Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Border at the Core: Radical Democracy and Christianity

From Harrisonburg, VA, USA
This post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas and Romand Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, and Brian Gumm. This post covers Ch. 9, "Gentled Into Being"

As in earlier chapters, Coles names the profundities in the writings of his friend, Stanley Hauerwas – he clearly appreciates that Hauerwas wants gentleness to be “constitutive of any politics that would be just” (208). Further, Coles sees gentleness as a current sweeping through Hauerwas’ writings (influenced by Vanier of course, but Coles thinks John Howard Yoder is just as important to Hauerwas’ gentleness) even though this gentleness is sometimes obscured by the kinds of impatient and polemic writing that Hauerwas engages as he wrestles against the secular theology emanating from nation-states and markets. This secular theology produces an impatience that “cuts deeply into possibilities for becoming communities through which we might learn better to befriend time and enact a politics of gentleness” (208-9). Hauerwas is impatient with the impatience of secular theology – better, he’s downright pissed. The art of gentleness is thus intertwined with the arts of “critical biting” (Hauerwas’ language in the previous chapter) – Hauerwas “never said gentleness somehow implies that one should not have and identify enemies” (209).

Coles has no difficulty sharing these convictions with the theologian, he also wants to hold together gentleness and struggle with enemies – but he senses at least several differences in how they might approach the entwinement of gentleness and struggle. Coles, revisiting a theme from an earlier chapter, is looking for a vulnerability that he wonders if Hauerwas is willing to admit and adopt; and he probes The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics in search of vulnerable offerings. Coles is NOT worried that the church imagined and practiced in The Blackwell Companion constitutes a sect – he values the passionate commitment to hospitable engagement with the world beyond the church. Coles is more worried that the church imagined is a church that “makes the border secondary to an interior volume that is at the center and that only prepares for rather than is itself partly constituted by the borders themselves” (212). Coles’ seems to want to de-center the assumptions of what constitutes a center. Or he wants to make sure the form includes the boundaries. 

In relation to practices this means that the church becomes the foot-washer (but not also in need of being foot-washed by non-Christians), the host of the Eucharist (but not the one who might sit at the lowest spot), and the server (but not needing to be served by those outside the church). “It is as if there is a people called and gathered prior to encountering others, rather than a people equiprimordially gathered and formed precisely at the borders of the encounter” (212). Coles is concerned that a church so imagined will assume that the form is prior to the edge and fail to see that the edges also constituted the form. A church so imagined can tend to assume that it has all it needs to be what it needs to be in the world. A church so imagined tends to avoid the receiving that is at least as important as the giving – “We must not refuse our feet to Jesus… We must feel the pressure of his touch, the touch of the stranger” (213).

Painting by Laurie Olson Lisonbee
Once again, Jean Vanier enters as one who embodies the riskiness of allowing the upside down to remain upside down. A foot-washed politics can too often and too easily be flipped into a foot-washing politics – where we become the givers of the service rather than those who are de-centered through the washing of our feet by one who we would rather not see our feet. Vanier wants us to see that we (need to) squirm as much as the disciples did when Jesus washed their feet; Vanier wants us to see that Peter’s resistance is our resistance: You will never wash my feet.

The upside-down-ness of John 13 is that Jesus surprises and unsettles what the disciples had somehow come to assume was the way things work. “He (Jesus) should never wash the feet of his lowly disciples. It is they who should wash the feet of Jesus, while those inferior to the disciples should wash their feet… Peter cannot understand the meaning of this gesture. He needs Jesus above him, not below him. Jesus gives him security” (Vanier, 219). Jesus flips the disciples’ world upside down, and refuses to turn it back right side up, telling them that they really can’t know what’s going on until later.

John Caputo offers a parallel to this foot washing conversation that gets at some of what I think matters here. In his What Would Jesus Deconstruct? Caputo offers some reflections on the riskiness of hospitality (truth be told, I wonder if we could name Coles’ reflections here “The Risk of Having One’s Feet Washed”).

What hospitality means seems simple enough: welcoming the other, welcoming the coming of the other into the same, into my house, for example. But when in fact we actually offer hospitality, whom do we typically invite? Our friends, of course, those whose company we enjoy and from whom we can expect reciprocity, or else people whose favor we are currying. Either way, we welcome only those who serve our pleasure or our interests, which means tightening the circle of the same, not welcoming the other. (Caputo, 75-76)

Our hospitality turns out to be quite inhospitable, for every invitation is conditional. Caputo wonders if a radical hospitality would include welcoming the uninvited who pays us unexpected visits – much like Jesus unexpected washing of the disciples’ feet. But how can I guarantee that I will be safe if I welcome the uninvited? What about my children? Must I welcome into my home even the uninvited? – Do I have to do this all the time? Caputo, drawing on Jacques Derrida, says that there is really no way to eliminate all risk and still preserve hospitality.

"While Derrida is not encouraging reckless behavior, he is saying that the only way to eliminate the risk built into hospitality is to eliminate hospitality itself by screening the guests so carefully in advance that every trace of welcoming the other has been extinguished. There is always a risk in everything worthwhile. We are always put at risk whenever we welcome someone, just as we are put as risk whenever we love or trust or believe in someone, and the greater the love of hospitality, the greater the risk” (Caputo, 77). Perhaps this is why Jesus tells the disciples they will only understand later why he must wash their feet – the risk of understanding at that moment is too threatening – for now, they simply must go through it.

Coles wants us to practice being de-centered by the neighbor that shows up unexpectedly. But putting it this way isn't really want Coles is getting at either. I don't think Coles would want us to practice being de-centered - that still puts us, whoever "us" is, in the driver's seat, it still seeks to keep the world turned right side up; it still says we are most who we are when we are the foot-washer. Coles might instead want us to at least begin with the recognition that borders are part of the form of anything, in fact there could be no form without borders. As one of my best friends has said several times, "we always have neighbors that we don't choose." But instead of being that which keeps things orderly and neat, the borders are wild with possibility, they are fecund, they provide the most likely place for the uninvited, the stranger, to enter. Coles I think wants us to see that (at least) in the John 13 passage Jesus becomes the uninvited, the stranger who confounds his disciples and turns the world upside down.

The border at the core of church lies somewhere in this constellation – we pray and ask Jesus to come – but do we really want him to come? Is his coming like that of the uninvited stranger, disrobing and bending down to wash our feet? “Christianity would be well advised to consider itself under the permanent promise/threat of just such a visitation – quite uninvited – by Jesus…” (Caputo, 78).

Can Hauerwas’ church become vulnerable (hospitable) enough for Coles to appreciate? I’m not sure. But I’m also not sure why we couldn’t ask Coles the same question (Is his radical democratic practice vulnerable enough for the visitor to throw it off center?) Perhaps though, he’s already asking (and answering) it: “In these stories, one has to squint oneself stupid not to see that the streams of the most exemplary radical democracy and radical ecclesia are fed by multiple sources beyond the limits of what any single tradition can call its 'own'" (228).

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