In this post I want to focus why progressive Christians need the Ben Op.
Again, what is the Ben Op and why do we need it?
According to Rod Dreher, the Ben Op involves Christians who "construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents."
And why do we need the Ben Op? Because of the corrosive effects of modernity upon the Christian faith and community. Keeping my eye on progressive Christians, some of the corrosive effects I've mentioned in the first three posts include:
1. StatismThere is a whole lot that is packed into this summary list.
The belief that the state is the sole and final arbiter of social and moral affairs and thus reducing Christian social action to taking control of the state.
A fierce commitment to radical autonomy and independence making it impossible for us to form communities that participate God's ongoing story of covenantal promise and fidelity.
3. Functional atheism
Pervasive doubt and agnosticism, along with an inability to articulate anything particularly or distinctively Christian in prophetic contrast to the prevailing liberal and humanistic consensus.
For example, related to individualism is consumerism. We can't form covenantal communities because we approach church as spiritual consumers. Churches have to attract us with religious goods and services. The binding agent--the glue holding modern Christians together--is liking rather than covenant. I've written about this issue before:
One of the questions I often ask myself about my church, which is reflective of most churches I suspect, is this: What binds us together as a community?A problem related to statism, one I mentioned in the earlier posts, is how we trade in the corporal works of mercy for political activism. This is not to dismiss the vital and important role of political activism, but Christan social action has always been rooted in the very personal, local, face-to-face practices of the works of mercy--you and I, personally, today, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, quenching the thirst of the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, and visiting the incarcerated.
As best I can tell what binds us together is liking. We're at our church because we like it. Because we like the sermons. Or like the worship. Or like the programs. Or like the bible classes. Or like the people.
We are there--we are a "church," a gathering--because we like the same things.
Obviously, this is a very thin web of support--our liking, our preferences--that is holding us together. What happens when we get a new preacher and we don't like the sermons as much anymore? Or what if the worship style changes and we stop liking it?
What happens when the going gets tough? When sin needs to be confronted, when discipleship gets costly, when love gets sacrificial or when deep disagreements are aired? What happens when doubts deepen and faith grows cold?
Will liking be enough to bind us together during these seasons?
There needs to be something more than liking. So what might it look like if a church was bound together by promises rather than preferences?
Because love, it seems to me, is less about liking than it is about promising.
I might say it this way, infected by statism progressive Christians have lost their Franciscan imagination.
And again, this isn't a forced choice or a false dichotomy, the works of mercy vs. political activism. I encourage any progressive Christian, especially if you're interested in the Ben Op, to make a close study of the life and witness of Dorothy Day. When it comes to activism and the works of mercy Christians can and must do both. But if you had to choose, a Christian goes with Jesus: you--personally--perform the works of mercy. That's the line in the sand Jesus placed between the sheep and the goats.
Incidentally, this is yet another location where I think progressive Christians are well suited for the Ben Op. Where many Ben Op communities will place cultic practices and boundary markers (e.g., liturgy, orthodoxy) at the heart of their communities, progressive Ben Op communities will be much more likely to place Matthew 25 at their heart. As examples of these progressive Matthew 25 Ben Op communities, again see the Catholic Workers and the new monastic movement as discussed by Rod and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.
(The question I'll be asked here is if progressive Ben Ops have to take on Catholic Worker and new monastic expressions. The answer is no. In the last two posts of this series I'll be describing how the Ben Op looks for local churches filled with regular folk, people with mortgages, families and day jobs.)
Lastly, there is also much that could be said about progressive Christians being functional atheists. Many progressive Christians are so crippled by doubts that their Christianity is only vestigial, a religious ornament one hangs on the reigning liberal consensus. And that feeds into statism. When your faith has evaporated and there is no daylight between Christianity and liberalism, the only Messiah left in your life is the state.
All that to say, progressive Christians need the Ben Op so that they can find the time, space and community to revitalize and re-energize their flagging faith. A time, space, and community where the faith, in all its distinctive particularities, is joyfully and enthusiastically embraced, cherished and celebrated.
Finally, before concluding this post let me bring in a fourth reason we need the Ben Op:
4. Scarcity, Exhaustion and the Never Enough ProblemThe fuel of capitalism is our neurotic anxiety, our fears of being a failure and a loser. The dark genius of capitalism is that it leverages our neuroses into productivity. This neurosis is rooted in a felt sense of scarcity, what Brené Brown calls the "never enough problem," a feeling that we are always inadequate, always behind, always losing. And social media just exacerbates this problem as we compare our lives to the happiness and successes we see on Facebook. To say nothing of how a capitalist marketing, advertisement, media and entertainment environment saturates you with images of bright, shiny people who are successful, fit, happy and attractive.
The competitive meritocracy of capitalism fills our lives with neurotic status anxiety--what Brené Brown calls "the shame-based fear of being ordinary"--which drives us to emotional and physical exhaustion as we work and perform for self-esteem, success and significance.
And so we push ourselves to catch up. Anyone make any New Year's resolutions?
We don't want to be ordinary. We don't want to be left behind. But the pricetag of all this pushing and striving is emotional and physical exhaustion, along with all the sacrifices demanded to make it to the top, sacrifices that fall most heavily upon our loved ones. Pushing to "make it" in the meritocracy we ruin our bodies, minds, and relationships.
And if we can't catch up--if our lot is to be one of the failures and losers--we can drown our embarrassment, failures, insecurities and shame in food, drink, medications, and entertainments. If you're poor it's nicotine, cheap beer, meth, fast food, video games, porn, Facebook and TV. If you're more well-to-do you can upgrade many of these to more "sophisticated" pleasures and distractions. You might hate cheap cigarettes, beer and UFC wrestling but you love your cigars, expensive whiskey and golf outings. Either way, it's all the numbing decadence of empire.
Late modern capitalism is killing us. That's why Christians, conservative and progressive, need the Ben Op.
It's time for Christians to start opting out.
[Programming note to readers following this series. Parts 5 and 6 of this six-part series will appear next week on Monday and Tuesday.]