Demanding Mercy, Not Sacrifice

Caleb Bernacchio over at Ethikapolitika notes something important about Rod Dreher’s advocacy for the Benedict Option — it lacks an understanding that we are called to follow Jesus in order to do works of mercy.

Dreher has this all wrong [about Pope Francis]. The Benedict Option is only viable insofar as its proponents are able to learn from Pope Francis. Dreher has been unable to the do this and as a result he has not been able to present an account of the Benedict Option that avoids the mistakes of previous Christian elites.

What are those mistakes? Believing that the Gospel is a “reform movement” capable of holding society to higher moral and ethical standards and of remaking the world in the image of the Gospel.

The Benedict Option is another reform movement, another attempt to hold society to the higher standards of the Gospel, even if it is strategically focused in a narrow scope. [Charles] Taylor [author of the A Secular Age] argues that these movements have lead to the modern “buffered” self, the self that treats the world (including his or her body) as inert material to be made over to the self’s preferred ideals. One commentator notes, “[T]the buffered self can form the ambition of disengaging… and of giving its own autonomous order to its life.” This is precisely the attitude that Dreher laments.

In addition to being an act of will intended to compel the world to conform to the truth that is the teaching of the church, many who support the Benedict Option do so believing the role of the church is only to hold on to and teach right faith and to judge and condemn the world’s failure to hold or adhere to orthodoxy. In short, according to Bernacchio, Benedict Option supporters really want the church — and the pope — to be the world’s Grand Inquisitor. (One reason they miss Benedict XVI, having seen in him a kindred spirit.)

Francis refuses to be the Grand Inquisitor; this attitude underlies his much ridiculed rhetorical question: “Who am I to judge?” Instead of the Judge, the Doctor of the Law, or the Grand Inquisitor, Francis’s paradigm of the ideal Christian is the Good Samaritan. This ideal shifts the gaze of reformer inwardly, from the world that needs to be remade in the image of the ideal, to the reformer himself. The paradigm of the Good Samaritan demands that every Christian look inwardly, asking if one has been a Neighbor to those encountered in daily life and especially to those in dire need. Francis, following the tradition, links this with the notion mercy, which has become the theme of his pontificate, calling mercy “what is most essential and definitive.”

This desire for a Grand Inquisitor is probably a reflection of the deep roots the Benedict Option has among disaffected, conservative bourgeois Christians who wish, more than anything, to preserve their children from the sin and degradation of a corrupt, decadent, secular world. Theirs is a stern church of bourgeois Western order, and they forget — Francis did not come from that world.

Because the Benedict Option creates a Christian life that ooks both inward and backward, it has no idea how to approach the world without condemning it or what to do with that world except for keeping it arms length. (Because there are children in need of protecting.) This is not how Francis sees living as a faithful Christian in a post-Christian, non-Christian world:

But for Francis it is not possible to discuss Christian life practically without recognizing the plight of the world’s poor and marginalized. And if Brad Gregory is correct, one reason why medieval Christendom fractured is because the elite failed to acknowledge the injustice that they were responsible for and thus failed to mitigate the tensions that finally boiled over during the Reformation. Dreher recommends that BenOpers put their children in “authentic Christian school[s],” disregarding the fact that such schools often come with a hefty price tag rendering them unimaginable for many. What should people do who can’t afford the Benedict Option? If Gregory is right, proponents of the Benedict Option are repeating the mistakes of past Christians, preaching justice and mercy, but leaving this as a mere afterthought that does not affect their vision of Christian life. As Gregory has shown, this is no way to build a sustainable Christian social order.

In effect, the Benedict Option as conceived in North America is just another effort by bourgeois white Christians to create an ersatz collective movement that lacks any real sense of solidarity — particularly with those who aren’t bourgeois. (Solidarity is something white people shorn of their ethnic identities are very, very, very bad at, especially bourgeois whites, who have become hyper-autonomous whether liberal or conservative, secular or religious, tending to see connection only in and through the state and its institutions.) The focus on a dry and pitiless orthodoxy will create more of the same kind of church that cannot be a meaningful presence of God in the world.

