The Risks of Nonconformity

Peter J. Gomes

[Adapted from The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus by Peter J. Gomes.
 © Copyright by Peter J. Gomes. By permission of HarperCollins Publishers.]

Perhaps the most dangerous verse in all the Bible is the second verse of Romans 12, where Saint Paul endorses Christian nonconformity.

When he writes, “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God,” he is telling his readers not to do that which comes naturally to them. An invitation to nonconformity is a dangerous thing, and thoughtful nonconformity, for that is what Paul is requiring, is all the more dangerous because nonconformity is an intention and not an inadvertence. In a culture in which conformity is valued, nonconformity is likely to get one into trouble.

The tension between what Romans 12 says and what most people believe is muted by the fact that most Christians read Scripture within the context of their own circles of faith and interpretation. Despite all the claims of those who would wrap themselves in biblical authority, most people read the Bible as confirmation of their own practices and convictions; they do not find themselves either condemned by it or challenged to change their views in light of what it has to say. Thus, conformity or nonconformity does not have to do with some abstract biblical principle or even the biblical practices of some distant and distinct period. Rather, conformity has to do with the current prevailing opinion and practice, and nonconformity departs from that cultural consensus. Godly conduct would appear to be what the people of God say it is at any particular time, just as in America the law is what the Supreme Court says it is.

This may seem a harsh indictment of those who would take the Bible seriously, even literally, as so many American Christians claim to do, yet how else does one explain the fact that the Bible and the church more often than not are used to preserve the status quo rather than to challenge or change it?

The objections to Jesus’ teaching were based on the view that he was an agent of change. “He stirreth up the people” was one of the charges shouted against him when Pilate asked why he should be condemned. The trouble with the apostles, who preached throughout the book of Acts, was that they were introducing new things into the moral discourse of the day. They themselves were ordinary, unlearned men, speaking out of place and out of turn, and for their pains they were persecuted, imprisoned, driven from place to place, and made to suffer all manner of terrible indignities. Hebrews 11:37 makes clear what the nonconformists suffered:

They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheep- skins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented …

That the image of martyrs, the suffering faithful, and oppressed witnesses to the truth does not seem to be the prevailing image of Christians serves to demonstrate the sad fact that conformity is a greater characteristic of the Christian community than nonconformity.

The people described in the Bible as people of faith are usually depicted as those whose loyalty to their faith places them on the outside of the prevailing culture, and their rules and practices are designed both to distinguish them and to protect them against that culture. Biblical people are by definition people on the margins who are, in the classical aphorism, contra mundum, against the world. If the world is Egypt or Rome, then religious people, Jews or Christians, are against that, distinct from it, and defining themselves in opposition to it. Conformity to that world and its values is death.

Paul, however, was not inviting social revolution, a point that such Christian conservatives as Martin Luther were always eager to make. His principle was one of nonconformity, but his call to obedience to the magistrate was one of expedience. That situation is similar to the position in which Christian slaves found themselves in the American antebellum south when, in order to survive, the slaves had to give outward obedience to their masters. They knew, however, that to conform to the slave culture was itself a form of death, and so their real survival depended upon their ability to be loyal to something else and other. Their virtue as believers was defined by their distinction from those who held power over them.

But what happens when the minority and the oppressed become the majority with the capacity to oppress others? Where, then, is the mandate for nonconformity? The irony is that whenever the Christian community gains worldly power, it nearly always loses its capacity to be the critic of the power and influence it so readily brokers.

Today, rather than a point of pride, the tradition of Christian dissent and nonconformity seems to be an embarrassment. The flourishing of orthodoxies and the Christian community’s enchantment with power form a dangerous combination of forces that make Paul’s appeal to nonconformity difficult for the Christian to take seriously. It is even more difficult for the non-Christian to believe that the Christian could possibly take it seriously.

Clerical Cocktail Party

Some years ago I attended a White House Prayer Breakfast. I didn’t particularly want to go, but a former student of mine, well placed in the Clinton White House, prevailed upon me to attend, and so I did—and immediately knew I had made the wrong decision when I found myself in a long line of clergy in the street opposite the Treasury, waiting to have our credentials validated for admission into the White House.

What a sight we must have been to early-morning Washington commuters! Every conceivable form of clerical dress from nearly all the religions of the world was represented, and all the people so dressed were eager for a moment of favor in the East Room of the White House. Once we were inside, it was worse—a sort of early-morning clerical cocktail party composed of clergy hoping to be seen with anyone more important than the person with whom they happened to be speaking. There was little prayer at this Prayer Breakfast, but a great deal of networking and schmoozing, and whatever Caesar had to offer, the clergy were glad to take it. No one in the assemblage seemed to embrace a nonconformist thought: the world appeared very much in charge. Both John the Baptist and David Koresh would have been out of place, and I, no prophetic soul, wished I were anywhere but there.

