Resident Aliens at 25, part 2

RESIDENT ALIENSSurprises and Thanksgivings for Resident Aliens 25 Years Later


This year Abingdon Press has released a new edition of Resident Aliens on the book’s twenty-fifth anniversary. Stanley Hauerwas and I have written a foreword and afterword for the new edition. Here is the second part of my foreword. Stanley and I will present at this year’s Alumni Convocation at Duke Divinity School in early October.

Surprises after Resident Aliens was published? Of course I was thrilled that Christians, particularly new and younger Christians on the plains of Canada, or in the outback of Australia, or in a sheep farm in New Zealand, or in a bleak German innercity read the book and found hope for the future. That which Stanley and I tended to speak of as future possibility we quickly discovered was present reality in a Christian commune in Oregon, a house church in Detroit, or even in a once great Gothic Cathedral in England. I’m still amazed by the Baptist pastor at a big church in Atlanta who used the book as a manual for training his deacons. Isn’t God amazing?

I confess that I never understood how anyone could read Resident Aliens and accuse us of being world-hating sectarians. I had no relations with sectarians until Stanley. Whereas Stanley has been deeply formed and blessed by dear, departed John Howard Yoder, looking back, I think I was more deeply influenced by the students I met as Chaplain at Duke who were trying to be Christian in a world that is out to get Christians.

When I said “world” I was thinking of the Pentagon. When I said “church” I was thinking of the poor old bumbling, worldly compromised tart named UMC that Christ regards as his Bride. I therefore can’t take seriously the silly criticism that Stanley and I advocated a withdrawal from “public theology and political responsibility.” I was a United Methodist Bishop, for God’s sakes, the hierarch who, because of a mean immigration law, sued the Governor and Legislature of Alabama! Is that politics enough for you? Besides, how many world-hating-sectarians are paid as much as we two tenured professors?   So there.

Stanley taught me that a compromised church tries to set up the church/world discussion as, “You can either be a responsible participant in modern democracy, doing your bit to make this world a better place, or you and be an irresponsible, sectarian nothing who fearfully withdraws from the world.” Resident Aliens attempted a more nuanced and complex discussion of church/world. Now, after the Obama Administration (whom we thought we were electing to get us out of the Near East) has expended billions of dollars and thousands of lives ending a war that has produced little but greater Islamic hostility, has deported nearly two and a half million undocumented immigrants, has pioneered the use of drones thereby escalating warfare to a new level, is it now time for UMC bishops to stop offering deferential advice to Obama and start attempting to rebuild the church?

Resident Aliens could be read as an extended reflection on politics in the name of Jesus. We attempted to do what Stanley has done throughout his career – to get the church to say “church” whenever the world says “politics.” God has put North American Christians in this world, under an allegedly democratic polity, in a capitalist economy, with state-run education, a military budget, gun violence in the streets, and rates of incarceration unknown in any other country in the world. How then should we live now that God has raised crucified Jesus from the dead?

As Bruce W. Winter shows in his book, Seek the Welfare of the City: Christians as Benefactors and Citzens,[1] the first Christians had a complex relationship with the Empire. They showed skill and courage in refusing to participate in some of the rituals and demands of the state, yet unlike some (Philo, for instance) they actively supported the surrounding politeia when it (rarely) showed concern for the needy and vulnerable and through an impressive network of benefaction, Christians showed the pagan state a new politeia, initiating a social revolution the pagan state could never have thought up on its own. Winter says that Christians practiced citizenship when they could (rigid in their refusal to syncretize in matters of worship) and extravagant benefaction always. Resident Aliens merely meant to call contemporary North American Christians to rethink the church/world situation in the light of God’s primary answer to what’s wrong with the world, namely, the poor old church.

