Is the Benedict Option based on Christian principles—or white middle-class ones?
Again and again in his effort to defend the strategic withdrawal that characterizes the Benedict Option, Rod Dreher has emphasized one word: strategic. Yes, there is an element of withdrawal from the surrounding culture, he says, but this withdrawal is strategic. It is not a selfish flight from a sinking ship, he argues, but a withdrawal for re-engagement. Benedict Option communities are supposed to withdraw only so that they can be the kind of communities that produce Christian persons capable of evangelization.
But Dreher’s recent comments about President Trump’s use of the word “shithole” underline the suspicion that many have felt about this strategy: Is it really just strategic? Who gets included? Is its exclusive nature really based on Christian principles rather than, say, white middle-class principles? Although initially condemnatory of Trump’s choice of words, Dreher confessed to second thoughts about his original negative reaction, saying that “the whole thing is more morally challenging than I initially thought.” He attempted to explain this growing ambiguity by way of analogy with housing for the poor, writing:
If word got out that the government was planning to build a housing project for the poor in your neighborhood, how would you feel about it? Be honest with yourself. Nobody would consider this good news. You wouldn’t consider it good news because you don’t want the destructive culture of the poor imported into your neighborhood. Drive over to the poor part of town, and see what a shithole it is. Do you want the people who turned their neighborhood a shithole to bring the shithole to your street? No, you don’t. Be honest, you don’t.
Do I? Would I be able to consider this good news? Maybe not. But here is the thing: The extent to which I do not want housing for the poor in my own neighborhood is the extent to which I am failing to be a Christian. This must be admitted. It must be confessed.
The extent to which I do not want housing for the poor in my own neighborhood is the extent to which I am failing to be a Christian.
We need to confess, confront and be converted from our own reluctance to share in the lives of the poor and to share our own life with them. The difficulty in doing so is one of the reasons why Jesuit formation builds in significant time living and working with people in poverty. That has taken a number of shapes in my own life. I spent years walking the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago. I lived and worked for three other years with the Lakota Sioux on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation—located in one of the poorest counties in our country. And just last summer I traveled with the Jesuit Refugee Service to the border between Sudan and South Sudan to live and work with the refugees of the incessant war there.
Each of these experiences was hard. I remember how afraid I used to feel that the rusted elevator doors in the Cabrini buildings would not open and I would be trapped there. I remember the boarded up houses and the wild packs of stray dogs and the bitter cold of the winter on Pine Ridge. And I remember the endless sea of gray United Nations tarps under which the thousands and thousands of South Sudanese refugees—the very refugees that President Trump included on his attempted travel ban one year ago—ate and slept and drank.
We need to confess, confront and be converted from our own reluctance to share in the lives of the poor.
I remember how out of place I have felt in these places. I remember that it has taken me years to learn the meaning of the words “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the Kingdom of God” (Lk 6:20). And I remember that, though learning to recognize the beauty and grace of these communities has been a gift to me, it does not alleviate the cost and burden of poverty for those who live with them. It is instead a call to work for justice.
So it is not that the answer to Dreher’s question is an easy one. It is not easy. But, for a Christian, it ought to be obvious. Is the arrival of the poor—whether as refugees or a new housing development—Good News? Yes it is. It is Good News because it is the arrival of Christ. The only question is whether we will be ready to go out to meet him when he comes.
The deeper problem is that this is exactly what the communities envisioned in the Benedict Option were supposed to be preparing us for: the welcoming of Christ. The purpose of strategic withdrawal was precisely for the building of communities in which deep Christian formation could succeed.
It is not that the answer to Dreher’s question is an easy one. It is not easy. But, for a Christian, it ought to be obvious.
So this must be said: To the extent that Benedict Option communities do not form persons who are eager to welcome Christ in the poor—who can welcome Christ Poor—they are failing to be fully Christian communities. Not that they would unique in this. We are all, Jesuits and BenOp-ers alike, more like the rich young man who goes away sad than like St. Francis of Assisi. Very few of us can “upon Christ throw all away,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it. But we must confess or at least desire to confess our refusal. We must know our failure to live up to the name we bear, a name that stands above all names.
Alongside its great insights, the great danger of the Benedict Option is that it can be used to excuse, rather than to confront, this exact pattern of sin. The danger is this: that in a community’s concern for coherence, for finding solid ground in our liquid world, the magnanimity of Christ is cut down to the size of their own vision. When this happens a strategic withdrawal is made not from the world but from Christ—whose wisdom surpasses all understanding, and who praised the Father for revealing these things to the simple and not to the wise and learned.
Of course, there are pathological cultural patterns involved in poverty. But every culture has its own patterns of failure. To his credit, Dreher has published a range of responses to his initial post, including one which critiqued the “materialism, the idolization of success, the pride at not being like ‘those’ people, not to mention all the sin that was hidden away under a veneer of respectability” found in respectable middle-class communities. It may be that the characteristic failure threatening the Benedict Option works in this way—which, from a Christian perspective, might well be more dangerous than poverty.
This does not mean we do not need thicker communities. We most certainly do. But these communities are only Christian communities to the extent that they teach us to seek and to find God in friendship with the poor.
If there is anything of value in the Benedict Option—and as I have written, I think there is— then it must be in the formation of such communities. These will be communities that teach us to desire Christ more than comfort. More than material success. More than respectability. More even than our own strategies for the salvation of Christian culture.