Book Summary: Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas

Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Expanded 25th Anniversary Edition) is a worthy read. I have read it twice now and the second reading was different from the first. I am both more appreciative and more critical. Still, I think this book has some important words for American Christians today. Hauerwas challenges both the liberal and conservative positions and points us all to our identity as the people under the lordship of Christ.

 

Thesis and Opponents

 

Hauerwas’ central thesis is that the “church, as those called out by God, embodies a social alternative that the world cannot on its own terms know” (17)[1]. He calls this “social alternative” the polis, the people of God, and the true “political” concern of the church.

Hauerwas’ primary critique is of a church that has accommodated to the political concerns of the State, what he calls “Constantinianism.” He argues that both the conservative and liberal churches have basically capitulated to the State. Both have been primarily concerned with making life a little better for the world by promoting a particular social ethic. “Both assume wrongly that the American church’s primary social task is to underwrite American democracy” (31). In doing so, both have neglected the primary social concern of the church, being a people who see and follow Jesus.

Hauerwas believes that the “Constantian” view of the church is falling fast, and perhaps it is now even more so than when Hauerwas wrote Resident Alien. He argues that the demise of this worldview is not something to be lamented as a failure, but celebrated as an opportunity. “The decline of the old, Constantinian synthesis between the church and the world means that we American Christians are at last free to be faithful in a way that makes being a Christian today an exciting adventure… Now our churches are free to embrace our roots … a faith community that does not ask the world to do what it can only do for itself” (17-18).

What the church can “only do for itself” is be the people of God. Hauerwas argues that Christianity is more than just conversion and it is more than just a vague promotion of disembodied principles of love and social justice. Instead, “Christianity is an invitation to be part of an alien people who make a difference because they see something that cannot be otherwise be seen with Christ” (24). It’s Jesus, and our ability to “see” him, is what makes the church truly unique and radical. We cannot speak to the world about “peace” and “justice” in general ways that everyone can agree on. “The church really does not know what these words mean apart from the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth” (37). In other words, we only begin to understand those terms as we see them in the mission of in Jesus and then embodied within the church.

Hauerwas’ message is at times combative and subversive:

“The church does not exist to ask what needs doing to keep the world running smoothly and then to motivate our people to go do it. The church is not to be judged by how useful we are as a “supportive institution” and our clergy as members of a “helping profession.” The church has its own reason for being, hid within its own mandate and not found in the world. We are not chartered by the Emperor” (39).

This message, he understands, brings up the charge of “tribalism.” Is the church its own “tribe” which exists to the exclusion of other tribes? But Hauerwas argues that of all the various political identities in our world, “The church is the one political entity in our culture that is global, transnational, transcultural” (42). For Hauerwas, blind nationalism is the truly dangerous “tribal” mindset in our world.

The Confessing Church

Hauerwas envisions what Yoder calls the “Confessing Church.” The Confessing church does not take as its primary aim the transformation of the world through the political route of the State. Instead, it seeks to transform the world by creating a counterculture of people who live under the reign of Jesus. In this counterculture “people are faithful to their promises, love their enemies, tell the truth, honor the poor, suffer for righteousness, and thereby testify to the amazing community-creating power of God. The confessing church has no interest in withdrawing from the world, but it is not surprised when its witness evokes hostility from the world” (46). In doing so this counterculture church becomes the people of the cross, demonstrating God’s love for the world. The most “effective” thing the church can do is to become the “actual creation of a living, breathing, visible community of faith” (46) in a hostile world.

Adventure

Since culture is becoming more hostile to the cross the church must produce disciples who are willing to pay the price but, once again, for Hauerwas, growing hostility is not necessarily a cause for lament. Instead he sees it as a call to journey and adventure. “Life in the colony is not a settled affair. Subject to constant attacks upon and sedition against its most cherished virtues, always in danger of losing its young, regarded as a threat by an atheistic culture, which in the name of freedom and equality subjugates everyone—the Christian colony can be appreciated by its members as a challenge (50).” And again, “The colony is a people on the move, like Jesus’ first disciples, breathlessly trying to keep up with Jesus (51).”

Community and Ethics

Another major theme of Resident Aliens is Hauerwas’ connection between community and ethics. Modern ethics is based on an individualistic view of the world. “People seek individuality through the severance of restraints and commitments.” In other words, in modern language, people become more virtuous by separating from the constraints of community so that they can become liberated to “be themselves.” The virtuous man is the one not held down by tradition or responsibility but is the heroic self and is able decide and choose and he so desires. “Growing up, becoming a mature, functioning adult is thus defined as becoming someone who has no communal, traditionalist, familial impediments” (78).

The church offers a different reality. Ethics in the church are deeply connected, on the one hand, to our story. We are rooted to a tradition. Scripture is laid out as a grand story, not just as a set of ahistorical propositions. We are able to understand our ethical position when we understand our place within this story. On the other hand, ethics are tied to community, responsibility, mutual submission, and fellowship. Our individuality is not swallowed up. We don’t lose our individuality. Instead, we stand out as true individuals, with a greater degree of character, when we attach ourselves to the Messiah and to the people of God.

In attaching ourselves to the people of God Christian living becomes a possibility. This is true not only because we “get a little help from our friends” but because we are able to see what it means to be moral in the first place. The church not only gives us the support we need in being moral, it also teaches us what being moral is. “The church is crucial for Christian epistemology. We would not know enough to be moral without the colony” (94).

Telling the Truth

Central to what it means to be a Christian Community is the ability and willingness to tell the truth:

“The church is the colony that gives us resident aliens the interpretive skills whereby we know honestly how to name what is happening and what to do about it. Yet while the American church was busy thinking it was transforming the world, the world declared victory in its effort to extinguish or to ignore the church… We suspect that the church loses its vitality when its speech is cleaned up, pruned down, domesticated to ensure that our relationship with God is predictable and nice.” (146-148)

In other words, the church being the people of God and the church proclaiming the truth are not mutually exclusive for Hauerwas. We do not need to choose. Instead, the two are interrelated.

But our actions must match our words. As Haurewas later states:

“no clever theological moves can be substituted for the necessity of the church being a community of people who embody our language about God, where talk about God is used without apology because our life together does not mock our words. 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.” (171)

Critique

I agree with Hauerwas on several fronts. The primary task of the church is, in fact, to be the church and we can only be the church when we first attach ourselves to Christ through conversion, and then learn what it means, in community, to be the people of God. I also agree that in this regard we set ourselves up as “resident aliens” and as colonists in a world that is hostile to Christ.

I have two areas of critique. First, for Hauerwas, this position is closely tied to a critique of American war policy. He takes a position of pacifism that I don’t entirely agree with. In general he sets up a stronger antithesis between State and Church than I am comfortable with. Second, he seems to sometimes emphasize right living over right belief. They both are really two sides of the same coin.

Nevertheless, I really appreciate Resident Aliens. It’s very interesting to read Hauerwas because he comes out of a theologically liberal denomination and yet he speaks as a conservative. Much of his stronger critique is leveled against what we might today call “theological progressives” but it is a critique “from within” so to speak. He doesn’t speak as a conservative critiquing liberals but as someone from within the liberal leaning camp seeking to reform that part of the Christian movement, to bring it back to its central task of proclaiming and following Christ. Of course, the theologically conservative camp needs this call just as much.

[1] All page numbers are from the Kindle version.

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