“Christian ethics would be unintelligible if it did not presuppose the existence and recognizability of communities and corresponding institutions capable of carrying the story of God. The most general name we give that community is Church.” Stanley Hauerwas
Michael Cartwright and John Berkman in their editorial section on Essay 19 in the “Hauerwas Reader” (page 371) from which the above quote comes names two of Hauerwas’ commonly known dictums: “Every ethic must be a social ethic” and “The first social task of the church is to be the church-the servant community.” The editors concludes that these two famous dictums presents Hauerwas’ “understanding of the nature of the Christian church and its relationship to the world.” (HR 371). It is therefore not surprising that in his book, “Living Holiness”, John Thompson demonstrates the usefulness of Stanley Hauerwas’ work for the life of the church, which is in the world although not of the world (Jn. 17:16).
In chapter 10 for example, Thompson focuses on how Hauerwas’ approach to Christian ethics might help “Christians negotiate the challenges of living in late modern societies within the North Atlantic.” (Thompson; Living Holiness, 141). I identify with the people who live in the north Atlantic Societies, as such I was obviously curious to discover how Hauerwas might help us navigate life and especially our faith in our North Atlantic context. But, before I proceed further, let me first make some self-revelation. I live in the North Atlantic society; but I was not born in the North Atlantic Society. I was born and raised in Sub-Saharan Africa and life there is starkly different from life in the North Atlantic Societies.
Having said that however, I can talk about such a difference with confidence because I have lived in the North Atlantic society for fourteen years. I did my seminary work here, married a woman from here and our two boys are North Atlantics save for my shared genes from Africa and may be some stories they hear me tell every now and then and a few lullabies I sing to them in my mother tongue. To add to the list, I have pastored here for five years. I am not quite sure what this makes me!
As a Christian one thing remains key, namely that according to scriptural witness, God loved the world and sent forth his only Son that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life (Jn. 3:16f). I learned this passage and memorized it in three different languages; Luo, Kiswahili and English. While preaching on this text at our church one time I asked the congregation to attempt to quote this passage from memory in their own first languages and in a congregation that has people from over forty five countries not to mention language groups, it was quite an experience. In addition to the multiple tongues that filled the room, which was quite a site in itself, I was amazed that people did so from memory. They knew the story; the story that says that God sent his only Son to the world because God loved the world has become their story as well.
The experience that day triggered in my memory a story of a people in the scriptures who ritualized their story in such a way that they told and retold that same story from generation to generation. The story went like this, “When you have entered the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the first fruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the LORD your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come to the land the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the LORD your God. Then you shall declare before the LORD your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous.” (Deuteronomy 26:1-5)
After the Exile, the idea of homelessness and immigration and being God’s people became a part of the community’s liturgy, the ritual, of the people of Israel. They were to always remember that they were homeless and that they were once strangers in the land where they lived and God ensured that they were cared for in the same way they ought to care for the stranger among them.
John the author of the fourth gospel reminds us that Jesus was sent by the Father to make the Father known to the world (Jn. 1:18). He came to demonstrate and embody God’s love for the world. In other words, God’s love was incarnated in the flesh and blood of Jesus of Nazareth who formed a community and explicitly commissioned saying that in the same way the father sent him, he also sends them (John 20:21-22).
This past Sunday we collected clothes, shoes and food and made them available to our church community and the community at large. One person from the women’s ministry that had done the bulk of the work told the church that this was a small way that we were being Jesus with skin to our community. I believe that what John writes about above implies that our faith is incarnational.
This is the faith to which both Hauerwas and Yoder and the Anabaptists points but that by and large has been replaced by abstraction which has led to what Charles Taylor calls “excarnational” faith among the North Atlantics. As North Atlantics, then we have much to learn from Hauerwas and I will show the force of his arguments and the effectiveness of the same not only through his work but also in the work of others.
