… we are left with only a baffling residue of strange commands, which seem utterly impractical and ominous. We ignore the commands on divorce and lash out at our people on peace. The ethic of Jesus thus appears to be either utterly impractical or utterly burdensome unless it is set within its proper context – an eschatological, messianic community, which knows something the world does not and structures its life accordingly.
Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville, Abingdon: 1989), p. 90.
There is much to be enthused about in chapter four, which is entitled ‘Life in the Colony: The Church as Basis for Christian Ethics’. The idea of a church as primarily a community whose worships and witnesses through their corporate Christian identity and character, offers both political relevance and an escape from party tribalism. Being faithful to Christ cannot effectively be reduced to a left or right position, but has its greatest significance to the world in its uniqueness.
At the same time, the treatment of the Sermon of the Mount is still not quite satisfying here. I agree with the eschatological context for the sermon that is emphasized. The kingdom is coming, and for this we still pray. Perhaps my frustration lies in the question of where and how that kingdom is being realized – made real – in the present. H & M seem to argue that an individualist approach to ethics and to the commands in the sermon is doomed to failure, but that a Church communitarian approach is actually what is being proposed in the text and, further, is able to (much as in yesterday’s quote) help us to live this kingdom life. Again, I think there are some really quite important things being expressed here. But, I don’t think this proposal manages to escape the accusations of being absurd and naive that they acknowledge can be levelled at the sermon when applied to individuals. On the one hand, I want to agree that the church is essential to our discipleship, worship and witness. On the other hand, we have to acknowledge that Christ’s words defeat the best efforts of Christians living in community, just as easily as individualist Christians. This is acknowledged in the concluding remarks in the chapter about forgiveness. Perhaps my frustration might have been calmed if these concluding remarks were rather more central to the chapter. The quotation from Barth on p. 83 hints at a way forward as it speaks of the Church setting up a sign for the world but how this sign might come to be, how it might differ from the reality to which it points, is not spelt out.
From an exegetical point of view, it is not obvious from the text that the Church is able to or commanded to play this positive role in perfecting our discipleship. That Christ is commanding us is obvious. That life in Christian community enables us to obey and ‘be perfect’ is less clear. This last comment is perhaps a strange point to make, given that I do think that the Christian life is a churchly life at every point, given that I do think that life lived in the Church and can make a difference to how we live. I suppose my thoughts are that unless we have a realistic sense of the Church’s limitations and frailties, at the same time as a belief that God is working in us and in our dependence on his work, we will find ourselves disillusioned and doubting. The Church – of which am I part of course – is so bad at keeping these words, to propose that by being in community we could keep Christ’s words just isn’t plausible. This isn’t because I lack faith (!) but rather because central to the sermon is the demand for perfection. This demand allows us to imagine the impossible and unexpected but it also completely crushes us and our expectations of moral adequacy … if we are honest.
I suppose what needs to be fleshed out here is a discussion of the realization of the kingdom – its primary presence in the life of Christ – and so our individual and communal connection to him in life of the Spirit. This allows us to speak of the kingdom in absolute terms – not molding it into something ‘possible’ that we can imagine keeping – and allows us to expect and to try the humanly speaking absurd or impossible. It allows us to imagine that older people might be placed first in the kingdom, that the diversity of the church might make the sacrifice of moving to the most vulnerable and excluded. It does this while recognizing the difficulties involved, our fears and doubts – our need for faith.