Resident Aliens: Wesleyan Politics

March 31st, 2014

Resident Aliens is ecclesiology written by Stanley Hauerwas and me, two erstwhile Wesleyans who weren’t thought to have an adequate ecclesiology. Stanley and I drew a line neither between belief and atheism, nor liberalism and conservatism, but between church and world, calling upon the church to be more deeply, aggressively “political”—as we redefined politics.

It is tempting to describe the genesis of Resident Aliens as happenstance. Luck is about as much as contemporary North Americans are permitted to claim for the direction of our lives. I sound humble if I say just good luck placed Stanley and me at Duke on the same week. We became fast friends and eventually produced a book that sold more copies than anything we wrote before or since.

I am bold to believe that Stanley and I came up with Resident Aliens under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Not all of the book can be attributed to the third person of the Trinity, of course, but enough of the book was good enough to think God meant this little book to be. I’m sure that we were wrong about lots of things (what joy to be able to say to some unfair critic—and aren’t they all?—“Oh, Stanley wrote that section, not me.”), but at least we gave God enough to work with to enable thousands of pastors and laypeople to say, “Resident Aliens is an apt description of us, our church, and the work that God has now given us to do.”

How could some critics read Resident Aliens and accuse us of being world-­hating sectarians? I knew no sectarians until I met Stanley. Looking back, my motivation for writing the book was the students I met as a university chaplain, ­students who were trying to be Christians in a world that is out to get Christians. The question the book asked was not, “Should we Christians be in the world?” but rather, “Now that we are beginning to feel like missionaries in the world we once thought we owned, how then shall we live?”

When Resident Aliens said “world,” we were thinking the Pentagon. When I said “church,” I had in mind the bumbling, worldly, compromised tart named The United Methodist Church whom Christ regards as his bride. I therefore never took seriously the criticism that Stanley and I advocated a withdrawal from “public theology and political responsibility.” I was a UM bishop, after all, the hierarch who sued the legislature of Alabama because of its mean immigration law. Is that politics enough for you?

Stanley taught me that a compromised church sets up the church/world discussion as “You can either be a responsible participant in modern democracy, doing your bit to make this world a better place, or you can be an irresponsible, sectarian nonentity fearfully withdrawing from the world.”

I was with the Council of Bishops as we tearfully celebrated the election of Barack Obama. Now that the administration (whom we thought we were electing to get us out of the Near East) has prolonged a war that has produced greater Islamic hostility and has deported over two million immigrants, perhaps UMC bishops ought to stop offering deferential advice to Obama and begin rebuilding our church. Sadly, we have found it easier to attempt to save millions from malaria than to save thousands from divine judgment upon our surrender to American practical atheism.

For years Stanley attempted to teach us to say “church” whenever the world says “politics.” God has put North American Christians in this world, under an allegedly democratic polity, in a capitalist economy, with state-run education, and with the highest military budget, gun violence, and rates of incarceration in the world. How then should we live now in light of the shock that God has raised crucified Jesus from the dead? That’s the “political” question before us.

Resident Aliens is a very “Methodist” book, in its own way. Who but a couple of Wesleyans could believe that God has graciously provided the means for people like us to be saints? And who but a couple of Methodists would know cultural accommodation and biblical mushiness when we see it? Born a scorned sect who once had the theological chutzpah to stick it to the established church, one day we Wesleyans woke up to find that we had become the establishment, in bed with the empire, and hating ourselves in the morning. From what I’ve seen in my privileged look at the body of Christ, I could argue that Resident Aliens is needed now more than ever.

Since our book was published, Niebuhrian Protestant liberalism has morphed into a few old guys doing progressive Christianity, leaving the intellectual battles to be waged by a few intelligent young evangelicals and Orthodox. The North American church continues to beg a hearing from this culture on the basis of faith’s alleged utility in a world that wants goods other than Jesus. Prosperity gospel preachers transform a crucified Savior into a sure-fire technique for achieving the American dream. Resident Aliens’ commendation of Christianity as the countercultural, political practices demanded by the worship of Jesus Christ seems needed now as much as two decades ago.

By the grace of God, Stanley and I lost control of Resident Aliens. Like any Spirit-­blessed sermon, our little book, written by two not-so-good Christians, said more than we could have ever said on our own. We made a few pastors’ lives more difficult for the right reasons, got to see some signs and wonders among Christians in places we had never heard of, and reminded a few congregations of the adventure of the politics of Jesus.

comments powered by Disqus