In one of its clumsier formulations, the Benedict Option might be understood as the response of orthodox Christians to the United States taking a decisive turn to, for the first time in its history, oppose orthodox Christians for their faith. Thus the BenOp is an attempt to withdraw in order to regain a lost golden past of American Christianity.

I say “clumsier” formulations because one of the things that BenOp proponents must be aware of for multiple reasons is that there is a certain historical naiveté that can creep into our discussion of the BenOp if we are not careful.

If, for example, one were to make the dubious claim made above—that the United States has taken a decisive step away from its historical roots as a Christian nation and as a state now has set its face against orthodoxy then there is something that you really ought to read:

16 April 1963
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

That, of course, is the opening paragraph to Dr Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. It is the letter that a black Christian wrote when imprisoned over 50 years ago for having the temerity to believe that Christianity is true and to act as if all men truly are created equal before God.

http://gty.im/491272441

King, of course, is the most famous example of a black Christian being made to suffer for holding to Christian principles but he is hardly alone in his suffering. For two and a half centuries our nation enslaved black men and women, many of whom were Christian, and when they dared to speak as Christians and tell us that this order was intolerable we white Christians responded much as we did to King—or worse.

Remembering this simple historical fact can enrich our understanding of what the Benedict Option ought to look like for two simple reasons.

First, as Jemar Tisby noted a few months ago, white Christians can go to black Christians for counsel on how to live faithfully as a minority in a society that is opposed to you and will go to great lengths to make you suffer. This reality may be new for white Christians, but it is has been the default mode of existence for black Christians for all of American history. We should learn from their experience and the best way to do that is to ask them to help us think through these things. (This assumes, of course, that our churches will have some level of diversity in them or that we will at least be friends with black Christians, thereby making it possible for us to learn from their experience.)

But there is a second point to be made here as well. When we speak of America’s “Christian” past we are always speaking of a badly compromised Christian past, a Christian past where racism was not only tolerated; it was normal and even encouraged in many places. And this was not an exclusively Southern phenomenon either. It’s striking that of the two most famous black leaders of the 1960s, it was the one who came from the north that had the dimmer view of white people:

This point, then, ought to remind us that there has always been a certain perversity to the American project. We have always been willing to twist Christianity or shave off some of its edges in order to accommodate our American greed. Wendell Berry makes this point well in his essay “The Hidden Wound”:

Consider the moral predicament of the master who sat in church with his slaves, thus attesting his belief in the immortality of the souls of people whose bodies he owned and used. He thus placed his body, if not his mind, at the very crux of the deepest contradiction of his life. How could he presume to own the body of a man whose soul he considered as worthy of salvation as his own? To keep this question from articulating itself in his thoughts and demanding an answer, he had to perfect an empty space in his mind, a silence, between heavenly concerns and earthly concerns, between body and spirit. If there had ever opened a conscious connection between the two claims, if the two sides of his mind had ever touched, it would have been like building a fire in a house full of gunpowder: somewhere deep down in his mind he always knew the danger, and his nerves were always alert to it.

You can probably draw a pretty short line between what Berry is saying above and the response we still see to this day when someone like Pope Benedict or Pope Francis dares to criticize our American Free Market, all praise its glorious name.

All this is to say that many (though not all!) American Christians have always kept a vacant space in our mind to protect ourselves from the contradictions that exist between this mythical Christian nation and the reality of what we truly are. Indeed, the existence of this space is the only way we could reconcile our supposedly Christian roots with our genocide of the continent’s indigenous population, with our centuries of rape, kidnapping, and murder of the black population, and with our ongoing slaughter of countless unborn infants—to say nothing of our desolation of much of the land on which we have perpetrated these injustices. (And that’s just the stuff we’ve done on our own land.)

Our nation’s opposition to the truths of the Gospel did not announce itself in some radical, historically unprecedented way on June 26 when the Obergefell decision was announced. It may have cast that opposition into greater relief and, perhaps, for its rejection of the natural understanding of the body it might even be unique. But the relationship between Christian faith and the United States has always been a strained one that rested largely on the existence of this “empty space” Berry is describing above.

