Willimon/Hauerwas: Resident Aliens

Resident Aliens is an important analysis of how Christians should interact with late 20th-century and early 21st-century culture. [1] The book’s primary argument is that churches should focus on developing Christian life and community rather than attempting to reform secular culture. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon reject the idea that America is a Christian nation; instead, Christians should see themselves as “resident aliens” in a foreign land.

For those familiar with Stanley Hauerwas’s work, the book’s theme is no surprise. He has long been of the view that (1) the “Constantinian” merger of the Christian faith with the Roman Empire and (2) the identification of Christian faith with some idealized form of the “American Way of Life” were great mistakes that can only be remedied by the church recovering its identity as the body of Christ.

When I was in seminary, like most seminarians, one of the required courses was “Christian Ethics,” by which our professor meant “public ethics” since there was no interest in personal ethics. After many weeks of reading liberation theology, Reinhold Niebuhr, and a host of academic theologians, most of whom were uninterpretable, we read Stanley Hauerwas’ The Peaceable Kingdom. [2] Finally, a book that seemed more or less biblical, understandable, and applicable to ordinary Christian life and ministry. I read A Community of Character and After Christendom in rapid succession. [3]. When Resident Aliens was published, I bought it, read it briefly, and forgot all about it. Only when I realized it was a necessary part of this series did I get a copy and read it again, this time more closely.

The authors are two of the most prominent figures in Methodism over the past many years. Hauerwas was a distinguished professor of Christian Ethics at Duke University. Willimon was a pastor, Chaplain at Duke, and later a Methodist Bishop. Together, they wrote Resident Aliens as a book for laypersons and pastors with chapters relevant to Christian ethics, public ethics, and pastoral ministry. Willimon also happened to be a college friend of a fellow church member, elder, and leader in our church in Houston.

The Constantinian Church

I’m sure many lay people get confused by terms like “Constantinian” and church by people like me. Just to be sure we understand what is meant, in the years between 303 and 313, Emperor Constantine defeated his enemies, became the undisputed ruler of the Roman Empire, declared himself to be a Christian, and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Before that time, the Christian church had, at best, been tolerated and persecuted many times, including in the recent history before 310. Until modern times, beginning about 300 years ago, the Christian faith was the official religion in all parts of Europe. Although other groups were tolerated, they were not the official religion. Occasionally, as with the Jews, they were persecuted. Even the protestant reformation did not change the Christian nature of Europe and its colonies. Although they were now both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, and the official state church was not always Roman Catholic, Europe was still Christian.

In such a situation, the church had a privileged position in society. In the United States, that privilege position continued until relatively recently. For example, even as late as the 1990s, in small towns in the rural south of North America, the pastors of the local churches were part of the leadership of the community. This leadership was not merely spiritual but included many things like fundraising for community projects, supporting the local government in its initiatives, and providing a spiritual gloss to government and business activities in the community. In such a situation, it was relatively easy to blur the distinction between what characterized American values, including American political values, and what might constitute a Christian view of the world.

The End of the Constantinian World

Europe became secular after World War I and even more remarkably after World War II. The vast majority of people never attend church, the church has lost its privileged position in society, and an enormous number of immigrants, primarily of the Muslim or Hindu faiths, began a process in which those states were no longer Christian. [4] During the 1950s and early 1960s, the United States was more or less exempt from the process. However, the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, a variety of Supreme Court decisions, and other actions that the center of the church in America all have produced a current situation in which the Christian church in the United States is in nearly the same circumstances as the Christian churches in Europe today. In other words, the “Constantinian Settlement” is over.

To their credit, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon were early to understand the changes coming to the American church and American society. In particular, Hauerwas was an early advocate that the church had to learn how to be the church in an era vastly different than anything experienced in the West in 2000 years and anything that the Christian church in America had ever experienced. Today, Christian leaders can look back on the last 30 years and wish they had paid closer attention to the warnings and advice people like Hauerwas and Willimon are giving.

Similarities Betweem the Religious Left and Right

When Hauerwas and Willimon began writing, they had to be careful what they said so that the religious and political left would not misunderstand them. While they were critical of the religious left, they were also critical of the religious right. In fact, Hauerwas and Willimon believed that these two groups were just two sides of the same mistake: They were trying to maintain the alliance between the powers of this world and the Christian message that would continue the church’s importance in modern secular democracy. Their difference was not in their strategy but in their tactics. Underneath both was the desire to maintain the alliance between the government and the church.