I have always believed Resident Aliens to be a very “Methodist” book, in its own way. Who but a couple of Wesleyans could believe that God has graciously provided the means for people, even two people from South Carolina and Texas, to be saints? And who but a couple of Methodists would know cultural accommodation and biblical mushiness when we see it? We Methodists never quite shed our birth as a scorned sect who once had the theological chutzpa to stick it to the established church.   Then one day we Wesleyans woke up to find that George Bush thought he could be both a Methodist and a President. We Methodists had become the establishment, in bed with the Empire, and hating ourselves in the morning. Though Stanley is now an Episcopalian Canon (as we all know, the Episcopal Church is a notoriously sectarian enterprise), I’m more a Methodist than ever and, from what I’ve seen in my privileged look at the underbelly of the Body of Christ, I could argue that Resident Aliens is needed now more than ever.

Since this book was published, Nieburhrian Protestant liberalism petered out or else morphed into a few old guys doing Progressive Christianity, leaving the intellectual battles to be fought by a few intelligent, young evangelicals and orthodox. The North American church continues to beg a hearing from this culture on the basis of faith’s alleged utility in a world that wants other goods than Jesus. Prosperity Gospel preachers transform a crucified Savior into a sure-fire technique for achieving the American dream. The Resident Aliens commendation of Christianity as the countercultural practices demanded by the worship of Jesus Christ got completely out of hand as “practices” degenerated into a meaningless drivel devoid of theological content or Christological control, the latest chapter in our attempt to make relevant the Christian faith without Jesus. My church (Stanley’s ex-church) lost three million more members without noticing. United Methodist bishops, clueless about how to challenge the lies told by ideologues of the left or the right, vow to end Malaria in Africa. The Protestant mainline becomes even more fissiparious in fights over, of all things, sex. When Pietism substitutes love of God for obedience to God, it degenerates into safely personal, suffocating sentimentality. And Stanley and I, who once were Sixties Radicals, are now the tiresome old guys on the Divinity School faculty complaining about the theological antics of the kids. All of which goes to show that if you don’t like something said by a theologian, just be patient; only God is eternal and God eventually takes out all theologians whether their books be good or bad.

Though I’m usually more adept at covering my arrogance, I do believe Resident Aliens struck a chord because God wanted it that way. You know how the God of Israel and the Church loves to summon the wrong people to do outrageous work for the Kingdom. One little book, written on the run by a couple of guys mired in the middle of church as it is rather than as God means church to be, has been used by God to say more than we could say. Thus this book is another illustration of the truth of the Doctrine of Election: God takes back what rightly belongs to God by using a few to bless the many. God graciously elects the wrong people to do the right work for a God who seems to delight in working with the wrong people By the grace of God, Stanley and I lost control of Resident Aliens. Like any Spirit-blessed sermon, our little book, written by two not-so-good Christians, said more than we could have ever said on our own. We made a few pastors’ lives more difficult, we got to see some signs and wonders among Christians in places we had never heard of, and reminded a few congregations of the adventure Jesus meant them to be living.

And it all began on a summer afternoon, outside Duke Chapel, surveying what was left of the Protestant Mainline, with one friend saying to another, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking about the church?” and God doing the rest.

Thanks be to God.


Will Willimon

[1] Bruce W. Winter, Seek the Welfare of the City: Christians as Benefactors and Citizens (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1994). Winter’s account of state/church interaction is contra to that of Wayne Meeks, The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994). See especially chapter 3. Meeks sees the first urban Christians as considerably more at odds with the pagan state.

5 thoughts on “Resident Aliens at 25, part 2

  1. “My church (Stanley’s ex-church) lost three million more members without noticing. United Methodist bishops, clueless about how to challenge the lies told by ideologues of the left or the right, vow to end Malaria in Africa.”

    Say more. Gary Heathcock


    1. That’s wonderful to hear, Thomas. Please join us in October for the Duke Convocation at which time we’ll be discussing RA. Also, there will be a special issue of the Christian Century on the book, with numerous responses, coming up shortly.


  2. Was a wonderful, inspiring book when it came out. Challenging to the pastor and preacher, but uncomfortably ignored by the hierarchy. Sadly the phrase ‘counter-cultural’ has become so co-opted that almost anything passes as counter cultural for the sake of media attention and barely passes as a ‘Gospel rooted or formed’ challenge, either within or outside the mainline Christian church! Love the fact that knowingly or not Will sometimes ignores ‘political correctness’ to become blunt in speaking a faithful challenge.


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