I have been following with some interest over the last year (or so) the musings on the right — particularly the writings of Rod Dreher — about “the Benedict Option,” the withdrawal (strategic more than tactical) of conservative Christians in the face of successive losses in America’s ongoing “culture war,” particularly same-sex marriage.
I’ve been following it all with some amusement. I understand for those who are cultural conservatives — I am not, though I am sympathetic to social and cultural conservatives in some important ways — this is a serious business. I cannot take seriously the “fight” for religious liberty, given that not all that long ago, many Christian Conservatives didn’t really believe in religious liberty — certainly not for non-Christians and likely as well for non-Conservative Christians — and long wanted to legally establish and privilege church membership and practice. Attorney General Ed Meese, in fact, argued for a bit in the 1980s that the Constitution did not prohibit states from establishing official churches — something that conservatives occasionally muttered well into the 1990s. (This is both true and ignorant of supreme court precedent from the 1920s which extended the language of the 14th Amendment to the states, and thus did effectively prohibit state establishment.)
(And let us not even speak of Rome and it’s long profession of “no freedom for error.”)
But no matter on this. I may not trust the motives of religious conservatives, but the fight for “religious liberty” is a pointless, rearguard action. But otherwise, I’m really supportive of “The Benedict Option.” I think it’s something American Christians should have started thinking about long, long ago.
However, I have done so from my reading and understanding of the biblical story. And not from this realization so brilliantly put by Damon Linker in The Week:
Suddenly social conservatives began to think the unthinkable: Is it possible that we’re now in the minority, with our freedoms subject to the whims of a hostile majority that will use the power of the modern liberal state (especially anti-discrimination laws) to enforce public conformity to secular, anti-Christian norms?
So, here is my take on what is happening, and how American Christians should think about it, react to it, and live in the world. (A note to my editor — I’d like to write a whole book on this!)
The most important presupposition I have here is that the history of Israel in scripture — especially the Deuteronomistic History — is our history, and is the best way of morally understanding what is happening to us and why. I see this history as the story of Israel’s elevation to and failure as a polity. That failure was entirely internal, and it was the result of and a product of Israel’s wealth and power. When we want to understand what is happening to us — the church — I believe this story, and only this story, gives us the tools to understand what is happening, why, and how God might be present.
But this is only a metaphor. I’m not arguing some form of “all this has happened before and it will happen again.” But I do believe the history of Israel tells us some important things: about how God is active in our history as a called community of people, and how human beings cannot help but act.
That’s less set-up than I’d like, and we can argue this out (for example, I really don’t know what to do with the sense that Jesus changed Israel’s history forever) in the coming days. But here’s my thesis.
Christendom was an accident of history. That is, it is to the church what Israel’s demand for a king was in 1 Samuel 8 — a rejection of God as Israel’s ruler. That thing Israel should not want but wanted anyway. (As much as I admire Andrew Perriman, I do not agree with him that Christendom represented the judgment of “the nations” and their being placed under the rule of Christ. I don’t know what that judgment was, but I don’t think it was Christendom.) And it was wrong for all the reasons Samuel tells Israel in 1 Samuel 8:10-18.
But we get Christendom, and through it, there are incredible blessings. Again, God gives Israel the king God says Israel should not want — the king God says IS Israel’s faithlessness — and then proceeds to make promises to Israel through that king, particularly David (2 Samuel 7). In this, God shows that He is willing to work with the most faithless of human desires toward the salvation of the world.
In fact, I think one of the more audacious questions to ponder is: what if Jesus really did speak to Constantine, and really did tell him to conquer?
Such it is with Christendom. It allowed for the creation of a high civilization that would go one to conquer much of the world. But just as Israel’s wealth and power encouraged idolatry (especially with Solomon, and the kings of the northern Kingdom of Israel) and a faith in a standing army to protect Israel rather than trust in God. (The revolt that Jereboam leads against Solomon’s son Rehoboam is the direct result of heavy taxes and forced labor to support that large army and the huge royal court — all things contained in Samuel’s warning.) What I see scripture saying here is: power and wealth are their own undoing.
Modernity and Enlightenment are products of Christendom. The church birthed and nurtured them. They arose, much like medieval natural law, in a Christendom context. But unlike Christendom, which makes God-centered/Christ-centered truth claims, modernity makes world-centered and man-centered truth claims. And these are frequently at odds with the truth claims of the church. (I owe the radical orthodox this understanding.)
One day, I asked myself: was there a better way for the church to have engaged modernity than it did? Was their something better than Friederich Schleiermacher’s surrender to the truth claims of modernity and Rome’s attempt to plug its ears and sing “la la la!” and willfully ignore modernity’s truth claims? (I say with only a vague understanding of what Schleiermacher actually did, so I may be very wrong about this.) I pondered this for a while, and then considering Israel’s history, I realized:
No, there was not.
There was no ground between surrender and avoidance. The church that surrendered became the liberal church — and here, I mean the church that came to believe in liberal means and liberal ends. The church that saw itself as playing the role of chaplain and manager of souls and wellbeing in the mass industrial, liberal state. (At some point I will define what I mean by liberalism, but I do not mean here the political persuasion, but the intellectual tradition.) The church accepted science, reason, democracy, and the state-centered society. It accepted its role in that society. This was christendom within liberalism. Even so-called fundamentalist and conservative churches have accepted the liberal consensus.