According to Thomson, Hauerwas’ work is a corrective to this abstracted and disembodied faith of the North Atlantics. Thompson writes, “Although Hauerwas has sometimes been unfairly criticized as unrealistic, his project actually deconstructs this abstract idealism by rooting discipleship in the particular enfleshed practices of particular gatherings of Christians within the framework of time and place.” He continues, “Hauerwas seeks a transformed church not an idealistic one. Transformation is about becoming a variegated and material witness to God’s grace in diverse context rather than a singular sign. ..His church is faith in flesh, in sharp contrast to the faith in spirit prevalent in these societies.” (Thompson, L.H,142-3).
Thompson is correct as Hauerwas himself writes, “The story of God as told through the experience of Israel and the church cannot be abstracted from those communities engaged in the telling and the hearing. As a story it cannot exists without a community existing across time, for it requires telling and remembering. God has entrusted his presence to a historic and contingent community that must be renewed generation after generation. The story is not merely told but embodied in a people’s habits that form and are formed in worship, governance, and morality.” (Hauerwas, HR.373).
Thompson’s characterization of North Atlantic communities as abstracted finds support in Charles Taylor. Taylor writes, “Christians of a more activist and reformist disposition lost touch with the practices and embodied character of ordinary church living in their enthusiasm to generate an ideal form of discipleship often called beliefs. This led to an excarnational rather than incarnational approach to faith and contributed to the abstract character of North Atlantic societies as the latter became increasingly secularized and dis-embodied from any liturgical moorings” (Thompson, Living Holiness,142).
Having enlisted Taylor in support of his hypothesis, Thompson continues, “The idealist drive neglected the particulars of context and people in a way that not only enabled the Enlightenment philosophers to imagine to objective spectator perspective but also contributed to the secularization of these societies as ordinary people gave up on the quest to become ideal.” (Thomson Living Holiness, 143). It was not always like this.
William Cavanaugh in his very helpful book, “The Myth of Religious Violence,” locates this abstraction in 16th and 17th century modernity. He writes, “The move toward religion as an interior and universal impulse would be contemplated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by an emphasis on belief over practice. Religion would come to mean a system of doctrines, intellectual propositions that could be either true or false.”(Cavanaugh, The Myth of Rel. V. 72). To strengthen his proposal, Cavanaugh sites the work of Graham Ward. Ward wrote on the subject of disembodiment of faith thus, “Stripping away the liturgical understanding of the world had a profound impact on the reconfiguration of power and subjectivity in sixteenth century England:
To think the sacraments and ceremonies as symbols or “mere outward forms” (1549 Book of Common Prayer) was to transform the nature of materiality itself, rendering the natural world opaque, silent and inert”.A new space and a new understanding of the body were emerging, a space and a body in which God’s presence was only available through the eyes of faith-and faith understood as a set of doctrinal principles to be taught, a set of interpretative keys to be passed down, passed on, for one’s experience in the world.” (Cavanaugh. T.R.V. 72-3).
This in no way dismisses the importance of doctrines because convictions matter as Hauerwas reminds us that, “the intelligibility and truthfulness of Christian convictions reside in their practical force.” R. R Reno using brick as a metaphor to describe the power of Christian convictions expounds on Hauerwas’ sentiment above by writing,” In other words, the intelligibility and truthfulness of Christian convictions resides in their brick-like quality. Being baptized is more like being hit on the head with a brick than it is like going to a teach-in. Celebrating the Eucharist week after week is more like laying a durable foundation for a house than it is like attending weekly lectures. In both instances, we do not learn principles or ideals by which we might exercise power. Quite the contrary: in baptism and Eucharist, we are subjected to something that has power.” -(R. Reno Stanley Hauerwas, 303)
A disciple of both John Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, Mark T. Nation’s own story affirms Reno’s observation about the power of Christian convictions and practices. In his article on “Foot Washing: Preparation for Christian Life,” Mark tells his own story powerfully. He describes how he was shaped by the practices at his small Baptist church in Southern Illinois. He writes, “New birth is quite an appropriate image for what happened to me in the autumn of 1970. It was the beginning of the acquisition of a new identity, a Christian identity. The inauguration of this identity was a dramatic conversion experience in a revival service at first General Baptist Church of McLeansboro, Illinois.”
