Seek the Welfare:
The Church, the State, and the COVID-19 Pandemic
In recent days, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended life as we know it. Schools, businesses, and cities throughout the world have closed to the public and many are forced into their homes indefinitely. In the midst of this mass self-quarantine, the Church has had to ask questions like; In what sense should the Church submit to the State? How should the Church care for Her own? How does the Church show concern for the “common good”? During these chaotic times, words like those from James K.A. Smith can be helpful guides for navigating the relationship between Church and State. In his book Awaiting the King, Smith seeks to “work out the implications of a ‘liturgical’ theology of culture for how we imagine and envision political engagement.” His voice, now more than the book was first published, is deeply meaningful to how the Church moves forward in these next moments. Smith proposes that “it is precisely the cultural mandate coupled with the second Great commandment–to love our neighbors as ourselves– that propels us to responsibility for the public life of the nations and communities in which we find ourselves as pilgrims and sojourners.” I am particularly interested in his notion that the “cultural mandate” gives us motivation alongside the second Great commandment. I will seek to challenge this idea with a notoriously “sectarian” work, Resident Alien, addressing contemporary conversations surrounding the common good, and finally weighing Smith’s book in our context and within these discussions. Now, maybe more than ever, Christians must decide how they will interact with the state to “seek the welfare of the city” we find ourselves in.
Resident Alien was published in 1989, long before government mandates compelled the Church as an institution to act according to the State’s order and contrary to the nature of the Church. Well, not exactly. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon defend that “The call to be part of the gospel is a joyful call to be adopted by an alien people, to join a countercultural phenomenon, a new polis called church.” To support their thesis, the authors draw upon a tragic example, the church in Germany circa 1921. In their opening argument, they show that the issue with the Church in Germany was two-fold, first, stemming from contemporary liberal theology of the day that desperately tried and nearly succeeded to marry the State intricately to the Church (i.e. Schleiermacher). They note, “It was the theological liberals, those who had spent their theological careers translating the faith into terms that could be understood by modern people and used in the creation of modern civilization, who were unable to say no.” The second issue they take up is with “Constantinian Christianity.” By drawing on the first institutionalization of Christianity, Hauerwas and Willimon argue that, since 313, the Church has capitulated submission to the State in order to make herself more credible. Through various examples, they show how Christians, both liberal and conservative, have submitted to the State in varying ways. For liberals, many follow suit of outspoken socialists like Tillich who perpetuate the Constantinian strategy by deciding, “The way to make the church radical is by identifying the church with secular ‘radicals,’ that is, socialist.” While not all take this all liberals are socialists, liberal Christians follow suit by identifying the Church primarily with the secular fad of the day. Conservatives, likewise, often are simply an imprint of what the conservative branch of government is pushing for the common good. If that means eliminating abortion, great! If that means wiping out an entire civilian city with an atomic bomb, as long as it’s for the common good! President Truman famously remarked after the first bomb was dropped, “This is the greatest thing in history.” Hauerwas and Willimon point out that Truman was “an outstanding Baptist layman” and garnered the support of the majority of American Christians, revealing that the majority of American Christians had also lost their ability to recognize and resist gross evil.
Though parts of Resident Alien are woefully vague in some sections and the authors themselves are guilty of much of their critiques, the general premise rings true: the Gospel is a countercultural act. I might argue, in continuity with Hauerwas and Willimon, that the charge the Gospel gives also asks us to seek a different “common good” counter to what our culture proposes. Could it be that in neglecting to meet together in places we are neglecting centuries of Christian tradition and Scripture that commands us to meet as a Body? I fear that our capitulation of what the State declares as the common good is what the Church has been lulled into believing is truly the highest common good. With Hauerwas and Willimon, I might argue that the Church’s notion of the common good is different from the State’s notion, because, as Smith notes, “The problem isn’t that liberal democracy is not a tradition; rather, the problem is more like the fact that it is (or has become) an insidious tradition.” Smith picks up on a key idea of liberal democracy, or the State, is a forming tradition and in that it is insidious or contrary to how the Church seeks to be a forming tradition. We might then, heed R.R. Reno’s charge in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to “Keep the Churches Open!”, for,
When we worship, we join the Christian rebellion against the false lordship of the principalities and powers that claim to rule our lives, including sickness and death. This does not mean carelessness about our health, nor does it mean indifference to the health of others. Instead, it means that as Christians we have higher priorities. Our end is in God.
