Alien Citizens: the church as the alternative to the madness

I was blessed to come upon a piece by William Willimon in The Plough this morning. I wanted to remember it and I hope you will remember it, too. In that hope I lifted it and reprint it below.

On MLK Day and in this final pre-inauguration week, we need to consider how to be the church in troubling times. I think Willimon tells us how to do it well; I don’t want you to miss it.

Alien Citizens: Karl Barth, Eberhard Arnold, and Why the Church Is Political

William H. Willimon

In Resident Aliens, their influential 1989 book, Will Willimon and co-author Stanley Hauerwas laid out a bracing vision of how to live Christianly in contemporary society. Where can Christians find guidance in the challenging times ahead? Plough asked the retired United Methodist bishop, now a Duke Divinity School professor, for his insights.

What did Christians have at stake in the past presidential election? The question is not primarily which candidate we should have voted for, a decision that for me was made easy by Donald Trump. Instead, we ought to be asking: Why should we vote at all and, once the 55 percent of eligible voters have voted, what are Christians to make of the outcome of the election? How then shall we live now that “the people have spoken”?

How will Trump rule, or be led by those who want to rule through him? Now that less than half of the voters have coerced the rest of us to call Trump our leader, how then should we live? How will we exorcise the demon of American-style racism and xenophobia that Trump has unleashed?

For Christians, these questions, while interesting, are not the most pressing. Jesus’ people participate uneasily in American democratic politics not because we are torn between the politics of the left and of the right, but because of the singular truth uttered by Eberhard Arnold in his 1934 sermon on the Incarnation: “Our politics is that of the kingdom of God”.

Because Arnold was a man of such deep humility, peacefulness, and nonviolence, in reading his sermons it’s easy to miss his radicality. How well Arnold knew and lived the oddness of being a Christian, a resident alien in a world where politics had become the functional equivalent of God. How challenging is Arnold’s preaching in our world, where the political programs of Washington or Moscow can seem to be the only show in town, our last, best hope for maintaining our sense of security and illusions of control.

Christians carry two passports: one for the country in which we find ourselves, and another for that baptismal nation being made by God from all the nations. This nation is a realm not made by us but by God; Arnold calls it a “completely new order” where Christ at last “truly rules over all things.”

As storm clouds gathered in Nazified Germany, and millions pinned their hopes on a political savior who would make Germany great again through messianic politics, Arnold defiantly asserted that the most important political task of the church was to join Paul in “the expectation, the assurance of a completely new order.”

“How quaint,” the world must have thought; “how irrelevant Christian preachers can be.”

Rather than offering alternative policies or programs to counter those of the Nazis, Arnold made the sweeping claim that “all political, all social, all educational, all human problems are solved in a concrete way by the rulership of Christ. This is what glory is.”

About the same time as Arnold’s sermon, Karl Barth was telling German preachers that they ought to preach “as if nothing happened.” The “nothing” that they were to ignore was Hitler. Barth urged preachers not to waste pulpit time condemning the Nazis. Demons were on the prowl which could not be exorcized except through prayerful proclamation of the Word of God. Barth’s famous Barmen Declaration (which never mentions Hitler) was a defiant statement that the church must be free to preach and that Christians listen intently to no other word than that of Jesus Christ. When the Nazis forced Barth to resign from his teaching position in Bonn, his last advice to his students bidding him a tearful farewell was to remain centered on scripture, exhorting them: “Exegesis, exegesis, exegesis!”

Were Barth and his friend Arnold ­escaping politics by not talking about politics? No. Arnold and Barth knew they were preaching God’s word in a world where politics had purloined sacred rhetoric and assumed eternal significance for itself with talk of Volk, Land, und Blut. They talked politics but not as the world talks politics.

“We must deprive the politicians of their sacred pathos,” Barth advised his fellow preachers. The flames of political zealotry must be starved by taking eternal significance off the table when we engage politics. The preacher must view the pretentious modern nation-state and its presumptive politics through a wide-angle lens. Politicians must not be allowed to assume a messianic posture, and citizens must be warned against giving politicians glory that belongs only to God. In other words, Barth and Arnold were determined to do politics in a peculiarly Christian way by talking about who God is and what God is up to before making any assessment of human alternatives to God.

God’s Politics: The Body of Christ

Asked by The Christian Century to respond to the twenty-fifth anniversary of my book with Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, a dozen reviewers dismissed the book as politically irrelevant, sectarian escapism from the great issues of the day. None noticed that the book was meant to address the church, not the US Senate. Resident Aliens was a work of ecclesiology that assumed that when Christians are pressed to “say something political,” our most faithful response is church. As Hauerwas famously puts it, the church doesn’t have a social policy; the church is God’s social policy.

Constantine and the sign at the Milvian Bridge.

Many of our critics showed that they still live under the Constantinian illusion that the United States is roughly synonymous with the kingdom of God. Even though the state alleges that it practices freedom of religion, the secular state tolerates no alternatives to its sovereignty. Christians are free in American democracy to be as religious as we please as long as we keep our religion personal and private.

Contemporary secular politics decrees that people of faith must first jettison the church’s peculiar speech and practices before we can be allowed to go public and do politics. Many mainline Protestants, and an embarrassing number of American evangelicals, cling to the hope that by engagement with secular politics within the limits set by the modern democratic state, we can wrest some shred of social significance for the Christian faith. That’s how my own United Methodist Church became the Democratic Party on its knees.

