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.

A Quick Observation

I do like Andrew Perriman over at postost.net, and I think there is a lot to his thesis that Jesus and Paul were envisioning something akin to Christendom in speaking of judgment upon the nations and Christ’s rule over the nations.

Something. I’m not sure what yet. I do believe we ignore the historical context of scripture at our risk, and scripture is mostly a message of hope to a conquered and exiled people yearning for their redemption.

It is most definitely not written to a comfortable people either confident of their power or frightened they could lose it. In the story of scripture, much of what could be lost, is lost.

But saying the nations would be subject to Christ is not the same as saying the nations would be subject to the followers of Christ. The church in Christendom has come to see itself in that role, and in that place. A world subject to Christ is a world subject to us, subject to the church, which is what I think much of the struggle Christians (particularly conservatives) are having right now.

Of course, it isn’t. The world is still subject to Christ in post-Christendom, we’re just going to have to learn to see God at work in our enemies in ways Christians in Christendom rarely have. Because we’ve had order and power on our side.

The Failure of American Christendom

James Rogers over at First Things nails it hard in this essay on the failure of the church in America to properly teach the faith, and teach Christians what it really means to sustain a Christian life. Because they could rely so heavily on the culture formed and created by American Christendom.

American churches grew up and developed in a context in which the culture played a significant role in policing moral behavior. Churches could ecclesiastically free-ride on this cultural moral consensus. Churches and congregations did not need to invest heavily in developing and policing their own moral boundaries. The culture did a large part of the moral heavy lifting for them. In parts of the U.S. today one can still hear echoes of this old consensus. “Why of course I’m a Christian. I’m a Texan.”

Because churches could depend on culture to police moral boundaries, they did not develop—because they did not need to develop—ecclesiastical mindsets and practices to inculcate and sustain basic Christian moral expectations. The moral membrane between church and culture was relatively permeable, but that was relatively safe at the time. This is not to say that they were the same. Nonetheless, it was relatively easy for individual churches to gin up the moral heat for their congregation when the starting point was a culture that kept things at least morally lukewarm.

Rogers holds the 1960s accountable for a cultural shift in America in which formerly prohibited activities suddenly became morally acceptable (though he acknowledges this began long before the 1960s rolled around), leaving the church incapable of addressing its problems because “the Church contracted out moral discipleship and church discipline to the culture. American Christians had gotten used to and easy-going, non-threatening permeability of church and culture.”

Fast forward to today when we hear about the need for churches to exercise the so-called Benedict Option. Basically, it means little more than churches need actually to reflect the full reality of what they’re supposed to be in the first place. But American churches are out of practice, ironically because of the power they once exercised over American culture.

As a result of developing the last 200 years of a “nation with the soul of a church,” Christians don’t have the ecclesiastical practices and habits that allow them easily and naturally to be fullness of the church.

These habits and practices, or the lack thereof, created all sorts of problems, even ignoring how they obscured the Gospel. Evangelicals naturally, if idolatrously, turned toward politics rather than to ecclesiology for the solution to the moral disorientation they saw in society. The Moral Majority, school prayer, “Take back America for Christ” campaigns, all reflected more of an attempt to reassert ownership of America’s moral public space than to save souls or spread the Kingdom or strengthen the life of the community of disciples in the churches. Recovering a full-orbed ecclesiology for the Church—not for the Church in the abstract, but for the practical lives of Christian layfolk and leaders in the churches—must be in initial imperative for the Church today.

This is in line with what I have come to think on the subject — too many Christians, liberals and conservatives, still confuse discipleship with good citizenship — and so I don’t really have much to add. But there’s an interesting point here that Rogers makes when he notes that the problem stems from “the power [churches] once exercised over American culture.”

Temporal power seems to be its own comeuppance in scripture. The fall of the powerful can frequently be traced to the very height of power — the division of Solomon’s empire into civil war and two competing polities can be traced directly to the costs associated with maintaining Solomon’s court and the massive army needed to hold the empire together. The people of Israel seek relief from both crushing taxes and conscripted labor to maintain the state, and when Solomon’s successor Rehoboam arrogantly refuses — even increasing the tax burden — half the kingdom follows the rebel Jereboam as he denounces the house of David and takes the northern portion of the state for himself.

Israel’s very wealth and power is the place where its downfall begins. The American Church is paying for its long period of power and influence with collapse, with idolatry, and is now metaphorically besieged on all sides by (metaphorical) Assyrians and Babylonians. I do believe there is a very biblical lesson about power in this — trust not in mighty men or in treasure, but rather in the promises of God. By the time prophets come, however, to tell the people of God to actually trust God, as opposed to their own devices, it’s usually too late.

