This past year I was hired to write lessons for the project Faithful Citizen: Living Responsibly in a Global Society, which is part of a forthcoming DVD-based curriculum from the Center for the Congregation in Public Life, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. The Center created the lesson formats, outline, and basic approach, and I built upon that foundation, with resources and input from the Center.
I hope anyone who may read this blog post and find these ideas interesting will look for the curriculum once it’s available later this year. Continue to check at the website http://www.congregationinpubliclife.org/DVDCurriculum.htm.
The Faithful Citizen designers and writers hope to offer a corrective to the individualism that often characterizes both our religious faith and political opinions. At the heart of the curriculum are two works, Robert Bellah and his fellow authors’ Habits of the Heart and especially Eric Mount’s Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. Bellah and his fellow authors note that Americans tend to think of religion, not only in terms of institutional religion but also as a private, individual concern. A personal approach to God and faith reveals the “freedom, openness, and pluralism of American religious life” but neglects the fact that our relationship with God “is mediated by a whole pattern of community life.”(1)
Eric Mount, who is influenced by Bellah, stresses aspects of American religious life reflected in his book’s title. Americans have always had a twofold drive: individual well-being and success, and a desire for the common good (2). While Americans are indebted to the individualistic tradition of John Locke that affirms the rights of people to life, liberty, and economic and personal well-being, we are also indebted to a more covenantal and community-oriented concern for the common good.(3) Mount quotes H. Richard Niebuhr, “Covenant [in early American thinking] was the binding together in one body politic of persons who assumed through unlimited promise responsibility to and for each other and for the common laws, under God.” Becoming a member of that society was not granted at birth, but (Niebuhr continues) was “always the moral act of taking upon oneself, through promise, the responsibilities of citizenship that bound itself in the very exercise of its freedom.”(4) Such a framework of mutual obligation in turns provides the underpinnings of public discourse and mutual responsibilities within the communities in which we live, as well as a focus upon the common good.
Throughout his book, Mount provides much discussion and material for thinking about how the church can help society regain a sense of community, and to help shape “the common life” of our society and the social “common good.” The nature of the common good will always be debated—for instance, how much should the government ensure people’s well-being and when should the government stay out of people’s lives.(5) But the church can season these debates with its example of service and its own debates about crucial issues. Mount emphasizes the theme of “better stories” (Robert Reich’s term) that narrative our commonality–and our sense of being “in this together”–rather than our individualism and our “us v. them” attitudes. (6)
Mount believes the church can be faithful to its own Gospel message while also being respectful of pluralism and diversity. “My own contention,” argues Mount, “is that those of us in religious communities should endeavor to interpret and shape the common life on the basis of our theological convictions, but that we should do so confessionally, not apologetically, as [Max] Stackhouse does [in his writings].” Mount writes, “[T]here is too much damage done when a particular theology is implemented as the reigning ideology of societies,” since after all, “[t]here is enough religious pluralism in our own land and in the global community to make one hope that we can discover some commonly affirmed civic virtues from a variety of stories sources, including our American political tradition, and even some reiterative universal norms through dialogue, without promulgating one’s theology’s norms as universal directives.”(7)
The following thoughts are partly “outtakes” from that projects, and partly my own, informal studies concerning the issues Mount has raised.
Mount’s emphasis upon the church’s confessional faithfulness, as well as the power of the church’s “telling its story,” reminded me of two books: Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon’s Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony and its sequel, Where Resident Aliens Live. I thought of these books, which garnered discussion several years ago, because they also take a confessional and narrative approach to the work of the church, but in a different way than Mount.
Hauerwas and Willimon criticize Enlightenment individualism for, among other things, giving us “not self-freedom but self-centeredness, loneliness, superficiality, and harried consumerism”(8) Their alternative is to think of the church as a “colony,” not in the sense of a centered place but as a people together on a journey with God, whose identity is shaped by Christian practices.(9) Being true to God means being a “community of the cross”(10) which speaks the truth to the world about hard realities; the church has the courage to do so because, as such a community, it is “a visible body of people who know the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay.”(11)
This, the authors, believe, is a faithful alternative to the liberal-conservative distinction. “The church is the visible, political enactment of our language of God by a people who can name their sin and accept God’s forgiveness and are thereby enabled to speak the truth in love.”(12) Thus “the political task of Christians is to be the church rather than to transform the world, because the way we understand concepts like peace and justice at all is through the Gospel of Christ.(13) To say it another way, the church’s proper role in society is truth-telling: to preach to the world (and to witness through Christian practices, including service) that the world is without God.