In the United States, this meant that being a Christian and being a good citizen were the same thing. There was no daylight between the two things. As an example, at the height of American Christendom in the 1950s, Jack Webb could do a public service announcement for Dragnet during Crime Prevention Week imploring listeners to read the Bible because that would make them better citizens and help make their communities safer places to live.
This is the kind of gross utilitarianism that was American Christendom in modernity.
But back to the matter of the church confronting the truth claims of modernity. (And yes, I need to spend some time fleshing out exactly what those are, but they center on human nature and human purposes.) If there was no good way for the church to confront them, that what does our collapse — an issue Christians have wrung their hands over long before the most recent Pew poll — mean?
Simple. Enlightenment and Modernity are the equivalent of Assyrians and Babylonians. They are God’s judgement on a faithless church. A church whose sins — like Israel — were idolatry and a failure to care for the poorest and weakest in its midst. Not because popes and princes and kings and presidents danced around Astheroth poles. But because we Christians came to trust in our power, our own might, our wealth, our knowledge, the world we had made with our very own hands, rather than the saving works of God.
We forgot to see where God is really at work in history. We came to think it was in the stories of nations, and wars, and struggles, and movements, and elections, and even ideas. But it isn’t. The history that should matter to us is the one we participate in every Sunday in worship. It’s in the love we show to neighbors, and the witness we bear. In becoming just one more part of “society,” we forgot that we were the body of Christ.
This realization freed me from thinking there was a way to deal successfully with Assyria and Babylon. It freed me from the fear we might lose.
Because we will lose. We have already lost.
But there is amazing good news in this. Scripture tells us several things. First and foremost, it tells us how to live faithfully knowing we have already lost.
In 1 Kings 17, the strange figure of Elijah pops out of nowhere. The Elijah and Elisha stories, along with the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, tell us how to live under occupation and the threat of constant war. Elijah confronts Ahab and his idolatrous queen Jezebel, and does miracles among the Assyrians (Elisha continues this). Elijah and Elisha do not withdraw from Israel, nor do they defect to Assyria, but they confront both — Israel with its idolatry and Assyria with the promise that “there is a prophet in Israel.” This is a faithful living that seeks not its rights, its safety (yes, I know, Elijah fled Jezebel), or its freedom, but rather seeks to witness to the world the power and grace of God. And does so under incredibly difficult circumstances (read 2 Kings 8:7-15 and tell me otherwise).
Whether Elijah and Elisha knew they lived in a doomed society — worshiped in a doomed church — or not is irrelevant. They lived in the world knowing what they were called to do, regardless of what was happening around them. (I believe the same can be said of Jesus and his disciples.)
The second thing this tells me is that the church should be focusing on our own sins, and not the sins of others. This is the prophetic critique of Jeremiah, and he spends his days walking around besieged Jerusalem telling everyone who listens that fighting is pointless, surrender is better, and that the Kingdom of Judah has no one to blame but itself for its predicament. In the short term, defeat is coming, and we who survive are going into exile. And it is coming not because homosexuals can marry, but because our ancestors put their faith entirely in their own power and knowledge, and made it increasingly impossible to live otherwise. Because they sought to make a world without God. A world in which men were gods.
This cannot be reversed. No repentance will avert this. The Babylonians are at the gate, besieging the city. We will be overrun and sent into exile. We will mourn and weep along the banks of a foreign river. There is no avoiding it. Blessings and curses. It is unfair, but it is the way of God. (We should read Lamentations, especially chapter three, often.)
But Jeremiah, the most gloomy of prophets — who in the midst of war counsels defeat, refuses to support the troops, and says those who surrender and flee will gain their lives — also tells us redemption will come. “There is hope for your future,” he said. “Your children shall come to their own country.” Because of the promises God made to David — promises God made to a king we should never have wanted — redemption is coming.
I do not know what that means. I do know that in Christ, who fulfills and is the fulfillment of all promises made to Israel, we have hope for the future. (Again, the weakness in my metaphor, and therefore my story, is the place of Jesus. I read the Old Testament christologically, with Jesus as the foundation, but in many ways, Jesus is something of an add-on to my argument here, and I’d like him to be more.) But not tomorrow. Some will be carried away by the Assyrians and never heard from again. Some will perish at the hands of the Babylonians, who will destroy much. And some will be carried off to Babylon, and languish in exile.
But redemption is coming. Because we are not a people who trust in survival, who fight tooth and nail to live so that we may exist and ensure. We are a resurrection people. We trust that just as God raised Jesus out of the tomb, so will God give life to dead bones and gather those who have been scattered. Not tomorrow. Not next year. Not in my lifetime. But someday.
I trust God. I trust God.
And we need to live like people who trust God.
So yes, by all means, form communities to hold on to knowledge, raise and train children, and pass on what needs to be passed on. Create places where we can cultivate and live out Christ-centered lives. Heck, bargain for our place in society — something churches have always done in non-Christian polities. But let’s get the story right and really understand what is happening here. We are not suffering because somehow the world has abandoned us. We are the generation unfortunate enough to see the consequences of our own past sinfulness as church, our own idolatry, an idolatry manifest in our worship of ourselves and our faith in the things we can do. (Or worse, think we ought to be able to do.)
And so, this brief essay is a very rough outline of what I’d like to be my contribution to the whole “Benedict Option” discussion. I think I can get a book out of this. A short one — 150 pages, maybe.