A Utilitarian Faith, 1970s Edition

I’ve spent a little time at this blog critiquing the role of religion in American life in the 1950s — rightly, I think — because I believe that faith to be a fairly shallow, conformist, and overly utilitarian faith aimed largely at producing good citizens rather than well-formed followers of Jesus Christ.

But it isn’t the only era in recent American religious history worth examining.

I grew up listening to the CBS Radio Mystery Theater, a 1970s effort to revive radio drama (successful, in it’s way , for nearly a decade), and I’m listening again to a few episodes from the beginning of the show’s run in 1974.

There are a lot of religious adverts — the Mormons running a funny series of spots about paying attention to the people you love (“When you really listen, love is what you find…”), the Catholic Church’s Campaign for Human Development ran spots highlighting the need to combat poverty, and something called Unity Church in New York City ran a series of somewhat creepy spots focusing on finding meaning in the mid–1970s.

But the adverts that are actually the strangest — and the most charming — were a series of spots run by the Franciscan Order. Such as this one, from January, 1974. The voice is that of a rough-hewn male, an Archie Bunker-type:

You know, you hack it through life, and you struggle to get a lot of things. But the one thing you really want is for someone to say, “hey, you did a good job.” Or to really care how you feel. Maybe even look up to you. Ain’t it funny, those little things? And so you fake it a lot, and you pretend you’re a winner, you pretend you’re something special, and that you’re worth loving. But it don’t work. And that every-day kind of love, didn’t happen. So, I just got tired of faking it, trying to be somebody else. And I can remember saying, “Look, I’m sorry, but I don’t know everything. And I can’t do everything. And I … I make mistakes.” And you know what? That’s when they started to say they love me. Ain’t that funny?

From the Franciscans. With love.

This last bit was a female voice, sounding a bit like Didi Conn (a bit player in many 1970s TV shows and movies).

This is definitely moral therapeutic deism. And just as utilitarian as the 1950s spots about how faith in God can answer troubling questions and make life easier. And yet there is as much truth to this as there was to the 1950s spots. Yes, this resonates with me more — I am a child of the 1970s, after all — than the more collectivist and communal ideals of the 1950s. But there’s a truth to this.

Missing from this, of course, is Christ. While the focus here is love, it’s a utilitarian love designed to make life better. But rather than focusing on the community and the nation here, the focus in this advert is all about the individual — acceptance, love, belonging. These have become, by 1974, ends unto themselves.

What is really interesting, however, is that by 1976 (or thereabouts), the religious adverts had largely disappeared from radio. (At least from the sample of CBS Radio Mystery Theater episodes that I have.) No one — not Franciscans, not Mormons, not creepy new agers, were buying adverts anymore.

PSALMS — So Is This Christendom?

Anyone who has read this blog regularly should know I am no great fan of Christendom. That is, the effort by the Church and by Christians to order the world, to create “Christian” societies and/or “Christian” civilization.

The reason is fairly simple — Jesus, as he comes to us in the Gospels, says almost nothing about his followers exercising the kind of power they are, as occupied people, subject to. Rather, the Gospel is a response to occupation — how to live faithfully as God’s people knowing you do not have the kind of power to rule or even effectively resist in any way we understand resisting. In this understanding, one way to look at the Gospel is to see it as a set of instructions on how to live faithfully under someone else’s rules. Without any hope that we will ever get to make those rules.

Even in the Old Testament, which — at face value — seems to involve itself more in the dirty work of governing and ordering the world, Israel is far more an object, subject to the power of others (sin, idolatry, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and above all, YHWH, Israel’s God), than it is a subject, one who exercised power. The Old Testament has little to say about government, or order, save that the inability to adhere to the faithful teachings of God will result in suffering, conquest, enslavement, and exile.

And that is Israel’s history.

There is no recipe for good government or proper order in Israel. Figures are raised up by God to save in Israel — Moses, Joshua, the Judges — and kings are appointed. But this is all personality dependent, not system/structure/institution dependent. A wide variety of characters, from the upright and virtuous Othniel to the serial fornicator Samson and the tainted Jephthah, are raised to rescue Israel. There is no rhyme and reason to the who, except that God chooses them and they are good at what they have been called to do.

