“I have little use for purity, but I do pray for a more faithful church. A more faithful church would, I suspect, make being a Christian more difficult but also more interesting.” ~Stanley Hauerwas, Approaching the End
One of the many reasons I read Stanley Hauerwas is that he is widely recognized as the greatest theologian in America. Another reason is that he’s from Pleasant Grove, my old neighborhood in the southeast corner of Dallas. The main reason I read Hauerwas is that he writes so eloquently and inspirationally about the role of Christ’s Church in the world. He consistently points to the holy mission of God’s people and paints with bold color and lofty strokes a picture of what Christians worshiping and working and living together should look like today. I’ve just finished reading Hauerwas’ latest book, “Approaching the End: Eschatological Reflections on Church, Politics, and Life.” And I’m anxious to share some of it with you.
The church in the U. S. today, according to Hauerwas and just about anybody paying attention, is in a “buyer’s market.” It’s in survival mode. It’s approaching the end. And so a whole lot of them are more concerned with staying alive and viable, by their own definitions, than with pursuing the mission of God. Some of these churches are already dead. They’ve been dead for a long time. But we don’t recognize them as dead because they still appear to be in business. The problem, though, is that their business may only be accidentally related to Christianity.
“The general societal approval and support the church has enjoyed particularly in America is coming to an end. Of course one of the costs Christians have paid for the social and political status they have enjoyed is not to take their Christian identity so seriously that they might destabilize the social order by, for example, challenging the presumption that war is a necessity if democracies are to survive. Thus I am long on record as thinking the loss of Christendom to be a ‘good thing.'”
I, too, have believed for a while now that the loss of Christendom — the culture actually propping up the church and supporting its values, Christianity seen as routine and normal by society, the church depending on the Empire to help it with its mission — to be a good thing. All this coddling by the culture has made us soft. (Now this is me, not Hauerwas.) At some point, whether it’s over ordaining homosexual ministers, protesting against federally funded violence and murder, or protecting the poor, the church is going to discover that we are not friends with the culture. And the church will be shocked. What we’ll learn is that we were never intended to be friends with the culture; we’re intended by God in Christ to convert the culture, not conform to it.
Now, when that day comes, I don’t think we’ll be arrested or jailed or beaten or shot. No, the government will first threaten our tax-exempt status.
And then we’ll all have decisions to make.
Some of our churches will bow to the dollar and pay homage to the Empire to protect the tax-exempt status. After all, they have never known a church to pay taxes to Caesar, they’ve never known a church not in cahoots with the nation, and their imagination to be a church free from the government’s control has been terminally damaged. But some of our churches will be more faithful. Some of our churches will proclaim the Christian confession that “Jesus is Lord,” not Caesar, and actually become the alternative society that our Lord established at the empty garden tomb.
It’ll be difficult. Less money for our programs. Less status for our platforms. Less community support for our evangelism. It’ll be difficult. But a whole lot more interesting. Being the political movement we were always meant to be, the more faithful counter-society, will be very interesting.
“Jesus was not successful. Jesus did not promise his followers that if they did things right, they would conquer with time. The non-coerciveness of agape includes renouncing the promise of power; it includes renouncing the mechanical model of how to move history. Yet that acknowledgement does not mean simple despair or unconcern. It rather means a promise of victory, the paradigm of which is the Resurrection.”
Hauerwas gets in trouble for saying that the first order of business for the church is not to make the world just, but to make the world the world. But he’s right. How will the world ever know it needs saving, that it needs forgiveness and healing and reconciliation, how will the world ever know that it desperately needs Christ Jesus unless the Church shows it something totally different and new? And faithful? And interesting?