Hauerwas on love and community in an age of Christian nationalism

I’m re-reading Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Towards a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (1981).

I’m working on a writing project and am thinking about the connections between the narrative of the Christian story and the love ethic within Christian community. In other words, if humans are story-formed people, how does the particular story of the Gospel shape the ethics and aspirations of followers of Jesus? Where and how does love fit in?

As usual Hauerwas is on the money. Note in the quote below how he connects the cross, discipleship, community and the Gospels. Christians share in Christ’s story – a story of love and self-giving. Such a calling is not to power, coercion or violence. Nor it is motivated by fear and protective self-interest. Nor does it imagine it can or should seek to control the world.

We need Hauerwas more than ever these days. While Trump is no longer President and has again been acquitted by the Senate, forces of Christian nationalism are on the rise. The erection of a cross outside the Capitol on January 6 during a violent and deadly assault represented an idolatrous rejection of the way of Jesus. The symbolism was unambiguous – God blesses our political objectives; God blesses our violence; God blesses our version of America. God’s way of the cross is subverted, the cross instead becomes a weapon of war. God blesses our ‘politics of purity’ by which we are going to ‘cleanse’ America from all who (we believe) are defiling the nation’s God-given calling. This is the politics of exclusion, of fear, of oppression – it belongs to the ‘powers and principalities’ of this age, not to the Kingdom of God.

We’ve seen this before of course. The cross used as a symbol of Empire, a battle standard in Christendom’s wars with Islam. We had our own version here in Ireland with Padraig Pearse’s Easter Rising in 1916 and in Protestant versions of ‘For God and Ulster’. America has long had a corrosive strand of religious nationalism where God’s blessing is routinely invoked on its special destiny as the nation of ‘freedom’. What’s happening now is this form of religious nationalism is ‘heating up’, the fires stoked by Trump – ironically someone for whom ‘Christianity’ is little more than a useful symbol to use for his own political self-interest. Once the fires have been lit, ‘hot’ nationalisms are hard to put out. (Which is why it is Bible-believing devout evangelicals enablers of Trump like Kayleigh McEnany who I think are most culpable).

To be a disciple is to be part of a new community, a new polity, which is formed on Jesus’ obedience to the cross. The constitutions of this new polity are the Gospels. The Gospels are not just the depiction of a man, but they are manuals for the training necessary to be part of the new community. To be a disciple means to share Christ’s story, to participate in the reality of God’s rule.


I have tried to suggest that such a rule is more than the claim that God is Lord of this world. It is the creation of a “world” through a story that teaches us how such a rule is constituted. Christians learn the power of this rule by loving as God has loved through Jesus’ life. That is, they love their “enemies, and do good and lend without expecting return” for, if they do, their “reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and selfish. Be merciful, even as your father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36).

It is through such love that Christians learn that they are to serve as he served. Such service is not an end in itself, but reflects the Kingdom into which Christians have been drawn. This means that Christians insist on service which may appear ineffective to the world. For the service that Christians are called upon to provide does not have as its aim to make the world better, but to demonstrate that Jesus has made possible a new world, a new social order.

Page 49.

Fear, Nietzsche and Beauty: approaching 2017

Two things behind this post.

  1. 2016 was, in many ways, a brutal, ugly and unsettling sort of year.
  2. This pair of goldfinches visited our garden (I’ll come back to the goldfinches)

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2016 was especially unsettling for us in the West, I think, because it was also a year that saw rising threats to the future stability and security of our Western way of life.

