Not conforming to the patterns of this world
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—what is good and acceptable and perfect.—Romans 12:2
The renewal of our minds that Paul is writing about here to the church in Rome refers to a new way of doing things, a reordering of our thinking, and a reordering of our society. The church fundamentally resists and operates out of a different set of rules, and Paul is clearly interested in reordering a radical alternative to the way of the world. I think this is something that many Christians across all political and philosophical stripes agree with. Richard Niehbur called it “Christ Against Culture” in his book about Christian ethical typologies. As an Anabaptist, I am largely amenable to this.
Christians join this project of reordering with Paul in our work. No Greek or Jewish norm is the same in Paul’s radical reordering. Different people, from different walks of life, are included for a common mission, and a common cause. They are transformed together to engage in this social reordering that points to Christ, that points to the Kingdom of God, that evidences the reign of God on earth.
It is a wonderful vision for what is possible in our world, and I believe Christians today are charged with being those kinds of revolutionary people, who resist the evil in the world, and restore it to what God intends and intended it to be.
Christians get into trouble when they think that it is in their tradition, their church, or their brand of theology to contain all the wisdom for reordering the world. They become suspicious of outside influence, whether they are Christian or not. That sort of exceptionalism is particularly acute in Evangelical churches. And any church that thinks of itself as “exceptional” suffers from the nondenominational Evangelical problem, in my opinion. Too often this exceptionalism comes at the expense of victims of racism. Exceptionalistic churches are rooted in white supremacy culture.
If we think our tradition, or our church, is exceptional, or the perfect example of the biblical renewing of our mind, we run the risk of never discerning where it has been infiltrated by the world, and rarely see anything God-given in the world, or in other traditions either. Truly, we need to interrogate ourselves and our churches, discern what is good and what is rotten, while we also do the same of the world around us. If we develop a binary that results in the belief that our church has it all right and everyone outside of us is wrong, we are functionally acting as fundamentalists. Let’s take the best of the past, our tradition, and marry it to the best of what is around us.
Christianity calls for a racial re-ordering, not the racist status quo
I say this because what I see in today’s hostility toward antiracist movements is an objection that these movements are “of the world.” It reminds me of 1990s where Christians became very concerned about “relativism,” or in the 2000s how they shifted to “postmodernism,” or “moral therapeutic deism,” a termed coined by Christian Smith in Soul Searching, a 2009 title. These days, we hear a lot of opposition about Critical Race Theory, which is opponents think is antiracist movements in churches. (I’ve written about that here and here, if you are interested in a deeper dive.) But I wonder if so-called worldly movements addressing racism are indeed what is worldly here.
White evangelicals opposed “postmodernism” for the same reason they do critical theory. Both viewpoints require them to interrogate their own power and they refuse to do it.
— Jonny Rashid 🕊✝️🍞 (@Jonnyrashid) June 28, 2021
True antiracist movements require a reordering of ourselves and the world, a renewing of our mind. Our willingness to allow our minds to be transformed is essential for us to fulfill Paul’s vision for the world, and an antiracist one. When we do this work, it will feel very painful, it will feel personal, it’ll feel like our very lives are being undone. But that should be expected. The sin condition that the world is in enslaves all of us, and sometimes emancipation from that enslavement hurts—especially those that benefit from it. (It is quite a relief from those who are oppressed by it, though.) That pain, that discomfort, doesn’t make antiracist “worldly,” anymore than it makes antiracism violent. We must ask ourselves if our resistant to antiracism is ultimately a resistance to the will of God and the movement of the Spirit.
Christianity and white supremacy need to be divorced
It is so easy to find sources and ideas that confirm our biases, instead of moving us with the spirit of God in these times. There are plenty of Christian thinkers who want to justify white supremacy and racism in our world and our churches—so if you are looking for that sort of justification, you won’t have to look far. But look at what the writer of 2 Timothy says of that:
For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires.—2 Timothy 4:3
There are plenty of Christian thinkers who are ready to defend the order of this world, as it expressed itself in patriarchy and white supremacy. In fact, here’s a known skeptic of religion and faith, James Lindsay, warning against the fall of Christianity via “wokeness.” These sorts of teachers are exactly what the writer of 2 Timothy is talking about. If we seek out worldly thinkers that confirm our biases, whether they are political or psychological, it is hard to imagine that we are not conforming to the patterns of this world.
Christianity in the United States is married to white supremacy, and it’s been a marriage that began right when the U.S. was incepted. We need to repent of that, or every antiracist movement will seem like it’s “of the world.” Even as we look back at the Civil Rights Movements as manifestly Christian, we see that White Christians were opposed back then, just as they are now to the antiracist awakening it, deriding it as “of the world.”
Unless we undo those influences, we will be “worldly” because of that inherent connection. This is why Paul consistently undoes the patterns of this world in his ordering of Christian households. How he talks about Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and free people showcases a New Humanity and a new way of doing things. Our church’s work of antiracism isn’t a movement following the world, we are following the spirit. We are renewing our minds, transforming our hearts, resisting conforming to the patterns of this world. We are motivated to find our oneness and identity in Christ. That doesn’t mean we merely transcend the worldly racial order that has separated us and oppressed people of color. We are called to repent of how it has infected us and change our behavior. There is no such thing as an identity in Christ without divestment of worldly power. An identity in Christ that is not antiracist is a white Christian Nationalist identity that is a perversion of the Gospel. It is a false teaching led by false prophets.
It is racism, not antiracism, that is of the world.
This is beyond politics
Paul is not authoring a new political theory or a new philosophy. He is listening to God and a source of God’s revelation: the disadvantaged, the oppressed, and the poor. The ministry of God on earth is oriented around caring for the least of these, and this is what authors Paul’s motivation for rewriting the social order in his churches. It is essentially that we see the political consequences of Christianity, without reducing Christianity to a political movement. Why is this important? Because political movements are of the world, too, and though sometimes we find wisdom in worldly political movements, our faith is much deeper than that, and I think we need to emphasize that this reordering happens within us, outside of us, and across our society. It is something mere politics can’t solve.
But more than that, if we make it strictly about politics, we not only dull our prophecy into practicality, we might make it seem that we are just having competing political ideas instead of revelation from God about antiracist action. Too often, Christians who are opposed to racism, are uncomfortable making another political commitment because they believe the church should be “apolitical,” or they think political pluralism or a “third way” is a holy approach to bringing about God’s righteousness, or God’s justice, as it is better translated.
The Gospel has manifest political consequences, but those consequences aren’t based on political abstractions, they are based on the lived experiences of the body of Christ, united in mission, undoing the ways of racism (and other forms of power-based hatred). So to undo the patterns of the world and to renew our minds requires deep political commitments, not moderation, or an effort to unite people of different political commitments without any transformation on their mind. We need to make much more material the political consequences of our faith, instead of less so.
Not only is it racism that is of this world, but it is the effort of united enemies without any repentance that is of the world. The discomfort that we feel after we hear a prophetic word is to be used to motivate our action. It must disturb us. If we try to reduce that disturbance through moderation or through passivity, we’ll have missed the fervor of the Gospel and the conviction of Paul. If we try to be united across political differences without caring for the least of these, we will be united people whose political commitments are merely a matter of personal interest of hobby. In other words, people’s whose political commitments have no material consequence. So who does that unite when it comes to antiracism? White people. And that project is a white supremacist one. It leaves out the victims of racialized politics, namely, people of color. If we want to resist the patterns of this world, we need to truly include victims of racism in our faith, in our tradition, and in our theology.