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.
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.