Prayer Breakfasts are a big deal in Washington, I am told, and foreign visitors who are brought to them are fascinated by both their absence of piety and their display of power. Most of those who bow their heads before tucking into the eggs and bacon are not seeking transformation, but rather appear to be celebrating the confirmation of the status quo or, worse, longing to recreate the good old days when a Christian consensus determined the right and wrong ways of doing things.

“Are You a Christian?”

Indeed, much of the momentum behind a good deal of contemporary religious zealotry is an attempt to recapture something of what was lost. The notion of revival, a recurrent theme in American religious history, appeals to that notion of something that once was good that must somehow be recovered. As a historian, I am often asked to what great period in history I would care to return, and I can think of none, for every age has fallen short of what the good news promised, and no past age has achieved an instance of grace for which I would sacrifice one second of the future. When I say, as I often do, that our best days are ahead of us, I truly believe that the good news that Jesus preached has yet to be experienced, for it goes before us, as did Jesus himself on Easter morning.

Increasingly, I meet people who, when asked, “Are you a Christian?” respond with the parsing carefulness of a lawyer, or of Bill Clinton: “That depends on what you mean by Christian.” Many say, “I would like to think of myself as a Christian, but I don’t want to be associated with [this group or that group].” Can Christians agree that following the teachings of Jesus and the example that he and the best of his followers have set is sufficient to maintain a Christian identity and witness in the world? It would seem not. Many complain that the evangelicals have defined “Christian” in such a way as to impose a creed and not a lifestyle.

In the early church a Christian was one who believed, on the authority of the witnesses to the resurrection, that Jesus is Lord. In the early twentieth century, some Christians, eventually described as fundamentalists, imposed a series of fundamental beliefs essential to being a Christian, including a belief in the literal truth of Scripture, the virgin birth, the second coming, and substitutionary atonement. Those who affirmed those things were Christians; those who did not, were not. In the 1920s, Harry Emerson Fosdick condemned fundamentalism for its lack of charity and its refusal to share disputed ground with Christians of other persuasions. He predicted that the kind of narrow, doctrinal piety with which he associated the aggressive fundamentalism of his day would expire in the light of modernity and higher education. He would be surprised, and perhaps more than a little disappointed, to find that the modernist position that he espoused has long been in retreat, and that the cultural tune is more often called by an evangelical piety having much in common with the fundamentalism to which he was so adamantly opposed.

Cosmic Immodesty

Two elements nearly always missing from any religious establishment, especially one that has come to prevail only after a long period of suffering and deprivation in the wilderness, are charity and modesty. Charity is the capacity to love the other and to lead with the heart and not simply with the head. Although religious establishments often espouse charity, they rarely risk their own hard-won status by exercising it among others. Charity in this context often suggests weakness, a tolerance of error, a failure to exercise the sovereignty of truth. Charity free of condescension is rare. The notion that God may know more about the salvation business than we do is often more than a true believer can bear. Having won the truth “our” way, it is difficult to believe that there is any other way, or that anyone else might have found it.

Christian exclusiveness, for that is what the lack of charity suggests, cannot face the requirements of modesty, the notion that all is not known and that we do not know all. When devout Christians believe that only Christians of a particular doctrinal stripe have access to God, that, for example, God hears their prayers only, they stand in cosmic immodesty. The Christian Bible more than once makes the point that God’s ways are not our ways, and that the mind of God is vastly different from our own minds. Thus, when Christians state categorically that Jews, or Muslims, or believers in other faith systems are outside the provisions of God, they utter arrogant nonsense. If God is the God of all, and not just a tribal deity, then God has made provision, not necessarily known to us, for the healing and care of all his creation, and not simply our little part of it.

If there is any good news that is truly good news for everybody and not just for a few somebodies, it is this: God is greater and more generous than the best of those who profess to know and serve him. This is the radical nonconformity against the conventional wisdom that Jesus both proclaimed and exemplified, and, alas, ii cost him his life. Will we hope to fare any better, as disciples of his nonconformity?

The Rev. Peter Gomes is Pusey Minister of Memorial Church, Harvard University, where he is also a professor of Christian Morals. He is the best-selling author of The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (HarperOne, 2002).