Twenty-five years ago Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon published “Resident Aliens” as a critique of mainline American Protestantism and as an ecclesial manifesto and vision for being the church in the contemporary world. Recently, the Christian Century published an issue (October 1, 2014) full of reflections regarding “Resident Aliens” after 25 years with a response from William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas.
Though not uncritical of the vision of church set forth in “Resident Aliens,” for me it is one that continues to be refreshing, prophetic and inspiring, especially to those who work for a church that looks different than the predictable ideological and social divisions of our culture. We are so predictably partisan aren’t we? When a politicized event occurs, if we spent a little time working on it, I believe we could put together, in nearly verbatim boilerplate, exactly how all the parties and voices would weigh in. Mainline church representatives, stated clerks and denominational spokespeople would offer these talking points… Focus on the Family would have this to say… and the Institute for Religion and Democracy would take this position. Who else? I am sure we could fill in the blanks. “Resident Aliens” describes and advocates for an ecclesiology defined less in provincial American-centric ways, whether it be leftward leaning social justice centered ecclesial action or more right leaning individual autonomy and piety.
In a response to the book’s reception, Nancy Bedford of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, praises the ecclesial vision of “Resident Aliens” by reminding us that “the path of Christian discipleship often meanders along routes that are not commonly traversed by either liberals or conservatives as defined in the United States.” Let me emphasize that point again: the path of Christian discipleship often takes a different path than either of the predictable liberal or conservative avenues. A question I try to ask myself and others in the life of the Christian community from time to time is this: Do my political, ideological and social issues positions perfectly align with the gospel of Jesus Christ across the board? Is there no place where the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Christian community questions my firmly held positions? is there no place where the gospel pushes me to be part of something more than the predictable party lines drawn in the sand? Ss there no place where Christ’s claims upon me cause me to question and resist the culture’s narrative and the culture’s definition of my life? I think that if one cannot identify those growing edges and places of dissonance in our own Christian discipleship and in our life as a Christian community and denomination, if we always find it easy to align Jesus perfectly and easily and smoothly along party lines and our ideological commitments and policy endorsements, if Jesus more or less always seems to agree with and endorse our strongly held views and positions, then we are in grave danger of no longer being the church of Jesus Christ in any visible or viable form. We are completely acculturated, whether on the right or the left, to the culture’s dominant values and agenda. Far too many of us are far too comfortable living within the confines of our tribal allegiances.
For me, “Resident Aliens” has been a gift, calling that narrative and way of being church in America into question. Another theme of “Resident Aliens” that continues to resonate 25 years later is its insistence that the purpose and reason for the church is to “be the church,” not first and foremost to transform the world, shape America, become chaplain to the political establishment or political commentator and critic depending on who is in power. Many have interpreted this emphasis as an encouragement to withdraw from the world, to batten down the hatches or to dismiss the world and focus on distinguishing, protecting and defending the church as a community separated from and completely distinct from the world. In fairness, I think Hauerwas and Willimon try to argue that the church being the church is actually the main way the church shapes the culture, rather than a church believing its primary purpose is to shape and form the culture by intentionally trying to shape the culture rather than in terms of its discipleship in Jesus Christ.
There is a self-preserving danger of only describing the church in “alien” terms, as a community apart from, but not in and for the world as well. Moving forward, 25 years and counting, I continue to give thanks for the influence and good questions raised by “Resident Aliens” and strive for a church that seeks to be “alien” from always letting the culture shape our agenda and define our terms and that seeks to become fully resident in its culture, neighborhood and context.
Jesus Christ is both alien to our broken and sinful ways yet one who becomes incarnate and enters fully into such a world and such a situation. May we work for and become a church that is both resident and alien in his service.
CHRIS CURRIE is pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Shreveport, Louisiana.