Christianity is more than a matter of a new understanding. Christianity is an invitation to be part of an alien people who make a difference because they see something that cannot otherwise be seen without Christ. Right living is more the challenge than right thinking. The challenge is of a new people who have aligned themselves with the seismic shift that has occurred in the world since Christ.Although our assertion is based, as was [Karl] Barth's, on a theological assessment of the world, it is also based, as was Barth's on a particular experience. For Barth, and for us, Nazi Germany was the supreme test for modern theology. There we experienced the "modern world," which we had so labored to understand and to become credible to, as the world, not only of the Copernican world view, computers, and the dynamo, but also of the Nazis.Barth was horrified that his church lacked the theological resources to stand against Hitler. It was the theological liberals, those who had spent their theological careers translating the faith into terms that could be understood by modern people and used in the creation of modern civilization, who were unable to say no. Some, like Emanuel Hirsh, even said yes to Hitler. (For a troubling account of Hirsh, see Robert P. Ericksen, Theologians under Hitler [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985]. What was so troubling about Ericksen's account is his demonstration that Tillich and Hirsh were not only close friends, but also that their theology was essentially the same. They differed only on what political implications came from their theology.)Liberal theology had spent decades reassuring us that we did not have to take the Jewishness of Jesus seriously. The particulars of this faith, the limiting, historically contingent, narrative specifics of the faith, such as the Jewishness of Jesus or his messianic eschatology, were impediments for the credibility of modern people and could therefore be removed so that we could get down to the real substance of Christianity. Jesus was not really a Jew, he was the pinnacle of the brightest and best in humanity, the teacher of noble ideals, civilization's very best. It was a short step from the liberal Christ-the-highest-in-humanity to the Nazi Superman.Barth's commentary on Romans countered with the insistence that passages like Romans 9-11 must set the tone for Christian thought. There he noted how the liberals had asserted certain humanistic assumptions about human nature and the world that did not need a living god to make them credible. "God is not 'man' said in a loud voice," was Barth's caustic remark to liberals.It might have all been explained away by asserting that Hitler as a maniac and the German people were infected with some sort of mass hysteria. Then we North American Christians could say that, although the compromised German church failed, at least ours did not. Unfortunately, the ethical results of our inadequate theology had global implications.On August 6, 1945, the fist atomic bomb was dropped on a Japanese city. Turning to a group of sailors with him on the battle cruiser Augusta, President Truman said, "This is the greatest thing in history." Truman, once described as "an outstanding Baptist layman," was supported by the majority of American Christians, who expressed few misgivings about the bomb. The bomb, however, was the sign of our moral incapacitation, an open admission that we had lost the will and the resources to resist vast evil.The American church had come a long way to stand beside Harry Truman in 1945. Just a few years earlier, in 1937, when Franco's forces bombed the Spanish town of Guernica, killing many civilians, the civilized world was shocked. That same year, when the Japanese bombed the city of Nanking, the world felt it was now dealing with particularly insidious forces which had little intention of obeying historical prohibitions against killing civilians. President Roosevelt issued an urgent appeal to all governments, at the beginning of World War II, saying "The bombing of helpless and unprotected civilians is a strategy which has aroused the horror of all mankind. I recall with pride that the United States consistently has taken the lead in urging that this inhuman practice be prohibited."Yet only several years later, in 1942, Churchill spoke of "beating the life out of Germany" through routine bombing of German cities (after the bombing of London by the Germans). What had begun as the acts of ruthless Fascist dictators had become the accepted practice of democratic nations. Few Christians probably even remember that there was a time when the church was the voice of condemnation for such wantonly immoral acts (George Hunsinger, "Where the Battle Rages: Confessing Christ in America Today," Dialog, vol 26, no 4, pp. 264-74).
When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leader era; an too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: "Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother." In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, unBiblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
And then there are the Native Americans; and the slaves. So many slaves, imported from Africa or just enslaved natives already here. I'm not sure the Puritans took the Jewishness of Jesus very seriously. I don't see much interest in it in any of the churches dominant in early America, or later. Of course that only became an issue (and in many ways rightly so; in other ways, too little too late) after the Holocaust. As for that issue apart from public notice, I'd recommend the seminal work of Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles. Oh, and the gospel of Luke; as well as John (whose antagonism to the Jews around "his" community inadvertently created the roots of anti-semitism that flourish to this day). Deep waters, in other words.
