On William H. Willimon’s “Alien Citizens”:
This article walks a thin line between witness and quietism. Church is God’s answer to politics, but it must also confront the world with the life of Christ. We cannot curl up in our congregations and stick to our knitting until we magically get it right. We have to take our Christianity out into the streets and bang it against the world until the parts that don’t look like Jesus break and fall off. Our witness will often fail, will doubtless be mocked and pitied, just as the author recounts, but as someone once said, it is not our job to win, it is our job to be faithful. Winning is God’s job, and he will do it in his own time. Until then a truly faithful church will certainly attend to building its members in faith, but the works that will give life to that faith will involve radical, forceful confrontation with “the powers that be.” —Brian Dolge
If this had been the ecclesial vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in the black church, there never would have been a civil rights movement. It’s precisely because we have a generation of preachers who “eschew commentary on current events” in light of the gospel message that the church makes no noticeable difference today in the life of the world.…
There are insights from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s monumental Ethics, published posthumously, that run counter to the framework set forth by Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas. Bonhoeffer was executed because of his part in plans to act directly on the state to stop the perpetration of evil – even as we must do, where called for, contra the claims of Willimon that we act by being some sort of model community. As Bonhoeffer noted, “the first demand which is made of those who belong to God’s church is not that they should be something in themselves, not that they should, for example, set up some religious organization or that they should lead lives of piety, but that they shall be witnesses to Jesus Christ before the world. It is for this task that the Holy Spirit equips those to whom he gives himself.” Willimon’s lofty and poetic prose sounds rapt, until you get to the end and realize you actually have nothing that “sticks” – like trying to pin Jell-O to the wall. —Susanne Johnson, Dallas, TX
Willimon’s article is not political in a sense that he wants you to be against Trump. Rather, he is calling for the church and especially the preachers to start being faithful to God first in the church through preaching the gospel and discipleship. It is through preaching and through the church that true Christ-followers are formed, such as those from Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston. The problem is not primarily Trump or the government system; it is the current church’s failure to be faithful to God. God wants people to be saved, and that means preaching the real Word of God, not our personal agendas, self-help, or poor theology.
Willimon once again reminds us not to get distracted but to focus, focus, focus on Jesus Christ. When we truly follow Jesus, the Holy Spirit will transform us individually and as a church, and through the Holy Spirit’s work in us, through us, and to others, the world will see who our Almighty God truly is. I just wonder how many Christians in America are ready for such a mighty move of the Holy Spirit. —Joseph Yang, New York, NY
Will Willimon responds: Quietism? Wow. That’s the first time I’ve been charged with that anathema to Wesleyans (like me). Hey, I’m the guy who sued the governor and legislature of Alabama over their stupid anti-immigration law. And I won in court! I’m also doing everything I can to send our current president back to casino management and tax evasion. In my article, as Joseph Yang says, I’m trying to remind us that Christian politics is more radical than the most radical of leftist politics. In the present hour, we must keep reminding ourselves that Jesus Christ is Lord and the president is not.
Debating the Benedict Option
Dreher’s descriptions of the kinds of intentional Christian communities necessary in our current situation point squarely at the needed reform of pastoral thinking and practice as well as parish life. It’s time for a great awakening. My wife and I have participated in a community of the Neocatechumenal Way for nearly twenty-three years. Our experience corresponds directly to Dreher’s described option. We have experienced the deep renewal that comes from a purposeful, missionary Christian life. We have seen its fruits in our children and the lives of others in our parish communities. It’s no secret. I wholeheartedly concur with Dreher’s calls for dramatic changes rooted in authentic conversion. Devotion to the status quo is a paralyzing force in the church, and whole families are perishing because of it. We can no longer pretend that “it’s not like that here.” It is very much like that here, there, and everywhere. —Bill Beckman, Omaha, NE
I read the article with great anticipation, excited by the title. I was very disappointed. Dreher’s point of view is so mired in his politics that I frankly felt a bit soiled by the end. Although he ardently denies it, his approach is withdrawal from the world, the building of a fortress community, a bubble where we don’t have to deal with ideas other than ours. Many of God’s beloved children are clearly left out of his community. This is right-wing puritanism without praxis. I ardently look for an article that focuses on true community rather than the old “fortress for the saints.” —John Jackman, Winston-Salem, NC
As a Benedictine, this is the first piece I have read that addresses the Benedictine way of life from a Protestant Fundamentalist point of view. Although some communities are cloistered, many of us see far more value in being the presence of Christ in society, rather than secluded from it. One of our prayers entreats God to “make me your other self.” How can that be done when we separate ourselves from the world around us? I am much more drawn to the way of Jesus, who was willing to take the risk of being present even to those he knew would ultimately murder him. —Will Byrd, San Francisco, CA
I appreciate the editors’ providing a broad range of ideas and enjoyed the Winter 2017 issue, my first. However, Dreher’s broad, general opinions on what others should be doing and thinking, sadly, seemed arrogant, given his frequent admissions of so many occasions on which he has been misguided (“wrong,” “arrogant agnostic,” “never really stopped to think,” “scared to death and allowed myself to be manipulated by the government”).
