the church with the power of the nation state (if only we can get our better more ‘Christian’ laws passed) and cripples the church’s missional presence in the world. And the truth is that we can, and we must, engage in a better conversation.

My Question(s)

In light of all this I have some (what I believe to be) pertinent questions…

Do Christians in the United States, as a whole, have the needed virtue to contribute to the national conversation on the issue of healthcare (or any other issue for that matter) as the people of a cruciform Messiah and the kingdom of God?

Do we have to courage to ask how we have been shaped as a people?

Are we willing to ask what it means to imitate a cruciform God despite whatever legislation is passed or not passed?

Where is the gospel in all this? I’m talking about the King Jesus gospel of the apostles and the Gospels here, not the individual ‘plan of salvation’ ‘gospel’ (note: when we have to put scare quote around ‘gospel’ we have problems). I’m looking for it and I can’t see it.

Are we willing to stop sitting in our church buildings studying about being ‘radical’ or ‘crazy’ or whatnot, and to ask what it means to actually live out of our God given, Christ centered identity, to live generously and graciously before all people, as kingdom shaped people – even if it doesn’t get us prestige, power, or influence (even if, in fact, it causes us to lose these things)?

How long will Christians in the United States continue to be political pawns to either Republicans or Democrats (or even third party ideologies) – an especially appropriate question during an election year?

Are we willing to submit all our idolatries and ideologies (nationalisms, patriotisms, and militarisms) to the liberating King Jesus, for the sake of the kingdom – even in our private discourse? Are we willing to stop and ask, ‘Is this Jesus shaped, cruciform speech?’

Are we willing to cultivate the virtues of charity and hospitality, virtues that enable us to extend ourselves across our differences amidst these much needed conversations?

And finally, are we willing to exhibit the kingdom fruit of the Spirit of love exhibited in joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control in our discourse both amongst ourselves and in the world?

Are we willing to even ask these questions?

Some Links and a Request for Prayer

Some links which I hope extend the conversation (yes, these most likely point the way I lean on this):

The ‘Think Christian’ blog on Why Christians should be ok with the Supreme Courts healthcare call.

The Internet Monk (who happens to be a hospice chaplain) with a few thoughts and good follow up on a Jesus shaped spirituality and healthcare.

Mike Bird (an Australian Evangelical) on Evangelicals and Healthcare; he concludes in part, “a cursory reading of the Gospels and imitation of Jesus’ own actions will inevitably [move] us towards advocating for a system of healthcare that champions the cause of the poor and the sick. The problem is, of course, that many evangelicals fear ‘socialism’ and value their capacity for economic prosperity.” I think he makes a good point.

Prayer request: I don’t pray for much. I pray for enough – enough to provide for my family … enough for my wife to be able to access the health care she needs … enough to be able to pursue what I feel God has called me to as a theologian both in the church and academy. I’m not looking to be rich, just faithful – and I want Christie to be taken care of. I have a couple applications for positions out currently, which would not help us get rich, but would better provide for my family and provide the much needed health insurance Christie needs. Please be in prayer for these. Thanks.