Even when Israel comes and demands a king “to judge us like all the nations.” (1 Samuel 8:5) God tells Israel, through Samuel the prophet, that Israel should not want a king — YHWH is Israel’s king, whatever that means, and this demand is a rejection of God’s kingship over Israel. And yet God gives Israel a king anyway, and then proceeds to bless Israel, and makes promises to all humanity, through this gift of the king that Israel should not have.

At any rate, I’ve never been a great fan of Christendom. It requires the followers of Jesus to take a stake in the violence of the world and its outcomes — to do violence, and to justify that violence. With all that means.

But in the last year or so, I have been reading Andrew Permian’s blog P.OST An Evangelical Theology for the Post-Christendom Age and have come to be persuaded by both the way he reads scripture, but also increasingly by his conclusion that Christendom itself represents some kind of promise that Jesus makes to his disciples that the nations — גוים goyim in Hebrew and εθνος ehtnos in Greek — will be subject to Christ as part of Christ’s judgment of the Empire.

(In this, I am not doing Permian’s thesis justice, and I apologize for that. It’s still only something I beginning to wrap my head and soul around, and I really don’t like the implications. I am more Hauerwas then Leithart, and the idea of earthly rule for the church — a church that does violence and is right and justified in doing so — is not a prospect I am really comfortable with yet.)

So what to make of Psalm 2, then? Because as I read this — especially if the “Son” mentioned in this psalm is Christ.

1 Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
3 “Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”

Who is the King of Israel that anyone should pay attention to him? Even at the kingdom’s height, under David and Solomon, it was powerful, but not as powerful as its much larger neighbors.

No, I think some other figure is being described here. This about Christ — the anointed one, המשׁיה — and it is he who is “King on Zion” (מלך על–ציון). It is against Christ that the nations and peoples, and their kings and rulers, rage and plot. It is from him they seek the “freedom” of no longer being bound.

And God holds them all in contempt. In fact, the setting of a King in Zion — upon that hill — is itself an act of fury and wrath. And that makes me wonder, is this, could this be, a reference to the crucifixion? To that awful day on Golgatha when Jesus the Anointed carried the cross to his death?

I’m not speaking here of classical atonement theology, that Jesus bore the wrath of God in our place. I’m not sure yet really what I’m speaking of, save that God’s wrath and anger and sorrow were present on that day as God showed the world the extent to which God incarnate as Christ would go to judge the world.

Because I do believe the crucifixion represents some kind of judgment of the world. Judgment of us. Our violence. Our fear. Our hatred. Our anger. Our despair. An unflinching judgment. It isn’t so much God acting as God surrendering utterly, by doing nothing but dying, God is showing us who we really are. Accuser and accused. Betrayer and Betrayed. Torturer and tortured. Executer and executed.

God judges us by giving himself utterly to us and not resisting. That’s the wrath and fury of God.

7 I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Verse seven sounds like every Gospel proclamation at the baptism of Christ — Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22, even John the Baptist’s second-hand account in John 1:34.

God then goes on to make the Son an interesting offer — ask of me, and I will give you the nations. It sounds a little like the offer Satan makes to Jesus in Luke 4. Jesus refuses the devil’s offer, of course, but that’s because the nations already belong to him. And rules them, he breaks them utterly.

That’s an interesting image. What does it mean to broken like this? It brings to mind the words of Christ in Matthew 21, in the parable of tenants, which Jesus ends by comparing himself to the rejected cornerstone of Psalm 118, noting that whoever falls upon the cornerstone “will be broken,” and whoever the cornerstone falls upon will be crushed.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it is not a bad thing here to broken, to be dashed to pieces, to be shattered. But I speak an individual. What does it mean for an entire people to be broken? How does Jesus do that? Whether he rules or breaks with a rod of iron (either reading is possible), what does it mean that the Son does this to whole nations?

(What on earth does it mean to be crushed? And can that be a good thing?)

And is that breaking and/or ruling Christendom? Or is it something else entirely?

10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
12 Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

This is where this psalm really troubles me. Because this becomes the Jesus you need to behave yourself around or he will get you. Be nice to the Son, the psalmist says, or else. Anger, and wrath, and perishing. It’s everything the church has tried to walk away from in the last decade or two.

And yet, I also see something of Christendom in here. Because whoever speaks here is speaking to kings and rulers of the earth. And not to the likes of you and me. God has given the peoples of the earth to the Son, the Anointed, as a possession, and the Son has the power to do as he chooses. Best serve the son with fear and trembling and joy. Lest wrath follow.

