A call to be transformed
Don’t become so well adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. —Romans 12:2 (The Message)
The Bible is hard for me to read. Not for the obvious reasons like time and commitment (though those barriers exist, too), but because it is often difficult for me to relate to its stories. For the most part, the Old and New Testaments are not about people like me. I think of the accounts of the wandering nation of Israel, of Abraham, of Ruth, of the disciples. I think of Christ during His time on earth. These were generally marginalized people, living under the rule of an oppressive state. This is very different context from the one in which I live. I am a white, male, upper-middle-class, highly educated, straight, North American Christian—the definition of dominance in the hierarchy that pervades U.S. society.
One of the reasons I’m particularly grateful to belong to the Brethren in Christ Church is that, despite the privilege and comfort that many of us have access to, we strive to be Romans 12:2 people. As BIC, we look not to conform but to be transformed. We seek to identify the ways that the world dilutes our witness as a “holy people,” and we work against that process.
Historically, these commitments were evidenced in how we looked and dressed. We also were conscientious objectors to war and proactive peacemakers. We didn’t vote, avoided participation in politics, eschewed debt, life insurance, and even lightning rods.1
Over time, however, these outward practices have become matters of personal conscience. And, in general, we contemporary North American BIC believers don’t look or act all that differently than the rest of the Western world. While we profess to be people of a different Kingdom, we often act as though this one is our master. We have become too well adjusted to our culture.
I believe we must rediscover what it means to be set apart from this world, to offer a visible alternative. Toward that end, I offer a few examples of what nonconformity can look like in our current context.
In our highly individualistic culture, we must look for new ways to value community. Personal faith is, in my view, inseparable from community as the body of Christ.
One of the ways that my family has intentionally sought community is by living inter-generationally. Our household consists of my in-laws, my wife and I, and our two children. For the past six-and-a-half years, we’ve been living in a house that is large enough to give us some measure of privacy, but small enough to ensure that we have to make shared choices about the food we eat, the volume of our voices, daily chores, and the like. Our household is not perfect, and there are the inevitable conflicts. However, we try to extend grace to each other, accepting that each of us is flawed and that we have chosen to be companions along the way. We acknowledge that we could afford to live separately, but we’ve chosen to live communally.
What would our Church body look like if more of us choose to confront the world’s me-first mentality with the practice of living in community?
In addition to reimagining interdependence, we need to rethink how we view our time, talents, and money. I fear that the Bible’s message of stewardship has been diluted by worldly greed to mean accumulating and grasping personal wealth. It has allowed many of us to justify and preserve our relative position in the world, leading us to condone miserliness as good stewardship.
The solution is not a rejection of stewardship, but a radical retelling of the story. In the Bible, we see Jesus living out a kind of extravagant generosity. We see Jesus turning privilege on its head, saying that He came to serve not to be served, that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
An innovative approach to reimagined stewardship is being lived out at Circle of Hope, a network of BIC churches in Philadelphia. There, in the fall of 2010, a group concerned about their growing burden of consumer debt formed a “Debt Annihilation Team.” The team of five started off with nine lines of credit, and members collectively owed $22,000. By using seed money from the church and pooling their own financial resources, they began to pay off each other’s debt, one-by-one. In 24 months, all of their debt was paid and the group had provided an additional $10,000 in seed money so that another group could start this process.
What would it look like if our communities of faith started addressing debt and stewardship, generosity and the sharing of resources?
Engaging in dialogue and seeking reconciliation
Finally, we need to examine our call to carry each other’s burdens, especially when those burdens are the result of injustice or systems of injustice in the world. In order to do that, we need to be able to talk together, sharing our stories and perspectives on these deep and often difficult issues.
Harrisburg (Pa.) BIC, the church where I am a member, is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic congregation. It is full of people from all different walks of life. One of our most deeply held core values is pursuing reconciliation. So, when the U.S. as a whole experienced dramatic division over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, people within our congregation called for us to respond with dialogue. Within a week of Zimmerman’s acquittal, we held a public forum to discuss the impact of the verdict on the lives of members of the Harrisburg church and broader community. The purpose was to model constructive dialogue.
Throughout the evening, we listened to one another as we shared our personal stories of injustice, systemic racism, and violence, brought to the surface by the verdict in the Zimmerman trial. We collectively acknowledged the pain caused by these experiences. As a result, I was again reminded of my call to intentionally displace myself and give up power in order to stand in solidarity with my brothers and sisters. And I think our church family was reminded how much we need each other and that to become reconciled we must embrace our mutuality.
The forum brought more issues than we could possibly explore or address in one evening, but we acknowledged them and stood ready to continue to hear each other. We had dialogue and disagreement without vitriol and disdain. It was very much unlike the world.
What would it look like if our churches created more space for conversations like these?
Recognizing our distinctiveness
I raise only three potential areas of nonconformity; I know that together, we could think of many more. I believe it is time for us to re-examine what nonconformity looks like. In the process, we may find an inviting and refreshing alternative to our culture. Like much of what we’re called to as Christ-followers, nonconformity will also be profoundly challenging. In those times of difficulty, we can remember that we are not a people of this world. With God’s help, may we once again reclaim our identity as the distinctively transformed people of Jesus Christ.
1 Quest for Piety and Obedience by Carlton Wittlinger, Chapter VI