Mark continues, “various practices of the church served to re-shape me: Scripture reading (private and public), sermons, testimonies, music, the Lord’s supper, baptism, glimpses of Christians’ lives-and one more which I vividly recall: foot washing. These intermittent foot washing services underscored, deepened, and broadened what I was coming to learn of the gospel within this church.” (Nation, Foot washing p.6)
I shared Marks’ story with our staff on Monday and the experience was transformative. I watched in wonder and amazement as people who had never practiced foot washing before did so for the first time and were deeply touched by the practice. One staff member said wondered how, “Reading about foot washing and actually doing it is very different.” She was deeply moved by the practice as staff members spent some extended time hugging crying and holding each other as they washed each other’s feet. I was moved by the power of the practice because it broke certain barriers between us as a staff as was evident in their crying, hugging and holding each other and speaking words of forgiveness for those who were harboring certain feelings in their hearts against fellow staffers.
As we read John 12 together, we were reminded of Mary’s love for her Lord. It was this love which invoked the act of extravagance in the anointing with the oil whose fragrance filled the whole room. One female staff member wept and wondered how difficult that might have been for a woman in that culture to do such a thing in front of men. She wondered what kind of courage it might have taken for Mary to take the step she took in obedience. I was impacted deeply by their sharing and once again agreed with Hauerwas and Reno concerning the force of Christian convictions and practices. We are extending the practice of foot washing to our entire congregation on Thursday night. This will be a new practice for the majority of our congregation but we are waiting in great anticipation to see God at work among us as we saw on Monday.
On Thursday we are planning to spend time in worship, scripture reading, sharing testimonies and end with a foot washing service after a brief reflection on John 12 and 13 that I will lead. Our church is located in the Washington D.C suburbs; we are surrounded by three metropolitan centers; The Nation’s Capital, Baltimore and Annapolis, (the States Capital). Majority of our members are affected in one way or another by the realities of one, two or three of these centers one of the most influential habit is consumerism and the race to catch up “with the Joneses” so to speak. People’s identity is wrapped up in their stuff, the kind of homes they own, the cars they drive and the list goes on.
I believe that recovering practices will once again remind us that our story is part of the larger story of God and that these practices form us and remind us that true life does not lie in our stuff. The practices ‘force’ us to spend time with the other, to see their value to look at them in the face and touch them which is awkward and weird for a lot of people here (In Sub-Saharan Africa that would be the norm) but they are willing to do so on account of the clear instructions from the lord that loved us and gave his life.
I particularly remember the past two Ash Wednesdays; last year’s and this years’. In our small bible study group on Wednesday nights we reflected on the words, “You are dirt and unto dirt you shall return” that we uttered as we marked each other on the four head with ashes. I had never done this before and when we did, it was one of the deeply formative truths for me and others in the room testified to the same. I realized through that practice that a truth was being proclaimed over me. That practice obviously subverted the prevailing narrative that I am master of my own destiny.
Mark Nation correctly reminds us that, “the act of following Jesus is never merely about or servanthood or our love. We need the gift of the Holy Spirit, we need the ongoing cleansing of our savior, we need the comfort of the Father’s love-and we need the community of foot washers. Followers of Jesus will embody love and servanthood, they will practice “the politics of Jesus,” but they will always remember that it is the anointed One who rightly washes our feet before we can rightly wash each others’ feet.” (Nation, Foot washing p. 2)
Hauerwas’ understanding of the nature of the church is very instructive here. He writes, “The people of God are no less an empirical reality than the crucifixion of Christ. The church is as real as his cross. There is no “ideal church,” no “invisible church,” no “mystically existing universal church” more real than the concrete church with parking lots and potluck dinners. It is the church of parking lots and potluck dinners that comprises the sanctified ones formed by and forming the continuing story of Jesus Christ in the world”…”The church, therefore, is not some ideal of community but a particular people who, like Israel, must find way to sustain their existence generation after generation” (Hauerwas, H.R. 382-3).