For the religious left, what is sometimes called liberal Christianity was obviously true. The social policies of the left that favored the United States academia were obviously true, and the proper course of action for Christians was to support liberal Christianity and left-wing politics. For the religious right, it was obvious that the prescriptions of the Religious Right were true. The religious beliefs of conservative Christians were true; therefore, it was obvious that the Christian church should support traditional Christianity and right-wing politics.

Hauerwas and Willimon believe that both approaches are profoundly mistaken and misguided. The two positions are heads and tails of the same religious coin. Both liberal and conservative Christianity are incorrect about the implications of Christianity for public life, and the actions were compromised by their pretensions to favor the secular leadership of the nation. In both cases, their error made them susceptible to manipulation by those in or seeking power. We can now see clearly that Hauerwas and Willimon were onto something.

Resident Aliens

Resident Aliens’s title catches the reader’s immediate attention and incorporates the book’s primary message. In the author’s view, Christians in America and the West need to become accustomed to being resident aliens. Christians live in our society, but they are citizens of another kingdom. [5] The biblical basis for this is the biblical notion that Abraham and the patriarchs were led to the promised land but never received that land. They wandered as resident aliens among the peoples of the land. As the author of Hebrews puts it:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from afar, admitting they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had the opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).

The patriarchs were aliens in the lands through which they traveled and lived. Similarly, the early church was ostracized from various aspects of Roman society and maintained its presence as “resident aliens.” They were in the Roman Empire but citizens of the Kingdom of God. This passage and others like it constitute the Biblical foundation for the proposal made in Resident Aliens.

Hauerwas and Willimon also use the phrase “colony’ to describe the church’s situation in Western culture. [6] The church is like a colony of heaven planted within the societies of the world, colonies populated by resident aliens. As the authors put it:

We hope to recover the sense that we try to live the Sermon on the Mount because this is the nature of our God, and it is our destination that we should be such people. The colony is the vessel that carries us there. It is not apart from the vessel but within this vessel that we not only know the truth but are carried along with it. [7]

In these two metaphors, “resident aliens’ and the church as a “colony” lie the book’s strengths and limitations.

Resident Aliens. Let’s take the term resident aliens first. A resident alien is a citizen of one nation who resides in another country. For example, my wife and I lived in Scotland for a short time. We resided in Scotland for an entire summer. I was still a citizen of the United States of America. I was resident in Scotland. I couldn’t vote in Scotland. I was not a member of the national health or retirement schemes. I was living in one place but a citizen of somewhere else.

It’s beguiling to think this is an adequate description of the church. But the question is raised, “To what extent is it? “I am a Christian, a church member, and a resident of Texas in the United States. I’m not completely an “alien” in any of those roles. Compelling sermons can be given to Christian audiences saying we should be resident aliens in our culture. Still, in reality, to some degree or another, the description is incomplete. In reality, Christians are citizens of the Kingdom of God and citizens of the United States at the same time.

In another context, I’ve pointed out that when I travel abroad, particularly in Third World countries, I am very aware that I am an American. I’m not a citizen of the country I am in, a part of their culture, or, in most cases, a full participant in the life of their churches. I am a guest. In Scotland, even though I was preaching regularly in a Scottish church, I was a resident alien. In Africa, Latin America, and the Philippines, I am even more aware of my status as a foreigner. In America, I’m a citizen and a Christian.

This is not just an academic point. It’s a point of life and ministry. It’s not that we can or should learn to be full citizens of the kingdom of God who happen to be residents of the United States. The reality is that we have an even more difficult job than being resident aliens. Western Christians must learn to be citizens of their nation and love and serve it as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

A reason why this is important has to do with its implications for our citizenship in both worlds. If I am fully a citizen of the kingdom of God and fully a citizen of the United States, then I must find a way to be loyal to both of my citizenships. I have to struggle and make decisions with loyalty to both my citizenships. As a Christian, it seems to me that the binding requirement is self-giving love. My citizenship in the United States does not eliminate my duty to act in love toward my fellow citizens—even if they’re not Christians. My citizenship in the kingdom of God demands that I love others—even if they’re my enemies.

