"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

In Defense of Christian "Extremism"

For fifty cents at a local "antique" shop, I recently found an old copy of a book edited by Harold Faber The Road to the White House: The Story of the 1964 Election. The book pulls together the coverage in the New York Times of the 1964 US presidential election. It's mildly interesting, and of course it covers Barry Goldwater's infamous acceptance speech and its unapologetic declaration that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice."

That line came back to me upon hearing the recent news that one arm of that vast Leviathan we call the US federal government has classified certain groups, including Catholic and evangelical Christians, as "extremist." The report is rightly being criticized on a number of grounds, not least for sounding like some lazy functionary more or less cribbed a lot of this nonsense from that fount of all wisdom, Wikipedia.

But there are two responses I have not yet seen to this. The first is that of tu quoque. The second is to concede, happily, the charge but then redefine the terms. For the first, we turn to Alasdair MacIntyre; for the second, to Stanley Hauerwas.

MacIntyre, as I have noted before, has rightly written that no institution is more "extreme" than the state:
The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf… [I]it is like being asked to die for the telephone company.
As William Cavanaugh, picking up from MacIntyre, argues, the dangerous and unmanageable modern state is never so furiously self-aggrandizing as during situations of war or perceived "national security" threats, when the organs and arms of the state, and their "extreme" infringements (soon to become regularized as routine) on the lives of its citizens grow like mad. Compared to this, no "religion" (an impossibly vague term I reject not least because it is capable of meaning just about anything) stands a chance at being "extreme" for no "religion" has so many organs capable not merely of controlling the lives of people, but of compelling them, under threat of lethal force, to do its bidding and of potentially punishing them with loss of life if they fail to do so. This is perforce true of today's state, when more and more parts of the US government--including seemingly anodyne ones like the department of "education"-- have their own armed SWAT teams. If this isn't "extreme" growth of state power, I don't know what is.

I was given a nasty taste of this last fall when on an Amtrak train (a shabby service today and a far cry from the fabled Pullman cars which, in the 1950s, sent Evelyn Waugh, traveling across country from New York to Los Angeles to discuss film rights for Brideshead Revisited, into raptures about the "luxury" of American railway travel) en route to Penn Station in New York to attend the Orthodox Theological Society of America conference, where I gave a paper. In upstate New York, south of Rochester, at least an hour from the Canadian border, very heavily armed troops in fatigues from the Border Patrol came on the train and demanded documents from everyone on there, stalking through cars at 11:30pm impudently interrogating people, "US citizens?" Note well: this was on US soil, the train never crossed any international borders (as noted, we were a good hour from that dangerous hotbed of "extremism" known as Canada), and yet we were stopped. As I furiously texted to my wife, "What is this? The Soviet Union redux where you have to have internal passports to travel from city to city?" One woman across from me was foolish enough to admit she was a German on a student visa, so she, along with a woman in a hijab in front of me, were both disappeared for an hour and interrogated, coming back looking very shaken indeed.  To their credit, these troops did not force the issue with people--I pretended to be asleep and they walked on past me--as though aware, however reluctantly and for however much longer, that, they do not (yet)  have the legal right to demand documents for internal travel, or expect people to prove their citizenship on a train in the middle of nowhere late at night in their own country far from any international borders never crossed by this particular train on this particular route. Nevertheless, the very fact of their menacing presence is a case of the "extreme" overreach of the modern security state.

Turning to Stanley Hauerwas, let us adopt his strategy (also that of LGBT [etc. etc.] activists) and reclaim the vocabulary here. Christianity is "extreme" and anybody who is surprised by this, or worse, alarmed enough to put Christians on some government watch list, has simply not been paying attention. Some time ago, Stanley Hauerwas already adopted this reversal of terms in an essay "The Non-Violent Terrorist: In Defense of Christian Fanaticism" from his 1998 book Sanctify Them in the Truth: Holiness Exemplified. During our correspondence in the 1990s, Stanley sent me a draft of this before it was published, and the phrase has always stuck with me as one of his many bon mots. He ends up in a direction I cannot entirely follow, namely pacifism. But still the arguments are important.