In no particular order, some of these threats include (and I am sure you can add your own):

  • The devastation of Syria – but also within Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere – and its unimaginable associated human cost, have left many looking on feeling both helpless and angry. On top of this, the conflict has exposed the West’s impotence to oust Assad and has hugely bolstered Putin’s influence in the region.
  • The West continues to reap what was sown by Bush and Blair’s reckless and arrogant invasion of Iraq. Western hubris to imagine that Western democracy could be catalysed in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan has been shown to be just that.
  • Putin’s latest ‘victory’ in Aleppo is part of his agenda of regaining Russian self-respect and influence in the world. Annexing Crimea, partial invasion of Eastern Ukraine, new balances of power with Turkey, cyber-hacking the USA and ruthless crushing of dissent at home – are all part of Putin’s gangsterism and empire-building strategy demonstrating his contempt for the weak West.
  • European elites seem to have no coherent answer to either the refugee crisis or the very real chance of the break up of the Euro. Italy could enter a fiscal crisis in 2017. Risks to the viability of the Euro appear to be relentlessly rising despite continual firefighting by European policy makers. After years, it is pretty clear that there is neither the political cohesion or creativity to ‘re-imagine’ a different structure for Europe that can actually work.
  • That scepticism towards Europe as an idea is shared by more and more within Europe. Brexit might be only the first step.
  • Liberal Westerners are aghast at the potential ending (or at least a serious threats to) of the onward ‘civilising’ march of liberal secular democracy in Europe and the USA. Trump and Putin (and their mutual admiration society) pose the nightmare scenario of the rise of autocratic right-wing nationalism. I mean by this  a form of nationalism that goes back to a myth of ‘our origins’ and seeks to ‘recover’ who we ‘truly’ are while simultaneously finding scapegoats blame for the ‘decline of our once great nation’.
  • The nihilistic brutality of ISIS / Daesh and its sporadic, unpredictable and ruthless violence within European cities is designed not for military victory but to spread fear and catalyse division within the enemy. One desired outcome is to sow seeds of enmity and distrust within European multiculturalist pluralist societies that can grow into ugly plants of xenophobia, racism and exclusion – to undermine Europe from within.  So far, quite a lot of progress made on this front.

The fear and uncertainty felt by many in the West today is not because uncertainty, violence, mass immigration and nationalism are new but because they are hitting close to home.

These are some impressionistic descriptions – some may be more accurate than others. The real point is not the detail but a question:

What is a response for a disciple of Jesus to living in times of deep uncertainty?

Some possible responses:

  1. Be consumed by fear at threats to our ‘Western way of life.’

There is an incomparable richness with living in the West – the freedoms and opportunities that we take for granted are all around us. It is an astonishing privilege to live in a culture that has a democratic government (and only partially corrupt form of politics). Heck, even the trains nearly run on time some of the time. These freedoms should be supported and defended as that which gives maximum freedom to most people.

But, Christians should be well aware that these gifts are not guaranteed and are certainly not an indispensable part of being a follower of Jesus. A Christian’s source of identity, security and hope does not derive from living in an unheralded time (historically speaking) of prosperity, political stability and access to infinite information.

So we are not to be people of fear, but of hope. Our ‘salvation’ does not rest on the fortunes of liberal secular democracy. Christians in the West are, after all, called to be NOT good Westerners – whether Irish, American, British or German etc. They ARE called to be faithful disciples of Jesus their Lord.

2. Live by the sword

Up there with ‘love your enemies’, perhaps one of the most ignored teachings of Jesus is that “those who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Mt 26:52)

Christians are not to be uncritical supporters of the West or of their particular state. A role of the church (however unpopular) is to call the state to account before God – and take the consequences (ask John the Baptist).

It is the West’s arrogance and militarism that has helped create the disaster of the contemporary Middle East. Rather than respond the catastrophic mess with support for more violence, it is Christians who are called to be peacemakers; people of prayer; compassion; of reconciliation and mercy.

An illustration from the radio this morning: Lyse Doucet is a superb international correspondent for the BBC. She was talking of why she risked her life reporting from Aleppo. Her reply was unescapably moral: it was a privilege to see what was happening and tell the human story of suffering. She recalled her Catholic upbringing and that she had been taught to be ‘my brother’s keeper’. She was there to use her training and experience to help give a voice to those without a voice. Her actions are a fantastic model for Christians. Non-violence is not passive, it is courageous and bold on behalf of the weak and vulnerable. It speaks of risky love at cost to ourselves. It speaks of a radically different narrative to the men of war.

