We may be heading for the fall of the West, former British foreign secretary William Hague recently warned. He was referring to November’s unexpected election of Donald Trump to the US presidency and to the surge of populist nationalism around the globe. Hague’s dismay is shared by many across the political spectrum. Even social conservatives who supported the Republican candidate for fear of a Democratic administration are bracing for turbulent years. Christian progressives lament a vote that both reflected and fueled an ugly turn in American politics – a defeat made bitterer by the knowledge that it was meted out by clear majorities of evangelicals, Protestants, and Catholics. Meanwhile, many of the working-class white voters who handed our next president the election feel that their security and identity are under threat.
It’s a moment of anxiety when fear is understandable, even justified. But it is not Christian. The exhortation “Fear not” has served as the predictable springboard for a thousand Christmas sermons. It is also the gospel. As surely as a first-century Jew named Jesus is lord of the universe, God will have the last word on humankind’s affairs. Who is in the White House should be as secondary a question to us as the rise of a new Roman emperor was to Peter and Paul.
On January 15, 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached to his Berlin congregation against the anxieties then engulfing Europe. For Christians, Bonhoeffer said, to live in fear is not acceptable: “Fear takes away a person’s humanity. This is not what the creature made by God looks like.… The Bible, the gospel, Christ, the church, the faith – all are one great battle cry against fear in the lives of human beings.” We who believe in Jesus must not fear, because we have heard the glad tidings of the arrival of a new political regime: the kingdom of God. We are patriots for a different homeland.
“Our citizenship is in heaven,” the apostle Paul tells us (Phil. 3:20). Dorothy Day, the New Yorker who founded the Catholic Worker movement, took his words literally: she never voted. Her reason, according to her friend Ammon Hennessy, was that she “did not bother to choose between the rival warmongers who sought to run the country,” but “voted every day by practicing her ideals against war and the capitalist system which caused war.”
We must commit to the messy work of building up real flesh-and-blood church communities.
Dorothy Day was anything but apolitical – she campaigned for women’s suffrage and workers’ rights, protested militarism, and struggled against racial injustices. Crucially, she did so not despite her faith but because of it. And it was for precisely the same reason that she took no part in electoral partisanship. She had a better, more lasting solution: to express in action Jesus’ love to the oppressed, the vulnerable, and the guilty – to build up communities that embodied the kind of life that Jesus taught.
Today more than ever, Day’s kind of politics – the politics of an alien citizen – seems to make a lot of sense. This issue of Plough seeks to flesh out what it might look like to live accordingly. That’s why we lead with an interview with Rod Dreher, whose proposal of what he calls the “Benedict Option” – a more communal Christianity – has sparked both wide interest and controversy.
For many, the first introduction to the early Christian vision of church community was the 1989 book Resident Aliens by Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas. In an article for this issue, Willimon looks at what it means to be a resident alien today in light of an essay by Eberhard Arnold, Bonhoeffer’s contemporary. Arnold’s reflection, on the Incarnation and the church’s calling to be the body of Christ in the world, helps us place contemporary questions within the great context in which they belong.
Arnold, like Bonhoeffer and Day, rejected the charge that Christian discipleship meant political quietism. On the contrary, he insisted that the church’s mission has everything to do with the wider society:
To be sure, the Christian is obliged to let himself be put to death rather than to instigate violent insurrection. All the more, he is challenged to combat oppression with every inner resource in the name of Jesus Christ. The Christian has the duty of standing up against all public or private wrong with power and commission and authority, even at the risk of death – just as was the case with John the Baptist and with Jesus himself.
As we face the radical uncertainties of the year ahead, may this fearlessness be ours as well.
Even more urgently, may we get to work building up the body of Christ on earth as a tangible sign of the justice of God’s coming kingdom. This cannot remain just a topic for symposia and discussion groups. It means a commitment to the messy work of joining together in real flesh-and-blood church communities. It requires a new way of life.
As the angel told the shepherds of Bethlehem, the “glad tidings of great joy” with which we are entrusted will one day “be unto all peoples.” Here, and nowhere else, is a politics to which we can rightly devote our lives and fortunes.