Here, Smith is also helpful in understanding the Church’s necessary work in gathering for worship. By ascribing to the “heavenly polis,” which is set forth in our very gathering, preaching, and communing together, “we are then sent to labor in the contested terrain of creation in the saeculum.” Returning to notions of the common good, we can see that in gathering for worship, we are prepared and formed toward a common good that is often contrary to “insidious culture” as our end is in God. Pecknold notes on the common good, “the church calls us to a much greater love of the good than the love we have for particular goods. We cannot invent the common good.” The danger with identifying the particular goods of health, family, city, and universe with the higher common good which finds its end in God is universalizing what is particularly good for my family, my city, and in turn, how I conceptualize our shared universe. The common good, then, is revealed to us in our worship and thereby forms us to truly “seek the welfare”. The prime example of this is the baptismal rite, wherein the candidate of baptism renounces the world, the flesh, and the devil. Smith notes that “the rite of baptism is an ontological change, the basis for equality and an indication of everything that’s wrong with commodification of human beings.” In other words, the rite of baptism is utterly and unavoidably countercultural.
With Smith, I would also proclaim that “Worship is not a rehearsal of a ‘natural law’ that can be known by reason or conscience; it is the restor(y)ing of a renewed humanity who are liturgically schooled.” And contrary to the counsel of the State, “the index and criterion for justice and the right ordering of society is not some generic, universal, or ‘natural’ canon but rather the revealed, biblical story unfolded in God’s covenant relationship with Israel and the church.” My fear is that the Church’s primary concern is preoccupied with the second Great commandment, when the first, “Love the lord your God,” is neglected. To Smith’s point, worship is necessary for the restoration of humanity rather than capitulating the goals of the State, who is birthed from the very world it seeks to rule and is more intent on self-preservation than true restoration. Reno comments that “St. Paul observed that Christ came to free us from our bondage to sin and death. This does not mean we will not sin or die. It means that we need not live in fear.” The story our worship ought to tell is one of freedom to gather, preach, and commune and baptise without fear of death since we have so great a promise from our Lord, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” As Smith also puts it, our acts of worship signal a “radical reorientation of an upside-down kingdom and initiation into the politics of the city of God.” He acknowledges that our worship forms us significantly, and worship begins with the assembly of the saints within the city of God, the very walls of the Church.
At first, I hesitated to adamantly throw my support behind Reno’s radical chastisement of our Church neglecting to meet together, though I strongly sympathize with his diagnosis upon reading Awaiting the King. My desire for the Church is not that she might legislate herself to congregate again, rather, to defy the State and meet because we believe that Christ is uniquely present in his Church through Word and Sacrament, as he promised. In this, our reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to be an unprecedented political act by the Church, will she capitulate the polis of State and seek the welfare as the State defines “welfare”, or will she stand as her own polis as Church and seek true welfare as Christ did who, in the face of lepers, sought healing and restoration to a sick and broken world.
“Our most revolutionary political act is to hope… To be a Christian is to be a person who engages in politics but does so without fear.” I feel that the Church is primarily acting in fear, not necessarily of death, though that is surely a motivation of some. The Church fears it’s “loss of witness,” rather, its reputation. As Smith closes his book, so will I conclude: The King is alive and seated on his throne, and he reigns. And not only that: he is also interceding for us at the right hand of his Father. “Be not afraid.” Can we live in the narrative of our King, alive and reigning, yet close our doors to worship him for fear of death or embarrassment? The welfare of the city we live in now is greater than its health and preservation, it is the freedom of Christ Jesus witnessed in the gathering, proclamation, and sacraments of the Church.
Hauerwas, Stanley and Willimon, William. Resident Alien: Life in the Christian Colony (25th Anniversary Edition). Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014.
Pecknold, C.C., “False Notions of the Common Good”, last modified April 23, 2020, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/04/false-notions-of-the-common-good
Reno, R.R., “Keep the Churches Open!”, last modified March 17, 2020, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/03/keep-the-churches-open
Smith, James K.A. Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology.Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017.