Every movement, every artist, every organization changes over time.
Michael Jordan stopped dunking from the free-throw line and began perfecting his fadeaway jump shot. Bob Dylan spent the 1960s morphing from a folk prodigy to an electric-guitar-wielding hipster genius. Apple discontinued the Newton and poured their energy into developing products people actually wanted to buy. The U.S. Civil Rights Movement wound its way from abolitionism to eradicating “separate but equal” to the continued battle against systemic racism today.
Now, you could accuse changing movements, artists, and organizations of selling out or straying from their roots. But the reality is much more nuanced than that: Change is a necessary component of staying true to one’s core identity.
Blending Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan traditions, the Brethren in Christ have always enjoyed a diverse and dynamic theological identity. And central to our identity since the beginning is our commitment to peace and nonviolence.
The problem is that most discussions about peace today feel like we’re reading from the same old, dog-eared script. We’ll start with a disagreement over Matthew 5 and Romans 12-13. Then we’ll move to discussing Israel’s violent conquests in the Old Testament. Next we’ll debate why Jesus never asked a Roman solider to change his vocation.
Many of us will then move the conversation to the practical: What if someone breaks into your house? What if your children are at risk? What if you have the opportunity to save dozens of innocent lives through violent force?
Invariably, Hitler will be mentioned.
Friends, have we killed this conversation? Have we stood on opposite sides, beating our respective horses to death over whether or not we believe we’re actually called to nonviolent peacemaking? Perhaps this conversation—a foundational value the BIC holds—needs reexamining, precisely because we’re committed to it.A greater understanding of God’s heart and character should ultimately inform how we think about peace and nonviolence.
We talk about peace not because it serves as some helpful ideal. Rather, how we think about peace fundamentally reflects our views of the Divine.
So first I’d like to say a bit about the Trinity. Then a few words about trajectory. Then I’d like to offer some thoughts on where we go from here.
Father, Spirit, Son
The understanding of God as Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is foundational to our Christian faith. Yet the Trinity is so often ignored or disregarded. A better understanding the Trinity should lead us into greater understanding of who this God is and what this God is like. And a greater understanding of God’s heart and character should ultimately inform how we think about peace and nonviolence.
For all eternity, the Trinity has existed as a dynamic community. An endless outpouring of love between three Persons. Now, salvation in the Christian tradition is many things. But, perhaps, it is most importantly a righting of relationship with God—an invitation to enter the flow of this Triune love (John 17:20–21).
From the beginning, this Triune God has revealed his character through creation. Colossians 1:15–17 declares, “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible … all things have been created through him and for him … and in him all things hold together.”
Every star, every planet, and every molecule in existence is, in some way, evidence of God’s decision to show God’s self. Placing himself in physical time and space, the Christ revelation is God incarnate, taking up residence in human flesh as a man named Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem and murdered in Jerusalem.
It’s important to realize that when we proclaim the name of Jesus Christ, we’re really affirming Jesus as Christ. We’re actually making two distinct faith statements here:
- Christ has been revealing himself since the beginning of the universe with all creation testifying to God’s presence and every human bearing his image, and
- Jesus came and lived among us so we could see him, touch him, hear him, and fall in love with him.
So, if this is true, we might expect to find passages in Scripture indicating that what we do to others, we do to Jesus. That how we treat those society calls “least” is how we treat Jesus. That visiting others in prison, or clothing the cold, or filling hungry bellies, or loving our enemies are all—in some mysterious way—actions ultimately directed toward Christ as much as toward people.
And, interestingly, Jesus teaches this exact truth (see Matthew 25:40).
It would seem, then, that how we treat the creation says a great deal about our views of the Creator.
The Unraveling Mystery
The mystery of the Trinity is revealed to us slowly in the Scriptures. As the early Church wrestled with this mystery, it was the ultimate revelation of the Trinity through Jesus that led our Church fathers and mothers to abandon their violent pasts.
Hebrews 1:1-3 teaches us that while God had spoken “to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, …” yet in this last epoch of history, “he has spoken to us by his son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.”
The idea that God exists as a three-in-one Being who loves us enough to enter bodily into our suffering was completely new for Israelites and first-century believers. Jesus didn’t just come with new or more information about God. He came as the exact representation of God. And as the exact representation of this Triune God, he challenged prior — often inaccurate — understandings of his character. He ushered them into the Triune relationship he had created them to participate in from the very beginning.... when we try appealing to Old Testament passages in an attempt to justify violence, we’re literally moving backward in the narrative.
Like the first-century Church, we have much to learn about peace from the Triune God most fully revealed in Jesus. As Christians living in the United States today, one of our dominant cultural narratives has been one of redemptive violence: “You hurt me; now I have the right to hurt you.”
Yet, Christ became human and gave himself over to the evil and violence of this world. In doing this, he completely turns this narrative upside down. He introduces us instead to the narrative of redemptive suffering: that the never-ending seesaw of back-and-forth violence only reaps destruction. True change, however, comes when we suffer on behalf of one another.
What we find in Scriptures is Christ continually beckoning us toward him. Which means that, when we try appealing to Old Testament passages in an attempt to justify violence, we’re literally moving backward in the narrative.
Where Do We Go from Here?
I spent the first 29 years of my life slowly making my way toward the Brethren in Christ. Though I found Christ as a teenager, I nearly walked away from Christianity in my early 20s. I wasn’t convinced the Jesus I had been handed as a child had anything unique to offer a world in need.
It was ultimately a ravishing picture of Christ, pointing me toward the Triune God of love and peace, that brought me back to the fold.
Though I didn’t grow up in the Brethren in Christ, I landed here because this denomination provided a safe place to practice an unsafe faith. The BIC exemplified profound obedience to a subversive Jesus through a life of transformation, simplicity, and peace. I fell in love with this community. And I continue to fall in love with the Jesus our theology presents.
In an interview about his book Paul and the Faithfulness of God, author and theologian N. T. Wright explains, “theology is a never-ending exploration—each generation has to do it afresh in its own context.” For more than 200 years, the Brethren in Christ have born witness to the holistic peace of God’s Kingdom. We must ask ourselves now: Will we continue to think afresh about our historic peace witness? Or will we allow our distinct contribution to the greater Church body slip away?
Brothers and sisters, may we see our peace witness as a signpost pointing to the Triune God.
May we, in the midst of evil and violence and despair, choose to illuminate a God who has much to offer a broken, hurting world.
And may we enter the flow, joining with the Christ bringing forth a new creation right here in the midst of this one.
Adapted from “Entering the Flow,” an article for the spring/summer 2016 issue of BIC U.S.’ In Part magazine.