This of course is complicated in our life in the United States. Some of our forming practices and even our Christian story have been hijacked by another power structure that competes for our allegiance. On this point Cavanaugh is helful in his ground breaking book. He writes, “attempts to construct religion as a universal, timeless, interior, and apolitical human impulse in the early modern period are willy-nilly part of the creation of new configuration of power, especially the subornation of ecclesiastical power to that of the emergent state.”
( Cavanaugh. The Myth of Religious Violence,77).
In his book “Body Politics ( Five practices of the Christian community before a watching world) John H. Yoder refers to the antagonistic nature of this new power arrangement. He writes, “There seems to be no end of debating about how the church should or should not be “involved” in “politics”. An example: In 1989 when South Africa’s most important black leader, Nelson Mandela, just out of prison, visited the pope to ask him to support the idea of economic sanctions against the apartheid regime of his native South Africa, John Paul II said he could not do that because it would be “political.” He continues, “political” mean somehow, in that one case, something with which the head of the Roman Catholic Church should not be involved. Yet such concerns had never kept him from multiple interventions in the public life of his own native Poland when he was archbishop there.” (Yoder, Body Politics, vi).
Yoder proceeds to argue that contrary to the notion of “politics” and “church,” the Christian community is a political reality. He writes, “The church’s calling to be faithful in God’s service is definable in political terms.” He continues, “To be political is to make decisions, to assign roles, and to distribute powers, and the Christian community cannot do otherwise than exercise the same functions, going about its business as a body.” (Yoder, Body Politics ix) The subject of this book is to show five ways in which the church serves as a polis; binding and Loosing, Breaking of Bread, Baptism, A new mode of relationship (The Fullness of Christ) and The Unity of the Body (The Rule of Christ).
In his book “After You Believe:Why Christian Character Matters” .N.T Wright makes the same point I have been making in this paper through the collected reflections and sentiments of the various named authors but mostly Stanley Hauerwas, that our faith is much more than propositional truth claims. It is also entails habits, virtues and character formation informed by a story that is nurtured in the community of faith. This is made possible through practices that tells and retells the story of God through Israel and ultimately through the lord Jesus Christ. Wright argues rightly that after we believe we must be people of Character essentially meaning that it is not enough just to believe. We must continually be formed and transformed by Jesus and the Holy Spirit as we engage in the formative practices of the church.
He writes that, “Character does not come by accident. It comes through the self-discipline required to do anything in life really well. Develop virtue, practice the habits of heart and life that point toward the true goal of human existence, for these lies at the heart of the challenge of Christian behavior, as set in the New Testament itself. This is what it means to develop “character.” He writes further, “This is what we need-and what the Christian faith offers-for the time, whether short or long, after you believe. We’ve had enough of pragmatists and self-seeking risk-takers. We need people of character. (N.T Wright, After You Believe, p 24-5). I am glad that once again, the church can reclaim its incarnational faith as we awake from modernity’s abstracted faith which Charles Taylor calls, excarnational.” Thanks to the works of Hauerwas, Yoder and their disciples as they follow Jesus who is the Lord of the church.
Berkman, John and Michael Cartwright, eds. The Hauerwas Reader (Duke Univ. Press, 2001) (Essay 19)
Cavanaugh, William T. The Myth of Religious Violence. (Oxford Univ. Press, 2009)
Thomson, John B. Living Holiness: Stanley Hauerwas and the Church (Epworth, 2010)
Wright N.T, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (Harper Collins
Yoder John H. Body Politics; Fiver practices of the Christian community before a watching world, (Discipleship Resources, Nashville, 1989)