Resident Aliens in America?

Garden photos 001

Twenty-five years ago, Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, two white, southern Methodists wrote the challenging little book, Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know Something is Wrong. They had both grown up in segregated towns where white folks thought that being Christian and being American was a seamless cloth.

For those of us from the peace church tradition, it’s more complicated. Every time we think we’re finally becoming good citizens another war comes along and muddies the water. But we’re also much more American than we realize. I found that out when I lived in the Philippines and began to see the world through Filipino eyes. They tended to see me as part of the American ruling class in a way that I found distressing. I needed to own up to that part of my identity. Let’s be honest with ourselves; professional white Americans are hardly resident aliens.

The seamless cloth that had neatly held Christian faith and American citizenship together through the 1950s began to unravel in the 60s and 70s. The fabric was already badly frayed when Willimon and Hauerwas wrote their book. They had read John Howard Yoder’s book The Politics of Jesus and came to the conclusion that this unraveling was a good thing. That’s the part they got right and it sparked a lively and much-needed debate about Christian faith in America. Now twenty-five years later, the Oct. 1, 2014 issue of The Christian Century includes a discussion of the book. Various theologians and church leaders give their comments followed by the authors’ response.

Willimon and Hauerwas say that “the 1950s were a triumph of boring white middle-class Christianity.” Things have changed dramatically since then. They write, “It isn’t so much that mainline [churches have] been disenfranchised by contemporary American culture; it’s that dispossession from the dominant culture is the effect that Jesus Christ has upon anyone who attempts to obey him.”

The commentators generally appreciate the contribution Resident Aliens has made but also point out some glaring blind spots. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, writes, “Resident Aliens tried to show that this problem at the heart of southern religion is endemic to American Christianity. Two southerners held a mirror up to the church and said, “Ya’ll have a look. To everyone else in the world, you don’t come off much better than a Mississippi Klansman. Or rather, that’s what they might have said.” Instead they took on the ideologies they saw propping up American civil religion—democracy, liberalism, and Christendom.

During the years following the publication their book, Hauerwas spoke in various Mennonite settings. His focus was on being aliens in our society—people who don’t fit. It was a message that comfortable mainstream Methodists perhaps needed to hear but it reinforced our Mennonite separatism in ways that weren’t helpful. We instead need to focus on being residents, an integral part of our community—only then can we be prophetic and challenge our society. To use an example from nursery school, we may not pick up our blocks and go play in a corner by ourselves.

Brian McLaren, another commentator on Resident Aliens, points to various biblical images that serve as a corrective, “The Bible contains many images that convey a wide range of possible relationships between “church/people of God” and “society/world.” Resident alien is one of them, and it is an important corrective medicine to chaplaincy to empire, helping institution, or conquering army. But medicines are only of value in relation to the disease of the patient, and alien colony (a problematic image in itself) isn’t the only image we need. Yeast, salt, doctor, and light, for example, are alternative images that suggest a concern for “transforming the world”—while also requiring a unique, countercultural identity.”

I’m an avid community gardener. To use a metaphor from gardening, if we want to be a transformative people we can’t just whack at the weeds of the modern world, while hankering after some pristine pre-modern world. At some point, we need to get our hands into the dirt to plant and cultivate vegetables.

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2 thoughts on “Resident Aliens in America?

  1. Margie Van Nostrand

    Earl – It’s so good to be able to get these recaps of your Sunday sermons. There are so many points to be mulled over – plus, some of us may be sleep-deprived on a Sunday morning – I often share this condition with our teenagers, albeit for different reasons! – It’s notable that “Resident Aliens” was inspired (at least in part?) by Yoder’s book.

    I love the garden imagery – both visual and verbal. Regarding weed-wacking in society, what immediately comes to mind are demonstrators such as the “Occupy – such and such city “- and those who carry big signs designed to be photographed by the press. It’s debatable just what this accomplishes – maybe you’d disagree with this. Those who come to mind as vegetable planters are those who’ve chosen a life’s work in the business of transformation – like yourself and many others in our congregation.

    Responding to McLaren’s comment about resident aliens being corrective medicine, one wonders just how Mennonites could correct an “empire” or a “conquering army” – Certainly what they seem to be good at is working their way into “helping institutions”. – Margie

    • Thanks Margie. As you know from our gardening efforts,I’m pretty good at whacking out weeds and thorns myself. On a societal level, that may include joining with others marching and holding big signs. Still that alone is not enough. We need to get down into the dirt and plant our garden in the communities where we live. For me here in Fairfax, that includes joining with our neighbors and our city council to work for affordable housing for low-income people.

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