Or as Bernacchio notes:

What Dreher and other proponents of the Benedict Option must learn from Pope Francis is, first and foremost, that orthodoxy is pointless unless it contributes to a life of charity and mercy. As Taylor has argued, reformist efforts to promote (or enforce) orthodox beliefs can backfire – Francis provides an alternative to the reformist model, not by denying orthodoxy but by emphasizing solidarity and mercy. Where Dreher has seen the Benedict Option as a means of distinguishing orthodox believers from liberal Christians and secular society, more generally, Francis maintains that Christians must primarily be distinguished by acts of mercy. In practice this means building communities that are not isolated from the rest of society but which are instead linked through bonds of solidarity even to people with radically different beliefs. The best examples of this are the Catholic Worker Movement and L’Arche communities.

At the heart of this, I think, is a notion among many – including me — that the hard times ahead for the church in Christendom mean that only a remnant will be saved. For the conservative and orthodox, given what they see as the collapse of the theologically, politically, and culturally liberal churches of the American mainline, that remnant is self-evident — them, orthodox believers who hold tight to the true teaching of the church in all things, who change not one jot or tittle of it.

This is one reason I think the story Benedit Option Christians is impoverished without the story of Israel and its conquest and exile. God saved a faithful remnant, but was that remnant saved because it was faithful and found favor with God (like Noah), or did God save a remnant and in its salvation did that remnant realize its salvation and become faithful?

In short, we’re asking the same old questions that Christians have always argued about — does one obey the rules first in order to become part of the community, or does one learn to obey the rules only by becoming part of the community first?

It’s no small question. Because the first is entirely dependent on an act of human will. In effect, it says what religion always comes to say in the face of modernity — “If God isn’t going to save us, we’ll have to save ourselves.” The results of this are usually bad. It’s an effective act of faithlessness because it doesn’t trust in God. As in the books of Esther, Nehemiah, and Ezra, God is an add-on, a thing from the past we reference but who doesn’t live with us in our midst today.

Who doesn’t do great things right here and right now.

I’m more inclined to trust God, in part because I believe the Good Samaritan story and what it tells us about how to love and be grace in the world. In general, the story of Jesus is the story of how live faithfully under occupation, and not a guide to the use of power, something that Christendom Christians have completely forgotten. I may or may not be in this remnant that goes into exile, that weeps at the river bank and tries mightily to pass its faith and practice on to its children. But I’m trying not to care, because my calling is to love the wounded neighbor right in front of me. Yes, it’s hard to trust God, because there’s no obvious return, because too often God stays silent, and because it is hard to see the great things God is doing in our midst. Especially in a faithless, fallen, decadent world.

Honestly, I cannot end this essay any better than Bernacchio ends his. He notes that too many BenOpers deal with “solidarity” and the poor as after thoughts, things to deal with only once correct doctrine and teaching have been settled. But mercy is a first thing, an essential thing, and not an add-on. It is not a luxury of faith once we’re secure in our homes and our children are protected, but an essential, something without which we have no meaningful faith to begin with.

Francis … suggests that solidarity with the poor is the sine qua non of authentic Christian community. Thus Francis challenges proponents of the Benedict Option, and the Church more generally to give up the dangerous fantasy of the Grand Inquisitor whose power will remake the world in the image of our ideals and instead to build bonds of charity and mercy in the manner of the Good Samaritan.

8 thoughts on “Demanding Mercy, Not Sacrifice

  1. I am not persuaded by the Benedict Option, but I don’t buy this critique either. I had to take some time to figure out why.

    The B.O. is weak to the extent that it is based on cultural preferences and a selective idealization of the past (and of human agency). But the ‘occasion’ for it is not misjudged. Our problem is not to find “the role of religion within modernity” nor how to achieve a “sustainable Christian social order”. We are living amidst the ruins of modernity and a sustainable social order of any kind is not within sight.

    I have been much influenced by Heiko Oberman’s biography of Luther, subtitled “Man between God and the Devil”. It emphasizes that, whatever came later, Luther was not a “reformer”. Erasmus was the reformer (and if he had lived much longer, he would have been swept away by events). Luther was the prophet of doom. If he addressed contradictions and errors within The Church, it was not to solve them in a managerial fashion. He was warning that the Church was under demonic assault and the demons had prevailed, at least in the Vatican, and who knows for how long they have ruled there? Calling the Pope the Antichrist was not an error of over-enthusiasm. It was the beginning point. With the souls of all Christians in far more peril than anyone had hitherto perceived, what was to be done? Luther’s movement was not the reformation of the Church, nor the creation of a new church. It was intended to build a life raft – something souls could cling to and so remain faithful in the cataclysm of the last days. Luther was not very Lutheran.

