Kurt Willems asks whether or not nonviolence helps or hinders evangelism. I believe that some of our metaphors for personal change and God, when read in the context of a violent state, are rendered utterly terrifying to late modern people in the United States. That is to say, the church must differentiate itself from the State through nonviolence, or our concepts of God will be read as totalitarian and frightening.
1 Corinthians 3:16-17 NRSV
Kinda creepy when Paul gets up in your personal life, isn't it? We're trained that there are regions of life that are intensely personal, intensely "nobody's business." Like, for instance, how we care for our bodies. In the above, Paul is enjoining us to care for our bodies with a holy love. It's not limited to the public. God will not protect us from the destruction of our own bodies. A late modern American hears this and wonders why God is up in their personal business.
And I have to agree. God's call is so transforming, so all-encompassing, that there are times when, to stand in the presence of such radicalism is terrifying. It's like a fire in the bones, or a coal on the tongue. These visions of flame are transforming, purifying. We see the burning away of the self, and a unity of purpose towards a specific objective.
We are being transformed, with all other things burned away, with a holy, purifying focus, towards love. Towards love of neighbor and God. The public manifestation of this is the doing of justice, good works in the world. The inward, private work of the Holy Spirit is to discern and reveal all in one's life that is not directed towards love and loving, carefully (but not always, depending on how we pray!) move us towards a radical re-orientation that teaches us what is love and what is not-love. Does it frighten you?
Think about this power in the hands of, say, George W. Bush. Does it frighten you now?
Ezekiel the prophet sees God's chariot (Merkabah) as wheels within wheels, a living thing, Ophanim, beings covered with flaming eyes that mete out divine justice. Now, imagine Jerry Falwell riding the Ophanim, meting out justice, accompanied by the armored, winged host of Westboro Baptist church.
It gives meaning to the words of Foucault in Discipline and Punish, "There were those for whom glory and abomination were not dissociated, but coexisted in a reversible figure."
There's a fine line between terror and change. In Waking the Tiger, Phillip Levine talks about the paralysis that "fight of flight" trauma can induce. Many of us in the church are in this place when we read Jesus asking the rich young ruler to give his wealth. It's too much change, too quickly. God asks too much. Fire can either burn or purify.
Marx walked this line when he spoke of the bloody birth of his utopian State... in order to usher in a peaceful new order. Frantz Fanon explicitly believes that violence is necessary in order to burn away the violence of the state. I have a dim view of this thought. Anything premised on violence lives and dies by it.
Imagine the power of the Ophanim in the hands of the state. Foucault talks about the work of Jeremy Bentham, an 18th-century reformer who designed a prison called a "panopticon" to work along these lines. Guards sat in the center of a tower with a clear view into all the surrounding cells.
When we look at images of God as though God were a State, it's terrifying. What's more terrifying is that the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
The God I have come to know is gentle, loving, and non-coercive. I have prayed violent, self-loathing prayers to the God I know, and She has waited for me to return. Yes, She knows all things. But love waits. Love never coerces.
I think most late modern people in America "see" from the perspective of a state or a corporation. Most churches have lost their institutional clout, and grassroots club membership has waned. Fewer people "belong" anywhere but in the workplace and to the State. These are the "nones," those who are spiritual but not religious.
Increasingly, metaphors of a loving God are read as if they were metaphors for political powers. And, you have to admit, that's terrifying.
The purifying fire of love in one's spirit that asks us to repent of the ways we wrong our neighbors and, through faithful action, discipline ourselves to become more loving, charitable, and good in our actions and our lives, when what is good is determined by political powers, is quite a bit like 1984.
So this is why it's always important to describe God's love as non-coercive and nonviolent. Yes, we owe allegiance to a violent state that can draft us into military service in pursuit of Gold and Glory. But as soon as we align God with the state in any way, our beautiful metaphors of inward fire look like napalm poured over cities.
God brings peace and teaches us to renounce violence,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
The Acts church lived in the midst of a violent empire, yet it testified to a new way by walking the path of alternative community and caring for her own. I find this deeply humbling. I cannot wait for any revolution, state, or nonprofit. I am responsible for building the alternative to empire right now. But at the same time, I find it encouraging, as I don't need to fully understand the state or the workings of international policies. I just need to build small communities that incarnate love at the grassroots level. That's what I do when I organize churches to sell sustainably-grown produce priced on a sliding-scale through churches.
I am an activist, and I believe that at times God calls us to civil disobedience in order to give the powers the opportunity to repent. Through the witness of Christ's nonviolent witness to the Roman empire, we have a model for engaging the violence of the powers and principalities: nonviolent resistance and the willingness to suffer. This is very different from building alliances with politicians and trading favors. Through the prophetic tradition that maintains its vision of God's Kingdom separate from the violent political powers of the day, we maintain a purity of purpose and conviction, and we prohibit the reversion of our beautiful images of God's omniscience into terrifying images of fire and war.