The Benedict Option, therefore, cannot be a straining back toward some recently abandoned order or a last gasp effort to reclaim a lost golden age of Christian America for the simple reason that you cannot recover something which never actually existed. Rather it is an attempt to do something simultaneously far more modest and far more ambitious—to imagine how to live as orthodox believers in a nation that has, in some sense, always been hostile to orthodoxy.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy and sons Wendell and Austin. Jake’s writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • Matt Petersen

    This letter is one of the strongest indictment of American Christianity I’ve read.

    Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this Ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad and all the other Prophets of the Holy Scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors.

    I have been blessed to visit the Holy City of Mecca. I have made my seven circuits around the Ka’ba, led by a young Mutawaf named Muhammad. I drank water from the well of the Zam Zam. I ran seven times back and forth between the hills of Mt. Al-Safa and Al-Marwah. I have prayed in the ancient city of Mina, and I have prayed on Mt. Arafat.

    There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white.

    America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered ‘white’–but the ‘white’ attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.

    You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to re-arrange much of my thought-patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions. This was not too difficult for me. Despite my firm convictions, I have always been a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.

    During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept in the same bed (or on the same rug)–while praying to the same God–with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white. And in the words and in the actions in the deeds of the ‘white’ Muslims, I felt the same sincerity that I felt among the black African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan, and Ghana.

    We were truly all the same (brothers)–because their belief in one God had removed the white from their minds, the white from their behavior, and the white from their attitude.

    I could see from this, that perhaps if white Americans could accept the Oneness of God, then perhaps, too, they could accept in reality the Oneness of Man–and cease to measure, and hinder, and harm others in terms of their ‘differences’ in color.

    With racism plaguing America like an incurable cancer, the so-called ‘Christian’ white American heart should be more receptive to a proven solution to such a destructive problem. Perhaps it could be in time to save America from imminent disaster–the same destruction brought upon Germany by racism that eventually destroyed the Germans themselves.

    Each hour here in the Holy Land enables me to have greater spiritual insights into what is happening in America between black and white. The American Negro never can be blamed for his racial animosities–he is only reacting to four hundred years of the conscious racism of the American whites. But as racism leads America up the suicide path, I do believe, from the experiences that I have had with them, that the whites of the younger generation, in the colleges and universities, will see the handwriting on the walls and many of them will turn to the spiritual path of truth–the only way left to America to ward off the disaster that racism inevitably must lead to.

    Never have I been so highly honored. Never have I been made to feel more humble and unworthy. Who would believe the blessings that have been heaped upon an American Negro? A few nights ago, a man who would be called in America a ‘white’ man, a United Nations diplomat, an ambassador, a companion of kings, gave me his hotel suite, his bed. … Never would I have even thought of dreaming that I would ever be a recipient of such honors–honors that in America would be bestowed upon a King–not a Negro.

    All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of all the Worlds.

    Sincerely,

    El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz
    (Malcolm X)

    http://www.malcolm-x.org/docs/let_mecca.htm

  • Lila Wagner

    I appreciate the comment quoting MalcolmX, but as a woman I cannot give much trust in Allah, the Compassionate–whose compassion seems limited to only the males.

    • Matt Petersen

      Yes, I’m a Christian, and wouldn’t ask us to leave Christ. Rather, the point is that the fact that he had to go to Islam to find people acting as if Pentecost has happened, is an extremely strong indictment of the US Church.

  • This is a very good post even though more attention could have been brought to the economic classism that causes many compromises with the Christian faith, at least it is mentioned. Instead of flattery and false assurance, which is often what the Israelites wanted to hear from their false prophets. For here, we might distinguish false prophets from true prophets by noting that false prophets are democratically chosen, true prophets are those who choose the Scriptures as their base. Thus, this post emphatically speaks of some of the compromises we Christians have made to embrace the syncretism of America and Christianity and thus is not a message that would be on the top ten messages preferred to be heard by the people.

    But we face a different battle with the aftermath of the Obergefell decision than we faced with our past history of racism, economic classism, and we could include American Imperialism. For while the latter deals with issues of justice and coprorate sins, the former deals with personal morality and individual sins. And while King’s response to racism, economic classism, and war is the kind of response we should have made to practices involving justice and corporate sins, we have to ask if the same applies to both law and practices involving personal morality and individual sins. Thus, while White Christians, such as myself, should ask our Black brothers and sisters how we could survive as a counter-cultural influence in an antagonistic society, we just as much need to ask these same brothers and sisters how we could have stopped living as entitled rulers over others. For part of the aftermath of the Obergefell is because Christianity’s past hegemony over the personal moral values of America to the extent that it marginalized those who were different than such as homosexuals.

