A Progressive Vision of the Benedict Option: Part 5, Sabbath as Resistance

If you ask my friend and colleague David McAnulty about the biggest obstacle facing American Christianity his answer might surprise you.

According to David, this is the church's biggest obstacle:

Youth sports.

I think David has a point. Growing up in my faith tradition we went to church three times a week. On Sunday morning we'd attend Sunday School and worship. Then we'd return to the church for a Sunday evening service. And then we'd gather midweek for Wednesday evening bible classes.

Those days are fading fast in our faith tradition. Our churches are dropping the Sunday evening gathering and attendance for the Wednesday evening bible classes has plummeted. And if you inquire about these changes what you mainly hear is that families are just too busy. And a huge part of that is youth sports. Traveling and games on the weekends. Practices during the week. With families so busy evenings are precious, and so the Sunday and Wednesday evening church gatherings get dropped.

Families just don't have time for church anymore.

Well, families do have the time, but families today value sports more than the assembly of the saints. 

I grew up in a very sports-oriented family, but when I was young a sport was a seasonal investment. Nowadays, if you want your child to be successful in a youth sport it is now a year-long investment, mainly with camps and traveling teams that compete for most of the year.

I bring all this up to frame a conversation I recently had with a friend who was lamenting how his family church attendance had suffered because of their involvement with soccer. Soccer had become an all-consuming, year-round investment. "But we have to do it," my friend despaired, "if our kids are to have any chance at being successful. If your kids don't compete year-round they'll get passed by all the other kids who are doing all the camps and traveling teams."

"You're right," I said, "you have to make that commitment if you want your kids to be successful at soccer. But the question I keep thinking about is why we don't care as much about our kids becoming successful Christians?"

This conversation about the impact of youth sports on church attendance, at least in my faith tradition, might seem to be a strange approach to the Ben Op. But I think it's a great illustration about why we need the Ben Op and the various obstacles the Ben Op will face. 

Recall from my last post how I described what I've called "the scarcity trap," the way our neurotic pursuit of self-esteem, success and significance 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.

The discussion about how youth sports affects church attendance is a perfect illustration of this dynamic. Wanting our kids to be successful and fearing that our kids will fall behind their peers, we push our families to a point of exhaustion where we no longer have the time or energy for Christian community and spiritual formation.

And beyond illustrating the need for the Ben Op, the case of youth sports also helps us address some of the criticisms of the Ben Op by specifying how, exactly, the Ben Op is supposed to help us.

The biggest criticism of the Ben Op is that it calls for a withdrawal from the world, a turn inward. While a withdrawal from the world makes sense to Christian fellowships with monastic traditions, it's a tougher sell for evangelicals who prize engagement with the world. Evangelicals have always prized social action and evangelism, two things that are hard to do if you withdraw into an spiritual enclave.

To be sure, many conservative evangelicals have withdrawn and turned inward. You see this especially with the home school movement. That's not a criticism of homeschooling, just an illustration about how the Ben Op occupies a contested place in the evangelical imagination, with many evangelicals drawn to the notion of cultural withdrawal and other evangelicals arguing that cultural withdrawal is antithetical to Christian witness and mission.

So what shall we mean by withdrawal? And is withdrawal a critical feature of the Ben Op?

Again, I think our discussion of youth sports is helpful here.

At the end of my last post I said it's time for Christians to start opting out of the rat race of modern, capitalistic societies. And that's what I think should be at the heart of a Ben Op "withdrawal." By withdrawal we mean opting out.

When we are talking about a progressive vision of a Ben Op we aren't talking about physical, geographical withdrawal. Again, in contrast to the Ben Op of the Pharisees, that's exactly what Jesus didn't do. Jesus was radically in and available to the world. And, thus, any Jesus-shaped Ben Op will look exactly like that. More on that in the next post.

So the withdrawal we are describing here isn't geographical, the withdrawal is psychological.

Theologically, a better word might be renunciation. If Christianity is going to become a locus of resistance to Empire we have to be formed into people who renounce--opt out, psychologically withdraw from--the way Empire defines success and significance. In the empire I live in that means opting out of the American Dream.

For example, a family opting out of youth sports to make room and margin for a different kind of family and church life.

Consider another example. In the sermon I gave at ACU's Summit last year, I shared 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. That's resisting empire, pursuing a very different path toward success and significance. 

And notice how the opting out in these two examples--youth sports and career choices--face the exact same challenge: social shaming and stigma, the fear of "falling behind," the neurotic anxiety about not being successful. If we opt out of youth sports we fear that our kids will not be successful or will fall out of step with their peers, making them odd and weird. If we say no to a prestigious career opportunity to pursue more servant-oriented work we fear looking like a loser or a failure to our peers, neighbors, colleagues, families, and even, in our heart of hearts, to ourselves.

In short, 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. Shame-resiliency.

Proponents of the Ben Op often speak of the need to develop richly liturgical communities as the loci of Christian resistance to empire. And I wholeheartedly agree. But when you hear Ben Op proponents describe liturgy they often seem more interested in nostalgia than resistance, idolizing and fetishizing medieval and monastic liturgical expressions and practices. Don't get me wrong. I'm as nostalgic as the next guy. I have a prayer kneeler in my office and Orthodox icons fill my walls. I use prayer ropes and prayer beads. But as a progressive I don't fetishize the past. I'd rather live in a modern, liberal democracy than as a medieval peasant. And not just for the technological advancements, the moral advancements as well. Again, as many historians have argued the moral advances of liberalism are rooted in Western Christianity. I applaud those moral achievements.

And yet, I embrace liturgy, prayer kneelers, prayer ropes, icons, and prayer books because it is psychologically and socially difficult to opt out of the American Dream. Consequently, I need to 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.
Living in empire we embrace liturgy to cultivate shame-resiliency, to remind ourselves that we aren't insane in the face of the shaming we experience in the world when we opt out, when we seek first the kingdom of God rather than the American Dream. Liturgy reminds us that it's the world that has gone insane. Liturgy is where we cultivate the social and psychological antibodies necessary to live counter-culturally in the world.

To be sure, liturgy has its limits and its own attendant temptations. More on that in the next and final post. But liturgy has to be a critical component of any progressive vision of the Ben Op.

Why? Because the cruciform way of Jesus will always be an ignoble path in the world. The Way of the Cross will be shamed as foolishness, by liberals and by conservatives.

Which is why we need a 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.

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