This blog post is part of a recurring series called the #reHumanize Project, an initiative by Nazarenes United for Peace that seeks to help us rediscover our shared, divine humanity.
There’s a whole lot of “othering” going on these days. But our Wesleyan theology can help us overcome the tendency to retreat into our silos with battlements. It helps us be sure we are not creating victims through our theology.
Rev. Dr. Jones’ post comes at just the right time. I think you’ll enjoy it. May God help us.
We are swimming in a disorienting cultural moment. For some of us, it feels unprecedented. For others, it is yet another Monday in a succession of Mondays. But something does feel particularly poignant, a certain weightiness to navigating the cultural waters at the risk of drowning amidst the chaos. I grew up in Tornado Alley. Inevitably, when storms came, we would seek shelter in a cellar, hidden from the power of the storm. And, this image has provided an all-too-appropriate metaphor for the Church’s strategy for weathering the cultural maelstrom – hunker down, secure all exits, cram “our” people into the small space, and hope it blows over.
There is a not-so-implicit theology of holiness that is operational in this model of cultural engagement. It is the idea that holiness is a matter of separation between clean and unclean, holy and unholy. Like water and oil, the two can’t mix. And, in fact, evil, sin, and the unclean contaminates that which it touches. Holiness is delicate and must be protected at all costs. Evil becomes a tangible thing (rather than an absence or twisting of the good) that must be eradicated. It is a small step toward eradicating the bodies and lives of those deemed “unclean” by these holiness codes. After all, holiness must be protected from contamination, lest we all become unclean by contact or association.
Of course, holiness-as-separation (priestly tradition) is not the only framework for understanding holiness in the scriptures. The wisdom tradition gives testimony to the shared experience of living wisely in the world. The prophetic tradition emphasizes communities that preserve the well-being of the most vulnerable in society through means of justice (i.e., widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor). The over-emphasis on priestly separation creates a significant imbalance in our vision of holiness. And, in its most twisted versions, priestly holiness can only define itself by what it is against while unable to name what it is for. Such a fragile vision of holiness undercuts the quality of holiness that promotes the “good” toward which it must be aimed. Extremes of holiness-as-separation devolve into fearful “escapology” rather than hopeful “eschatology” – the redemption of the world. To be called out and separate is always for the sake of the world, not over-and-against the world.
The over-emphasis on priestly separation creates a significant imbalance in our vision of holiness.Tweet
How curious and yet convenient that the holiness-as-separation paradigm fits incredibly well within a political and economic framework that sees all of life on the basis of production, consumption, and competition. It is a framework that at once captures both institutional realities and individual lives. After all, politics and economics as they are currently constructed in the United States rest foundationally on the principle that we are all competitors vying for limited resources in the midst of a sea of insatiable and unending desire (supply and demand). Thus, we may have tentative agreements between select groups that work together for mutual benefit but inevitably it breaks down into individualistic self-preservation (after all, survival is the primary good in this system). In other words, competition devolves into conflict and competitors evolve into enemies – between the haves and have-nots.
In a very simplified way, I am describing the cultural marriage, an unholy trinity, now present in the United States which is predicated on economic self-preservation, religious sectarianism, and political jingoism. The communion of capitalism and democracy under the guise of Christian faithfulness has been long embraced and retains numerous adherents. Questioning or theologically deconstructing such systems is difficult to maintain without significant reformation. Most systems are resistant to critique and prefer the certainty of ideology and demagogues. The extremes of holiness-as-separation, nationalistic isolationism, and capitalistic consumerism provide a sacred litany of categorical demands and classifications, sustaining power and privilege in the hands of a select few and preserves the “holiness” of the system without serious questioning of the system. The baptizing of nationalistic and capitalistic allegiances in Christian language demands conformity, lest dissent be punished with labels such as “unpatriotic,” “communist,” or “un-Christian,” etc. In other words, failing to ascribe to the system renders one unclean, unholy, and unwelcome – other. Likewise, those who are born outside of the system, those who challenge the system, or those who can be categorized as competitors (i.e., the poor, ethnic minorities, different nationalities, adherents of different faith traditions – including those who identify as Christian but question the system, etc.) are quickly labeled as enemies.
