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painting of yellow city skyline under bright sun

In Search of a City

Charles E. Moore

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  • Mike Smathers

    I do not believe it is necessary to engage in communal living to live faithfully. I do not totally agree that the church overcame Rome entirely by demonstrating a new kingdom. Most early Christians continued to live as citizens of Judea, or their city of birth or as Roman citizens. Otherwise Paul's letters make no sense. Paul himself used his Roman citizenship to carry the gospel to Rome. The early church converted many Romans because as one Roman said, "They take care not only of their own poor, but of ours also."

  • Austin Dayal

    It is not only demonstration of the kingdom that brings about a change in the world but the power of God that is unleashed as a result of prayer of such a community of people. We might even dare to add that the prayer is central to the transformation of the society. The other thing that we must not forget is that the prince of this world would come down with all his fury to oppose such a church. It happened to the early church and it would happen again if we start living the gospel. This is the price that Christ would pay today through his body that is us. We must be prepared for such an eventuality. Nothing much happens now a days because we are not a threat to the kingdom of this world, but as soon as we become a threat it would come down on the church like a wild torrent.

  • Austin Dayal

    There is a vital thing that early Christina's understood very well, that only the renewed lives can hold on to such values and principles. Only those who have been crucified with Christ and have experienced the power of new life could live according to these principles. Not only the early Christians themselves but the outsiders who saw these new values being practiced in their community also recognized it and they were afraid to join them for the fear of failing to follow them and its serious consequences.

  • MICHAEL NACRELLI

    John, if your question is directed at me, I was asking if Moore believes it's misguided for Christians to engage in political activism seeking to change unjust laws. He seems to be saying this, but I could be misreading him. Maybe he's instead saying that such activism rings hollow when we fail to live out God's justice in our own Christian communities.

  • Brian Dolge

    The Catholic Church distinguishes between personal sin, which comes from our actions, and original sin which comes from who we are. The Bruederhof community seems to be addressing the issue of personal sin, MLK was addressing the issue of original sin. In our time we would do well to think of original sin not in terms of apples and genetics, but as the ways we are bound up in the sins of our society. Racism and other xenopobias are not the choices of most of us, but we must admit they live in our hearts and minds any way. If you are an American it is safe to say you are standing on land stolen from indigenous people as part of history's most successful genocide. If you are wealthy enough to be reading this there is little doubt that every second bite you eat would do more good in the mouth of a hungry child somewhere. Nothing we do as individuals can do will change these facts. Perhaps the church should not get involved in worldly politics, but it must bear Witness. Jesus was hung not for forgiving sins, but for decrying the injustice around him. He did this in the marketplace, not the prayer circle. At a recent immigration rally I carried a sign saying "Jesus was a Refugee". I thought about using "is". We certainly cannot put our faith in the politics of the world, but we cannot think that our personal faith sets us free from our obligation to confront injustice.

  • John G Evans

    MLK was spot on with every word he spoke, wrote, or understood. I am not quite sure what you are addressing here, but I sense should the world begin anew like Thomas Paine wrote about, it could be led with a leadership as King would have liked to have seen. There has been no other man since his time as MLK. We as a global community should be embracing all he taught.

  • MICHAEL NACRELLI

    Was MLK therefore misguided in his campaign to have civil rights for Black Americans enshrined into law?

The church, Scripture teaches, is where God’s politics becomes reality: it’s a city governed by the Sermon on the Mount. But does any such place exist?

At the outset of my Christian journey, I was taught to keep politics and religion separate. Jesus came to save sinners, not society. Our citizenship is in heaven, not here on earth. It’s the soul that counts, not the body. What matters is one’s eternal destiny, not social betterment.

This attitude may be appealing to some, but the good news is good because it holds promise not only for the next life (which it does) but also for this life and how we live it now. After all, Jesus healed bodies as much as he forgave sins, and he shared everyday life with his followers – eating and drinking and traveling with them – as much as he prayed alone in the wilderness. He announced the arrival of God’s politics, which means the end of politics as usual: good news for the poor at the bottom, bad news for the power-elites on top (Luke 6:20–26).