I appreciate many of the authors’ ideas about the identity of the church as a group of people called, shaped, and gathered as God’s people under the Cross, and many of their criticisms of contemporary society and Enlightenment individualism are apropos. The Vietnam War haunts the authors’ works as one example among several where citizens were lied to, and horrors committed, in the name of national interests. Though not in the text, that hippy-era term, “The Machine,” kept coming to mind as I read the authors’ many criticisms of modernity and American nationalism. For the authors, the church is certainly a political voice, in that era and our own. But rather than being liberal or conservative, the church’s political voice points to the hope of God. The authors also take a stand against a kind of country-clubbishness that most certainly characterize both liberal and conservative congregations. Likewise, they raise strong issues of ministerial identity that we pastors must consider if we are being appropriately (and bravely) countercultural in our work, rather than simply people-helpers.
I also appreciate Hauerwas’ and Willimon’s concerns about the subtlety by which cultural values and Enlightenment individualism can become dangerously mixed up with, and undermine some biblical models of discipleship, and how Christian, family, and American values become undifferentiated in people’s minds.
The authors’ rejections of modernity and Enlightenment individualism give the books a negative tone that makes one think, What are the benefits and blessings of both Enlightenment individualism and our representative democracy? What are the reasons we should be sensitive to pluralism, the culture, and the common good? Aren’t we all heirs to and inescapable participants in modernity and Enlightenment individualism, including the authors (a topic they address in chapter 1 of the sequel book)?
The rejection of modernity is combined with comparatively fewer specific ideas about how we can achieve, in the midst of modernity, the faithful church they envision, especially as thoroughly “accommodationist” as they find the contemporary church. To be fair to the authors, this is a very difficult challenge: to develop a practical “road map” of specific changes to the church. How can the church even find sufficient unanimity on issues in order to “tell the truth” to culture? (It seems self-evident to Hauerwas that the church should be pacifist, for instance.) Until the day dawns that the church can actually be a disciplined alternative culture, we must struggle to be faithful as a church, including faithfulness in truth-telling.
The authors are also given to bold statement, presumably to provoke thought. Is public theology only a way to “underwrite American democracy”?(14) Similarly “the first enemy of the family is the church.”(15) I know what they mean by that statement, but a scripture like 1 Timothy 3:4-5, interpreted from its first or second century context, reminds us that family health and church health are not mutually exclusive.
In another example, the authors write that “Christians must be very suspicious of talk about community,” citing the fact that people find a way out of loneliness through “togetherness based on common tastes, racial or ethnic traits, or mutual self-interest… Christian community … is not primarily about togetherness. It is about the way of Jesus Christ with those whom he calls to himself. It is about discipline our wants and needs in congruence with a true story, which gives us the resources to lead truthful lives.” (16)
Again, I understand their point while regretting the one-sidedness. I miss the compassionate and nuanced ideas about church, society, and community that I find in Eric Mount’s book, where one can find both sharp criticisms of the church and society, and positive ideas about how the church can support families, community, and the common good.(17)
The term “resident alien” itself is a vivid and scriptural expression but not the only possibility, as I learned from another book, one to which the Center alerted me: Dennis McCann’s and Patrick Miller’s In Search of the Common Good. Victor Paul Furnish’s article therein addresses New Testament texts about community and the common good.(18) He notes that Paul does not use an alternate word like paroikoi (“resident aliens”) or parepidê moi (“transients”) to refer to Christians, and in fact does not use those terms elsewhere in his letters, although we do find them in 1 Peter 2:11 and Heb. 11:13(19). Instead, Furnish provides several Pauline texts that support a concern for the common good. Passages like 2 Cor. 5:19, 1 Cor. 15:22, and Rom. 5:18 point to an inclusiveness of God’s saving purpose. Furthermore, he argues, Paul does not call Christians “to withdraw from society but to live out their faith within it,” as in for instance 1 Cor. 5:10 and 7:24). In Philippians 1:27-28, Paul uses the word politeuesthai, meaning “to be, or to live as a citizen.” Since Paul does not elsewhere use this word, Furnish maintains that Paul is advising his people to be “upstanding citizens” as they live as Christians in a Roman society. Furnish finds other scriptures, including Philippians 4:5a (“Let your gentleness be known to all people”), Philippians 4:8-9 (a list of virtues that imply public conduct), Galatians 6:9-10 (an admonition to do good for all at every possible opportunity), Romans 12:14-21 (ways to live peacefully with all people), and Romans 13:1-78 (being good citizens).
