The New Monastics: Alternative Christian Communities

By Byassee, Jason | The Christian Century, October 18, 2005 | Go to article overview

The New Monastics: Alternative Christian Communities


Byassee, Jason, The Christian Century


AT A TIME when the church had grown too cozy with the ruling authorities, when faith had become a means to power and influence, some Christians who sought to live out an authentically biblical faith headed for desolate places. They pooled their resources and dedicated themselves to a life of asceticism and prayer. Most outsiders thought they were crazy. They saw themselves as being on the narrow and difficult path of salvation, with a call to prick the conscience of the wider church about its compromises with the "world."

I'm describing not fourth-century monks, but present-day communities of Christians who think the church in the United States has too easily accommodated itself to the consumerist and imperialist values of the culture. Living in the corners of the American empire, they hope to be a harbinger of a new and radically different form of Christian practice.

These "new monastics" pursue the ancient triumvirate of poverty, chastity and obedience, but with a twist. Their communities include married people whose pledge to chastity is understood as a commitment to marital fidelity. Poverty means eschewing typical middle-class economic climbing but not total indigence--some economic resources are necessary for building this desert kingdom. Obedience means accountability not to an abbot but to Jesus and to the community.

The description new monasticism comes from the theologian Jonathan Wilson. In Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World: Lessons for the Church from MacIntyre's "After Virtue" (1998), Wilson responds to moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who concludes his celebrated 1991 critique of modernity by calling for "the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.... We are waiting for another--doubtless very different--St. Benedict." Wilson agrees, and as an Anabaptist theologian he recognizes the resources in his church to create precisely the sort of new monasticism for which MacIntyre calls.

Be careful what you write. Wilson's daughter is now a founding member of one such new community, the Rutba House in Durham, North Carolina. Rutba got its start and its name from the experience of a Christian Peacemaker Team that was in Iraq at the start of the war. Leah Wilson-Hartgrove and her husband, Jonathan, were trained in CPT's tactics of nonviolent conflict resolution and of "getting in the way" of those who would do violence. Their group had a car accident in which a member was seriously hurt. They took him to Rutba, the nearest town with a hospital. The Iraqi doctor treated the injured American for no fee, but asked the group to promise to tell others what had happened to them in Rutba--that while their country was dropping bombs on his, he offered healing and peace. (Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove tells this story in To Baghdad and Beyond: How I Got Born Again in Babylon [Cascade].)

The Wilson-Hartgroves returned to the United States and started the Christian community in Durham, where Jonathan began study at Duke Divinity School. It's based in a sprawling old house with creaky hardwood floors in a largely black section of the city called Walltown; drug problems and civic neglect give the neighborhood a reputation as a dangerous place. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove describes Rutba's mission there as one of "hospitality, peacemaking and discipleship." He contrasts the community's vision with that of the rural Southern Baptists among whom he grew up: "Jesus doesn't just forgive my sins, he gives a whole new way of life--the best way to live."

THE COMMUNITY shares meals and daily prayers from the Book of Common Prayer. Its members do not have a common treasury in the strict sense. They tend their own finances, but they do keep a common purse that members are encouraged to give to or take from as they have ability or need.

Their theological commitments are visible in the pictures on the living room walls: one is of Martin Luther King Jr. …

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