The 2016 presidential campaign made two things painfully clear: Christians do not agree on how to apply the gospel to political issues, and when Christian leaders do get involved in partisan politics, the consequences are hardly benign. Compromise is inevitable, and political intrigue is always close at hand. How, then, to do politics Christianly?

The Activist Temptation

When Ron Sider’s seminal book Rich Christians in a World of Hunger appeared in 1979, the call for Christian social engagement had an explosive effect on the evangelical world of my youth, which emphasized personal salvation to the exclusion of all else. Today such ideas have become commonplace. Believers from across the theological spectrum seek to end sex trafficking, world hunger, homelessness, environmental depredation, the prison-industrial complex, the death penalty, and a host of other ills. They have marched, petitioned, rallied, advocated, organized, and even peacefully resisted in order to make society more just and more God-fearing. In the process, they have also discovered firsthand how messy and heartbreaking politics can be.

Jesus rejected methods deliberately calculated to manipulate public affairs, even toward some noble end. He invited people to pursue the good free-willingly. 

As a young seminary professor committed to stopping both abortion and poverty, I was not only torn between the competing demands of the right and left but also dismayed by seeing how political power can corrupt even the best of intentions. One day I happened to be in a small gathering of activists who had invited John Howard Yoder to speak. We peppered him with questions: What does it mean to bear witness to Christ’s kingdom? What role does the state play in God’s economy? What is our political responsibility? What does it mean to bring about social change nonviolently? Yoder listened patiently, then said something I’ve never forgotten: “The church does not have a politic, it is a politic.”

Yoder’s words shocked me into reading the New Testament all over again. And there it was! Jesus wasn’t just against violence, injustice, and immorality – he freed people from these very things. He wasn’t just against disproportionate and ill-gotten wealth. He was against Mammon itself. He didn’t come to sprinkle kingdom values on society. No, his was a society in which God’s kingdom broke in (Luke 11:20, 17:21) and where a brand new order emerged (1 Pet. 2:9–12).

Jesus, Yoder taught me, knew full well how this world operated, and that is why he didn’t directly confront the Roman state or its policies. He had an entirely different agenda and thus wasn’t interested in making Rome, or Israel for that matter, great or even better. These realms were under the grip of principalities and powers that governed by constraint, control, and money. In these kingdoms, you hit back if wronged, and if you had wealth, you secured it for yourself, not for your neighbor. “Not so with you,” Jesus told his disciples (Luke 22:24–30). God’s kingdom is drastically different (John 18:36). Citizens of his kingdom are inclusive; no one is left out or left behind. They govern themselves by means of the towel, the basin, and the cross. Among his adherents there is neither servant nor lord; all are brothers and sisters who make it their aim to serve the least.

Jesus was more than political; he was radical. By refusing to engage in direct resistance, he bypassed the modus operandi of partisan politics altogether. He rejected means and methods deliberately calculated to manipulate public affairs, even if it was toward some noble end. Instead of using the threat of law, he invited people to pursue the good free-willingly. Jesus offered his followers a new kind of social existence in which the common good took priority. He brought about a new kind of body politic – the body of Christ – in which the good of all and the good of each coalesced into a life of unity and fellowship.

The early chapters of Acts describe such a life. The miracle of Pentecost (Acts 2) was not primarily that people spoke in other tongues but rather that among them natural hierarchies and divisions were overcome. Jesus’ first followers shared all things in common and were of one heart, soul, and mind. Their lives were the evidence that the principalities and powers that divide humankind had indeed been defeated on the cross.

painting of lamppost against a yellow city Brigitta Racz, Morning Shine

The Missing Link

Yoder’s words excited me. They also confounded me. Where were the people who forsook politics to live out the justice of God’s reign? Countless churches did good works, yet their “social action” seemed to only go so far. Unwed mothers, though directed to crisis pregnancy centers, were later left to fend for themselves. Unemployed Christians still depended more on government assistance than on the church. The elderly were still shunted away in nursing homes, even by those committed to a “focus on the family.” The rate of divorce in the church was (and still is) as high as anywhere else. And when it came to conflict or disagreement, power blocks and coercive majorities thrived inside the church just as they did in the secular world. One day the doors of our church were literally chained shut for our failure to comply with new denominational policies regarding women’s leadership.