But what does that mean if the wrath of God is God surrendering to us? Yes, Babylon was God’s judgment upon faithless Judah, and Babylon paid for its role in that judgment. I’m not sure, though, that’s what’s going here. I think there’s something deeper, more profound, an understanding — maybe — that the unwillingness (or inability) on the part of the kings and rulers of the world to serve the Lord or even “Kiss the Son” (in fealty, no doubt) leads to a wrath of emptiness, a God who is willing to watch while we inflict suffering and death upon ourselves. A God who is one with suffering, in the Son, the Anointed one, and whose clear and obvious suffering on that cross planted upon that hill is somehow God’s wrath.

A wrath of emptiness. We stand by, on Good Friday, and watch, powerless save to condemn and demand death, as we re-enact the passion of Christ. His trial. His torture. His execution. The wrath of God, emptied. If we court the wrath of God by disobedience and lack of love, that wrath is visited upon us by our own hands. God’s judgment is to watch, and thereby force us, compel us, to watch as well.

It is not God’s wrath in the way that Babylon besieging Jerusalem was God’s purposeful judgment upon Judah, packed with deliberate meaning. It is a judgment empty of meaning. There is no moral purpose to this wrath, this violence, this destruction. It is not punishment. It is not just. It is not deserved. It is empty. It has been emptied. And we perish. At our own hands. Just as the Son did.

And we watch. Powerless. Just as the Father did.

Fiddling (or Strumming the Ukulele) While Christendom Burns

A couple of short responses, because I’m busy job hunting and working on music today. Yes, I am literally strumming my ukulele while Christendom burns.

Why celebrate the demise of Christendom? Well, the reasoning is complex for me.

First, remember — I was tossed out of a Christendom church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for being too much of a sinner. I have, to one extent or another, been an outsider all of my life. Someone who was not allowed to belong. Or who was deliberately and brutally excluded. Now, I’ve long blamed that on America, but I’ll be blunt — I hold the church in America somewhat responsible for that as well.

Someone once noted, in a biography of Joseph Stalin, that the reason so many Jews were revolutionaries in late 19th and early 20th century Russia was because Jewish life was so very precarious in late 19th century Russia. Jews could not be vested in order and stability, and those who didn’t leave (and even many who did) were drawn to revolutionary ideologies which sought to topple the whole system that restricted where they could live and subject them to regular violence. (I’ve always thought central to neoconservative thinking on tyranny was the Jewish experience in Russia as a kind-of cultural memory.) For many, bolshevism was intended to bring about a better world, but it would do so by demolishing the existing one.

And I get the appeal. The world has not been particularly kind to me (even as a great many people in it have been). Institutions have not been kind. The church, for all the kindness and belonging I have found in it, has not been kind. It has not welcomed me very well nor accepted me. Late American Christendom has no place for me. To ask me, then, to support an order that deliberately excludes me is asking a lot. It’s asking a great deal of me to reach out beyond myself, to see a good I can only tangentially experience, or be a part of. It’s basically telling me: I have to support and even love the order that beats the crap out of me and leaves me half-dead by the side of the road. Because the alternative could be worse.

Yes, I get the alternatives could be worse. Many of those old bolsheviks, if they didn’t die in the Revolution or the Civil War, perished at Stalin’s hands in the dank cellars of the Lubyanka. Post-Christian modernity will eventually come to demonstrate just how cruel it can be.

But to ask me to love Christendom … is asking too much. I cannot know if there would have been a place for me in a more confident Christendom of another era. I think so, just like there was a place for my very opinionated and abrasive Grandpa Featherstone as a senior civil servant in the middle of last century. (He would not survive government service, or maybe any other institutional life, today.) But there clearly is no place for me today. It’s hard, then, as one deliberately excluded, to feel all warm and fuzzy because the thing which deliberately excluded me is busy collapsing.

I suppose that makes me a bit of nihilist.

I try to balance this with my sense of call, and knowing what we are called to — to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, knowing that God loves us. In some ways, this is going to be harder in post-Christendom, and the church structures which empowered and enabled that kind of care and love will be restricted or simply go out of business. It will make it harder to materially care for the weak, the vulnerable, and the abandoned.

But I’m Jeremiah here. There’s no saving this church from collapse, from defeat, from conquest, from exile. I truly believe that what is happening to the church right now is something of God’s judgement on us — on our faithlessness, on our idolatry (we eagerly and happily worshiped the gods of modernity too), on our lack of hospitality to strangers, and on our unwillingness to truly care for the weak, the vulnerable, and the abandoned. We squandered our inheritance long before Nebuchadnezzar and his soldiers showed up.