    Our battle today is not with those who have different sexual morals than we do. For one thing, the line between us and them is all too often crossed in practice. A battle we have is with ourselves and our penchant for ruling over those who are different. So rather than either withdrawing from a society we “lost” in order to shore up the fortress walls or mounting a series of crusades to retake what was “ours,” we need a third option. And that option is to work to protect the equality of others and embrace working together with those others to defend each others’ rights and to work for justice. And while we are doing that, we need to preach the Gospel.

    The main issue brought to us by Obergefell and what went on before is all about how we will share society with others. Wil we share it with others as equals and seek and celebrate agreements and common values, or will we feel compelled to choose between resigning from involvment in society to spend our time and efforts elsewhere or trying take back what was ours?

  • hoosier_bob

    I agree that we were never a Christian nation. Our “Christianity” was largely an ill-fitted attempt to cloak bourgeois values (and the conventional morality of middle-class people) with a false aegis of divine approval.

    I don’t see that the culture hates Christians because of their Christian beliefs. Rather, the culture hates Christians for expressing those beliefs in ways that are obnoxious. Watching Kim Davis sprint onto a stage with “Eye of the Tiger” blaring in the background gives a rather clear picture of why so-called elites tend to dismiss evangelical variants of Christianity.

  • SJ

    I think there’s a lot to be said about democratic-republic in this discussion. Our American form of democracy is naturally a little wary of a nationalized religion because of the one going tension of being lead by the masses, and yet still holding the interests of minority groups by ways of “rights.” Because of this I think that our democracy is great for Christianity, it allows us to live with our believes entirely separate from our identity as a citizen in a country. This is really revolutionary. I think the problem we have is when Christians think that because democracy is great for them, the inverse must also be the case for democracy. The fact that anyone wants a “Christian nation” negates so much of the benefits of a nonpartisan democratic system.
    For my two cents I think our “giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s…” is to give our rational decisions and votes based on what we think would benefit the country as a whole–but often Christians have responded not with what our government asks of us, but a heaping dose of bad theology. Rather than contribution to our democratic system most of these Christian political maneuvers seem to only dismantle the good faith of this democratic system–as though Christian-fascism is a more preferred form of government.

  • John J. Barrister

    The problem is you think Christianity is based on equality, but its not or at least the sort of equality involved is metaphysical. But as a reality, it does not promote equality, both the parables of the sower and the seed and the servants and the talents implying that, while God may cherish all humans equally, he does not make them equal. This is bolstered by st. Paul’s description of the body of Christ as having many different parts with different functions and responsibilities. A foot is as important as an eye, but a foot cannot do the work of the eye nor visa versa. The same could be said of the gentile woman with the daughter or the centurion, Jesus did not see them as equals to the Jews, rather it was their faith that moved Jesus to intervene. Also, you completely ignore St. Paul’s own discussion on the subject of slavery that indicates a tolerance for the practice between Christians.
    The permissiveness of slavery in Christianity does not make the practice right or something a Christian had an obligation to preserve. However, to launch of critique of thee United States as an un-Christian nation because of slavery is an argument from liberal egalitarianism, not from Christianity.

  • Cheryl M

    “All this is to say that many (though not all!) American Christians have
    always kept a vacant space in our mind to protect ourselves from the
    contradictions that exist between this mythical Christian nation and the
    reality of what we truly are. Indeed, the existence of this space is
    the only way we could reconcile our supposedly Christian roots with our
    genocide of the continent’s indigenous population, with our centuries of
    rape, kidnapping, and murder of the black population, and with our
    ongoing slaughter of countless unborn infants—to say nothing of our
    desolation of much of the land on which we have perpetrated these
    injustices. (And that’s just the stuff we’ve done on our own land.)”

    Who’s “we”? It’s the rare Christian who would say that all or most Americans are Christians or that the two terms can be used interchangeably. It’s not a contradiction at all that we who believe all people are sinners can have some egregious examples from our own country. I doubt there is any country in the world that cannot say the same thing. But having them done in one’s own land doesn’t make it necessary to say “we.” I neither participated in nor approved of any of these actions, and neither (as far as I know) did anyone in my family.