Saying it better than we put it in Resident Aliens, Arnold not only sees Christ as “embodied in the church” but calls the church to go beyond words and engage in radical, urgent action that forms the church as irrefutable, concrete proof that Jesus Christ really is Lord and we are not: “Only very few people in our time are able to grasp the this-worldly realism of the early Christians.… Mere words about the future coming of God fade away in people’s ears today. That is why embodied, corporeal action is needed. Something must be set up, something must be created and formed, which no one will be able to pass by,” on the basis of our knowledge of who God is and where God is bringing the world. Our hope is not in some fuzzy, ethereal spirituality. “It takes place now, through Christ in the church. The future kingdom receives form in the church.”

In his sermon, Arnold eschews commentary on current events, as well as condemnation or commendation of this or that political leader, and instead speaks about the peculiar way Christ takes up room in the world and makes his will known through the ragtag group of losers we dare to call, with Paul, the very body of Christ. “It is not the task of this body of Christ to attain prominence in the political power structure of this world.… Our politics is that of the kingdom of God.”

Because of who God is and how God works, the congregation where I preach, for all its failures (and I can tell you, they are many) is, according to Arnold, nothing less than “an embassy of God’s kingdom”: “When the British ambassador is in the British embassy in Berlin, he is not subject to the laws of the German Reich.… In the residence of the ambassador, only the laws of the country he represents are valid.”

Arnold’s sermon is a continually fresh, relevant rebuke to those who think we can do politics without doing church. Among many pastors and church leaders, there is a rather docetic view of ministry and the church. We denigrate many of the tasks that consume pastoral ministry – administration, sermon preparation, and congregational leadership – because we long to be done with this mundane, corporeal stuff so we can soar upward to higher, more spiritual tasks. Arnold wisely asserts Incarnation and unashamedly calls upon his congregants to get their hands dirty by engaging in corporate work: to set up, create, form, and learn all those organizational skills that are appropriate for an incarnational faith where we are saved by the Eternal Word condescending to become our flesh.

Clementa Pinckney under his sign

Preachers as Politicians

In Charleston, South Carolina, the senior pastor of Emanuel AME Church, Clementa C. Pinckney, was a state senator and a powerful politician. But the night he was martyred he was in the basement hall of his church, leading a small group of laypeople in prayer and Bible study. Much of the ordinary, unspectacular work pastors do is holy if we believe that the church is the incarnate Christ’s chosen means of showing up in the world. Even the mundane body work done by pastors and lay leadership is sacred when it equips Christ’s commissioned “ambassadors” and constitutes an “embassy” of another sovereignty, a living, breathing Body, something that a young South Carolina racist recognized as a threat to his white supremacist world.

The people who got the nation’s attention by giving so bold a witness to forgiveness after the massacre at Mother Emanuel didn’t drop down out of heaven. They were produced here on earth, in lifetimes of listening to sermons by pastors like Pinckney who took seriously their responsibility “to equip God’s people for the work of serving” (Eph. 4:12).

I know a pastor who began his sermon after the Charleston massacre by asking, “How come our Bible studies in this church have not been truthful enough, intense enough, for anybody to want to kill us? Church, we need to figure out how to be so faithful in our life together that the world can look at us and see something that it is not. Our little congregation is called to be a showcase of what a living God can do!”

Christians are “political” because beliefs, including religious beliefs, have political consequences. However, Arnold’s Incarnation sermon is based upon more than that hackneyed, common­-sense observation. Arnold assumes that, when storm clouds gather and politicians strut their stuff before adoring audiences, the most world-changing, revolutionary statement we can make is that Jesus reigns; that God, not nations, rules the world; and that even the best of Caesar’s solutions fall short of the kingdom of God. God’s peculiar answer to what’s wrong with the world, God’s exemplification of creative social alternatives, is the church. These sweepingly political claims are more than personal and private. As Arnold says, because we know, through Christ, who God (i.e., reality) is, we “cannot shed blood or tolerate private property,” we “cannot lie or take an oath,” and we must uphold “the faithfulness between a man and woman in a marriage under the church,” because we believe that God, not politics, names what’s really going on.

Returning from a Moral Monday demonstration in Raleigh, North Carolina, where hundreds of us had gathered to once again castigate the state’s political buffoons, I was rather pleased with myself for my courageous (though not costly) political activism. We got them told.

Listening to the radio on the way back, we heard Governor McCrory dismiss our demonstration as “just a bunch of aging hippies from the sixties.” Ouch! Our Trump-wannabe governor bragged that polls showed close to 60 percent support for his right-wing policies.

“Preacher,” said the person I had dragged to Moral Monday with me, “sounds like we don’t need better politicians; we need a better class of voters. Maybe you should stay home and work on your Sunday sermon rather than get arrested in Raleigh.”

I have met the political enemy, and he is… me and my fellow Christians, who find it so hard to embody our convictions, and who, even in our left-wing protests, unintentionally give credence to political scoundrels. If we are going to worship a Savior who is determined to tabernacle among us, to show up and thereby disrupt our settled arrangements with Caesar, then we can’t avoid the mundane, corporeal work of having meetings, forming a congregation that becomes in its life together and its way in the world a visible, breathing, undeniable bodily presence of Christ.

That’s why maybe my most radical, ­politically significant act is to take Eberhard Arnold as my model: stand up this Sunday and preach that God’s will be done, God’s reign will come on earth as in heaven, whether we like it or not.


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