Resident Aliens is a book by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon that I read for a class on Elders and Pastors in the Friend’s tradition. Below are my reflections on the book.
I found the book Resident Aliens to be a wonderful look at life as a Christian that resonates strongly with me. I also disagree with the Constantinian direction that the church has had and am looking forward to Christendom being pulled off of life support. I have long felt that the Constantinian influence was a corrupting one in the Church, and that our solutions need to be dependent on Christ and not the state.
The chapter that most impacted me was chapter 4. I hadn’t really thought about the church being the true context for the working out of Christian ethics, but had always understood the importance and value of the community of believers. That community as described in Resident Aliens is to be God’s hands and feet impacting the world without becoming enmeshed in the systems of the world. There is a lot of parallel to early Anabaptist thought, and much of it seems to be a refutation of post-Calvin Reformed theology.
In chapter 4, I was intrigued by the idea that the church was trying to create a moral stance that did not rely on or look to God as its source, in essence taking God out of the equation so that the culture would not have to deal with anything supernatural. That this led to decline in witness and made religion a secular institution is one of the great tragedies inflicted on the church by post enlightenment modernist thinking. He combats this by saying that our morality does not and will not make sense outside of the context of the body of believers called the church. He goes as far as implying that is impossible to live as a Christian without a committed community of believers around you to hold you accountable and give the encouragement we need.
That we don’t need to concern ourselves with how much of our ethics the state can swallow is also an important point, and is his key argument against the Calvinistic point of view of the state being ordained by God to enforce God’s rules. The idea that if we are living out our ethics from the standpoint of the life, death and resurrection of Christ we will not be loved by the state, or any secular authority for that matter, then becomes what we expect as our due. This means that even though we are making things better for others, at least from our perspective, we are doing it in the face of opposition from the principalities and powers of the earth, rather than under the auspices and control of those powers.
The next idea that rings highly true to me is that the church and not the individual is the most significant ethical unit for Christians. This cannot be said enough to suit me. One of the foundations of our Friend’s belief is that Christ speaks most clearly through a gathered meeting of his followers, and that since all can hear, no one person has a monopoly on the voice of Christ. When we gather together to listen for the voice of the Spirit, we then hear and are better able to work out the calling of Kingdom. When we do not gather together, and attempt to follow without the community of faith around us, the work of following Christ becomes impossible.
Another concept that is a thread throughout the book is that we as the church need to be asking different questions about what it means to be the church. We are asking questions either about how we can reach out, or serve the people within. The questions we need to be asking are centered on being and calling. How can we set up our community so that people are freed to follow the call of the Holy Spirit in their life? How can set up our structures so that we are creating an environment that is conducive to living as Christ, and not making it a little easier to live in the world?
The next statement that was a wonderfully frank assessment of our relationship to the culture we find ourselves in is “God has already obliterated our civilization in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus.” (p89) The questions that come to me in light of this are: What does it mean to live in an obliterated civilization? What is the church’s call in an obliterated civilization? How do we as the church encourage the people who are part of our fellowship to live as though the civilization we find ourselves in has no hope for the future?
As I continued reading the next few pages I am reminded of the quote by Ben Franklin “Those who are willing to sacrifice their basic liberties to assure their security deserve neither.” We desire to be moral without having to face the terrible freedom that comes from a relationship with God. In that desire we create rules like don’t eat that, don’t drink the other, don’t dance, don’t go to movies, etc. God however calls us to a much harder standard. In whatever you do your prime motivation must be love. By focusing on motivation instead of action, God makes it that much harder, it is in this perspective that we can now say all of our righteousness is as filthy rags. It is from this perspective that we can no longer place ourselves in judgment over another, and it is from this perspective that we must toss out our rules that we make so that things can be easier for us and instead ask: “How are my actions displaying Christ’s love to those around me?” We can then take our whole selves to church and not have to worry about whether or not someone is going to be judging me as a sinner, because by Jesus definition there is no way without him we will ever be able to not sin. This sinless state can only be considered within a body of believers who also are struggling to live lives marked by love in a world dedicated to self-indulgence at the expense of any who get in our way.
I greatly appreciated this reading and think that it should be added to the recording reading list. The concepts in this could very well help us to reclaim the distinctive of Friends in a way that is true to the totality of our Christian heritage.
Reflection on “Resident Aliens” by Gilbert L. George is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
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