Hauerwas on Mother’s Day, and other idols

I’m not sure when Mother’s Day became part of the Church’s calendar (I obviously missed the memo on that one), but Stanley Hauerwas, who is always such fun to read, and whose latest collection of provocative and stimulating sermons and essays, Working with Words: On Learning to Speak Christian, reminds us why we ought to lament the fact that so many did get the memo.

He once addressed a group of young people with these words:

I assume most of you are here because you think you are Christians, but it is not at all clear to me that the Christianity that has made you Christians is Christianity. For example:

—How many of you worship in a church with an American flag?

I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.

—How many worship in a church in which the Fourth of July is celebrated?

I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.

—How many of you worship in a church that recognizes Thanksgiving?

I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.

—How many of you worship in a church that celebrates January 1st as the “New Year”?

I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.

—How many of you worship in a church that recognizes “Mother’s Day”?

I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.

I am not making these claims because I want to shock you. I do not want you to leave the Youth Academy thinking that you have heard some really strange ideas here that have made you think. It is appropri­ate that you might believe you are here to make you think, because you have been told that is what universities are supposed to do—that is, to make you think. In other words, universities are places where you are educated to make up your own mind. That is not what I am trying to do. Indeed I do not think most of you have minds worth making up. You need to be trained before you can begin thinking. So I have not made the claims above to shock you, but rather to put you in a position to discover how odd being a Christian makes you.

One of the great difficulties with being a Christian in a country like America—allegedly a Christian country—is that our familiarity with “Christianity” has made it difficult for us to read or hear Scripture. For example, consider how “Mother’s Day” makes it hard to compre­hend the plain sense of some of the stories of Jesus. In Mark 3:31–35 we find Jesus surrounded by a crowd. His mother and brothers were having trouble getting through the crowd to be with Jesus. Somebody in the crowd tells him that his mom cannot get through the mass of people to be near him. Which elicits from Jesus the rhetorical question “Who are my mother and brothers?” which he answered, noting, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Even more forcefully Jesus says in Luke 14:26: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” When you celebrate “Mother’s Day,” the only thing to do with texts like these is “explain them,” which usually means Jesus could not have meant what he plainly says.

Of course, the presumption that Christianity is a family-friendly faith is a small-change perversion of the gospel when compared to the use of faith in God to underwrite American pretensions that we are a Christian nation possessing righteousness other nations lack.

– Stanley Hauerwas, Working with Words: On Learning to Speak Christian (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011), 116–7.

And while I’m drawing attention to brother Stanley’s latest publication, let me quote another passage, this time his wonderful wedding sermon opener. The target? The sentimentalisation of love:

Christians are required to love one another—even if they are married. That may be a cruel and even heartless demand, but it is nonetheless the way things are if you are a Christian. From Paul’s perspective marriage is not necessarily the context that determines the character of love or our ability to love and be loved by another. Rather, Paul seems to think we need to learn to be loved by God and so to love God, and then pos­sibly ourselves, and if we have gotten that far we may even discover we can love our neighbor, who may be our enemy, which often turns out to be the necessary condition for those who are married to love one another. (p. 139)

15 thoughts on “Hauerwas on Mother’s Day, and other idols

  1. I recently suggested to the elders of our church that maybe we should move the American flag out of the sanctuary. Mind you, I didn’t say “eliminate it from the premises.” I merely suggested moving it from the sanctuary to the activity building. “No way. We can’t do that. There are a lot of older folks who’d oppose that. Some of them have sacrificed their blood for this country,” I heard in reply.
    My reply: “No one has sacrificed more than the Savior who is to be center of our worship.”
    The flag is still there.

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  2. I deeply appreciate what Hauerwas has to say here but I also have a hard time taking it at face value. It’s a nice bit of proof texting to make a point but I can see no reason why a church that has the flag removed and observes the Christian calendar cannot also thank God for moms and pray for them on a given Sunday. Jesus also said to John, behold your mother. And then there’s that commandment too. I’m not for re-arranging the whole liturgy and preaching a mothering text. But the liturgy isn’t in Latin for a good reason. We can invite our people into it and even reshape their assumptions in these moments.

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  3. Does this mean that Stanley doesn’t think that America is exceptional? Ronald Reagan said “we’re the city on a hill,” so I think Stanley is wrong ;-) .

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  4. Another thank you for this post. Our retail holidays like mother’s day and father’s day (although that one is usually given short shrift), and our national holidays have no place in church. I usually manage to avoid them and my attendance this morning reminded me why I do.

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  5. Hey Bobby. Go easy on the Puritans; they were not all much like moderns would have us believe they were. Indeed, the modern diet could well do with some Edwards, Owen, Sibbes and Goodwin.

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  6. I worship at a pretty good Eastern Orthodox Church in San Jose CA.
    We do ***not*** worship in a church with any of those things.
    Why am I not relieved?

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  7. I love Hauerwas, but one of the most accurate things I’ve heard said of him is that he gets it wrong even when he’s right.

    I wonder if he buys a Christmas tree. If so, I am sorry to tell him that his salvation is in doubt.

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  8. I think Hauerwas means to point the Church away from the excesses associated with the days he mentions. Similiar to what St.J Chrysostom did in regards to New Years day (see ‘On wealth and poverty). Essentially, theology challenges the ideology in order to refine our understanding of each other and the paradigms that inform our perspectives. Mothers day, like the other days mentioned by Hauerwas, should be recognised but not worshipped. It is a day to recall how even Christ had a mother. This points us towards the existential realities that go with the incarnation. As for a flag in the church? Yes and no. Yes, affirm the fact that God gave America what it has and the people who gave up their youth and for a large number of them, also their lives in service to defend it against tyranny. No, because Christian Nationalism breeds nominalism ergo, it has never ended well, and in some cases only fuelled tyranny :)

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  9. It’s a bit of a cheek for me to comment here since I’m British and we barely do flags at all, on the grounds that if one feels the need to express their nationalism with a flag, they’re doing it wrong. Still …

    Hauerwas’s major point, surely, is that the Church is not the World — it is a light to the world: in it but not of it. To recognise any one nationality as special is to privilege it. We are the Church and our kinship must be with our fellow Christians and *not* with a nation or — heaven forfend — a political party.

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  10. Thanks for your comment Andrew. In light of it, you may be interested in a paper that I recently prepared for the World Communion of Reformed Churches. The title is ‘Social Identity, Ethnicity, and the Gospel of Reconciliation’. In due course it will appear in HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies, but if you want an advanced copy, then I’d be happy to email you one. You can reach me via the Author page on this blog, or via email.

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