One of the many things that was cut from my book was a chapter called “Chaplain to the Culture?” (It was cut because it’s too “inside baseball.”) Here it is, rough and unedited. I imagine that it will provoke some response in some corners, so please remember that I’m being (somewhat) tongue-in-cheek.
While in seminary in the early 1990s, I was heavily influenced by a group of theologians that I now refer to as the Hauerwasian Mafia (HM). The HM consists of an ever-expanding group of Christian thinkers who have been influenced by Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University Divinity School.
The influence of “Don” Stanley on the American theological landscape can hardly be underestimated. In 2001, TIME declared him “America’s Best Theologian” (he responded by saying that “best” isn’t a theological category), and in his years at Duke, scores of pastors and professors have trained under him. At some seminaries, whole theological faculties are now committed to furthering his work. Thus, the HM.
Hauerwas’s two most significant influences are John Howard Yoder and Alasdair MacIntyre. The former was a Mennonite theologian and pacifist whose masterpiece was The Politics of Jesus (1972). The latter is a Catholic moral philosopher who argued in his break-out book, After Virtue (1981/1984), that a recovery of the virtue ethics of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas is the answer to what ails modern America.
What each of these men claims, in his own way, is that the Christian faith is a self-enclosed system of language and practice—one that cannot necessarily be understood by those who stand outside of the system. Aristotle was the granddaddy of this thinking when he said that those who live inside of one polis (city-state) cannot pass judgment on the laws and morals of those inside another polis. That’s because the moral system in a polis has developed around a certain set of virtues that is intrinsic to that polis.
For his part, MacIntyre argues that we live in a society that is fractured by radical pluralism, and thus no one is using a coherent set of beliefs when arguing their moral positions. Exhibit A for MacIntyre is death penalty advocates and foes screaming at each other across the street from a prison on the day of an execution. Both groups may be shouting in English, he says, but they are using different moral languages—his phrase is “morally incommensurate.” For instance, while one is using social contract theory (“We’ve got to think about the individual rights of the prisoner! This is cruel and unusual punishment!”), another is relying on utilitarianism (“It’s better for more people in society if this murderer is put to death so that he won’t be a danger to our society any longer!”).
MacIntyre’s solution is a return to a virtue-bound society, one in which we come to consensus on the virtues that bind us and then work out a group of practices that facilitate those virtues. So, for instance, if we decided that honesty was a core virtue, then we’d rally around those patterns of life that rely upon honesty (and we’d naturally do away with less-than-honest practices like funding political campaigns with “soft money”).
Yoder comes from a different angle, that of a Mennonite, a tradition with an understandable predilection toward cultural withdrawal: they were heavily persecuted during the Reformation for leaving the state churches of Europe and proclaiming that true Christians wouldn’t fight in wars between governments. Yoder continued in this pacifist tradition and argued that the church itself is a political stance in society. The church’s problems, he argued, are a result of “Constantianism,” a reference to the Roman emperor who made Christianity the de facto religion of the Empire in 313. A church in bed with government, according to Yoder, is a church that’s lost its nerve and forgotten who it’s supposed to be.
Standing on the shoulders of MacIntyre and Yoder, Hauerwas makes proclamations like, “Christians shouldn’t run for political office.” The thinking behind a statement like that is that politics is a dirty business and necessarily full of compromise, and a whole-hearted Christian is in no position to compromise on core Christian principles. (Notice, for instance, that the U.S. Senators who really get things done are rarely the ideologues who carry the standards of the far left and far right, but the moderates who realize that you’ve got to negotiate and compromise to get legislation passed.)
This is much related to what moral philosophers call the “problem of dirty hands”—the difference between a theory about government and the actual workings of government is that those who run the government inevitably get their hands dirty. They’ve got to decide when to drop a bomb or which welfare program to cut in order to balance the budget. These are decisions that cannot be avoided—dirty hands are what differentiate real politicos from mere poly sci majors.
So the question becomes, what relationship should a follower of Jesus have with public life? Should Christians be involved with politics?
The HM advocates an ecclesiological solution: the church should be a counter-polis, a self-enclosed system that can serve as a model to secular systems (governments, corporations, etc.). In reading the HM literature, you’ll run across many references to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, especially the part about being a “city on a hill.” The church, the HM claims, is just such a city, shining the light of its moral rectitude for all the degenerate world to see and emulate. And you’ll find HM book titles like, Resident Aliens and A Peculiar People, promulgating this tendency, a tendency that has been dissed by critics as “sectarianism” and “Christian enclave theory.”
