During our time in Indianapolis for General Assembly, The General Superintendents reminded the church that the common bond that unites all of us is our proclamation that Jesus is Lord. In fact, this phrase became the leading title for the Quadrennial Address, stating: “Who is Lord really matters…there are only two right responses to that declaration: worship and discipleship. We bow to him and want to be like him.” Later in the address, Dr. Busic quotes H.F. Reynolds praising the church for being united in essentials and exercising freedom in non-essentials; noting “many differences of opinion” but coalescing still under One Lord. The General Superintendents have wholeheartedly endorsed and recommend being united through our essentials.
Since college, I’ve heard the unifying call of Nazarenes uttered by the words, “In Essentials Unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things Charity.” I have come to hear this phrase used to call out Christians who are being uncharitable; to describe the kind of “Big Tent” denomination we believe we are; or in reference to historical issues that have divided the church (i.e. infant baptism or intinction). In many cases, I believe this has been a strength of Nazarenes. That is, we are called to unity in spite of very real differences.
I have been troubled, however, since the end of General Assembly. A nagging question won’t let me go. It’s a question that becomes all the more relevant when put in context of the events in Charlottesville this past weekend. Simply put: “Why is Christian nonviolence not an essential posture for the Church of the Nazarene?” Some may read this question and refer me to the above paragraph. This is one of those issues the church prefers to defer to the realm of private opinion, and as such fits clearly within a “non-essential” category. The Anabaptists hold the market on Christian Pacifism, we should stay in our own lane of Christian holiness.
I would like to suggest, however, that our doctrine of holiness precisely requires a practice of Christian nonviolence as essential for the life of faith. By looking closely at this particular issue, I contend that there are very real-world consequences associated in how we understand and discern what is essential and non-essential. At times our discernment may be a reflection of our cultural captivities and theological assumptions that we bring to the process. This is certainly true for those who interpret the gospel through the lens of white nationalism. But I also contend that we all do this in small and big ways. Our essentials may have become dependent upon the hidden assumptions we carry around with us, rather than the story of Jesus Christ found in the Gospel.
Holiness and the Nonviolent Christ
The Nazarene Church published an extensive document on our Nazarene Essentials to aid in understanding the basics of Nazarene history, theology, polity, and practice. It’s language was crafted by many, concise in many respects, and endorsed by our General Superintendents. I would like to quote from this helpful publication in aiding in what we collectively mean when we talk about holiness:
God, who is holy, calls us to a life of holiness. We believe that the Holy Spirit seeks to do in us a second work of grace…cleansing us from all sin, renewing us in the image of God, empowering us to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves, and producing in us the character of Christ. Holiness in the life of believers is most clearly understood as Christlikeness…Through its mission in the world, the Church demonstrates the love of God. The story of the Bible is the story of God reconciling the world to Him, ultimately through Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:16-21). The Church is sent into the world to participate with God in this ministry of love and reconciliation through evangelism, compassion, and justice (“Our Core Values” in Nazarene Essentials).
The life of Jesus plays a crucial role in understanding the life of a disciple of Jesus.
Our doctrine of holiness teaches us that the Spirit empowers us to grow in grace so that we may become like Christ, to reflect God’s character in the world. Through this reflection and as participants in the very life of God, the world is given a visible witness of God’s intention for heaven and earth. If the world learns the way of the Kingdom of God by looking at the life of the Church, then it is essential for Christians to embody the radical nature of the self-giving nonviolent love of God.
Clearly, the life of Jesus plays a crucial role in understanding the life of a disciple of Jesus. Fortunately, the Gospels outline the lengths through which disciples are to follow Christ. To love our enemies explicitly links the life of the disciple directly to the Character of God. Not only do we have the words of Christ as outlined in the Sermon on the Mount — “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” — but we also have the radical example of a God who refuses to save us by way of violence. God chooses a path of reconciliation and justice that is altogether foreign to the violence and coercion the world knows all too well. This is what it means to follow after Christ, pick up our cross, and to be holy as our Father in Heaven is holy. Essentially, Jesus embodied a life of nonviolence and those who are called to be like him (holy) embody the same ethic. Loving our enemy in a creative posture of nonviolence may be the clearest possible way for Christians to express the Good News and imitate Christlikeness.
