Last week, Matt Tebbe confessed on Missio Alliance, “I believe Jesus is non-violent, and I’m committed to becoming more like him. The truth is I wish I were non-violent, but I’m not.” In the holiness traditions (of which I am a part), to become like Christ is the language of holiness; therefore, to be holy is to become non-violent, like Christ. Tebbe clearly makes the nonviolent way of Christ an essential component of Christian Discipleship. And I agree.
Ever since college, when I first read through my denomination’s Wesleyan emphasis on holiness, I have been intensely interested in our theology's practical import in a violent world. Or more directly, what does holiness look like in the midst of communities involving violent conflict or participating in systems mired by violence? I remember bringing the question up in my systematic theology class and being shut down by a misguided quip of falling to the "dangers of the social gospel." Yet, as Matt Tebbe explains, when one looks toward the scriptures, the connection between socio-political violence and God's reach of salvation cannot be so easily dismissed. We are called, after all, to be peacemakers.
Tebbe confesses that his life does not reflect the nonviolence of Christ. His article struck a chord with me, in part because it mirrors the opposite of what theologian Reinhold Niebuhr asserts in Moral Man and Immoral Society. The Sermon on the Mount is often seen as the epitome of Christ’s teaching and nonviolent way of life. Niebuhr, perhaps the most influential American theologian of the past century, asserts that the Sermon is for individuals and should only be applied to the level of personal relationships. The ethic of Jesus isn’t meant to spread to social and communal relationships. Sin is apparently too big a problem for grace to penetrate broken communities, but God’s grace is strong enough to change individuals. Therefore, the nonviolent love ethic of Jesus applies to individuals, but a more realistic approach is necessary in mediating communal and political relationships – Justice, which is often relegated to the work of the State. The importance of Tebbe’s article highlights the absurdity of such radical personalism.
As individuals, we are caught up in a web of relationships that are often beyond our control. We are shaped by the relationships and communities we participate in. Our holiness is deeply connected to the holiness of the communities that shape us. This is why Hauerwas and Willimon write, “The Sermon is not primarily addressed to individuals, because it is precisely as individuals that we are most apt to fail as Christians. Only through membership in a nonviolent community can violent individuals do better” (Resident Aliens, 77).
A person cannot be nonviolent apart from a community of nonviolence, a people who learn the practices of mediating conflict: enemy-love, forgiveness, submission, truth telling, and reconciliation. Or, put another way, being shaped by a community of nonviolence is necessary to cultivate a nonviolent life.
But we suffer through a scarcity of communities who practice the nonviolence of Jesus.
Instead, our churches more readily mirror the ethics of our culture than the ethics of Christ.
Of course one can question Hauerwas’ assertion; noting that the shaping power of a church doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Those who are a part of the new polis are still inundated with socio-cultural forms of violence – racism, ecological degradation, economic exploitation, etc. – that still hauntingly shape our ethical posture in the world.
A helpful concept could come from John Wesley’s theology of “growth in grace.” God’s grace goes before us to reveal the sinfulness of our own existence but also the Sin that permeates our relationships, communities, and all creation. God’s grace reveals to us the violence the underpins our existence and slowly, gradually, moves us from grace to grace. That is, grace gives us the ability to commit to nonviolence while still confessing our bent toward violence as healing occurs. In other words, God’s grace teaches us to be less violent as we entirely devote ourselves to be like Christ.
But we also know that this growth in grace requires a holy community. As Gerhard Lohfink says, "Holiness thus always includes the social dimension that is indissolubly attached to the individual person. Not only must the human heart be holy, so must the conditions of life, the social structures and the forms of environment in which the person lives and into which he or she is constantly moving” (Does God Need the Church?, 87).
Sin is both personal and communal. We have to treat holiness the same way. The story of the resurrection posits that God is currently working to redeem all that sin has ravaged. God in Christ transforms both our individual lives and the stories of violence within our communities. But God chooses to work through a gathered people for the life of the world but also pours grace into the fabric of creation. The church must remain open to God’s love meeting us through various means of grace: scripture, worship, service, as well as Black Lives Matter, Blockadia, and Occupy. These latter social movements act as a type of grace for the church, a social balm that performatively demonstrates and opens the door for conversion. A holiness of heart and life requires nothing less.
Christian Discipleship requires prophetic communities of resistance with a robust theology of grace. Waging Christian nonviolence cannot remain a prerogative of a few individuals; it must be a public commitment of a local fellowship in the way of Christ. That means speaking truthfully to our own violent selves as well as resisting institutional and social systems of injustice and violence. The church must inhabit this new moral imagination while it seeks to meet God’s grace outside of its own boundaries with the expectation that God is reconciling all things.
If we value nonviolence, we will organize practices to suit nonviolent living. On the Big Island, this means going beyond preaching a gospel of peace from the pulpit. It means listening to recent immigrants who struggle economically and culturally, who are exploited as cheap labor and left outside the social safety net while picking our macadamia nuts. This has been as easy as gardening in a low income immigrant community once a week. It means being open to invitations to a prayer walk for a community suffering through three young adult suicides in the past 6 months and partnering with their young leaders as they search for mentoring relationships. It also means advocating for denominational divestment from fossil fuels and corporations who profit from war, and joining in on trail and beach clean ups. The church must be the kind of hospitable space that always welcomes friends and enemies, that mirrors the diversity and ethnic difference that peppers our landscape in worship together. And these practices need to be celebrated and talked about in proper context of our theology and values in public.
Holiness is always contextual, and communities of nonviolence will have varying forms of resistance and formation based on location. What does it look like for your church? What keeps you from talking of nonviolence as an essential component to discipleship? What are the dividing lines in your community that separate people from each other? Who stands in the middle? Who has already started the work of reconciliation, and can you join in? Is reconciliation happening in your family, in your congregation? Where is God’s grace in your community? How does your church organize around loving our enemies and reconciliation?
We become holy by practicing holiness. May God's grace and peace continue to reveal the violence in our lives and community so that we may grow into Christlikeness.
[Photo: Maria Eklind, CC via Flickr]