3.   Accept the fate of the world

nietzscheThe brilliant atheist Friedrich Nietzsche (with impressive moustache) talked of amor fati – love of fate. By this he meant that we should overcome our weakness of trying to seek salvation or moral perfection in this world. Rather we should grow up and say YES to all that exists; embrace all of life, both its miseries and joys. There is nothing else higher or better than life as it is.  It is Christian weakness and illusion to believe that there is – and Nietzsche hated such weakness. He believed in strength and power rather than perverse ideas of pity and compassion.

Nietzsche was absolutely right – if God is dead. For without God all we do face is a pitiless world where the will to power wins out and compassion is mere stupidity (sound familiar re a certain President elect?). Fatalism and power are the responses of faithlessness – quite consistent for an atheist but not exactly an option for a Christian.

4. Hope, compassion and beauty

Rather than 1-3, can I suggest that in a violent and uncertain world, Christians are to be people of hope, compassion and lovers of beauty.

Christian hope rests not in politics or nationalism but on the victory of God won in Christ. In him we have the certainty of resurrection life, forgiveness of sin, new life in the Spirit, a mission give our lives to, a God to love and a church and world to serve. We are to be people who believe in, are shaped by and share good news – whatever the world is doing around us.

That good news includes Paul’s command to ‘remember the poor’ and to live a kingdom life that is ‘good news to the poor’. God’s people, like OT Israel are to reflect God’s heart for those cast aside by the power structures and politics of the world:

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. Deut. 10:18-19

As recipients of God’s grace and compassion, we are to share grace and compassion generously with those in need like refugees fleeing from unimaginable violence.

Finally, back to those goldfinches. I like bird watching and think goldfinches are particularly pretty. Now some people I know don’t like birds at all and I think Starlings are frankly evil. So my point is not about birds per se, but beauty.

There is something captivating and transcendent about beauty – maybe for you it is a landscape, a sunset, a person, a poem, a tree, a painting, a crashing wave on a beach or a crafted piece of clothing?

Beauty reminds us that this life, this world, is full of goodness, made by a loving creator. It is to be treasured, savoured, enjoyed and looked after. Since God’s ultimate agenda is renewal and healing of this broken and violent world, Christians are to be life-affirming and world-affirming.

Part of being people of hope is to pause and give thanks for the beauty we see every day. Part of being people of hope is to create beauty with our hands and with our words.

Hope, compassion, beauty: these, I suggest, rather than fear, violence and fatalism, form a Christian framework for approaching 2017.

Loving Donald Trump: a theory

Whatever your political persuasion or opinion on the American Presidential election, there are few voices even trying to argue that Donald Trump is a good, morally upright and virtuous person.

Even one D. J. Trump did (briefly and defiantly and only when confronted by the audio-tape of his bragging about using his fame to take advantage of women) admit that he has made mistakes and is not perfect.

Yet, it’s pretty clear that a very many Americans love Donald Trump. I use the word ‘love’ deliberately. I’m not talking just about political reasons to vote for him. Yes, for a lot of people, it was his policies and promises that won the day. But from mass rallies all over the country it’s clear that a very sizeable portion of the electorate are passionately committed to Trump at an emotional level that goes far beyond pragmatic self-interest.

(It’s not my main point here, but it might even be said that one reason Hillary did not win was that even her own supporters did not love her in the same way as Trump’s supporters loved him. They respected her, but she did not inspire the same intensity of devotion)

9780300118308Simon May has a very interesting take on this phenomenon of love for people who are most definitely not good. People who actively have no interest in appearing to be good and yet who are loved. May mentions captives’ love for their kidnappers or a child’s continuing love for a parent who has obviously harmed them by some form of abuse.

Or what about whole populations’ love for megalomanical leaders who killed millions?: huge swathes of the German people’s love for Adolf Hitler. Many Russian people’s love for Stalin (even after his death). I’m not equating Trump with Hitler or Stalin, the point is that love is not necessarily inspired by virtue.

We are tempted not to call such devotion ‘love’ because we are shaped by the very Greek idea that love, if it is to be true love, is inspired by beauty and virtue. But such mass love for bad people cannot so easily be dismissed.

