A Progressive Vision of The Benedict Option

Last January I wrote six posts dedicated to articulating a progressive vision of the Benedict Option. I want to pull those posts into a single summary post for easy consumption and sharing.

What is the Benedict Option?

The "Benedict Option" is the brainchild of conservative author and journalist Rod Dreher. To catch yourself up, read Rod's Benedict Option Frequently Asked Questions post summarizing his thoughts over the years and his responses to various questions and criticisms of the Ben Op.

Succinctly, the Ben Op argues that Western liberalism--especially, I would argue, its neo-liberal economic manifestations--has been corrosive to the Christian faith. To survive in cultures shaped by modernity, neo-liberalism, and capitalism proponents of the Ben Op argue that Christians will need to invest in creating rich, thick and distinctive cultures that cultivate the counter-cultural virtues necessary to sustain the church and Christian spiritual formation.

In his FAQ post here is how Rod describes the Ben Op:
The “Benedict Option” refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents. Put less grandly, the Benedict Option — or “Ben Op” — is an umbrella term for Christians who accept [Alasdair] MacIntyre’s critique of modernity in [his book After Virtue], and who also recognize that forming Christians who live out Christianity according to Great Tradition requires embedding within communities and institutions dedicated to that formation.
As you can see from Rod's description--the Ben Op as resistance to empire--there's much in his description that resonates with progressive Christians. Resistance to empire is very close to the heart of the progressive Christian vision.

Conservative Christians have been talking about the Benedict Option, why should progressive Christians be talking about it?

Progressive Christians have their own unique struggles with the corrosive effects of modernity, capitalism and liberalism. Here are four particular struggles at work in progressive Christianity:
1. Statism
The belief that the state is the sole and final arbiter of social and moral affairs, thus reducing Christian social action to taking control of the state. Rather than practicing the works of mercy--personally visiting the sick and incarcerated, personally feeding the hungry and clothing the naked--progressive Christianity has become almost wholly politicized, a fight to control the state, a fight to rule the empire.

This is not to dismiss the vital and important role of political activism, but progressive Christian social action must been rooted in Jesus' vision of social action in Matthew 25: the very personal, local, face-to-face practices of the works of mercy.

2. Individualism
As Westerners progressive Christians privilege individualism over collectivism. This fierce commitment to radical autonomy and independence makes it difficult for progressive Christians to form communities that participate God's ongoing story of covenantal promise and fidelity.

This is a major reason why progressive Christians desperately need the Ben Op. Progressive Christians need to recover what it means to be the church, not abstractly, situationally and universally but intimately, intentionally, and locally.

3. Functional atheism
There is often little that is distinctive about progressive Christians when compared to secular humanists or liberal Democrats. Progressive Christians are also often embarrassed or defensive about their faith. That, or increasingly filled with doubt about their beliefs. The ranks of progressive Christians are filled with agnostics and atheists.

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, suggests that progressive Christians need the Ben Op to recover confidence in the distinctive particularities of the Christian faith--morally, spiritually, culturally, politically, socially, and religiously.

4. Shame, Neurotic Status Anxiety and Exhaustion
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, relevance and significance.

Social media exacerbates the problem as we compare our lives to the happiness and successes we see on Facebook. In addition, the capitalist marketing, advertisement, media and entertainment environments saturates you with images of bright, shiny people who are successful, fit, happy and attractive.

And so we push ourselves to be successful, noticed or relevant. But the pricetag of all this pushing and striving is often emotional and physical exhaustion. That, or a keen sense of shame if you "fall behind" in the metrics of success. 

All this anxious pushing and striving so fills up our lives that we have no margin, time, or energy left to invest deeply in local community, especially if that investment in local community doesn't have a significant impact on the metrics we use to label ourselves as "successful." In the end, are too busy, distracted and tired to invest in church in any meaningful way.
In summary, as Westerners progressive Christians have been spiritually formed by modernity in ways that make it difficult for us to live in distinctively Christian ways.

So what would a progressive expression of the Benedict Option look like?

As I envision it, a progressive expression of the Benedict option will embody three main components.

A progressive Benedict Option will be a Franciscan rather than a Pharisaical community
A debate about the Ben Op is 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.

The Pharisees were the conservative advocates of the Ben Op of their day. Observing how the political and the religious institutions had been co-opted by 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 modern Ben Op proponents, that first-century situation is not unlike our own, which means that today's calls for a Ben Op are going to be haunted by the shadow of Phariseeism.

A progressive vision of the Ben Op will resist this Pharisaical tendency. So according to Jesus, how does the Ben Op get off track and become Pharisaical? Consider the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector:
Luke 18.9-12
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.’"
According to Jesus, a Pharisaical Ben Op involves the contemptuous moral sorting of the world into the saints and sinners, the good guys and the bad guys, Us and Them.