    Dreher has a point insofar as he is not founding another Moral Re-Armament. This really is an existential crisis of the faith, of a magnitude not seen since the 16th century, if not necessarily for the reasons and in the ways he emphasizes.

    Back to Luther – his call to reassert the Gospel in its Biblical purity was not hair-splitting legalistic zealotry against a comfortably idle church. The church was not idle, nor was the secular world. [Trent and the Counter-Reformation sifted through the resulting chaos and tossed out what they couldn’t use.] I don’t think the power of the printing press and rising literacy in the new schools to alter the structure of consciousness can be overemphasized. There was a general ferment in all directions. ‘Malleus Malificarum’, the original handbook for witch-hunts – a product not of superstitious peasants but of the new intelligentsia, was first published in Germany when Luther was a small child, about five years before Columbus first reached the Western Hemisphere. Printing was the social medium by which contagious new thoughts spread, for good and for evil. Luther’s Biblical scholarship, his translation, and even (or especially?) his hymns, built up the backbone of those who were encountering the full force of the gospel for the first time, and the full force of repression against it. Early Protestants were just as mindful of martyrdom as was the church of the first few centuries.

    About Protestantism and the Bourgeoisie: The new middle classes of the high middle ages were not the stuffy long-since-arrived bigots of later times. They were increasingly essential to supplying and financing feudal society and yet at the same time utterly vulnerable to it. And it shows in their morbid culture. Edward III of England borrowed from Italian banks to finance the 100-years war, then refused to pay it back, causing several banking houses to collapse. (I think the Medici’s were the ultimate beneficiaries of this crash.) And why not? Edwards grandfather had stiffed the Jews and then kicked them out of England, where they remained forbidden until Cromwell invited them back. Radical new ideas germinated in the growing cities of the time. When the Powers That Be wanted to stomp on this stuff, the town burgers often got the worst of it. “The Reformation” (though in the beginning it was no such thing) sent a thrill of liberation through the townies. It was much more than a “work ethic” which supplied the moral capital we have been living on.

    So from there we eventually got the “Reformation” as remembered and the stuffy bourgeoisie. It was not exactly what anybody intended. In England and in Lutheran lands, order came to rest in the state. (Also in France, but for different reasons.) In Reformed lands (i.e. Calvinist), order was precarious for a long time, sorted out in civil wars and rebellions. Including the American Revolution, a “Presbyterian war” in the words of one disgusted British officer. I hold that the very idea of social equality and of basic human rights and the dignity of the working class emerged from this process. Certainly not from the Magna Carta, an aristocratic gentlemen’s agreement extorted from a weak king. And only implicitly from the Bible (Hebrew and Greek), in which an obligation to the poor, to widows and orphans, was paramount, but social dignity for them was a bridge too far for most Christians and Jews. To some extent, American society between Jackson and Eisenhower came to embody for a while (in a rough-hewn and painfully, obviously imperfect way) as close to an egalitarian society as it may be possible to get. Much closer than we are today. But we can’t go back there.

    We have reached a crunch point where (paradoxically) everything flies apart. An implosion of our hypocrisies. Like it or not, we too are going to be sorted out in civil wars and rebellions. And probably we and our descendants will participate in them of necessity. As the old union-organizing song said, “They say in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there.” Welcome to Harlan.

    In a time of crisis of such magnitude, we are not called upon to be the Grand Inquisitor, but not the Good Samaritan either. The latter was, after all, one of the elite, just of a foreign people. He could afford to care for the assaulted and ignored victim, to pay for his food and lodging. No, in this moment at which we have arrived, we can only be the victim. And God is the Samaritan. Certainly, absolutely Love and Mercy are primary, not add-ons. But Love and Mercy might look different in a post-ApocalyptiModern landscape from how we are liable to think of them. They will not be doled out by prelates or by philanthropists or benefactors. They will be given by Christ-in-us. And we had better have on the “whole armor” outlined in Ephesians. Else we will be useless. And sometimes we may have on literal armor as well, simply because we will be stuck in situations not of our making in which there is no good reason not to.

    Perhaps some future City on a Hill will emerge somewhere, and do better than we have done. Perhaps it will be founded by some people who are migrants to a New World (which of logical necessity will be somebody’s Old World, maybe ours).