Interesting, too, in that catalog of bombings of civilians, Hauerwas and Willimon exclude Allied bombings carried out mostly by Americans. I saw Munich 40 years ago, when it was the capital of West Germany. The city was shockingly modern by European standards. Of course we started our trip in Bruges, with the medieval guild houses still ringing the square as they did when Bruges was an economic powerhouse. But Munich was modern, almost American in its architecture. And dotted with mounds, large, grass covered, and randomly placed. Those were the piles of rubble pushed into place as the city was rebuilt; mounded so the Germans would not forget, left to the grass so they would not be touched again by human hands. A bombing of civilians we the people engaged in, as we did at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We bombed Germany into the stone age, then tried to do the same to Cambodia and Laos a few decades later. Only now do we brag our armaments are sophisticated enough to kill an individual from "over the horizon" without causing otherwise "collateral damage" or others nearby. Or so we tell ourselves; we don't investigate that very carefully, for obvious reasons.
Yeah, I'm not arguing with Hauerwas and Willimon; I just want the picture to be broad enough to not condemn "liberal" Christians, because I know the predilections of Hauerwas and Willimon. Their spiritual ancestors hands are not clean, either.
Nor are mine; nor those of my spiritual forebears. I just think a strong dose of humility is always called for in these discussions. So let me quote Dr. Swift, the Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin:
"What you have told me," said my master, "upon the subject of war, does indeed discover most admirably the effects of that reason you pretend to: however, it is happy that the shame is greater than the danger; and that nature has left you utterly incapable of doing much mischief. For, your mouths lying flat with your faces, you can hardly bite each other to any purpose, unless by consent. Then as to the claws upon your feet before and behind, they are so short and tender, that one of our Yahoos would drive a dozen of yours before him. And therefore, in recounting the numbers of those who have been killed in battle, I cannot but think you have said the thing which is not."
I could not forbear shaking my head, and smiling a little at his ignorance. And being no stranger to the art of war, I gave him a description of cannons, culverins, muskets, carabines, pistols, bullets, powder, swords, bayonets, battles, sieges, retreats, attacks, undermines, countermines, bombardments, sea fights, ships sunk with a thousand men, twenty thousand killed on each side, dying groans, limbs flying in the air, smoke, noise, confusion, trampling to death under horses' feet, flight, pursuit, victory; fields strewed with carcases, left for food to dogs and wolves and birds of prey; plundering, stripping, ravishing, burning, and destroying. And to set forth the valour of my own dear countrymen, I assured him, "that I had seen them blow up a hundred enemies at once in a siege, and as many in a ship, and beheld the dead bodies drop down in pieces from the clouds, to the great diversion of the spectators."
I was going on to more particulars, when my master commanded me silence. He said, "whoever understood the nature of Yahoos, might easily believe it possible for so vile an animal to be capable of every action I had named, if their strength and cunning equalled their malice. But as my discourse had increased his abhorrence of the whole species, so he found it gave him a disturbance in his mind to which he was wholly a stranger before. He thought his ears, being used to such abominable words, might, by degrees, admit them with less detestation: that although he hated the Yahoos of this country, yet he no more blamed them for their odious qualities, than he did a gnnayh (a bird of prey) for its cruelty, or a sharp stone for cutting his hoof. But when a creature pretending to reason could be capable of such enormities, he dreaded lest the corruption of that faculty might be worse than brutality itself. He seemed therefore confident, that, instead of reason we were only possessed of some quality fitted to increase our natural vices; as the reflection from a troubled stream returns the image of an ill shapen body, not only larger but more distorted."
It was largely because of this discourse that Gulliver was banished from the land of the Houyhnhnms back to England. Swift's theology, as it had since at least Augustine (consider Anselm's theodicy), rested on the power of reason, which was said (in a very Platonic turn) to have come from God. Hauerwas and Willimon lean toward a change of heart (so less emphasis on reason; following the world after the Romantics, but also the lesson of the world after World War I and then, as they say, World War II), which will lead to being in the world but not of the world. That, too, is fundamentally Platonic (see, especially, Phaedo, but also The Republic.).