I don’t think I’m so much celebrating the collapse as simply stating the obvious — there’s no defending Jerusalem from the armies of Babylon besieging us. To save yourself, you need to accept defeat, to accept exile, and trust in God. Because this journey is not about what we do, but it is about what God does. And God is faithful. Christ is faithful. We are church not because we are kind and decent people, but because God has called us. We shall be redeemed. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next year, maybe not for many decades or even centuries hence. But we, as God’s people, will be redeemed.

Until then, we need confess our faith — Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again — and live, and love our neighbors, as if that is the only thing that matters. Because it is. This brave new world will break, brutalize, and discard a great many people. They are who we need to love.

Christendom and Dar al Islam Were More Alike Than Different

Over at The Atlantic, Shadi Hamid has a fascinating and very long essay on the appeal of Islamic political movements, and what they share. There’s a lot to like about this essay, particularly the differing approaches that groups like ISIL and The Ikhwan al-Muslimin (The Muslim Brotherhood) take to the state. (The discussion about fierce states and weak states reminds me of Nazih Ayubi’s  Overstating The Arab State, one of the more important readings I had while I was at Georgetown 15 years ago. I’d say more about this, but the book is in the bottom of a box and I’d rather not go spelunking for it right now…)

It’s an informative essay that gets some important things right. But Hamid also gets some things wrong. Like this:

In contrast, the early Christian community, as Princeton historian Michael Cook notes, “lacked a conception of an intrinsically Christian state” and was willing to coexist with and even recognize Roman law. For this reason, among others, the equivalent of ISIS simply couldn’t exist in Christian-majority societies. Neither would the pragmatic, mainstream Islamist movements that oppose ISIS and its idiosyncratic, totalitarian take on the Islamic polity. While they have little in common with Islamist extremists, in both means and ends, the Muslim Brotherhood and its many descendants and affiliates do have a particular vision for society that puts Islam and Islamic law at the center of public life. The vast majority of Western Christians—including committed conservatives—cannot conceive of a comprehensive legal-social order anchored by religion. However, the vast majority of, say, Egyptians and Jordanians can and do.

Well, no. What Hamid misses here is Christendom, the intrinsically Christian state Christians quickly and naturally created once they became a ruling majority wherever they were. Westerners have long emphasized and over-stated the distinction between the way Christianity and Islam developed and spread, and between their approaches to empire. Christianity spread throughout Rome fairly slowly, eventually capturing the empire in a top-down maneuver. Islam burst out of an “ungoverned” portion of the Arabian peninsula (a place between empires) and conquered several decaying states — a Greek-speaking Levant and Sassanid Persia — in a bottom-up maneuver. But both end in Empire.

Hamid also seems to assume, as do modern Islamists and Muslim revolutionaries, that sharia sprang up, full blown, during the Prophet’s time governing the small (rapidly growing) community of believers in Yathrib (soon to become Madinah). Nothing could be farther from the truth. Sharia took many centuries to evolve, not truly emerging as a full-fledged law code until the expansion of Ottoman rule in the 15th and 16th centuries. Early Muslims (and later Muslim states) easily adopted and used the laws of the places they conquered, only altering them when they were significantly out of sync with the injections of Qur’an as they understood them. (All of my sources for this are books in boxes; this comes, if I remember correctly, from Richard Bulliet’s Conversion to Islam in The Medieval Period.) The Christian approach to governing the Roman Empire was similar (from Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine). You take the laws, and the assumptions about the world, you have at hand. I cannot think of a form of conquest (or even revolutionary state-building) where laws and legal systems were tossed out and redone wholesale. Revolutionary France, maybe, or Russia after 1917.

Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV in 1077 doing penance so he can have his excommunication lifted, and be a proper Christian emperor again.

Implicit here in Hamid’s essay is that presumption — church and state were always separate in Christendom (the medieval struggle between Pope and Holy Roman Emperor as one example) in ways they were not in Dar al Islam. Perhaps, but I’ve always found this to be a difference without a distinction. Christians hang this on Jesus telling his disciples to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” but that’s a tiny phrase to hang a lot of doctrine that is more dependent on the accidents of history than it is on the worlds of Jesus. (Assuming Jesus says anything besides the coin in question actually belongs to Caesar, which is debatable.) While Islam lacked a formal “church” structure (no Pope to struggle with a recalcitrant Caliph), the whole corpus of hadith — the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad — upon which much of the sunnah and sharia is based was compiled by scholars who sought to keep the Caliph accountable (with some suffering significantly for their efforts). And failed.

