The Complicated Relationship Between Discipleship and Patriotism
Ok, you can tell what I nerd I am: last night I was reading my copy of the latest issue of the journal Modern Theology in which a review symposium was published on Stanley Hauerwas’s “theological memoir,” Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (2010), and I was struck by the contribution of R. R. Reno, of First Things fame. Those familiar with Hauerwas’s history and background know that he was once on the editorial board of First Things, but resigned in the early 2000s over a disagreement in the publication’s editorial policy to support and defend the U.S. government’s handling of Afghanistan and Iraq. Hauerwas, a leading proponent of the centrality of nonviolence in Christian ethics, could not in good conscience continue to be so closely associated with a board that stood for something about which he so significantly disagreed. This, I believe, has a lot to do with shaping Reno’s decision to end his piece in Modern Theology.
Concluding with some musings about his own intellectual development and worldview, ostensibly inspired to introspection by Hauerwas’s memoir, Reno writes:
In fact one could say that he [Hauerwas] has been the great theorist of our need to be formed by a real community of faith. But as a consequence I have been less and less engaged by the rhetoric of separation and critique that runs through so much of Hauerwas’s commentary on the moral challenges facing contemporary Christians in America, a rhetoric moreover that far more than theological doctrines of denominational loyalties make his followers identifiable as Hauerwasians. I see myself as a sinner, not an outsider. I am an American Christian whose natural love for his country can certainly become perverted. But I need not push away my patriotic emotions, for that same love can be a fitting way to serve my neighbor, and the transcendence of self encouraged by patriotism can prepare my heart for the higher love of God. Bourgeois upper-middle-class life? Capitalism? Again, these features of modern life are occasions for many dangerous temptations but they are also fully capable of Christian habitation (326).
I disagree, so call me a Hauerwasian. What Reno seemingly desires is to have his proverbial cake and eat it too. He wants to bear the name Christian for apparently genuine and faithful reasons, but he also wants to rally to support his “patriotic emotions” in ways that he feels exist in symbiotic relationship with, if not even in positively formative ways to, his Christian faith.
What Hauerwas does so well in his writing is call to mind precisely why such a relationship is not tenable. Reno claims that Hauerwas’s position forces like-minded adherents to the margins of Christianity. But in fact, what Hauerwas and others keenly note is that to be Christian is to necessarily stand at the margins of popular culture and society.
This is why it is absurd to claim that a Christian can support war, violence, unbridled capitalism, and the like. Jesus was executed precisely because he was scarily at the margins of his culture — religious and civil. A threat to both the religious establishment of his first-century Palestinian Judaism and eventually viewed by the Roman government as an insurrectionist, Christ could not walk the line for which Reno advocates, because it is simply not what the Good News (Gospel) is about.
Forgiveness for the unforgivable, love for the unlovable, freedom for captives, sight to the blind, relief for the poor, healing for the broken and broken hearted — these are the indicators of God’s Reign. They are, when we are most honest, precisely the opposite of the “Bourgeois upper-middle-class life” and “capitalism” and violence for which Reno claims the possibility of “Christian habitation.”
Reno claims that, although he appreciates Hauerwas’s friendship over the years, “for the most part Hauerwas has not shaped [Reno’s] moral judgments.” This much is very, very clear. But even without Stanley Hauerwas’s unique and provocative efforts to awaken the truth of Christian discipleship in the hearts of so many, Reno would be wise to revisit the Scripture to see what it is that Jesus demands of those who wish to follow him. It’s certainly not capitulating with self-righteous justification to the prescripts of popular American culture. It has a lot more to do with denying one’s self, taking up crosses and following in the footprints of the one who not only laid down his life for a friend, but surrendered his will for all.