The argument for Christians being "in the world but not of the world" is an interesting one. One the one hand, it leads to monastic communities. I like monastic communities, even if I'll never be a member of one. I visited Abbey Gethsemani once; walked the grounds, spoke to no one but the monk at the door who let my friend and I in, but not our wives. No women allowed. They were not best pleased (understandably), but the atmosphere within the walls was palpable, and, yes, mystical. Not that Trappists are mystics (Merton certainly wasn't); but it's the best word I have. Still, I am in the world, and I don't know how Christians can actually not be of the world, unless they are monastics.
We can hardly all be monastics, can we?
I'd bring Neibuhr up against Hauerwas; he'd expect it, too. One cannot say that Reinhold was a powerful example of a Christian ethicist; his brother Richard despaired of Reinie's Moral Man and Immoral Society. It rather undercuts the idea of an ethical society. But I find it hard to argue with Reinhold's central tenet: that what is ethical for the individual cannot be imposed upon any other individual. It is, after all, the central tenet of the argument for legalized abortion. You may consider abortion to be murder, but can you impose that burden on the pregnant woman? And don't tell me society has an interest in protecting the lives of all its members. Children aren't members until they are born, and American society shows precious little interest in them from that point forward, at least until they should be enrolled in public schools. Before birth, the burden is on the pregnant woman, and who is society to tell her she must be the womb for that fetus against all conditions, even the nearness (but not certainty!) of her own death. That is absolutely imposing a moral burden on an individual by society at large. And how is that ethical?
We can require members of society to go to war; but we also give them exits where ethical concerns arise. A father can decide to be a martyr to his faith (Thomas More), but where does that leave his family, and I don't mean just economically/socially? Who wants to reconcile their love for their father with his love for his beliefs, a love obviously greater than his love for his children? It's not a light thing, in other words: ethical considerations never are, and it is not for the rest of us to impose them on an individual (although we do), anymore thant it's a light thing for the individual to impose ethical burdens on others. More did it by his martyrdom; but how many of us think on that?
So the bombing of Hiroshima, and Nagasaki: unspeakable evil, or a response to unspeakable evil? To the rape of Nanking, the slaughter of Marines in the Pacific, the Bataan death march? And end to unspeakable suffering imposed on Americans after the unprovoked assault on Pearl Harbor the Japanese hoped would give them unchallenged sway of everything from China to the American Pacific coast? Should we have been a bit kinder to the Japanese? According to whose ethics? I'm not arguing the conduct of the war in the Pacific was without moral questions, that the use of atomic weapons (we are still the only country to do so) was not without serious problems. But by what ethic do we judge? The convenient one of coming long after the war is over? The convenient one of knowing how the war ended, and not knowing how many more would have died in a conventional invasion of the Japanese islands? Hauerwas was five years old when the war ended. My father was 19. I might not be here typing this today, had he been on the ships invading Japan, rather than hearing about their surrender just after his training ended.
I would not say those are salient facts in the ethical considerations, but you ignore them at your peril, because those of us alive are very much in the world, and cherish our place in it to the last. Not being "of the world" is a rather abstract notion that makes people feel better because they can excuse themselves from the world's ugliness and their part in it. I've found myself, perhaps a victim of being "woke," watching TV and noticing how very white the world still is. Netflix has a documentary on "Woodstock 99," which was more of a fiasco than we all remember (so much more has happened in 23 years). But what struck me was the ocean of white faces, some 250,000 of them. And the musicians who stirred them into rage (well, that started with the festival organizers, also white men), an all white band (per the documentary, not necessarily per history). I found myself watching all these angry white people (all male) molesting women and throwing down trash and finally trashing the facilities themselves and I thought: "You know, white people are a serious danger in this country." Because they were young and energetic and so, so angry.
Not exactly what happened at Woodstock in '69, so what was different? Were the people then less "in the world," or perhaps less "of the world"? Yeah, and how long did that last, and what effect did it have 30 years later on, basically, their kids (if not biologically, then culturally)?