If Muslims truly had a sense of what an intrinsically Islamic state looked like in the way Hamid is claiming here, they would not be arguing over what political form it would take. And yet, Muslims have struggled historically with their political arrangements — the morality, effectiveness, and scriptural validity of those arrangements — as much as Christians have. Because in neither case is scripture a particularly good guide to the shape of God’s desired form of government for the community of believers (absent the charismatic, prophetic leader). Much less for all of humanity.

And there was, in both Christendom and Dar al Islam, an understanding as to what it meant to be faithful people living together. As Benjamin Kaplan noted in his book Divided By Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe, the Christendom communities, principalities and states of pre- and post-Reformation Europe saw themselves as organic wholes, in which faith, and public adherence to a shared confession, was essential to the well-being of the entire community:

For Europeans, every town and village had a spiritual dimension: more than a convenient, worldly arrangement for human cohabitation, it was a religious body—a “corpus Christianum.” Viewed through the prism of Christian piety, its unity was an expression of Christian love, its peace godly, and its provision of mutual aid an exercise in charity. The communal welfare it existed to promote was spiritual as well as material. Indeed, the word welfare and its cognates, like the Latin salus and German heil, meant both, for no one dreamed the spiritual and material could be kept separate. God rewarded those who deserved it, and the blessings he bestowed included peace and prosperity in life as well as salvation after death. The fate of entire communities, not just individuals, depend on divine favor. Gaining it was therefore a collective responsibility. Protestants and Catholics did not differ on this point, except where Protestants focused their prayers and hopes on the divine will, Catholics directed their supplication also to the Virgin and saints. (Kaplan, p.60)

And this

Just as the welfare of town and villages depended on God’s favor, Europeans believed, so did that of countries. A kingdom such as England was not, in Christian teaching, merely an arrangement of convenience, fashioned by humans for purposes of dominance or defense. Rather, it was part of the divinely appointed order of this world. As all human affairs were directed by divine providence, so were the formation and fate of states. “Ordained” in their office by God, acting as his “vicars” and “lieutenants,” their rulers preserved the peace and dispensed divine justice—or, if they were wicked, inflicted divine retribution. They, as heads of state, and subjects as “members” of the state, formed a single “body politic.” Mystically united, head and members formed a Christian community that would prosper of suffer, depending on whether it earned God’s blessing or wrath. In that recurrent encounter with divine justice, the fate of the realm hinged on the piety and virtue of its ruler and all its people. In short, like a town or village, a Christian state was a corpus Christianum.

So too, on a vast scale, was Christendom, which Europeans still on occasion saw God’s hand stretching out to punish. (Kaplan, p.100)

Clearly, Christians had a sense of an intrinsically Christian state and the purposes it should be put toward.

As to Hamid’s claim that the “vast majority of Western Christians—including committed conservatives—cannot conceive of a comprehensive legal-social order anchored by religion,” what to make of Conservative Catholics arguing for a Natural Law understanding of marriage in their opposition to state-sanctioned same-sex marriage? Or the entire corpus of Natural Law itself, which is can be looked at as a kind of Catholic form of sharia? (I’m going to assume, for a moment, that Christian Reconstructionism is not a serious endeavor. But it also seeks a comprehensive arrangement of human society based not on church teaching, as in the case of natural law, but on scripture itself.) Or what of the attempts by pious American Christians to place the Ten Commandments in public spaces (like schools) and practice very public forms of sectarian prayer? Are these not also attempts to, if nothing else, at justify the existing legal-social and in some way anchor it in religion? Western Christians have not stopped seeing their legal-social order buttressed by religious faith. But they have tended to look to other forms, such as technological and social progress, to be the evidence of that faith.

In fact, my guess is that Baghdad and Aix la Chappelle in A.D. 1000, or Cairo and Paris in 1400, were probably more alike than different. Piety would have been similar, the day broken up by worship services (with Christians ringing bells while Muslims had a human voice call the faithful to prayer), and little difference in technology or even, for that matter, law and governance. Except Cairo and Baghdad were bigger cities, and nicer places to live.

A more interesting question, and one I won’t even try to answer here (but one that takes up a fair amount of space in my head) is what does the secular state inherit from the Christendom state? What does secular society inherit from Christendom? Because the secular state was hardly the state made anew, an arrangement for human governance written on a blank piece of vellum without any reference to the past. What assumptions and understandings do secular moderns bring with them that they don’t even know about or comprehend?

And how similar is an “intrinsically secular state” to an “intrinsically Christian” one?