The chickens came home to roost for me on this issue many years ago, when I became a pastor, but I was only reminded of it last week. A member of the HM, and a friend of mine, was in my minivan, driving around Minneapolis. Hanging from my rear-view mirror is my Edina Police identification badge on a lanyard (yes, it gets me out of tickets). He asked about it, and I told him that I’m a (volunteer) chaplain for the Edina Police Department—that’s the department for my suburb of about 50,000 on the southwest border of Minneapolis.
Edina has about 50 sworn officers and about as many support personnel. And, Edina has four police chaplains: a Lutheran, a Presbyterian, a rabbi, and me (“So, a Lutheran pastor, a Presbyterian pastor, an emergent theologian, and a rabbi walk into a bar…”).
So, I was driving my HM friend around (I’ll call him “Geoff,” because that’s his name—he’s a “street boss” in the HM), explaining what I do with the Edina cops. For one thing, I told him, the chaplains offer assistance at difficult calls. Earlier this week, for instance, I was called in to the department (we’re each on call one week per month). A 20-year old woman had drowned in a metro area lake, and the sergeant-on-duty and I were dispatched to the family’s home to make the death notification.
As you might guess, cops hate doing death notifications, so most of them were exceptionally happy when a few of us initiated the chaplain program in 1997. We’re also available to help them on suicide calls and other times when community members might need comfort or advice.
But that’s only half of what we do. As chaplains, we also make a point to be available to cops who need a pastoral ear. Like anyone in a stressful job, cops tend to internalize their emotions regarding what they see on a daily basis (one cop told me that her average 8-hour shift is 99% absolute boredom and 1% sheer terror). So if an officer goes through a traumatic situation or suffers the death of a loved one, one of the chaplains will make sure to drop a note in his box or ride along on one of her shifts next week. We try to do the same for the 911 dispatchers and office workers, and we feed the entire department every winter at a chili feed and every summer at a cook-out.
As I was explaining all of this to Geoff in the car, it occurred to me that the HM wouldn’t approve of my role as a police chaplain. They’d probably consider it “complicity with the militaristic Constantinian empire,” or something like that. Geoff smiled sheepishly and nodded, “Yeah, something like that.”
In fact, I then remembered reading a book by HM member “Capo” Rodney Clapp years ago that warned against just this kind of involvement with the government. In a civilization that no longer considers Christianity central to its identity, “obsolete” and often “feckless” chaplains serve only to prop up the sponsoring authorities by offering the faint flavor of sacredness, or so says Clapp. The chaplaincy—whether it be in a hospital or the Senate or a local police department—is the very epitome of what’s wrong with American Christianity according to the HM.
In fairness, Don Stanley is up to something good when looked at from the leftward flank. His critique is of the mainline church in America in the 20th century, and it’s a well-deserved critique. At the dawn of the 20th century, the church was confronted with the modern dilemma: a bi-polarity. On the one hand, growing out of 19th century German biblical scholarship and the “quest for the historical Jesus” was the burgeoning American liberalism. On the other hand, and in reaction to this, was fundamentalism—a thorough retreat from society that often included handling snakes in the backwoods. (Modern evangelicalism wouldn’t come into its own as a third alternative until the 1940s.)
Given these two options, most thoughtful Christians chose liberalism, and some were so confident in their choice as to name the 20th century the “Christian Century.” Looking back, however, it seems that the liberal church sold its birthright for a pot of porridge. Capo Clapp’s justifiable criticism is that the mainline church became an unwitting chaplain to governmental and commercial enterprises that weren’t the least bit Christian. The ecumenical movement of the last century, for instance, became a lowest-common-denominator affair in which theological distinctives were watered down in order for all parties to work together for the common good. What was left, after all robust talk of theology was bracketed out, was called the “social gospel.”
Although some theological heavyweights, like the Neibuhr brothers, tried to bolster liberalism, it was collapsing by the lattermost quarter of the century. Mainline Protestants were hemorrhaging members and churches and being eclipsed by Evangelicals and Pentecostals. The denominational fights over homosexual ordination of today are equivalent to the remote Japanese soldiers who were still on patrol in 1946, not knowing that their government had surrendered to the Allies months earlier. The battles may go on, but the war has been lost. There is no future for conventional theological liberalism.
