Sunday, January 23, 2011

Seek The Welfare Of The City - Stanley Haeurwas And The Problem Of Exile

After all, I have playfully used postmodern playfulness to try to remind Christians that we are in a life-and-death struggle with the world. - Stanley Hauerwas, "The Christian Difference, or Surviving Postmodernism", A Better Hope, p.36.
Jeremiah is a gloomy Gus. Reading through this prophetic book, one gets the sense that he rather enjoyed pronouncing judgment upon the evils of a people poised on the precipice of destruction, their kingdom small and weak about to face the onslaught of the Empire of Babylon. Once the catastrophe occurs, Jeremiah spends quite a bit of time comforting the people with, "I told you so".

He also offers a bit of advice to those in exile that was probably as difficult to hear as the dire warnings of imminent doom he spoke. He has a vision of two baskets of figs, and wonders what they mean. The LORD complies, starting in verse 5:
These are the words of the LORD the God of Israel: I count the exiles of Judah whom I sent away from this place to the land of the Chaldaeans as good as these good figs. I shall look to their welfare, and restore them to this land; I shall build them up and not pull them down, plant them and not uproot them. I shall give them the wit to know me, for I am the LORD; they will be my people and I shall be their God, for they will come back to me wholeheartefly.

But King Zedekiah of Judah, his officers, and the survivors of Jerusalem, both those who remain in this land and those who have settled in Egypt - all these I shall treat as bad figs, says the LORD, so bad that they are not fit to eat. I shall make them abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth, a reporach, a bysword, an object of taunting and cursing wherever I banish them. I shall send sword, war, famine, and pestilence against them until they have vanished from the land which I gave to them and to their forefathers.
Setting aside a whole host of questions that should properly be asked about such a text before doing the proper task of exegesis, I would, rather, prefer to offer this as a reply to Stanley Haeurwas' oft-stated desire for Christians to see themselves as those living in exile. In particular, as a reply to the all-too-often accommodated, mainline Protestant churches, their doctrinal differences getting ever fuzzier as they strive to become American Christian churches.

For Hauerwas, this has been unequivocally bad for the churches. They have lost, according to his reading of the history of Christian churches in the United States, the ability to worship, with any real meaning, any authentic prophetic or pastoral content, the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen. In the essays that open A Better Hope, he goes so far as to insist that the mere possibility of being a church that does so - i.e., authentic worship of the living God - would be an ever-living thorn in the side both of secular America and the all-too-willing accommodations of a neutered Protestant bourgeoisie.

Yet, "exile", at least for Jeremiah, is hardly a state of separation. Indeed, those who are in exile, as opposed to those who have been allowed to remain behind (or who have fled to Egypt) are "the good figs", those who still find favor with God. For a people whose identity has been shaped by an attachment to The Land rooted in Divine Grace and favor, this idea that there is blessing in exile from this land must have sounded not just odd, but may even have bordered on unintelligible. All the same, Jeremiah's famous declaration, the title of this post, is of a piece with this parable of the figs. The exiles are to pray and work and live as the people of God, including praying and working for the welfare of the city in which they are held as exiles.

For Jeremiah, then, exile is not a place of struggle against. Nor is it, I should add, a place of accommodation. Rather, the people are to maintain their identity; part of that identity includes being a living community, working and praying and worshiping together, who also seek the welfare of the larger community of which they are a part. Rather than a life-and-death struggle with the world, exile is part of the people's ongoing struggle for the world.

Hauerwas has maintained, for the better part of two decades, that the Christian churches in America, in order to be Christian, need to set to one side any effort at mutual accommodation. We are not to seek the Americanization of Christianity. We are not to seek the Christianization of America. For Hauerwas, only when the churches can worship the God incarnate in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen - and there are abundant references across many writings where Hauerwas is clear this has yet to take place, at least in mainline Protestant Christianity - without reference to America, are the churches not only authentically Christian, but also authentically working for America. For Hauerwas, in other word - to use his rather odd notions of narrative - the story of exile, as the Christian's story in America, is one of a dialectic of separation and prophetic transcendence on the one hand; and immersion and pastoral care leading to transformation on the other. This rather complicated way of envisioning Christian "exile", however, ignores the prophetic insistence, recorded in Jeremiah, that, as exiles, we are those favored by God. Furthermore, as exiles, we are to live our lives as part of the larger community, seeking its welfare in the ordinary, mundane run of life.

Not only is Hauerwas' insistence that real worship of God not yet happening in the Protestant churches, far too comfortable with American life; his understanding of exile is truncated, ignoring the Divine imperative to be - borrowing the imagery from Jeremiah - good figs. This is not treason to the God of Israel, apostasy to the God of Jesus Christ. Rather, in living as both Christians and Americans, including praying and working for the welfare of America qua America, we are living out the lives of exiles. Not in struggle with, even against it. In struggle for it.

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