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It is a tall order, this compound and complex sentence:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.
Wow. There is a lot going on there: Don’t do this, but do that instead, so that you will be able to do an altogether different thing.
All of that is challenging enough, but when you realize that the second part of the sentence says not only to do something else but actually to become something else—it’s no wonder that most of us get stuck on the first part: Do not be conformed to this world.
That much we can understand. You might say that nonconformity—or resistance—is second nature to most of us. Ask any two-year-old; they already know (and exercise) the power of saying “no.”
Throw in a little religious fervor or political correctness, and nonconformist resistance can become an end in itself. Well, okay, maybe not for you, but my own history of self-important, self-righteous nonconformity began in third grade. I didn’t exactly refuse to write a report on Miss Ohlberg’s lesson about evolution; I just let her know that I didn’t believe it because, duh, the Bible said God created the earth in six days.
But what’s more telling than how bad I was at earth science as a 9-year-old is how indoctrinated and shut down I was, at least on that subject. My noncomformity was less about faithfulness than pig-headedness; I was so sure I knew the truth that I refused to consider a different perspective.
But “be not conformed to this world” is not biblical license to resist whatever we disagree with and then go our own way, smug in our political, theological, cultural, or just plain ornery correctness. No less a prophet than the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. warned against that very thing.
Even as Dr. King excoriated the church for conforming to the social evils of racism and classism, he noted that “nonconformity in itself may not necessarily be good and may at times possess neither transforming nor redemptive power.”
Faithful nonconformity starts within. It has less to do with not doing something that is contrary to the way of loving God and loving our neighbors, than becoming more loving. It is not so much a political or principled action than an inner spiritual transformation. It is when we have been transformed by the Spirit and by our awareness of God’s tender mercies and extravagant love that our very lives become an offering, that our living in and walking through this world is worship itself.
Dr. King put it this way:
“By opening our lives to God in Christ, we become new creatures. This experience, which Jesus spoke of as the new birth, is essential if we are to be transformed nonconformists and freed from the cold hardheartedness and self-righteousness so often characteristic of nonconformity.”
Resistance without transformation creates a culture of correctness that, if you think about it, is little more than another kind of conformity to the world. Only when we have been freed from the self-centeredness of our ways and reborn to the life of Christ’s way can we begin, with humility, to do awesome third thing in our compound-complex sentence: that is, to discern God’s will for justice, equality, peace, love, and wholeness for all.
Which is, together, as the church, to help heal and transform the world.
Now, this is all well and good, you might think, but it’s a little abstract. Grammar and theology lessons tend to be less-than-inspiring and hard to take in. It seems to me we need at least one concrete example to help us begin to understand what it means to be transformed nonconformists.
So I began thinking about some of ways most of us are conformed to the world. There is no shortage, of course. Like most people in our culture, most followers of Jesus are conformed to the love of money and the things it buys. We tend to be conformed to the culture of fear, whether it is the fear of not having enough or the fear of not being enough or the fear of others. As American Christians, most of us are conformed to the cult of the individual.
I could go on, of course, and I’m sure you could also add to the list.
But what I want to try to do this morning, what I hope will be more helpful not only in understanding the difference between nonconformity and transformation but also in provoking us to the humility and openness that allows transformation to happen, is to examine one particularly insidious case of conformity, one area in which we may not even realize we are conformed to dangerous, oppressive, unjust and, yes, sinful ways of thinking and being.
I am speaking of white supremacy.
(You make take this moment to shift uncomfortably in your seat.)
Now, before I continue I want to be very clear: My point in talking about the sin and scourge of white supremacy is not to beat ourselves up, make us feel guilty, or even provoke us to resistance. My hope is to demonstrate that with something as pervasive, longstanding, and sometimes unconscious as white racism, saying “no”—that is, resistance or nonconformity, doing things like hanging Black Lives Matter banners, belonging to an anti-racism church that has a serious anti-racism covenant and a vibrant anti-racism ministry, even marching against white supremacy—is not enough. We—our hearts, our attitudes, our perspectives, and our privilege—must also be transformed.
This has always been true. But in these days of white racists marching openly and unhooded with torches, of white nationalist violence in our streets and all over social media, and of a president who uses his pardon power to send a clear message of support to those who would abuse, oppress, and violate the humanity of others on the basis of skin color and immigration status, it is absolutely essential that we understand this distinction. We have to do more than say “no” to white racism and privilege with our actions; we must also say “yes” with our hearts to equality, justice, and the sharing of power, perspective and resources. We must be transformed—our hearts and minds must be changed—so that we can more fully live lives of love.
Now I am not going to propose a three-point anti-racism transformation program. My point this morning is not to tell us how to move down this road individually and as a church. We have a wonderful anti-racism ministry team and many others who have the wisdom, experience and commitment to lead us in that direction. We have the leadership of the national UCC and many excellent resources to both inspire and instruct us. (But I will suggest that we need to pay attention to the ways white supremacy operates, and that we must renew our commitment to racial justice.)
What we all need, it seems to me, is a renewed and deeper willingness to acknowledge both our white privilege and the experiences and pain of our siblings of color. What we need is the humility and honesty to confess our part in the system of white supremacy that still shapes our country and the daily lives of people of color. What we need—and what we have—to open ourselves to transformation is God’s forgiveness and grace. What we need, and what we have, is the example of Jesus’ sacrificial love and the transformative power of the Spirit.
Franciscan mystic Richard Rohr says transformation “happens not when something new begins but when something old falls apart. The pain of something old falling apart—chaos—invites the soul to listen at a deeper level. It invites and sometimes forces the soul to go to a new place because the old place is falling apart.”
Friends, the good news of the horribly racist events of the past few weeks is that they are laying bare the injustice and inhumanity of an old and unsustainable way of being. What they reveal is that white supremacy will not, cannot, stand. All the white nationalist rallies and violence are fearful and hate-filled reactions to that reality.
“Transformation,” Rohr says, “usually includes a disconcerting reorientation. Change can either help people to find a new meaning, or it can cause people to close down and turn bitter. The difference is determined by the quality of your inner life, what we call your ‘spirituality.’ Change itself just happens; but spiritual transformation must become an actual process of letting go, living in the confusing dark space for a while …”
These are dark days for our nation, but there is a light in the darkness and hope to be had in witnessing these last gasps of hatred. If we let it, the light will reveal the vestiges of our own racism, and the hope will sustain us in the hard work of changing not only our laws and institutions but, even more important, our hearts and minds.
So let us once again offer our lives—hearts, minds and bodies—to the God who is love. Let us confess our racism and work with the Spirit to open ourselves to healing, change and love. Because we who are many—black, brown, white, people of all races and ethnicities, colors and cultures—are one body in Christ.