If what we read in the New Testament was true, if following Jesus meant adopting a distinct social ethic with others, then something had to give.

I didn’t know where to turn next. If what we read in the New Testament was true, if following Jesus meant adopting a distinct social ethic with others, then something had to give. I wanted to be a part of a community where Jesus was free to be ruler over every sphere of existence. My wife and I made a drastic change and joined the Bruderhof, a communal church or “embassy of the kingdom,” where we seek to submit our work, worship, food, housing, and education to the lordship of Christ. Needless to say, it’s an imperfect group. Yet here we have found a community of families and singles, highly educated people and high school dropouts, people of all ages and nationalities – all determined to put their faith into practice in unity.

Bruderhof life might look distinctive, but it’s not apolitical. It has a body politic all its own. Single mothers and their children, for instance, are not left to fend for themselves; they are connected with other families, receiving the same support as everyone else. The elderly are similarly cherished by family members and other caregivers in the community. They contribute to the community however they can, both practically and spiritually. For example, they spend time with children and teenagers in the community, and younger couples turn to them for parenting advice. In short, they feel needed because they are needed.

When it comes to work, no one is above another – at least, not so long as we’re practicing what we preach. All kinds of skills and trainings are valued, and no one receives more because of their position, skill, or expertise. In fact, all of us are paid the same: nothing. We share everything in common, pooling our income so that the love of Jesus can flow unhindered, without envy or possessiveness
or financial inequality.

Our pledge is to serve one another in love. So instead of using pressure or manipulation when a collective decision must be made, we strive to wait patiently before God until there is heartfelt unity among all. We promise to address each other directly whenever there is a conflict (which, of course, happens often). If we get stuck, we get help. More important than being in the right is finding joy in one another. We value each other for who we are, as brothers and sisters whose relationships aren’t hierarchical but rather make up a fabric where each person is needed and appreciated. Here my wife and I have found a truly different way of living together.

painting of gray city row houses Brigitta Racz, Paris, Montmartre

Dropping Out?

This may sound too good to be true. Sometimes, it is – especially when our human missteps lead to situations that are embarrassing, or tragic, or hilarious. And yet, if Jesus is at the center of our common life, we can recognize our failures, look each other in the eye, ask for and grant forgiveness, pick up the pieces, and start fresh. Over and over again. That is doing politics Jesus’ way!

While such a life is fulfilling, it is also far from idyllic. It demands a willingness to consciously unmake established patterns of power and advantage. It requires a change of allegiance, one in which our common life and God’s cause have priority over our personal wishes.

Does choosing such a life mean dropping out of society and letting the world go to ruin? When Thomas Merton became a Trappist monk, he was criticized for indulging in a way of life that seemed indifferent to the world’s problems. His reply was straightforward, even if it was rejected by most:

By my monastic life and vows I am saying No to all the concentration camps, the aerial bombardments, the staged political trials, the judicial murders, the racial injustices, the economic tyrannies, and the whole socioeconomic apparatus which seems geared for nothing but global destruction in spite of all its fair words in favor of peace. I make monastic silence a protest against the lies of politicians, propagandists, and agitators, and when I speak it is to deny that my faith and my church can ever seriously be aligned with these forces of injustice and destruction.footnote

A life together with others need not be an escape from the world; it is something we do for the sake of the world. We should always feel responsible for the general welfare of others, but the church serves society best when it embodies the kind of community in which God himself reigns. Only then do we have anything distinctive and life-giving to say.

