Alien Citizens, from Martin Marty

Christian historian Martin Marty notes in a recent Sightings article that we continue to face choices as the church that come when Christendom dies: will we retreat or will we find new ways to enact our lives as “resident aliens”? I hope you appreciate this brief reflection as much as I did,

-Will Willimon

NOT BREAKING NEWS! Overdosed on “Breaking News,” which in the case of religion usually means news of clerical sex scandals, parochial embezzlements, or stories of some Evangelicals acting unevangelically, Sightings sometimes likes to train its sights on religious stories that do not “break,” but focus on what serves the citizenry in largely unobserved ways. This week we observe a long-longtime favorite of ours, the Bruderhof. Recently we sighted the “Benedict Option,” which sets out to serve the faithful by retreating from the world. The Bruderhof, by contrast, would serve the faithful and others by gathering (and publishing) in order to advance into the world in distinctive ways.

The Bruderhof is probably not a household word, so let it explain itself: “an international community of people seeking to follow Jesus together… committed to a way of radical discipleship in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount” and in the tradition of the first Christian community (Acts 1 and 2). There are tiny settlements in the U.S. and in four other countries. Census-takers, pollsters, pundits, and statisticians would not notice them, but Sightings readers can find out more via their website (see Resources below). They publish our favorite religious quarterly, Plough Quarterly, whose Winter issue is what prompts this notice.

The quoted passage mentions Jesus and Christianity, a fact which might alienate citizens who are not Christian or have been schooled to be “spiritual but not religious.” However, we believe that one can learn more and act more citizenly when Jews are Jews, Muslims are Muslims, etc., than when they are muffled or wishy-washy. When we are articulate speakers/writers and good listeners, we can often share citizenship better and, one hopes, understand and cooperate with “others.”

The current journal cover is red-stamped ALIEN CITIZENS, and the lead editorial is called Our Alien Citizenship. We get the point. The editors draw on a 1989 book by William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas titled Resident Aliens. Willimon himself appears in these pages, with an article in which he quotes theologian Karl Barth as being anti-Hitler, as well as Bruderhof founder Eberhard Arnold, who would perhaps have agreed with Hauerwas when the latter famously said, “the church doesn’t have a social policy; the church is God’s social policy.”

Willimon seems to enjoy, more than perhaps he should, the irritation of and criticism by a dozen reviewers who dismissed his books with Hauerwas as “politically irrelevant, sectarian escapism from the great issues of the day.” At times I share such irritation and criticism, but I can’t say that I’ve not been warned by the authors who—from many angles of vision—do go out of their way to alienate citizens who they wish were “resident aliens.”

By the way, Bruderhofers can scarcely go even a few paragraphs without pointing to exemplars like Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Catholic Dorothy Day, and an ecumenical cast of characters as influences. The major address by Arnold included in the current issue, first delivered in August 1934, is “Becoming Flesh and Blood: The Church and Its Dangerous Politics.” Aha! See! This supposedly non-political approach has its own form of politics. Its approach to issues having to do with the environment, the use of resources, the regard for all humans as having equal rights, is distinctive, but also very much a part of the political mix today. We’ll keep reading the Bruderhof journal and related materials, to be challenged when we disagree and cheered when, as so often happens, we are jarred into agreement with these residents-with-a-difference.

Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.

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