A recent issue of Christian Century takes a second look at the book Resident Aliens, as viewed 25 years later. The authors, Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, were former professors of mine during my sojourn at Duke Divinity School. Commentaries by a number of current theologians, church leaders and seminary professors critique the book in light of our own time. Some find it wanting, others see its continued relevance.
The book defines resident aliens as Christians who stand apart from the common culture, in communities which consider themselves unaligned with the state but instead are the church in its broader scope: as witness against the state or society on occasion. As assessed by the authors, they were part of the counterculture. Today as I stand outside that time, I wonder how we as Christians can remain in the alien fold, when it is more likely that the world around us is alien and we have become part of the culture that surrounds us.
Our measure is Jesus. Did he represent the culture of his day or the counterculture? As I consider the matter, I realize that Jesus was actively political. He stood squarely against the injustices of the Roman rule, the discrimination against women in his society, the needs of the poor and the sick who did not have access to the health care of that time, and the society of rank, which marked the boundaries between the wealthy and the poor, as well as including the economic needs of those between those two categories. Today we label them the middle class.
To follow the teachings of Jesus calls for us to live in a world that is alien to Christian practices. We are not the aliens, we are the inhabitants of an alien society, when we try to show love to others in a way imitating Jesus’ love. To remove the barriers that we cannot breach is a daunting effort. The discoveries of what I call Jesuslove among those we condemn as undeserving because of their failures defines one way we can carry that love with us to the alien world surrounding us.
We are all failures in some manner, yet so was Jesus. He failed to follow the religious laws when human need interfered. He failed to acknowledge the power of the Roman rule over his people. Yet the failures were the very factors that brought forth his love for others. He dared to include the fallen of society, and declared himself on a mission to bring the Creator’s love to everyone. The result was to be punished severely for such efforts. He visited the sick and restored life to those believed to be dead. In the last chapters of his story, he overcame even his own death at the hands of an evil power. The aliens did not win then, nor will they do so ever, because what is lasting is the kind of love no one can adequately define. We do know, however, that it is most powerful in an alien world, the world we live in.