This analysis is important as Rod Dreher, father of the Ben Op, recently asked for input regarding the dark side of the Ben Op, how the Ben Op goes wrong.
Let's start exploring this dark side by taking a look at the gospels.
The Benedict Option is in the gospels. In fact, you could argue that the Ben Op is the central debate at the heart of the gospels.
In the gospels we observe a conservative religious group who, reacting to the corruption of the political and religious establishment under Empire, decide to turn inward to reclaim their distinctive culture and traditions in order to cultivate the virtues that would sustain them.
We know this Ben Op group as the Pharisees.
Given their debates with Jesus in the gospels the Pharisees often get a bad rap. But if you know anything about the Pharisees you know they were the good guys, the advocates of the Ben Op of their day. Observing how the political (King Herod) and the religious (the Sadducees and temple elites) institutions had been co-opted by the Roman empire, the Pharisees called for a Ben Op, a call for communities to invest in local synagogues where teaching, liturgy and the daily practices of Torah observance would sustain the Jewish people in the dark age they were living in.
According to Ben Op proponents, that situation is not unlike our own. Which means that contemporary calls for a Ben Op are going to be haunted by the shadow of Phariseeism.
Given the central place of Jesus's debates with the Pharisees in the gospels it is not too much of a stretch to say that Jesus' teaching in the gospels provides an extended commentary about the Ben Op, with particular focus given to how the Ben Op goes wrong in religious communities like the Pharisees. Consequently, any conversation about the Ben Op is going to have to reckon with Jesus's criticisms of the Ben Op in his own day.
So what is at the heart of Jesus's criticism about the Ben Op? According to Jesus, how does the Ben Op get off track?
How does the Ben Op go dark side?
I would summarize Jesus's criticism of the Ben Op in one word--Othering.
Lots of people don't like the word Othering, so let me give a biblical picture of what I'm talking about: the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector:
Luke 18.9-12"I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector." That's what I mean by Othering, the contemptuous moral sorting of the world into the saints and sinners, the good guys and the bad guys, Us and Them.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’"
This moral sorting of the world into the good and the bad was at the heart of the debate between Jesus's and the Pharasees's rival visions of the Ben Op.
The Ben Op of the Pharisees turned inward and involved policing boundaries of moral purity. The Ben Op of Jesus, by contrast, turned outward and violated purity boundaries.
Matthew 9.10-13The contrast here been an inward-looking and exclusionary Ben Op versus an outward-looking and radically inclusive Ben Op is one of the things Rod Dreher and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove discussed in their recent exchange. As a progressive Christian I agree with Jonathan that the Ben Op should exhibit the radical hospitality of Jesus, a hospitality that brought the Ben Op of Jesus into conflict with the Ben Op of the Pharisees.
And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’"
This is why I think progressive Christians are well positioned to implement the Ben Op. In my experience, the Christian communities that most closely approximate the Ben Op incarnated by Jesus in the gospels are those that incarnate radical hospitality. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove's Rutba House. The Catholic Workers. Jean Vanier's L'Arche communities. These are committed and richly liturgical Christian communities that are radically inclusive. These aren't fundamentalist and patriarchal Christians communities turning inward to home-school their kids to teach them Latin, Creationism, and a 1950s vision of family values.
To be clear, I wish I learned Latin as a kid and I have dear friends who think the world was created in 6,000 BC. I also think Christians of good will can differ on how they think about marriage and gender roles. What I'm trying to point out is that if we are going to call for a Ben Op there is going to be a fork in the road. Down one path is the Ben Op of the Pharisees. Down the other path is the Ben Op of Jesus. And Jesus's litmus test of the Ben Op is radical hospitality, how the Ben Op community welcomes the religiously and socially "unclean" the way he did.
And yet, Jesus' vision of hospitality challenges us, progressive and conservative alike. Especially in its Matthew 25 manifestations: the corporal works of mercy for the homeless, naked, sick, hungry, and incarcerated.
Shaped as we have been by Western modernity both progressive and conservative Christians are infected with statism--the belief that Empire is the sole and final adjudicator of human social and moral affairs. Rather than practicing the works of mercy--personally visiting the sick and incarcerated, personally feeding the hungry and clothing the naked--Christianity, progressive and conservative, has become wholly politicized, a fight to control the state, a fight to rule the Empire over others.
As a test of this, ask a conservative Christian how much daylight exists between their views on social and moral issues and the political right. Conversely, ask a liberal Christian how much daylight exists people their views on social and moral issues and the political left. By and large, on any given issue, there will be little to no daylight between the "Christian" right and the political right, or the "Christian" left and the political left.
And what this means is that Christianity has been wholly captured and co-opted by Empire.
Thus the need for a Ben Op, what Rod Dreher describes as Christians who "are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents."