Holiness and Racial Harmony: Three Issues to Consider (Montague Williams)

Protests about the Ferguson shooting by Howard University students. Photo Credit: Debra Sweet.

Protests about the Ferguson shooting by Howard University students. Photo Credit: Debra Sweet.

Editor's Note: This essay is part of the Renovating Holiness Project, helping Gen-X and Millennial Nazarenes revision sanctification.  Scroll down for other example essays.

On August 9, 2014 a Caucasian police officer in Ferguson, Missouri shot and killed an unarmed African American man in his late teens.  Protests and demonstrations began shortly after and lasted for months, calling United States’ citizens and leaders to revisit issues of race and racism as major topics of public discourse.  
Even before this event and other recent similar events, the Church of the Nazarene’s Manual has been urging Nazarene congregations “to continue and strengthen programs of education to promote racial understanding and harmony.” This charge is clearly important and helpful. However, I wonder if it is clear that “racial understanding and harmony” is part of the wider call to holiness.

Our doctrine of holiness has great potential for challenging racial division and promoting racial harmony, but there are a few areas in our articulation and practice of holiness that need to be addressed first. In this brief essay, I suggest we 1) give clearer explanation of our understanding the Kingdom of God, 2) be explicit about the communal nature of holiness, and 3) allow holiness theology and practice to shape our interaction with public policies.

Refining Our Focus on the Kingdom

    We often speak about the Kingdom of God as our ultimate hope, and we follow Jesus in praying for God’s will to flourish “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10, NRSV). Theologically, this prayer suggests that our lives can and ought to point to whatever the Kingdom looks like. The challenge we face in the Church of the Nazarene is that our understanding of the Kingdom of God remains ambiguous. We have several statements that identify our theology and practice as being grounded in advancing the Kingdom, bearing witness to the Kingdom, and participating in the Kingdom. But we have no statement that clarifies what the Kingdom is, what it looks like, or what it means to participate in it.
Interestingly, it is a particular vision of the Kingdom of God that shaped the ethics of racial reconciliation practiced and articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the participants in his faith-based nonprofit organization called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Leaning on the Johannine eschatological vision of the “great multitude … from every nation, all tribes, peoples, and languages” (Revelation 7:9), King spoke of the Kingdom of God as “the Beloved Community” and emphasized the importance of people from “all races, cultures, nations, and classes,” working together to form “microcosms” of the Kingdom. These microcosms would serve as testimonies that let the watching world have a glimpse of what is to come when the Kingdom is realized in its fullness.
This concept of microcosms of Kingdom has striking resemblance to a portion of the charge District Superintendents give to newly organized Nazarene congregations, which identifies the local congregation as “a community of faith that lives as an authentic expression of the kingdom of God in the world.” This sounds like such a hopeful way of describing the life and mission of a local congregation. If the Kingdom we are seeking embodies racial harmony, then our theology and practice must include clear connections to racial harmony. But once again, we do not know if this “authentic expression” has anything to do with racial harmony, because we do not clearly articulate what is meant by Kingdom of God. To be clear, my concern is that our lack of articulation regarding the nature of the community to which we are called results in a theology of holiness that renders “racial understanding and harmony” a side issue. We need to clarify our understanding of the Kingdom of God.

Embracing Holiness in Community

We also need to clarify and embrace the communal nature of holiness. Racial harmony is not an individual endeavor. It is about people of different races earnestly listening to and honoring the stories of struggle and confusion that come with living in a racialized context. It’s about people advocating for each other. It’s about people helping each other recognize the role of race in society and intentionally sharing life in a manner that subverts the power of race and displays the power of the Gospel.
How can growth in these ways ever be accounted for if our understanding of holiness is solely about whether I’m personally growing or if you are personally growing? There needs to be a way of articulating holiness theology that begs the question of how we are growing in holiness as a we.
When Wesley wrote the oft-quoted, “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness,” he was pointing to the understanding that it is impossible for one to be shaped in the way of holiness apart from a community being shaped in the way of holiness. It is out of this understanding that we have accountability groups and even find meaning for offering public altar calls.
However, if we are not careful, we run the risk of going about this in a way that renders my faith community as merely a means to the end of me becoming holy. In other words, an over-emphasis on individual growth in holiness can lead one to think my multiracial congregation is merely a means to the end of me sensing that I am not racially prejudice. Such a perspective makes use of other people or consumes other people for one’s own purpose rather than becoming a part of a people as the body of Christ.
Students in Nazarene theology and Bible courses often learn reasons why they ought to be thinking of holiness as more of a communal endeavor rather than merely an individual endeavor. However, we have had great difficulty in imagining what that looks like in the life of the church. Well, I think it would look like a community continually growing racial harmony; a community becoming more and more like what is described above; a community that more and more reflects the Kingdom. We need to be more explicit about the communal nature of holiness in our local churches and not let the call to social holiness get lost in the walls of academia.

Reclaiming Holiness in the Public Square

    Race in the United States has always been a legal matter. To be clear, race is not a natural way of understanding oneself but the result of categories that were created to establish economic ways of relating. This is why race is classified differently depending on the country.
    In the United States, race was initially implemented as a way to justify slavery. Over time, race became a way of intentionally perpetuating the idea that some are inherently worthy of full citizenship and some are not.
    Today the role of race in the United States is confusing. Since the Civil Rights era, race categories have been used to address issues regarding race. So while it is acknowledged that the very creation of race classification is problematic, the categories are now needed to understand the history and the current social and economic happenings in the U.S. The confusion of what to do with this has led to public policy debates about race that fall into the ideological categories of conservative and liberal, which are portrayed respectively as personal responsibility versus social responsibility.
    If we read through the section of the Nazarene Manual entitled “The Covenant of Christian Conduct,” we find that the practices of holiness cannot easily fall into the framework of either one of these political categories. In fact, the participants in the holiness movement and the early years of the Church of the Nazarene sought out subversive practices that were much more dynamic than what a singular political party could contain. For example, the commitment to abstain from alcohol was not just so one maintains one’s own personal responsibility. It was also to boycott an industry that sought to capitalize on the sufferings and vulnerabilities of the poor. Even today, “The Church of the Nazarene believes this new and holy way of life involves practices to be avoided and redemptive acts of love to be accomplished for the souls, minds, and bodies of our neighbors.” The commitment to personal growth and responsibility is not to be separated from social concern and responsibility. In a context that is politically divided between two ideologies of right and left, the praxis of holiness can offer a third way of engaging the public square.
    Even beyond voting in national politics, this calls us to be diligently aware of what is happening with local laws, policing, business practices, healthcare, and schools. It is in these situations that we find the causes of injustice and hurt which lead to racial disunity. If we can resist society’s grip that calls us to align with either left or right, we can begin hearing each other’s stories and addressing issues in a way that reflects our citizenship in the Kingdom.

Conclusion

I have the honor of teaching at one of the most racially and culturally diverse Christian colleges in the United States. Most students arrive to our campus from a congregation that is made up primarily of one racial group and graduate four years later with a whole new perspective on what Christian community can be.  Conversations regarding issues of race and racism can happen among peers and friends of different racial backgrounds, and responses to such issues can be discerned together.  However, the majority of evangelical congregations in the United States remain divided along racial lines, making little to no space for Christians of different races to see and hear each other well.
    My concern for the Church is that this continual division among congregations will turn away young adults who have experienced inter-racial and inter-cultural community. For the sake of being theologically faithful and for the sake of our young people, we need to cultivate Christian congregations of racial reconciliation and harmony.
    Holiness theology has the groundwork for doing this. But we need to be clearer with our understanding of the Kingdom and the communal nature of holiness, and we have to embrace the fact that holiness does not fit into the political boxes. Let us not conform to the patterns of this world, and may God continue to transform us so that we may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2).


Montague Williams serves as Assistant Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Eastern Nazarene College and is an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene.  He is completing a PhD at Boston University focusing on the fields of Practical Theology and Theological Ethics.  Montague and his wife, Jennie, live in Quincy, MA.