Dreher’s unsubstantiated allegation that there is a push to deny licenses to Canadian doctors who won’t perform euthanasia is alarmist. In Canada there is currently no requirement in the law that doctors provide medical assistance in dying. The Canadian Medical Association supports the right of all physicians to follow their conscience in this matter. Exaggerations and misleading stories abound in public life today. In my opinion, they do nothing to persuade others to sound policy, primarily because they prevent serious discussion of tough issues and badly erode trust. Difficult situations do require us, even Christians, to openly and honestly discuss facts in order to make good decisions. I don’t believe God will judge humanity by what the loudest and most opinionated of us thinks today. Can we agree to show more humility and allow our fellow Christians to try their best to follow the Lord’s teaching? —Katharine A. Daly, Dunbarton, NH
Can someone involved in a sin that is not recognized as sin still be loved by the church? Is this not the question facing the sexual confusion today? At what point does the faith community discipline its members through grace and mercy? These are important questions. If we are not mutually dependent and committed in a community, how can we believe we have been given the “right” of discipline? The expectation of the current “church” is not of family but of pep rally. All we want is to feel good and be happy. If you are not happy where you are, find a “church” with better entertainment and nicer bathrooms. —Mark Smith, North Wales, PA
I was involved in evangelical Christianity, as it came to be known, in the eighties and nineties. People thought they did have authentic conversions. The proof was that they were evangelical about their faith. They were bold in their pronouncements. They were supposed to be the church that is being called for in this article. The spread of Christian-based schools exploded during this time. Isolating people in the schools doesn’t seem to have worked. Now, the call is not just for schools, but live-in communities are required to protect our souls. —Margaret Collins, Springdale, PA
I wanted to like this idea: Thomas Merton and the radical actions of monks in community, something to challenge the zeitgeist of materialism and selfishness. A Christian movement to reimagine community in a brutalizing world. Rescuing Christianity from the political anger of Evangelicals. Instead it seems to me a pretty conservative and reactionary response to the modern world. “Why would we not embrace the sexual constructs and mores of first century Jews?” the author asks. Hmm – along with slavery, etc.? … We should go forward to Christ, not return to something that is safe and self-satisfying. —Harry Robert Harper, Santa Cruz, CA
Dreher seems to have a very dualistic view of things, which cannot bring healing to the great divides that we face. As a Benedictine oblate, I find that he misunderstands the transformative reality of the actual Benedict Option. The monastics I know are deeply transformed people who do not lose their connections to, or concern for, the rest of society. They are savvy, informed, and incarnationally involved. Dreher seems to want to reinforce and protect a narrow understanding of certainty and morality, whereas true contemplative communities are uncomfortably transformative. You have to “die” to what you think you know. —Ellen Haroutunian, Lakewood, CO
Yes, we need to be part of a community of Christ’s disciples to be formed in his image, but that is intended to give us the base from which we can reach out to a lost world. When Christians only show practical love to their own, they are not only unfaithful to the example and teaching of Jesus (Luke 6:32–36), but run the risk of creating “rice Christians,” who have no real allegiance to Jesus but falsely profess faith for what they can get. All of society needs to be reconfigured, and that means being involved in politics.
Since I retired from the pastorate, my wife and I have moved to a church-plant on a local social housing estate. Here we share fellowship with folk who love the Lord and pray with real honesty and faith, but who know great deprivation. Those of us who are able try to provide food and clothing for those who need it. This is about as close to Acts 2 and 4 that we can practically achieve in our circumstances. Our pastor also runs the only free youth club in the area, giving youngsters an alternative to gang culture.
While it would be lovely to imagine our church families moving out to a nice Christian community in the country, that is not going to happen, not least because the jobs are here in the city. Many poorly-paid Christians here are doing work to which they feel called by God. If we are a community in Christ’s image, we are here for others, not just ourselves.