This situation can put Christians in some difficult situations. As the life of Dietrich, Bonhoeffer illustrates, one can be a citizen of a nation whose actions and values put one in tension with the values and intentions of the kingdom of God. [8] When that happens, we have to decide what we will do. We must find a way to be loyal as best we can to both. It may even be impossible to make a wholly moral and Christian response as with Bonhoeffer. I might have to make a choice that is either contrary to the values of the kingdom, the values of the kingdom of God, or both. A good deal of the scholarship concerning Dietrich. Bonhoeffer ignores that Bonhoeffer was committing treason under German law in choosing to join the conspiracy against Hitler. He also potentially violated the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Bonhoeffer was very aware of his dilemma and the compromise he was making. He knew that if captured, he would be lawfully executed as a traitor. He felt he must take that action as a German and Christian. He died as a result. Even today, many people do not consider him a martyr for that reason. That’s human life as it really lived.

An implication of the duty to be fully resident in both kingdoms and bring God’s love to bear in our Christian roles is that Christian faith cannot justify my being “subversive.” This is a popular word in academia today and very popular among certain Christians, but it’s the wrong way of looking at our duties as Christians. When confronted with aspects of my society that are wrong, my duty is not to subvert that society. I must love it in such a way that it changes. That love might even require a cross. It did for Jesus. His enemies saw Jesus as subversive, but he was not. He loved his enemies enough to oppose the injustice and lack of faith that prevented them from also enjoying their status as creatures made in God’s image.

Colony. The authors also employ the metaphor of the church as a “colony” of heaven located on earth. This metaphor is also helpful but ultimately of limited utility. First of all, what a colony! The apostle Paul and others in the ancient world would have been familiar with what a colony was. For example, the nation-state of Greece had colonies in what is today part of Italy. The people there were Greek. They spoke Greek. Their social institutions were Greek. Their culture was Greek. The colony was an outpost of Greece in Sicily and southern Italy.

Now, there is a part of this metaphor that is true. The church, as it exists in any culture, is, to some degree, to be seen as a colony of the kingdom of God planted amid another culture. But it’s different. The people in my church are primarily Americans, but we have a few members and regular attendees from elsewhere in the world. We are all Texans, the number of them or imports from the northern part of the United States in California. We live in America, in Texas, and San Antonio. We are subject to the laws of each of these jurisdictions. We participate in the culture of our home. We are also gathered as a colony of heaven. We are that, but we are more. We are the family of God, the household of God, and the people of God, also Biblical metaphors that point to the full reality of the church.


In my former church, I had a friend who went to college with Willimon and often spoke admiringly of him as a person and thinker. While at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, I got to hear Stanley Hauerwas in person for some reason. As mentioned, Hauerwas’s work was and is crucial for me as a pastor and thinker. They are two great leaders of the Wesleyan tradition with an impact on many Christian groups. I would not want any of my little criticism to indicate that their insights have not taught and continue to teach me. They do. Before the series is over, I will have the opportunity to talk about what I call “just war pacifism.” In thinking about Hauerwas’s defense of pacifism and pondering the example of Gandhi, Bonhoeffer, and others, I began to see the dangers of an unmodified form of just war theory. (I am very confident that Hauerwas would never agree with my conclusions and would mount a devastating critique of my ideas! That is part of my reluctance to share my thoughts. The other is the comments of a young philosopher with whom I talked about the idea years ago.)

In the meantime, Resident Aliens is a wonderful and informative book that all pastors and laypersons should read in considering their ideas about faith and politics.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon, Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2014).

[2] Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer on Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983),

[3] Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981) and After Christendom?: How the Church is to Behave is Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation are Bad Ideas (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1991)

[4] France is often used as a poster child for this phenomenon. France entered the 20th Century as a secular state with a strong Christian, primarily Catholic presence. Since World War II, it has become an almost militant secular state with a limited Christian presence. Recently, the government has taken measures to secure its “secularity” because of the enormous Muslim population, a population that is growing much faster than the secular French population. It has also suffered social unrest as a result of the activities of more radical Muslim groups.

[5] Resident Aliens, at 49.

[6] Id, at 50.

[7] Id, at 91.

[8] Hauerwas and Willimon use Bonhoeffer as an example, and Hauerwas has written on Bonhoeffer. Stanley Hauerwas, Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Non-Violence (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015).