It builds on his earlier essay "Preaching as though We Had Enemies." In that latter essay, he argues that "one hopes that God is using this time to remind the Church that Christianity is unintelligible without enemies. Indeed, the whole point of Christianity is to produce the right kind of enemies." Note well: the right kind of enemies. In both places, and elsewhere, as in his most recent book on war, Hauerwas reminds Christians of what, in perhaps most other ages, would have been unremarkable: that the world has always regarded us as "odd" at best, and as "crazy," "extremist," "enemies," etc. at worst. And that is indeed correct: the Church is the enemy of any state so "extreme" that thinks itself the supreme power and authority in the world, unhindered by, and unaccountable to, any higher power, and free therefore to run roughshod over the rights and dignity of the human person. The Church opposes such totalitarian extremism in political systems and actors wherever they may be found.

Moreover, the God whom we worship, the God revealed in Jesus Christ, is "extreme." He goes, as Eastern Christians know from the hymnody of Holy Saturday, and from the anastasis icon, down to the very depths of hell to destroy its power even over those who first betrayed Him, Adam and Eve, portrayed here as being helped out of their tombs; He goes to the ends of the earth to rescue the lost sheep; He welcomes back the prodigal when all our earthly notions of "justice" would side with the elder brother and give nothing to the returning son except a sanctimonious harangue about "loose living."

But it is, I suppose, harmless enough for God to be thought of as "extreme." He at least is presumably not (yet) on a government watch list. Now, however, Christians are on such a silly list--but usually not, alas, for the right reasons.It is no surprise to me that the US government is openly adopting this language--which I'm sure has already been used sotto voce for some time, and no doubt in reference to such things as the pro-life witness of Christians, especially evangelicals and Catholics. (As Kathy Shaidle likes to say, more abortionists shot by Christians appear in Law and Order episodes than have ever appeared in real life.) Still, Christians, when living the faith fully and properly, should be "extreme" in resisting enemies through the power of love, in serving the poor, in loving God in all people. Christianity, by definition, is "extreme" in making claims that most of the bien pensants today find offensive: e.g., that Jesus Christ is the one true way to heaven; that all people need to come to know Christ; that allegiance to Him trumps allegiance to any other group, including the supposedly secular (but covertly sacralized) state; and that those who follow Him are expected to live in ways deeply offensive to those shaped (inter alia) by the incredibly tedious but highly intolerant mores of the sexual revolution.

If your Christianity is respectable, if it allows you to live as a comfortable petite bourgeois, then you are doing it wrong. Or, put negatively in the argot of our government minders, if your Christianity does not get you labeled as "extreme" then you're also doing it wrong. I have been trying to make this point to my students this semester--not, I fear, entirely successfully--when looking at the example of the Way of the Pilgrim and the holy fool in Ostrov. A peasant who wanders around Russia, or who washes up on a northern Russian monastery, both spending their days staggering around saying the Jesus Prayer thousands of times every day, are "extreme" relative to most of us who count it a good day if we can rattle off a couple Aves and Paters as we snatch the last bites of scrambled egg and race for the car. Loving those who hate you, even to the point of forgiving them as they are torturing and executing you, is by any definition "extreme." Serving those who have nothing to repay you with, doing the menial jobs of bathing stinking wounds on people who would be otherwise dying in gutters, is "extreme" in the eyes of most. Defending the dignity and life of everyone, including those (babies, the handicapped, the elderly, the sick) whom the world condemns as Lebensunwertes Leben is apparently "extreme" today. But all this is part of following the most extreme Godman, the king who voluntarily undertakes to be born in the degrading circumstance of an animal feeding trough in the middle of antique "flyover country"; the one who forgives even those who torture and kill him. This God is extreme, and that label should be a badge of honor for all who rightly follow Him.


  1. one of the best things I've read in a while. thank you

  2. Thank you for your timely post. I have been a bit down about public affairs and the Church as of late, and your reminder about Christian "extremism" is salutary, and has given me a lift. Thank you.


Anonymous comments are never approved. Use your real name and say something intelligent.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...