Jul 7, 2012
Ensured Ignorance: Yelling and the Violence of the Gospel
A dear friend, Tony Kriz, recently hand-delivered to me an advance copy of his forthcoming provocative book, Neighbors and Wise Men (Thomas Nelson), soon to be released to an awaiting crowd of anticipatory readers. The book reads like a September Oregon sunset: beautiful, clear, and always a slight chance of drizzle and darkness on every page. Weaving his way through a breath-taking narrative about his journey through faith, doubt, and Albania, a quote caught my eye. Kriz, writing about the power relationship and honesty play in creating Christ-likeness in each of us, says:
“Free and provocative interaction ensures that none of us continue in ignorance.”
Kriz’s words rattled me.
A little context is in order. I’ve been graciously invited to contribute a chapter to an edited book on Pentecostal and Holiness social history and theology by a friend and colleague Dr. David Wilson. Over the past two months, my research has centered on a little known reality about Pentecostal and Charismatic history. Although not commonly known, Pentecostalism shares an unexpected amount of historical common ground with the Historic Peace Churches of Protestant Europe (Brethren, Friends, and Mennonite). Alongside these churches, many early North American Pentecostal communities were pacifist in both theology and practice. This is especially the case through WW1. One scholar, Dr. Jay Beaman, suggests that up to perhaps 10% of all who were conscientious objectors during WW1 were Pentecostal or holiness men who registered for the draft as religious objectors to the military.
Contrast this historical reality to today. Little to none of this tradition lingers within any Pentecostal or Charismatic expression that I’m aware of. This is, of course, with exception to a few antiquated pacifist policies and denominational documents that play no role in ecclesiological practice. Where has this theology gone? As did the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, many scholars have lamented this sudden disappearance following the end of WW1 (1918). In reflecting on the disappearance of this theology, Yoder argues that the Pentecostal Biblicism of the time never fully “matured into a solid ethical hermeneutic” that has sustainable results.
Put simply, Pentecostal pacifism was a flash in the pan that never started a real fire. Where did this pacifist theology in Pentecostalism go?
Lamentably, this theology of practical peace has gone to the same place most of the Western church’s practice of peace has gone. My research has shown that nearly every scholar will point to one main culprit for the loss of this tradition. The culprit wasn’t violence itself, or renewed biblical studies and exegesis, or loss of purpose, or even a need for war. It lay in the mainstream desire by Pentecostals to be acceptable to the broader culture. Cultural accommodation tempted them to exile a beautiful tradition which, I ardently believe, must be revisited and re-applied today to charismatic expression.
Theirs is also our situation. Peaceful living, in a warring culture, is simply difficult to practice for those who want to be accepted into the acceptable paradigm of our age. So it dies. With a whimper.
Peace-making doesn’t make the front page of the paper anymore. It doesn’t sell. Because we’re addicted to violence.
Now, what this historical reality has revealed to me has less to do with history or Pentecostalism as much as it has to do with contemporary Christianity. The historical lesson is the lesson each of us must re-learn in our violent world: peace is not only hard to keep, culture violently resists it. Peace must be, as one bluntly put it, fought for. But because human nature is awed at violence and sacrifices a ton to keep it alive and well, Christianity often follows suit. Even, at times, in sacrifice to the false-god of “moral high ground.” Violence is raised as a necessary need to perpetuate good in the world; which I agree is necessary at points. But “moral high ground” has too often been flooded with too much innocent blood that has stained not only our consciences but the name of Jesus.
I believe there is a gapping chasm between (1) the kind of “free and provocative interaction” Kriz dreams of where relationship, honesty, and mutual respect reign and (2) the theological violence I’m seeing trending in American Christianity. And we, more than ever, need the first of the two.
A perfect example of the sort of violence that concerns me is evidenced in a series of videos entitled the Elephant Room. These cage-fight-esque conversations relating to deeply important theological themes, attempt (I believe with good intention by their creators), to forward a sense of orthodoxy by virtue of fighting its way to the top in victory. Each video is called a “round”. Now, I don’t question the conversations. Even though the debates are painful and awkward to watch, I believe the right questions are being discussed. Rather, I question the methods and venue of the conversation. I confess, being a scholar in historical theology and church history, I’m sympathetic to such endeavors. Really. Good theology has always cost the church something and must be wrestled through. But, too often, I fear the theological violence we’re witnessing turns away those who most need to be sitting at the table: peace-makers, prophets, and poets. Not to mention its offense to a culture that’s doing everything to flee from yelling preachers.