Furnish clarifies that his study “does not allow us to conclude that Paul every specifically encouraged his congregations to participate in public conversation about the common good, or even that the ’common good’ was, as such, a Pauline topic. This is the dilemma faced by Hauerwas and Willimon: what are the practical solutions and activities that can arise from these ideas? Furnish does suggest, however, that what the apostle declared about the uncommon love of God redemptively enacted in Jesus Christ nourishes a concern for the common good and opens the way for Christian participation in the public conversation about it.”(20)
Regarding churches and families, I looked through my library for another book, by my friend Joyce Ann Mercer, Welcoming Children. I appreciated a complementary but (to me) more constructive and nuanced discussion of families and faith. She is also concerned with identity formation in, as well as the countercultural function of the contemporary church. Instead of declaring that “the first enemy of the family is the church,” Mercer shows ways of mutual contribution between families and religious communities. For instance, she notes that children learn faith “by being formed as an identity through which she construes and negotiates meaning religiously.” Parenting is a religious practice because children are gifts of God, and training children religiously is a “practice of stewardship.” She argues that families and churches don’t always have suitable educational tools for identity-formation: e.g., programs of Christian education can be simply the accumulation and integration of information, applied at developmentally appropriate times.(21) Instead, Mercer argues that learning is “the process of meaning-making” which is also “central in situating a person’s identity.”(22) When children learn in a community of faith (i.e., a community of Christian practice), the learning process “means being formed in a counterculture, gaining an anti-imperial identity in which practices of love, justice, hospitality, and compassion replace practices of oppression, excessive accumulation at the expense of others, and abuses of power”(23)
Mercer notes that identity, formation, and community do have problems, such as the reduced freedom in determining community membership and the imposition of identities. Congregations are not always the kinds of settings that are able to help create identities, having qualities more like typical service organizations than what she could call counter-cultural and anti-imperial processes of discipleship- and identity-formation. She also identifies the homophobia, sexism, and racisms that exist in congregations might become part of identity formation and therefore become “negative formation.” Consequently, identity formation is always a “ ‘compromise maneuver’ between ideals and actualities.”(24)
Mercer also stresses that parenting programs associated with conservative Christianity’s stress upon “family values” do not always address the breakdown of interpersonal connections in the wake of consumerism and globalization, and also do not address today’s variety of family configurations.(25) Altogether, we must always take care to call upon the Spirit to guide his fallible church.(26)
I’m not implying that Mercer presents her ideas in contrast to Hauerwas and Willimon, who are not referenced in her work. I’m simply saying that I personally find her book very helpful and encouraging after I read Resident Aliens and its sequel.
And…. after reading through these other texts, I was lead to another book on my shelves (a recent purchase that I’d not yet read). The popular author Brian D. McLaren combines the confessional stance with a missional, socially-active model of the church in his recent book, Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change, which has a broad vision of the possibilities of Christian compassion to address world issues.
Using themes of social criticism and ecology, he writes, “If we disbelieve the dominant societal system, and if we transfer our trust from its covert curriculum and framing story to the good news of Jesus, a radical and transforming hope begins to happen to us. Just as a fearful vision reshapes the world according to that which it fears the hopeful vision of the kingdom of God will surely begin to reshape our world in its hopeful image. We could say that a hopeful change in our ‘inner ecology’ will inevitably manifest itself in a hopeful change in our global ecology.”(27)
One of the several calls to action resulting from Jesus’ call is community action. He describes different calls to action that result from Jesus’ invitation to live by his teachings. Churches won’t be “domesticated by the dominant system” but will center worship and activities upon “Jesus’ revolutionary message of the kingdom.” One is public action, evidenced by people like Dr. King and Desmond Tutu. Still another call is global action,” where “personal, community, and public actions are integrated in synergizing ways.” Global action has a powerful scripture in Matthew 17:14-20, where Jesus promises that amazing things can happen as a result of very simple faith.(28)
Once again, the challenge is to find concrete responses, in this cause, where to place one’s simple faith to work in God’s world. The temptation of theological reflection on social issues is to confuse your actions with God’s: as if you can’t be saved unless you try to “save the world.”
While I was working through these several books and issues, I attended a religious conference and saw, among the numerous books for sale, Walter Brueggemann’s new book Journey to the Common Good, I snatched it right up. (Yes, I also paid for it….)