  2. I am inclined to agree that God is the Good Samaritan, we are the victim, and the inn is the Church. But I also happen to believe the Sermon on the Mount, as with all of Jesus’ other teachings, are about how to live under occupation. So, we don’t get a pass from being merciful simply because the world is violent and unstable.

    As for situations not of our own making, well, yes, precisely.

  3. Agree we don’t get a pass. But people will anyway. I ‘will’ anyway. If people’s children are threatened, parents (especially mothers) will do anything to protects them, and in extreme cases (which sadly are not all that uncommon in this world), parents have to decide whether to kill their own children rather than let them be tortured to death, or — kinda the same thing — be made slaves to the ruthless.

    Jesus was speaking to occupied Israel, where there was no question of participation in government. Anyone who does participate in government, even a county commissioner, is violating the sermon as it stands — because he/she must participate in the rule of law, and the law is violence just as surely as the clan feuds which it replaced. People have to retreat to remote parts of a peaceful country, as the Amish have done, to avoid that dilemma. The Constantinian question is not just “may Christians be soldiers” but also “may Christians be governors?” I don’t assert this polemically at all. It is a dilemma I have wondered about for a long time. Marilynne Robinson won a Pulitzer for her novel Gilead. In it, an elderly pastor in the 1950s, writing for the future benefit of his unexpected infant child, revisits the conflicts between his own father and grandfather, who were both also pastors. The grandfather had been an abolitionist in Kansas in the 1850s, who help run a line of the ‘underground railway’, which involved battles with pro-slavery partisans. He once came to church directly from such a fight, and preached covered in blood and still wearing his pistols. The latter’s son (the narrator’s father) was so disgusted that he became a pacifist. The narrator was not faced with a choice to endorse one or the other. The author leaves the question open. But the final words seem to imply support for the abolitionist, whom she may regard even as a saint. He also practiced some Franciscan virtues, living as simply as possible and giving away his food and belongings (and other people’s as well) to whomever seemed to need it.

    Gilead is imperfect as literature, I think. Her early novel Housekeeping was more moving and lyrical, but it was not specifically about religion or ethics.

    Anyway, I feel obliged to think about these things, and to say something now and then, even though I am beyond doing anything, and no one will listen to me, so it’s just soul-rumination and empathizing with those who must choose.

    I read once some English cleric’s views on legalism vs antinomianism, and he said that Christians must live on the razors edge between them. The same, I think, is true of violence vs. passivity. The right way is impossible to describe definitively. We can only be aware of the conflicts and avoid the extremes which are so close to us on either side.

  4. I don’t know why I seem so bent on trying to say something about all this and hardly know what it is. But it occurred to me that the structure of my approach to the world was shaped by experiences very different from yours. Having grown up with no father, especially one who was so mysterious in what my mother said and would not say about him, I was looking for a kind of cultural paternalism to substitute for him. Not that I wanted him to show up some day. I more dreaded it. And my younger half-brother I didn’t know existed until a few years ago confirmed my fears, that he was kinda crazy and abusive — due mostly to a fractured skull he had when he was 22, but also the character of his own father, who was many bad things. But nonetheless, I was drawn to strong authoritative figures. I would fall asleep listening to an LP of Churchill’s speeches. I was fascinated by the succession of British Kings and Roman Emperors, even knowing very well how vile many of them were. But I came to believe, and still believe in some way, that the culture of our fore-fathers is essential to absorb and refashion respectfully to meet new needs in new times. But Classical culture is already lost. The number of people who grew up immersed in it has fallen well below some critical number. There might be revivals and Renaissances, as has happened ofttimes before, but I don’t see any path to it in the near future.

    And why should I care? It did not make people virtuous when it flourished, at least not the kind of virtue most sought for today. But I have this ominous dread of Kipling’s Gods of the Copybook Headings, that they are about to bring down some big hurtin’ on us, even if the true living God does not. (Of course he is always in there somewhere.)

    I was thinking of the abused kids you listen to and provide such needed support for. Sometimes walls and a door constitute a prison locking a child in with a monster. But I think more often the walls and locked door keep the monsters out. The homeless are terribly vulnerable. I grew up always in quiet safe places, but not feeling entirely secure about them, maybe because they changed so often. And not very secure outside them. But that’s what love and mercy looked like to me: the security of old and trusted places, from the heavy ornate wooden arches leading to the Reference corner of the old Carnegie library here (now a historical museum) down through the stained limestone of old university buildings, all the way down to the pillars of the early Greek temples, and of the first temple in Jerusalem, even to the bases of the pyramids set in the dust of the earth from which we are made and to which we return.