I was briefly a pastor, and I can safely say that telling people you are "prophetic" (in the proper sense of the word, not in the sense of seeing the future or predicting Armageddon) is not a gateway to getting them to learn from you, or even agree with you. Telling them they should be transformed into new beings is ultimately trying to establish the last redoubt against the world. Christianity was, for centuries, the world; and in some sense, the sense that made it into English and then American common law as "equity" (a branch of common law, not the concept), was a counterweight to the world (as equity was a counterweight, intentionally, to the harshness of the common law). Medieval scholars now point out that "chivalry," whose root Latin/French word is also the source of the English term "cavalry," was created by a priest to teach knights to be more caring and compassionate to the serfs and non-nobles. It was almost egalitarianism, and it gave rise to the romances we still think of as the proper pictures of knights (which is largely as much fantasy as comic book movies today, but no matter) caring for the poor and distraught, as well as damsels. As science rose in power in the 19th century, religion was no longer a counterweight. Even ethics became a matter of "science" (it's here we stop and note economics, the "dismal science," began life as a branch of ethics, and gave rise in turn to the bastard child of modern ethics, utilitarianism, which is still so "successful" even John Rawls couldn't over throw it (Ursula LeGuin did a better job of it, even if too many readers ignore the lesson). Religion stopped being a counterweight and even stopped being a part of the world; it became seen as an escape, a flight from reality into a comforting and childish fantasy.
I have to say Kierkegaard didn't help matters much with his Attack upon Christendom, right though his attack was. The problem was we'd only known Christendom for 1900 years at that point (and that attack came only 175 or so years ago), and we had no model with which to replace it. So, out went baby and bathwater, and in came....well, among others, a badly mangled model and memory of the monastic communities of the 4th century, whcn Christianity faced, oddly enough, a rather similiar crisis.
But we can't all be monks, can we?
So we can say with Gramsci that we are in the interregnum where all variety of morbid symptoms appear. Except Gramsci said that 100 years ago, and it's only a description of the present if you think the past was simple and homogenous (and the worst thing the church in America did was not chastise Truman over Hiroshima) and the future is either terrifying or so bright we gotta wear shades; while we're trapped here in this messy present where nothing is ever resolved and the battles are never over and it always looks like the "good guys" are losing. But that's the present as a hegemony where all the right people should win and all the wrong people should lose, a sort of perpetual 1946 when the Allies have prevailed and all is forever right with the world. Except the Civil Rights Movement in America started almost immediately after 1945, when black men who had fought for their country came home to be treated like non-persons by that same country. (And part of that energy came from Truman desegregating the armed forces.) And that movement led to the American Indian Movement and the women's liberation movement and Gay Rights movement and Brown v Board and Roe v Wade and Griswold v Connecticut and Lawrence v Texas and Obergefell and....Well, you get the idea. There, in the comforting past, one might say, our troubles began.
Or more accurately, they never ended.
Dr. King was in the world, and of the world. He was despised for his insistence on civil rights and public and personal morality toward persons. He was jailed, he was hosed, and just as he was gaining some support among liberal whites, he lost it again when he preached against the Vietnam War. Hoover investigated him, the Washington Post editorial board rejected and denounced him (for Vietnam); and finally the world put a very worldly bullet in him. He was always of the world, he was always in the world:
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was "well timed" according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "wait." It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This "wait" has almost always meant "never." It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say "wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger" and your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodyness" -- then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
Frankly, that's where the church should be. That's where Christians should be, our hearts changed by our awareness and our joining with our brothers and sisters so we never have to ask the question: "Lord, when did we see you?" Jesus was not interested in being of the world; he was interested in being in the world. His very incarnation attests to that. And his teachings were to transform us, so we would transform the world. That, too, is basic to Judaism, to Hebraism before it. Isaiah's holy mountain would call the nations to it by its example, not by its preaching. The children of Abraham would prosper and be fruitful and multiply by the wisdom of God, God who wanted, after the Exile, to give them new hearts. But hearts are part of the world, too; just as wisdom is. We don't live apart from the world, as Christians. At best, we see and understand the world as the basilea tou theou, the empire of God, where God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven. It is done here, if we see it, if we accept it, if we do it. God's will is that we love and care for one another, and for the creation that is us and sustains us. We can't be new people other than we already are; and we can't do God's will without renewing our resolve to do so every day, sometimes every minute.
It is entirely up to us, and God is not waiting for us to be any different; God is just waiting for us to act. "Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me," is a very, very good starting point. It doesn't require any elaborate moral or ethical or theological or ecclesiological, even social, framework at all.