If love is not necessarily inspired by virtue, what then can it be inspired by?

(this question does not deny that love can be inspired by virtue and goodness; it does suggest that love cannot be so simply explained).

May’s theory is that love is inspired by what he calls ‘ontological rootedness’. Now that’s quite a label. What he means is that we love that which gives us a sense of ultimate meaning and security in the world. Love is deeply connected to power because it is the powerful who have the capacity to deliver on such deep hopes.

Here’s May’s explanation … and I will resist the strong temptation to pick out bits that I think are stunningly prophetic regarding the 2016 USA Presidential Election!

How well does this explain Trump’s election do you think?

There is no greater human need that to find such affirmation, nourishment an anchoring of one’s being, and we can secure it only through relationships to a world in which we are embedded. This is why when we think we have discovered someone – or indeed something, like a vocation or art or nature – with ontological power over us we lunge at it with such overwhelming desire. It is also why we can fall (and remain) in love not only with those who would use their power to affirm and enhance our lives, but also – even precisely – with those who regard us as enemies, or with people whose wealth inspires a sense (robust or not) of ontological rootedness, or with fraudsters who give us illusory confidence in ourselves, or with others who might destroy us, or with those whose love for us we permanently doubt. (37)

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

which Messiah? which hope?

Sstatue-liberty-hands473x488o America has made its decision. I believe it’s a reckless one.

Trump’s narrative in the campaign and his acceptance speech is messianic … greatness is around the corner, our time has come, economic blessing is coming, the government will be once again for the people. .. it is going to be a beautiful thing.

The only certain thing about such dreams is that they will fail. The irony is of course that Trump got elected on capitalising on the failure of previous political dreams. And so on goes the cycle of political ambition and hubris.

What’s not sure of course is how a Trump Presidency, his supporters and America in general will deal with the dashing of those dreams. I don’t think it’s going to be beautiful, it’s likely to get rather ugly. Such has been his rhetoric that he’s got little or no room for manoeuvre in building walls, delivering jobs, fixing the entire political system, renegotiating global trade, and making people feel they have hope in life …small stuff like that.

When Obama was elected the first time there was a lot of messianic mania in the air. I remember thinking then that he had no chance of meeting such unrealistic hopes. No mere human could …

For Christians do not believe in political messiahs .. whether democrat or Republican or whatever other brand around the world. Human history is littered with the vain hopes of emperors, kings, and hubristic politicians and their ambitions to control history. One reason I think voting for Trump was reckless is that his vaunted ambitions are going crash and he’s going to do a lot of unpredictable damage in the process.

In contrast, Christians believe in the one true Messiah who is the eternal Word made flesh, the king of kings, the one through whom all things are made. Christians’ hopes lie in him alone – nowhere else. For it is in God, Father, Son and Spirit, is the hope of a ‘new world order’ of justice and peace. In him alone is reconciliation, ultimately of all things.

We pray for his kingdom to come in full.  It is already here, we are citizens of the kingdom first before any national or political identity. Our ‘politics’ are kingdom of God politics – the church as an alternative body politic to the vain power plays of transient politicians. A calling to preach, live and embody the good news of Jesus the Messiah and risen Lord. To be people of reconciliation, forgiveness and grace. To live lives worthy of the gospel. To walk in the Spirit, love God and love our neighbours.

That task remains constant and urgent – regardless of who happens to occupy the White House for a few years …

Comments, as ever, welcome.

A vote for Trump is reckless irresponsibility

If the Brexit vote in the UK taught us anything, it is that (very) surprising things can and do happen at election time. Sure it was going to be a close-run thing but the overwhelming consensus was that a Remain vote would fairly comfortably win the day. What was missed was the momentum was with Leave and the rest is (unfolding, messy and chaotic) history.

There are parallels – most have not seriously thought Trump could win, yet he has the momentum entering polling week. It is now more conceivable than ever that Donald J Trump could become the President of the United States of America.

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Very thoughtful, non-American Christian commentators like John Stackhouse have argued that a vote for a third party in order to send a message to the main parties or to avoid contamination of voting for two awful candidates is basically a cop-out, ethically and politically.

