If the measure of a good book is its capacity to generate discussion, then Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation is already a success. Even before the book’s official release date, people were fortifying their positions in response to a central question. Was the Benedict Option about building bunkers or building bridges? To some it seemed like Deher’s response to a changing and increasingly secular culture was for Christians to retreat from public life and only take care of themselves. Others saw his proposal as a way to fortify Christians for life in a rapidly changing culture.
The Benedict Option
Like many others, I initially thought Dreher’s Benedict Option simply encouraged a modern form of quietism. As has been the case with others in the past, I anticipated he would advise Christians to leave the world to itself and make sure their faith communities survived amid the carnage. But give Dreher more credit than that. He is not recommending a complete withdrawal from the public life of the nation. Instead he wants to see Christians return to the practices that sustained the early church. He points to the Rule of St. Benedict, a set of disciplines composed by a monk in the 6th century, as his model. St. Benedict structured monastic life around simple yet powerful habits that included prayer, fasting, and simplicity. The Benedict Option presents the opportunity for Christians to preserve the faith by engaging in ancient counter-cultural habits.
Central to the Benedict Option is Dreher’s assessment of contemporary society. He claims that the nation is in a downward spiral towards becoming not only non-Christian, but aggressively anti-Christian. I think some of his assessment is accurate. Christians should certainly pay attention to what’s happening with sexual ethics. Marriage, gender, and sexuality have become the barometers of bigotry. At some point in the near future, it is likely that all Christians will have to declare their beliefs on these issues, and those who hold to traditional views will likely face censure in various forms. Christian businesses, non-profits, and educational institutions are already experiencing the effects of the modern sexual revolution.
But as I read the book a theme became apparent. The Benedict Option leaves out the black church.
A Glaring Gap
In offering the Benedict Option, Dreher almost completely overlooks the wisdom of Christians, especially people of color, who have always endured marginalization. The absence of the influence or perspective of people of African descent is particularly noticeable. The Benedict Option takes a running leap over the black church and lands on another continent in another millennium. Dreher goes back 1,500 years to find the Rule of St. Benedict when he could have gazed back over the past 400 years and looked across the street to the black church for guidance.
According to a recent post on social media, apparently Dreher didn’t feel he had the “moral authority” to talk about the black church. That’s probably true, but it’s not difficult to gain information about the black church. He could have asked black Christians for input during the editorial process. He could have spent time reading the dozens of books about the black church America. Or he could have even had a co-author write it with him. Instead, he just leaves out the black church.
The solution to the Dreher’s Benedict Option isn’t to simply add a chapter on the black church. The problem goes much deeper than not mentioning minorities. The real reason Benedict Option leaves out the black church is that white Christians treat Christians of color like second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. It is a hard but necessary realization that you can’t overlook the black church without, in some sense, looking down on it.
The reality for many white believers is that Christians of color may provide inspiring stories of resistance and are certainly nice to have on display in the congregation, but they are not a true source of wisdom for the white church. To some white Christians, the faith traditions of racial minorities may offer great aesthetics like preaching or musical style, but they don’t have the legitimacy to lead the way into the future. The constant refusal to learn from the black church can only be termed ecclesiastical arrogance.
The ecclesiastical arrogance of the white church toward the black church isn’t new. It’s been on display ever since Africans were deposited in North America as chattel. The arrogance comes through when white pastors would only allow black pastors to preach to black congregations. It emerges when African slaves built beautiful churches and then were only allowed to sit in the balcony. These days it comes across more subtly. You can see it when white leaders repeatedly dismiss the concerns of minorities as “pulling the race card.” It comes from only reading theology written by Europeans and never accessing authors from other racial and ethnic backgrounds. It pops up in conferences headlined only by white men. It appears when white Christians spurn black religious leaders because of their theology but gloss over the theology of slaveholders and segregationists. Ecclesiastical arrogance shows up when an author proposes a path forward for the entire church but leaves Christians of color out of his considerations.
The Only Option for Black Christians
In its uncritical embrace of white normativity, the Benedict Option misses the opportunity to glean from the wisdom of marginalized people, especially African Americans. Absent from Dreher’s analysis is how Christian community might be formed in the midst of a culture wherein Christians never had power. This was, and in some senses continues to be, the reality for people of African descent in the United States. For centuries black people couldn’t build their own institutions—not schools, not banks, not businesses—the only option they had was the church.
The church in the African American community became a powerful symbol of perseverence amidst persecution. The black church represents the triumph of faith over fear. The black church dramatizes Christ’s words, “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” That is why physical church buildings so often became the targets of arson and bombings. By focusing on the church, racists tried to destroy the most important survival mechanism in the black community, and they used tactics much more existentially threatening than the possibility of losing tax-exempt status. But hate has not destroyed the black church. The black church is still here because the black church is part of the universal church that Christ is building and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
The Benedict Option fails to ask how black believers have survived racial, economic, and social marginalization with their faith intact. Does the Benedict Option consider the supernatural grace given to the family members of the Emanuel Nine to forgive the man who murdered their beloved ones at a Bible study? Does Dreher draw upon the hard-won wisdom of black Christians who were driven out of white churches because of racism but didn’t abandon the faith and instead built their own churches and denominations? After reading the Benedict Option, does one come away with a clearer idea of how to integrate calls to personal holiness with calls for justice in the public sphere? African Americans didn’t have the option to withdraw from public life because their existence depended on securing their basic civil rights. So Christians today can learn from the black church how to fight for personal holiness as well as public justice.
An Option…For Some
Give Dreher credit for capturing a moment. He has rightly discerned the anxiety of many white Chrisitans who see changing laws and attitudes in a culture that used to reward them for professing their faith. In the middle of this uncertainty, he presents his thesis as a possible solution. But the Benedict Option not a solution that is good for all since it leaves out so many.
As white Christians debate the relative merits of the Benedict Option, many black Christians and other minority groups observe with confusion and wonder. How could our brothers and sisters in the faith so consistently ignore how God has sustained us? How could they fail to follow our lead as people who have never experienced cultural ascendancy? Why would they take the Bendict Option when they have left so many others unexplored? Maybe the problem isn’t just overlooking the black church but under-valuing it.