    When I saw the film “Dead Poets Society”, I didn’t think what I was supposed to think — what a stuffy, suffocating, stick-up-the-ass institution this school is. I wanted to go to that school. But at the same time I knew I didn’t really. I hate having to wear formal clothes; I hate pretentious and hypocritical solemnity. By nature, when I am spontaneous, I am a trickster. I love to make puns and double-entendres which turn things upside-down and speak the forbidden truths. But then so did the Greeks. They had no idea how ancient and pompous they were supposed to be. They were the new kids on the civilization block, thumbing their noses at the old empires which had collapsed at the end of the Bronze Age and were struggling to regain their former glory. “Pyramid” might be an Egyptian word, but it might also be a Greek word meaning a piece of charcoal, a way of saying “Your big pointy blocks don’t impress us — we use them to cook dinner over.” Maybe that’s why I am so tied to the old Greeks. They combine the security of cultural artifacts and stone-works which have endured for millennia with a deep-digging irreverence which questions everything. It was in this context, stuffed into a Roman imperial pressure cooker, that the world as a whole, the oikoumene, first encountered the God who is known only through his self-revelation and his incarnation. Maybe it could not have grown and flourished as it did in any other context. Many other cultures have some of the qualities I admire, and have maintained them over many generations. But I don’t know if any of them were as crazy as the Greeks were. The West as we know it, came to maturity under the influence of that culture, knowing its long history and literature, the Greek often filtered through Latin and Latin imitations, knowing their achievements and also their disastrous flaws and blunders. Not any more. We’re on autopilot and Homer has left the building. We’re doing our own crazy. It’s fine to change in many ways and to normalize what was not previously accepted, but we are moving toward normalizing Oedipus, so to speak, and that never ends well.

  5. By the way, I have no idea why my posts sometimes show up as from “wellandnobucket”. That’s supposed to be some general service for establishing identity, I think — equivalent to signing into Google maybe?

  6. After all that, I realize I forgot to connect some dots to make the main point, which is: We are never an atomized society of individuals, even though we’ve become more that way. But some of the appearance of atomizing is deceptive. Society is like a network of interlocking “safe spaces” — safe for some, a barrier of expulsion to others. But everybody is inside some and outside of others. Some of this is not only a necessary form of socialization, but a necessary way of manifesting love and mercy. The Good Samaritan took the injured traveler to an inn which he presumed was safe for someone who couldn’t defend himself, as long as he had the money for room & board. That’s often the nature of the good works we can do as fallible and limited mortals. We can’t do everything for everyone, and every choice for allocation of resources is unfair to someone. Some safe spaces are cross-generational and reinforced by traditions. Some are temporary emergency alliances between past enemies. It seems to me that “good government” (a phrase which can never be entirely free of irony) often consists of structures (real and metaphorical) and spaces created by those with vision and prudence, to whom were are somewhat indebted (even if they don’t deserve it with respect to other aspects of their lives). Some over-riding structures of the mind and heart are necessary for the smaller-scale ones to work. It’s all very organic and complex and difficult to operate or modify to achieve new goals or new principles. But now the small-scale structures are changing so rapidly, they are no longer guided and protected by larger ones, which makes everything unstable and unpredictable. I am compelled to try to assert some of the older great visions of structures, even if there is nothing in sight worth joining up with. Even if what I am asserting (usually just in my own mind, or in ways hardly anyone notices) is hopelessly obsolete and worthless.

    And in spite of all that and all that I have said before, I am an optimist by nature. I cry wolf because the wolf is really there, but I have a naive confidence that the villagers will drive the wolf away. Hope so.

    And “under the aspect of eternity” it will be so.

  7. And so — much of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount was spoken to Israel about how they should conduct themselves within their national space, which was by then enclosed and oppressed by the structures of Caesar. Or maybe “should” is the wrong word; by one account it was more like “If these are the kind of things which you are doing, know that you are blessed, even if you can’t feel it yet. Jesus generally speaks in riddles and analogies and very often with hyperbole, for effect and emphasis, and to keep us guessing, because the real truths cannot be known until we live them.

    In different structures and spaces something different might be appropriate. We can know only by the guidance of spirit and conscience and the assurance that if we’re doing it wrong it will soon start to feel very wrong. As long as we don’t let our hearts be hardened as pharaoh’s was.

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