After the publication of Unclean I got a lot of questions along these lines:
Unclean is pretty hard on the holiness/purity impulse in the life of the church. But isn't holiness necessary for the health of the church? Aren't there times when we need to preserve the moral integrity of the faith community? And if this is so, how are we to keep this commitment to holiness from trumping the call to radical hospitality?
In my presentation at Streaming I tried to answer these questions. A part of my answer used Dietrich Bonhoeffer's notion of religionless Christianity.
In Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison he makes some startling statements about something he calls "religionless Christianity." For example, Bonhoeffer writes:
...we have to live in the world as if there was no God...What does it mean that a Christian should (before God!) live without God? What does it mean for the Christian to live in the world as if there were no God? What does it mean for Christianity to be "religionless"?
Before God and with God we live without God.
I think the key to understanding Bonhoeffer is found in a lecture he gave in Berlin in 1932. For our purposes this quote is important in that it shows a way to connect holiness with hospitality. In this quote we see a connection between actions in the world--the arena of welcoming outsiders--with what Bonhoeffer calls "the secret discipline"--the arena where holiness is cultivated among the confessing, praying and worshiping community. Here's the relevant passage from Bonhoeffer:
Confession of faith is not to be confused with professing a religion. Such profession uses the confession as propaganda and ammunition against the Godless. The confession of faith belongs rather to the "Discipline of the Secret" in the Christian gathering of those who believe. Nowhere else is it tenable...Notice a couple of things. First, in the eyes of the world the Christian looks "religionless." There is no public discussion of God, faith or religious topics. There are no words of this sort, no propaganda. There are only actions. The only "confession" we make in the world is behavioral. We keep our mouths shut. We simply love. That is all. And this love speaks for and interprets itself.
The primary confession of the Christan before the world is the deed which interprets itself. If this deed is to have become a force, then the world will long to confess the Word. This is not the same as loudly shrieking out propaganda. This Word must be preserved as the most sacred possession of the community. This is a matter between God and the community, not between the community and the world. It is a word of recognition between friends, not a word to use against enemies. This attitude was first learned at baptism. The deed alone is our confession of faith before the world.
This is how I picture a radical hospitality taking place in the world. No words. No propaganda. Just a mute religionless display of love, welcome, and embrace.
So where does holiness fit in? Holiness is a part of the secret discipline. These are the communal practices of confession, prayer and worship that sustain the friends who gather in the name of Jesus. Holiness is a word between these friends, the way they keep each other on the path of Jesus and calling each other back when they falter. Holiness should not be a conversation between the church and the world. When holiness becomes the conversation between the church and the world it too often becomes a word against an enemy, a word the church uses to damn the world. Holiness should only be a word exchanged in the trusting intimacy among friends. Holiness is a secret, private, intimate and trusting conversation.
In sum, I think we can see in Bonhoeffer one way to balance holiness and hospitality. Hospitality is the religionless act where the church welcomes the world. In this meeting the church is silent and mute. And because of this muteness the church isn't even recognized as being the church. The encounter is religionless. The only thing seen by the world are acts of love.
Now, behind the scenes and sustaining this activity are a group of friends who gather to confess, pray and worship. Here, among these intimates, do we find a conversation about holiness--practices of confession, accountability, forgiveness, reconciliation, and perhaps even discipline. Holiness is conversation among this band of friends deeply in love with each other.
At Streaming I suggested that the model I sketch here looks similar to a monastic community. And I believe this to be an improvement over the typical church/world dichotomy, especially if acts of exclusion are being discussed. For example, if the confessing community is identified as "the church" then excluding someone is seen as moving this person from "the church" to "the world." That is, the excluded person goes from being "saved" to being "damned" or "lost." Which means that issues of inclusion and exclusion (as they relate to things like church discipline) end up becoming about eternal salvation. To be included is to be saved (a part of the church) and to be excluded is to be damned (a part of the world). In short, the church/world frame means that when we are thinking about inclusion and exclusion we are of necessity adjudicating between who is saved and who is damned. And that's a pretty toxic and high-stakes conversation. No wonder it so often goes awry.
But if we are working with a monastic frame then much is changed. For example, if you are, say, kicked out of the Franciscans you aren't kicked out of the church. You're still in the church, you're just not a Franciscan. We are no longer in a high-stakes conversation about who is going to heaven or hell. We're simply talking about if a particular friend no longer wants to walk a common road of mutual accountability with other friends, "the rule" that governed their shared life together. Such an "exclusion" really isn't an exclusion at all. It's simply the recognition (that may have to be pointed out) that a particular rule of life is no longer anything the person desires or wants. And once this is pointed out the separation should be amicable. Problems would only arise if a person both wanted to stay with the community but refused to share the common commitments of that community. But I expect that would be pretty rare.
Now with this monastic framing of exclusion/inclusion I want to be clear that what I have in mind are sending and missional communities. These are not cloistered or sectarian communities, the stereotype of being "monastic." So the key to this particular monastic paradigm is that the confessing community exists for mission, for the sake of the world. This community isn't preoccupied with monitoring its inner life, nor is it withdrawing from the world. These are friends working and living in the world who come together for periods of refreshment, confession, worship and prayer--for the secret discipline that is not mentioned in the religionless witness before the world. Here, among friends, is where is holiness cultivated, a holiness that sustains and stabilizes the friends in their collective and individual acts of love and service in the world.