Brueggemann’s arguments are fascinating. Here are just a few, which I’ll share in case others are as interested in these ideas. Brueggemann notes that we find two kinds of “social ethic” in the Exodus-Sinai tradition. One is certainly a very radical kind of social ethic that includes the cancellation of the debts of the poor after seven years, thus eliminating a “permanent underclass” (Deut. 15:1-18), no interest on loans to members of the community (Deut. 23:19-20), no collateral on loans to the poor (Deut. 24:10-13), no withholding of wages to the poor (Deut. 24:14-15), hospitality to runaway slaves (Deut. 23:15-16), ongoing provision for the poor and needy (Deut. 24:19-22), and justice for orphans and resident aliens (Deut. 24:17-18).(29)
Brueggemann says, “The tradition of Deuteronomy intends to resituate the economy of Israel into the fabric of the neighborhood…the economy is [not] a freestanding autonomous system; it is, rather, checked and measured at every turn by the reality of the neighborhood.” Furthermore (as he echoes philosopher Michael Walzer), God is providing a permanent way out of “Egypt” via these justice-oriented, common good-oriented commandments.(30)
But he notes that the other “social ethic” (or rather, counter narrative) in this tradition is that of holiness, which offered “degrees of eligibility” based on purification rites, access to the most sacred places of the Temple, and eventually of the monarchy at Jerusalem and the lack of national justice criticized by the prophets.(31) Brueggemann says that the triad “wisdom, might, and wealth,” which characterized the reign of Solomon and eventually spelled the downfall of the nation, is characteristic of “the U.S. national security state.” But that triad, he argues, is expressed “as consumer entitlement in which liberals and conservatives together take for granted our privileged status as the world as God’s most recently chosen people.”(32) “It remains to be seen how the church can fashion an intentional alternative to the national security state, which is itself a path to death. The critical edge of faith requires us to ask if a national security state can be impinged upon and transformed by strands of neighborly commitment that lie deep in our national history,” he says, citing The Broken Covenant by Robert Bellah et al. (33).
What shape will that neighborly commitment take? For Hauerwas and Willimon, neighborly commitment would entail Christian truth-telling to the world as well as growth as a people of God through discipleship practices. Their vision seems to be close to the holiness-as-separation traditions of the Bible, where the common good is serviced by the people’s faithfulness to the truth. On the other hand, Brueggemann’s notion of the church as “an intentional alternative to the national security state” makes one think of Hauerwas’ and Willimon’s discussions of the church as an alternative culture, as well as Mercer’s vision of the church as an “anti-imperial” community of faith for “identity formation.” The church can be both an alternative to culture, and a force for the social common good.
As I quoted earlier from Habits of the Hearts, our relationship with God “is mediated by a whole pattern of community life.” I think this is an exciting insight, because it affirms our everyday responsibilities of neighborliness and citizenship within our communities and also calls us to bring God’s truth to the world through our words and actions.
1. Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 227.
2. Eric Mount, Jr. Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1999), 3.
3. Eric Mount, “Covenant, Community, and The Common Good: A Tale of Two Americas,” Church & Society, May/June 2005, 47-48.
4. H. Richard Niebuhr’s 1953 address, “The Idea of Covenant and American Democracy,” quoted in Mount, Covenant, Community, and the Common Good, 10-11.
5. Eric Mount, “The Common Good: It Takes a Community,” Public lecture at Davidson College, fall 2003; Mount, “A Tale of Two Americas,” 47-48.
6. Robert Reich’s four “morality tales” are the Mob at the Gates, the Triumphant Individual, the Benevolent Community, and the Rot at the Top. All are essentially us vs. them “tales.” In the first tale, the mob are welfare recipients, illegal immigrants or any other group that threaten the common good and therefore must be dealt with. In the second tail, people are ultimately responsible for their own success and so the common good is best achieved when people are left alone to make their own lives. In the third tale, society and specifically the government has a responsibility to step in and help groups that are struggling, such as the poor who could benefit from relief programs. In the fourth tale, the common good is threatened by the powerful, whether they are the rich or the government, and therefore we need smaller government or a redistribution or wealth, or other solutions. See Mount, Covenant, Community, and the Common Good, 98-102, and Mount, “A Tale of Two Americas,” 43-45.
7. Mount, Covenant, Community, and the Common Good, 155, 156.
8. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 50.
9. Ibid., 50-53.
10. Ibid., 47.
11. Ibid., 157.
12. Ibid., 171.
13. Ibid., 38.
14. Ibid., 32
15. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Where Resident Aliens Live: Exercises for Christian Practice (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 90.
16. Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens, 78.
17. Mount, 2.
18. Victor Paul Furnish, “Uncommon Love and the Common Good: Christians as Citizens in the Letters of Paul,” in Dennis P. McCann and Patrick D. Miller, eds., In Search of the Common Good (New York: T & T Clark , 2005), 58-87. Also very helpful for a biblical understanding of the common good is (in that same volume, the article by Jacqueline Lapsley, “‘When Mercy Seasons Justice’: Jonah and the Common Good,” 41-57.
19. Furnish, “Uncommon Love,” 67-68.
20. Furnish, “Uncommon Love,” 83.
21. Joyce Ann Mercer, Welcoming Children: A Practice Theology of Childhood (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2005), 245, 163.
22. Ibid., 167.
23. Ibid., 168.
24. Ibid., 172, 173.
25. Ibid, 245-250.
26. Ibid., 180.
27. Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 294.
28. Ibid., 294, 300.
29. Walter Brueggeman, Journey to the Common Good (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 39-40.
30. Ibid., 41, 43
31. Ibid., 44
32. Ibid., 68
33. Ibid., 68