A Pharisaical Ben Op turns inward and polices boundaries of moral purity. The Ben Op of Jesus, by contrast, turns outward and violates those boundaries:
Matthew 9.10-13
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.’"
A progressive expression of the Ben Op will exhibit the radical hospitality of Jesus. Examples of progressive Ben Op communities practicing community and radical hospitality are Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove's Rutba House, the Catholic Worker movement, and Jean Vanier's L'Arche communities.

In sum, Progressive expressions of the Bne Op will be Franciscan communities. St. Francis and the early Franciscans were known for their care of lepers, living among and caring for that ostracized, unclean and marginalized community. This Franciscan impulse to embrace leper colonies keeps the Ben Op looking like Jesus--outward-looking, oriented toward hospitality and embracing of the unclean in table fellowship.

Progressive expressions of the Ben Op will share life with a leper colony, places in the local community that have been abandoned by the American Dream. Jails and prisons, underfunded schools, housing developments, city missions, hospitals, a neighborhood or zip code, assisted living facilities, senior-citizen homes, non-profits serving a marginalized group (e.g., refugees, domestic abuse victims, the homeless), and so on.

The goal in these location isn't to create a program or ministry to "save" or "rescue" or even "help." The goal, to take a cue from Samuel Wells (PDF), is simply "being with," to accompany and share life in an abandoned nook of empire.

It's this Franciscan impulse that will break the hold of statism upon the progressive liberal imagination and ground their social action in Matthew 25 with the practice of the works of mercy.

A progressive Ben Op will practice Sabbath as resistance

Beyond Western individualism, the other reason it is difficult for progressive (and conservative) Christians to invest in deep, committed and faithful Christian community is "the scarcity trap," our neurotic pursuit of self-esteem, success and significance in our Western meritocracies that emotionally and physically depletes and exhausts us. The felt scarcity of not "being enough" causes the scarcity of not "having enough," like enough time or energy.

Due to the "scarcity trap" Western Christians are increasingly unable to find any margin in their lives for authentic Christian community. Western Christians are too busy or exhausted to "do church." We don't have the time or energy for Christian community and spiritual formation.

Consequently, progressive Ben Op communities will practice what Walter Brueggemann has called "sabbath as resistance." As Walter writes:
In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods.
The Ben Op is often described as a withdrawal from the world. For progressive Christians this withdrawal isn't geographical, but psychological. A physical or geographical withdrawal would be antithetical to the Franciscan impulse to practice the works of mercy in an abandoned outpost of empire. But progressive Christians will have to psychologically withdraw from and opt out of the competitive, anxious meritocracy that drives the pursuit of the American Dream. We opt out of the rat race. We renounce the American Dream. Sabbath as resistance.

For progressive Christianity to become a locus of resistance to empire we have to be doxologically and liturgically formed into people who renounce--opt out, psychologically withdraw from--the way empire defines success and significance. But this renunciation will require--and this is key to why the Ben Op is so necessary--an enormous amount of shame-resiliency to remind ourselves that we aren't losers in the face of the shaming we will experience from the world when we stop chasing the American Dream.

The Ben Op community is where we will cultivate through doxology and spiritual formation the social and psychological antibodies necessary to live counter-culturally in a capitalistic meritocracy that will shame us for "falling behind." Consider an example I shared in my book Reviving Old Scratch, the story of a young man who left a prestigious educational institution to teach history at a poor, inner-city high school. That's opting out of the American Dream, the Franciscan call to share life in an abandoned outpost of empire to pursue a cruciform vision of success and significance.

But to sustain these sorts of choices, to forgo "success" to serve in ignoble ways in an abandoned outpost of empire, we need a community that will support and honor these choices. To opt out of empire is to experience shame. Which means that we have to become shame-resilient if we want to resist empire, individually and collectively.

And that's why we need the Ben Op, an intentional community practicing Sabbath as resistance so that we can develop the shame-resiliency necessary to live ignoble, foolish and cruciform lives in the midst of empire.

A progressive Ben Op will be egalitarian in gender roles

Beyond the temptation to become inward-looking and Pharisaically self-righteousness, Ben Op communities will also struggle if they are patriarchal.

Insular patriarchal communities are not safe for women and children. To be clear, this is not to say that insular and patriarchal communities are inevitably and always unsafe to women and children, just that insular and patriarchal communities are more prone to harm women and children than are more open and egalitarian communities. Women and children are always safer in communities where women share leadership with men. Especially in communities which are insular and cut-off from the world. And given that Ben Op communities will gravitate toward the insular it's safer if Ben Op communities are egalitarian rather than patriarchal.

Women and men have to share leadership responsibilities in Ben Op communities if they want to protect their women and children. Thus the final feature of a progressive expression of the Ben Op: A progressive Ben Op will be egalitarian in regards to gender roles and leadership.

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