Essential for What?
The ethical stance of Christian Nonviolence is a controversial one no doubt. But I believe it highlights the ways our imaginations are held captive by the dominant cultural forces of our world. Our reasons for resisting a form of Christian pacifism may have more to do with our theological assumptions and ingrained cultural stories than they do with actually discerning what is essential. Is it possible that we cannot imagine alternatives to violence because violence grounds much of our habitus? One could easily make a similar case using other ethical challenges revolving around wealth/poverty or climate change. Perhaps the most helpful way forward is to simply uncover and bring to light just one of those operating assumptions.
The most frequent objection to nonviolence is the quip that the gospel is spiritual but not political or social.¹ The underlying assumption in this position understands the gospel to be primarily about a “rebirth” of the soul/heart, rendering a transformation of one’s interior religious consciousness. Faith becomes an assent to God’s work in a person and given external validation through doctrinal belief statements. Thus, in this view, what is rendered essential for the Christian faith is a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ as Lord and an assent to the Apostles’ Creed and/or Articles of Faith. Jesus cleanses our hearts, but the world still dictates our bodies.
This mode of understanding the gospel is actually relatively new in the history of Christian thought and is firmly placed within the history of modernity. Before the Enlightenment and the emphasis upon an autonomous individual, very little stress is placed on the role of the human heart apart from the collective body of believers. In his wonderful book, Mirror to the Church, Emmanuel Katongole writes that the church has only half-fulfilled the Great Commission. We have evangelized the masses, but we haven’t taught them to obey everything that Jesus commanded: “As a matter of fact, we haven’t paid much attention ourselves to the way of life Jesus taught and practiced. It hasn’t made a noticeable difference in the way most people live in so-called Christian nations” (Katongole, 93). Katongole refers to this pious posture as “Christianity without Consequence,” and writes this as a reflection that the most Christianized nation in Africa committed it’s largest genocide.
Evangelicals in particular have suffered from a dualistic tendency to separate belief from practice, doctrine from ethics, spirituality from justice. We have interiorized the sanctifying work of the Spirit for the individual, but have ignored the more communal and practice oriented language of holiness found in scripture. So when it comes to discerning what is essential or non-essential, we may find ourselves relegating the more outward bodily practices of the Christian faith (like nonviolent love and distribution of wealth to the poor) as secondary faith issues lost in a multiplicity of opinions.
In short, I think our task is twofold: First, I believe we must ask the question of ends. What is the orienting direction for what we deem essential? Essential for what? Are we discerning what is essential for the salvation of individuals alone, or are we concerned with becoming the kind of people that reflect God’s image in the world, marked by relationships directed toward the Triune Life of God? The former way of thinking could lead us to a dualistic impasse, while the latter can empower us to narrate a more holistic way forward as we faithfully engage a violent world.
Second, I think we use the early church as our guide. In the process of creating and ironing out our theology and creeds, they allowed practices to orient their faith. They practiced hospitality. They practiced the distribution of wealth. They practiced a patient nonviolent posture even in the midst of persecution. They practiced baptism and Eucharist. They allowed the Sermon on the Mount to direct their bodily witness in the world. Such practices were and are essential to the faith. It is, indeed, how the world learns what it means to be Christian.
¹Another frequent objection is the assumed inefficiency of nonviolent practices to overcome conflict. That is, we believe (often without reason) that nonviolence doesn’t produce desired results. I would simply say, first, that the Gospel doesn’t necessarily call us to effectiveness as much as it calls us to faithfulness. And second, nonviolent direct action has been proven to be more effective. For an in depth look at this subject, see A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict by Peter Ackerman and John Duval.