In the end, theological integrity isn’t always manifest by violent debate. Sure, it can at necessary times serve a purpose. But this shouldn’t be our default method. Sometimes, as in most cases, violent ways of doing theology far outweigh anything in the negative because the method mutes the outcome. In fact, people rarely hear the outcome because they still stumbling over the way in which it was arrived at. Not to mention I’m rarely comfortable claiming theological victory with blood-stained hands. It forgets that whole “peace-maker” thingy Jesus seemed to harp on and on about?
By and large, I believe Jesus was violent about some stuff and peaceful about other stuff. He was neither all the time. At one moment he engaged a Pharisee and a Tax Collector and the next he’s turning the tables. I’d even go so far as to say “violence” is a necessary part of conversion in the Christian story. My friend Andy Campbell reflects on a fabulous sermon offered by professor Jason Clark on the violence of Paul’s experience of conversion in Philippians 3. Campbell writes,
Like Paul, the gospel of grace violently turns us away from sin. But, because of our sin which we continue to carry around like a back-pack full of rocks, we repent back to our violent ways of the old person in us. We mirror our world’s way of discussion. Violent discussion. Because it’s the way the world in which we’re embedded interacts.
Jesus calls us to fight. But he calls, through the words of Paul, to fight in a way that doesn’t look like the world’s fighting (Eph. 6:12). We don’t need “rounds.” We don’t fight like cage-fighters. That’s the kind of fighting we see on TV. This kind of fighting isn’t against flesh, or people, or even institutions. It’s against powers of darkness and the ideas they perpetuate in the world Christ came to save.
This brings me back to Tony Kriz. What does a “free and provocative interaction” look like for Christ-followers in a way that honors both peace of Christ and the violence of the gospel? And how can it be practiced?
I’d like to suggest two ideas:
1. Don’t pussyfoot around differences; acknowledge them—“Free and provocative interaction” doesn’t ignore difference between people. Rather, it highlights it, talks about it, and vehemently engages with it in long, oftentimes painful, dialogue. Christian community around the cross relies on people being who they are yet coming together under the banner of the gospel. This doesn’t resolve all our differences; rather, it forces us to exist in graceful community with them. Proclamation of truth isn’t ever perpetuated by limiting one’s experience of what one knows to be true. I preach the resurrected Jesus and Him crucified in a world that thinks I’m foolish. I stand on that with everything. Cultural accommodation to need to sound smart or understandable is incredibly dangerous, and, downright wrong. I can’t not proclaim the empty tomb. I’ve seen it. And because of that, I have a voice. So do you.
2. Question yelling—The gospel of Jesus is never preached well from the pulpit of hatred or fear. And I’d suggest that if we have to rely on yelling at each other, it’s probably because our ideas and words aren’t doing the job. If we’re yelling, it’s probably because our ideas aren’t that good. Turning the volume up on a bad song has never, in my experience, made the song better. Sure, if the song is good, flip up the switch. But sometimes it simply isn’t a good song. In this way, fear is the rash of the disease of insecurity. When we are secure in our knowledge of the holy, we don’t have to yell because our words are enough. For those who have undergone real trauma, yelling can really be disadvantageous for proclaiming grace. Dr. Serene Jones’ text Trauma and Grace unveils a creative way in which the gospel can bring healing to those who have undergone significant trauma. She reminds us that the gospel must be made real for these people; and how we do our proclamation is part of the process.
In the end, I want what Kriz talks about. Real, authentic theological dialogue where I am free to be me and so is everyone else around the table. That’s a space where God can be God too and can bring us all to our knees. It’s scary, but real. And it makes us all look a little bit more like the one who ate with Tax Collectors and flipped over tables.
 I use “Pentecostalism(s)” in order to be senstive to the the diversity of the movements.