Such categorization justifies any violence deemed necessary as a holy war fought to preserve the imagined sacred and holy status of a “Christian” society. Of course, nobody laments gaining the economic spoils of war (thus, pro-capitalism and pro-democracy are chief tenants of this cultural Christianity). The war may result in physical violence, such as a religious pogrom, or it may be as seemingly democratic as a court case determining if employers can fire LGBTQ+ employees with impunity. Regardless, the message is clear; those who do not fit within the parameters of this society and play the game are quickly labeled as “other” and either dismissed as inconsequential or destroyed as a potential threat. Such coalescing of holiness-as-separation, economic competition, and nationalistic exceptionalism is the perfect storm that can only see others as potential threats to be exorcised from the body politic of society. That politic goes by the simple name of Empire whose telos is power, not love.
It was just such a system that crucified a poor, Jubilee-proclaiming, political dissident – the same dissident who mingled with prostitutes, lepers, the poor, and the outcast; the same crucified Christ who announced Sabbath freedom to the blind, the lame, tax collectors, widows, orphans, and sinners. And, it is this same crucified enemy of the Powers-that-be who instituted a Table as a gathering place for all who recognize that by God’s grace and as Kin-dom people of God, we can be neighbors rather than enemies. God, resplendent in holiness, has torn down the dividing wall, dissolved the categories of “other” in order that we may be made one, even as the Son and Father are one.
After all, it is God who is Holy/Wholly Other, who takes on our flesh and becomes one of us – which is to say, God does not remain “other.” This is the scandal of incarnation and crucifixion – the condescension of God – to become one of us, not merely in appearance. And, this same God confronts Peter in a vision in which he is told not to call unclean that which God has made clean – namely, Gentiles (a social and political “other” to the Jews). This trajectory of dismantling “other” from the grammar of our lives is clearly embodied at the Table where Jesus says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28, NIV). What greater sin is there than the lack of love which promotes the “othering” of those whom God loves and calls to dine at the banquet of divine grace?
John Ortberg tells a powerful story of a priest set apart for service to others, which may bring further illumination.
“Father Damien was a priest who became famous for his willingness to serve lepers. He moved to Kalawao – a village on the island of Molokai, in Hawaii, that had been quarantined to serve as a leper colony. For 16 years, he lived in their midst. He learned to speak their language. He bandaged their wounds, embraced the bodies no one else would touch, preached to hearts that would otherwise have been left alone. He organized schools, bands, and choirs. He built homes so that the lepers could have shelter. He built 2,000 coffins by hand so that, when they died, they could be buried with dignity. Slowly, it was said, Kalawao became a place to live rather than a place to die, for Father Damien offered hope.
Father Damien was not careful about keeping his distance. He did nothing to separate himself from his people. He dipped his fingers in the poi bowl along with the patients. He shared his pipe. He did not always wash his hands after bandaging open sores. He got close. For this, the people loved him.
Then one day he stood up and began his sermon with two words: ‘We lepers….’ Now he wasn’t just helping them. Now he was one of them. From this day forward, he wasn’t just on their island; he was in their skin. First, he had chosen to live as they lived; now he would die as they died. Now they were in it together.
One day God came to Earth and began his message: ‘We lepers….’
Now he wasn’t just helping us. Now he was one of us. Now he was in our skin. Now we were in it together” (John Ortberg, God Is Closer Than You Think, 121-22).
May such holy love be evident among “us,” tearing down the walls that divide, so that we might confess together: “We lepers…”
Rev. Dr. Levi Jones serves as the Director of the Doctor of Ministry at Nazarene Theological Seminary and Co-Lead Pastor at St. Paul’s Church of the Nazarene in Kansas City, MO. He is married to Rev. Rebecca Jones and is grateful for her partnership in life and ministry. They have two wonderful children, Hannah and Caleb.