The earliest Christians turned the Roman world upside down not because they found ways to better govern society but because they showed what life in the new creation that Christ promised us looks like.

Ironically, those who in the name of Christ advocate righteous causes by pressuring Congress to pass laws and better spend their tax money usually fail to do justice to the radically communal, and thus political, nature of discipleship. In fact, much of what passes for Christian political activity, on both the left and the right, stems from having despaired of being the church. As Hauerwas and Willimon argue in Resident Aliens, we fool ourselves whenever we strive through power and partisan politics to make the culture at large a little less racist, a little less promiscuous, a little less violent, a little less unequal and unwelcoming when we ourselves do not practice these things.footnote What we so easily forget is that the church, being the body of Christ, should look like Jesus.

If we make our life in Christ secondary in order to more “effectively” influence society, we are, using an analogy drawn from Yoder, like a musician who leaves the stage in order to work as an usher in the concert hall.footnote To declare Jesus “Lord” is to say that the essential work of God in history is not within the realm of the old aeon, of power and prestige, but within and between those who make the humble way of the cross central to their lives. Rather than wield power and wealth “as instruments of coercion and pressure, obliging an adversary to yield unconvinced,” we should show what life is like when God is on the throne.footnote

The earliest Christians turned the Roman world upside down not because they found ways to better govern society but because they showed what life in the new creation that Christ promised us looks like. Freed of greed, self-interest, power, and pleasures of the flesh, Christians in Rome provided burial for pagans who were too poor to afford it and supported fifteen hundred who were impoverished. In Antioch, the church fed three thousand destitute persons. Church funds, in some cases, bought the emancipation of slaves. When the plague struck Carthage in 252, Bishop Cyprian sent his people out to nurse the sick and bury the dead. A century later, the emperor Julian complained that the Christians looked after “not only their own beggars but ours as well.” Their care was so extensive that Julian tried to copy the church’s welfare system. In cities filled with homeless people, newcomers, and strangers, and torn by violent ethnic strife, the growing Christian community offered solidarity, help, and hope.footnote

Our society needs people who practice the virtues that make more government unnecessary. It needs people who reimagine and reconfigure their lives so that the reality of God’s transforming love can be concretely known and felt. Such a life is political. Such a life is what the New Testament calls the church. It is a matter of doing justice, not just demanding it of others; of building community, not just discussing it; of submitting to one another for the sake of a good greater than oneself, not pushing one’s own ideas on others; of sharing with one another so that every need is met, not just one’s own. Only in this way can those who suffer under the injustices of this world’s system, or from the loneliness and isolation it spawns, have hope of a better way.


Images © Tubidu Graphics

painting of a yellow row houses under a bright sun Brigitta Racz Yellow Façade (detail).

The Church’s Task Is to Be the Church

Stanley Hauerwas

The first social task of the church is to be the church – the servant community....

Calling for the church to be the church is not a formula for a withdrawal ethic, nor is it a self-righteous attempt to flee from the world’s problems.... The gospel is political. Christians are engaged in politics, a politics of the kingdom. Such a politics reveals the insufficiency of all politics based on coercion and falsehood, and it finds the true source of power in servanthood rather than domination....

As Christians we are at home in no nation. Our true home is the church itself, where we find those who, like us, have been formed by a savior who was necessarily always on the move.

Source: “The Servant Community: Christian Social Ethics” (1983), in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Duke, 2001), 371–391.

Footnotes

  1. Thomas Merton, preface to The Seven Storey Mountain, Japanese edition (1966).
  2. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens (Abingdon, 1989), 80–81.
  3. John Howard Yoder, Discipleship as Political Responsibility (Herald, 2003), 63.
  4. John Howard Yoder, The Original Revolution (Herald, 1977), 156.
  5. Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 16.
Contributed By photo of Charles Moore Charles E. Moore

Charles E. Moore is a writer and contributing editor to Plough. He is a member of the Bruderhof, an intentional community movement based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

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