Your small Bruderhof community in London is a better model. Churches could develop communal living to make better use of available accommodation. Even secular friends recognize the need to develop cooperative housing. —Bob Allaway, London, UK
Rod Dreher responds: Some of these letters repeat a familiar experience I’ve had when I introduce the Benedict Option: people respond with anger and fear to what they imagine I am saying, instead of what I actually say. Will Byrd imagines that I am a fundamentalist Protestant who wants to retreat to a “fortress.” I am an Eastern Orthodox believer who lives in the heart of the city – Bob Allaway, please note this. As is clear from any fair-minded reading of my interview, I believe we small-o orthodox Christians – Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox – have to have some sort of limited separation from the world for the sake of formation, precisely so that we can be who Christ commands us to be for the world. Ellen Haroutunian ignores my plain, explicit words in the Plough interview, in which I said that we lay Christians cannot afford to live as cloistered monastics, and that I do not advocate heading for the hills. I do wonder why some people are so deathly afraid of any kind of countercultural way of Christian living.
As to the euthanasia situation in Canada, physicians currently have conscience protection, but there is a strong movement among euthanasia advocates, particularly within Canada’s medical community, to compel doctors to “at a minimum” (the words of a federal advisory panel) refer patients seeking assisted suicide to physicians who will perform it. The federal panel also recommends that all “publicly-funded health care institutions” provide euthanasia upon request. Given Canada’s single-payer health care system, that would mean that religiously run nursing homes and hospices could be compelled to facilitate euthanasia. As of this writing, conscience protections remain in place, but Canadian health care workers to whom I have talked do not expect them to remain for much longer.
Not Our Wendell Berry
On Tamara Hill Murphy’s “The Hole in Wendell Berry’s Gospel”:
Murphy suggests Wendell Berry’s fiction provides a sort of Currier & Ives picture of life: all brightness and no blight. She also suggests there is not enough of the gospel in his work. In his nonfiction, at least, two ideas are central: first, that we have an obligation to care for God’s creation, and second, that we are called to live in community. These ideas echo, respectively, Genesis and the second great commandment. As a Christian, I find this enough from an author. —Jim Severance, Loganville, WI
Any disagreement with Berry should begin with a fair reading of his work – otherwise one is simply battling a straw man. In this respect, I am afraid that even though Murphy agrees with much of Berry’s vision, her essay misrepresents his fiction, claiming that his stories view rural life too nostalgically, glossing over its violence and racism and brokenness.… I’ve recently been spending a lot of time in his stories, and these portray a much more multifaceted view of rural life than Murphy’s essay would lead one to believe.… Port William’s past is riven with violence, anger, and sin, yet it also carries love, forgiveness, and beauty.…[His characters’] search for redemption sounds a lot like the gospel to me. —Jeffrey Bilbro, at Front Porch Republic
Tamara Hill Murphy responds: I wholeheartedly agree that Wendell Berry’s fiction expresses important aspects of the gospel, as Jeffrey Bilbro writes, and I honor him for this. Nonetheless, his fictional characters resist the sort of full transformation that comes only by way of repentance. To say this does not diminish the truths that Mr. Berry’s stories do portray, including those identified by Jim Severance. Rather, it’s to point out that, in these works, a piece of the gospel is missing. This gap need not trouble scholarly critics reading the works purely as literature. But it does matter greatly to those of us twenty-first-century Christians who are seeking to practice aspects of Mr. Berry’s vision in our own lives. We must recognize the dissonance between the ideal of community held up in the Port Williams stories and the kind of community that is wholly formed by discipleship of Jesus Christ. To those among my Christian friends who look to Berry’s writing for a model of how to cultivate good, true, and beautiful economies, I’m urging appreciation but also discernment. The gospel is greater than even the best ideals.
On Jason Landsel’s “Forerunners: Joe Strummer”:
This just brought tears to my eyes. I only subscribed to Plough recently, and I’ve already found some insights that have helped me be a better pastor, but someone writing about my musical hero Joe Strummer?! – Naw, that couldn’t happen here. I miss Joe to this day, and every Thursday night on my radio show I always play at least one Joe tune. He would have been mighty proud to be included here. —Tim Christensen, Butte, MT
Thank you for your continued, excellent work with Plough. I was especially thrilled to see the Joe Strummer piece. It opened multiple conversations with non-believers here in Portland regarding a timelessly prophetic Christianity, which is open, strong, and so needed in our time. Your work helped me bear witness in a very cynical place. —Paul J. Pastor, Bridal Veil, OR
Take It or Leave It
I cancelled my Plough subscription after two issues because I live a very simple, God-centered life – no television, phone, computer – all of that “stuff.” Both issues of Plough brought to mind new evils I had never heard of and really didn’t need to know. (Yes, there were truths woven in, here and there.) So, with sadness, I cancelled. —Mary Burt, Canton, CT
Thank you so much for another very thoughtful magazine. I congratulate you on the variety and independent thinking of many of your articles, representing all shades of opinion from many different perspectives and faiths. It is rare to receive a magazine without obvious bias. Please keep up the good work. —June Curtis, Nottingham, UK