Don Stanley saw this and marshaled the forces of Don Yoder and Don MacIntyre to develop a new way forward for the liberal tradition. Instead of watering down their distinctives to the point of meaninglessness, the church should close ranks and develop an internal coherency that would serve as an example to the world.
Having been persuaded by this thinking while in seminary, my assistant at the church didn’t understand when I went catatonic after checking my voice mail. I had only been on the job as a pastor for a couple months, and I received the offending phone message from the most unlikely source: the mom who was putting on the Cub Scout banquet. That’s right, from the seemingly innocuous mouth of a Den Mother came the Siren’s Call of collaboration with the militaristic state: she wanted me to say the opening prayer at the annual banquet.
In catatonia, I searched my soul. What would I be doing there, if I did accept? Surely, I would be granting the imprimatur of the Deity on the purely secular proceedings that would follow. I had been told in no uncertain terms by the HM that accepting invitations just like these and lending the gloss of religiosity to secular occasions is exactly what has led to the impotency of the American church. The HM angel on my shoulder told me to call the Den Mom back and respectfully decline on the grounds that God wasn’t for sale (or, in this case, for rent along with the church’s Great Hall).
But how could I turn down the Den Mom and several dozen little boys in kerchiefs? Maybe it would be great outreach opportunity, said the devil on my other shoulder. Maybe it would be a sign of hospitality and grace that would entice one of the little Cubs and his family to visit the church for worship. Maybe I’d have a good conversation over dinner with a spiritual “seeker.”
I said yes. I prayed at the Cub Scout banquet and enjoyed a meal of rubber chicken kiev with a family that I never saw again. And I said yes the next fall when the Edina Athletic Hall of Fame called for the same purpose. I invoked God’s blessing on that truly pagan event. And I went on to serve on several city-wide commissions, always as the “Edina Religious Representative.” Was I asked to fill a quota? Surely. But, I tend to believe it did some good as well.
And I didn’t always say yes. Another year, I was asked by a church member to be the keynote speaker at the annual banquet of Junior Achievement, an organization that teaches kids about economics and free market enterprise. “Will you speak on self-esteem?” he asked me, “You seem to have a pretty strong sense-of-self.”
“Far too strong, according to my wife,” I answered. “Seriously, I’d be happy to, but I’ll have to talk about Jesus, since he’s the source of much of my self-esteem.”
“Well, you can surely talk about the importance of faith,” he told me, “But there are folks of several religions involved in JA, and we’d like to avoid any talk that’s specifically Christian.”
“Then I’ll have to decline,” I said, “Cuz for me to talk about self esteem without talking about Jesus would be disingenuous.”
“I’ll check with the rest of the board and call you back,” he said.
He didn’t call back.
I think it’s these very experiences that have led me to appreciate philosophical pragmatism more than the neo-Artistotelianism of the HM (although pragmatism is also rooted in the thought of Aristotle). The pragmatists argue that there can be no uniform rule that dictates actions in all endeavors. Instead, we must become as wise as possible and then make the best decisions that we can. It’s important to remember, however, that all these decisions are made on an ad hoc basis.
Like a jazz musician, followers of Jesus Christ must learn to improvise, and in order to improvise, we must first train ourselves to be keen observers.
So, another HM friend of mine named Jimmy “The Teacher” asked me how I maintain my Christian particularity as a police chaplain. “How do you keep from watering down what you believe so that you won’t offend anyone?’
I thought about the dozens of police calls that I’ve been on in the past decade and I said that it usually comes pretty naturally. When I’ve made a death notification to a Somalian family which was obviously Muslim, I didn’t take out my Bible as they keened in the living room. Instead, I stood quietly by and waited for an appropriate time to tell them about how dead bodies are handled by funeral directors in the U.S. And when I arrived on the scene to find the deceased’s sons laughing about which rabbi they would call, I offered to read the 23rd Psalm and pray the Shema with them. And when the family I’m visiting has crosses on the wall and a Bible on the kitchen table, then I’m a little more confident in talking about the Christian faith.
The point is, there’s no “one way” to be a police chaplain. Instead, you get some training and then you start going on calls. With each call, I’ve become a better chaplain. But as I stand in front of the door of a nice suburban home, knowing that the person on the other side of that door is about to have a life-shattering conversation, I don’t have any grand strategy to protect my Christian particularity. I know who I am.
Instead, as I reach for the doorbell, I pray that God will guide me and that God will comfort whoever’s about to answer the ring.