He may be right. He also says this:

In this election, American friends of mine are supporting Donald Trump. They want above all to see the next president appoint a more conservative Supreme Court that will overturn Roe v. Wade and protect Christians from an encroaching political correctness especially on matters of sexuality and bioethics.

They are well aware of Mr. Trump’s manifest deficits and they know that they are taking the longest of political shots by trusting in a man who has (one wants to put this gently in a decidedly un-gentle campaign) no very strong record as a political conservative, a defender of the unborn, or as a keeper of promises.

Still, they reason, Mrs. Clinton will definitely be worse. And so they intend to vote for Mr. Trump. And I can respect that.

And Prof Stackhouse adds

Other American friends of mine are supporting Hillary Clinton. They want above all to see an experienced, moderate politician in the White House who will do some things they like and some things they don’t, but will not put much at risk that isn’t already at risk and likely will do some good in the process.

They are well aware of Mrs. Clinton’s deficits, manifest or otherwise, and they know that they are going to have to swallow some bitter pills.

Still, they reason, Mr. Trump will definitely be worse. And so they intend to vote for Mrs. Clinton. And I can respect that.

I am not as sanguine about respecting a vote by a Christian for Trump or Clinton within a sort of “equivalence of badness”. I can only see a vote for Trump by a Christian as being a form of reckless irresponsibility.

It is patently obvious that Trump is utterly unqualified to be President. He has none of the virtues required and all of the vices you do not want to see in a person representing one of the greatest experiments in liberal democracy in recent Western history, that has, with many faults, worked.

John Stackhouse is right to say that a Christian voting for Trump is taking ‘the longest of long shots’ that he might – just might –  show some integrity and values that could inform policy around political conservatism, defence of the unborn or keeping his election promises. There is little or no evidence Trump is going to do any of these things.

What we do know for sure is: he is a liar and bully; a man without any signs of integrity; who breaks promises; gropes women, admits it, then tries to intimidate and threaten to sue women who says he did; uses his power for selfish ends; who is running of a platform of ugly potentially violent nationalism; inchoate rage; not so incipient racism; and a ‘towering’ vanity that verges towards megalomania.

The idea that, whatever happens on Tuesday, that such a man could get within sight of the White House should be deeply deeply troubling to all who care about America.

I have huge affection for the country. Yes it has manifest flaws, deep inequalities, a history shaped by violence and an addiction to unsustainable ruthless capitalism (and Ryder Cup fans who lack civility). But show me a nation that does not have parallel problems, if on a smaller scale. I live in the Republic of Ireland and we are a tiny little place but do a pretty good job on political corruption, injustice, a history of violence, inequality and a neglect of the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society.

So this is not American bashing. It is an expression of horror that Christians, and especially well known Christian leaders, can come up with arguments defending the indefensible of voting for Trump.

Again and again in media reports we are told that ‘evangelicals’ are a key support group for Trump. I am not naive enough to believe that this is generally true. Those labelled ‘evangelical’ are likely very nominally connected to that label. Many evangelical Christians I know in the States are most definitely not voting for Trump – they are as appalled by him as others around the world.

But the fact remains that a lot of committed evangelical Christians are supporting Trump. I can only see this as a failure of discipleship – where a combination of loyalty to Republicanism and antipathy to the Democrats ‘trumps’ the bigger and more important moral duty to keep a man like Trump out of power.

And, such Christians may not realise it (but they should), their stance does nothing but harm the wider mission and reputation of the church outside America.

That evangelical Christians – who are called to follow a crucified Messiah and who are to be shaped by love for God, love for neighbour (where the neighbour is an enemy other than us), love for the foreigner, the weak and the vulnerable, who are to be people or peace and reconciliation – are labelled as supporters of a man of hate and division gives Christians a bad name globally.

The first duty of Christians in America is not to America .. it is to act in a way worthy of Jesus Christ and his gospel and for the good of the church catholic. And that means, I suggest, not voting for Donald Trump.

Comments, as ever, welcome.