In this post I want to explore the concept of “brutal unity”, which I came across in Matthew Shedden’s brief review of Ephraim Radner’s A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church. In his book, Radner writes:
“In this life that is God’s, any Anglican—or Roman Catholic or Methodist or Lutheran—can be a Pentecostal; any Catholic Protestant can be an evangelical Protestant; any member of one church can be a member of another that has separated from the first; any Roman Catholic can be a Protestant. Any Christian can do this not because standards of truth have been cast away but because the standards can be suffered, in their very contradiction by the place where he or she will go with Jesus.” (p. 447, italics added)
unpacking the concept of “the standards can be suffered”
First, what is meant by standards? The term “standards” is used to refer to a range of things believed at a theological or philosophical level: doctrines, statements of faith, liturgical confessions, dogma, religious beliefs, and so on. Moral standards would be included, but as used here, the term does not refer to facts and figures.
Secondly, the term “can be suffered” is not about denying, ignoring or giving up one's standards. Instead, it is about giving the standards second place, laying them down for the sake of one's calling and the community, emptying oneself of the need to hold tightly and insistently to standards as if they are our salvation when they are not. Our salvation is in Jesus Christ who "made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:5-8). Does this mean we change our beliefs or decide that they are irrelevant? No. But we put them second to the greater calling we have, for unity and the community. Because Radner’s use of the word “suffered” is not common, our discussion here will often substitute terms such as “set aside”, “put second”, and so on.
Third, “the place where he or she will go with Jesus” will be understood here as either a calling to a particular church or community, or general involvement with a particular church or community, and will often be referred to as “church” or “community” for the sake of simplicity.
part of daily life
It may seem that putting aside standards is something we do regularly, and in fact we do. In almost all areas of life, we are in relationships with those who have different beliefs and values than we do. And we readily put our standards to the side to be in relationship with them, and they make their standards secondary to a relationship with us. That doesn’t mean we reject our beliefs; it does mean that we reject the tendency to allow differences to bring indifference or enmity between us.
Let’s start with a simple example. In many churches, the members represent a wide range of political affiliations. People might feel quite strongly about their political views, yet these do not impede or impact the unity of the community. In other words, people do not see a difference in political views as being a barrier to friendships and relationships. That’s how it is in Canada for the most part, both in churches and in other areas of life.
It can also be more of a one-sided setting aside of the standard if we become part of a community which has a different standard from us in a particular area. This happens often enough and we may not even think much about it, as when it comes down to it. We typically value relationships above many of our beliefs. This is common for many of the lesser beliefs and ideas we have.
An example of this could be a person who believes in infant baptism attending a church that does not. This would be an easy standard to set aside for a person who is not planning on giving birth in the upcoming years. However, if she is a minister called to serve that church, it could be a harder standard to suffer.
Where it gets brutal is when we have standards which matter very much to us and which we perhaps have held for a long time, which we choose to give second place to and lay aside for the sake of the community or our calling. That is the focus of exploration in this article.
one’s first call is to the ecclesial life
In Shedden’s post, he talks about the importance of knowing that one's "first call [is] not to the right doctrine but to the ecclesial life with the very people whom he was connected with." He gives this illustration from his own life: When he was being ordained as a minister, he was asked about upholding the Confessions and Standards of that denomination, and relates that this was difficult for him because his faith journey had taken him through many different denominations – Presbyterian, Southern Baptist, Episcopalian, and so on, and it seems that some of the standards from previous churches may have resonated more with him. In other words, a person who has seen and experienced many different denominations and churches, might find that their views do not coincide with the views of the church they are called to or end up in, but for the sake of that calling and that community, they “let the standards be suffered” – the suffered standards here being their own.
For those of us who are not in the clergy, we can understand this as follows: our first call is not to the right doctrine but to the men and women and children with whom God has connected us in this life and whom He brings across our path.
Some people will disagree completely with the idea of “letting one’s standards be suffered” – they value their beliefs and doctrines and feel that they would be compromising if they put them aside. They are of course free to choose such a priority. However, I think that there is something key in the idea of “letting the standards be suffered” – key but easy to dismiss, especially if coming from western Christianity where we are used to power and to certainty of belief and where doubt is bad (in other words, what we believe is absolutely true, those who believe differently from us are wrong, and those with questions or doubts are not standing firm on the gospel).
I will refer to this concept of letting the standards that really matter to us be suffered or put second for the sake of calling, unity and community using Radner’s term “brutal unity”. Brutal in that we “give up and give away parts of ourselves” (Radner, p. 1), making sacrifices and losing our lives for the sake of the One we follow and for the good of our brothers and sisters. Brutal in that it is hard to lay down the doctrines and beliefs we have been taught and sometimes have been clinging to all our lives, even when it is for the kingdom. Unity in that we are one with our brothers and sisters in Christ and we value unity and fellowship with them above beliefs and differences in belief. Unity in valuing the overall and greater good of the community at the cost of certain beliefs and practices.
can all standards be suffered, or laid down?
Can all standards be put second? Or should some standards not be set aside? This begs the question of which standards are essential to our faith. For example, Jesus’ death on the cross for the redemption of all is an essential part of the Christian faith – without it there wouldn’t be anything left. Which hymnal to use is not. And between these two, are a whole range of things which can be disputed in terms of how essential they are to being a Christian. Each person or community will likely find some easy to decide and others difficult to decide, but each must decide where they will draw the line between what is non-negotiable and what is able to be set aside.
In considering the question of whether some standards should be held onto rather than set aside for the sake of unity, the impact of the standard on the dignity of others is another key determinant. Does a standard uphold people’s dignity, or does it undermine it? To uphold a person’s dignity is to treat them with respect and worth, and to ensure that they are treated justly regardless of who they are. Accordingly, a standard undermines a person’s dignity when it advocates or results in the person being treated as second-class or less than human. An example of this is when beliefs about race resulted in members of one race being enslaved and treated like animals by members of another, and again post-slavery when members of that race were treated as second-class. Another example would be a group of people not having a voice because there is something about them that is seen as unacceptable by those in power.
Some standards are abstract and do not have a direct impact on people. For example, beliefs about the end times or forms of baptism do not undermine anyone’s dignity, and can be given up for the sake of one’s calling or belonging to a community. Of course, even such standards will influence our world view and can indirectly impact the dignity of others, but this is not our focus here.
Other standards have a direct impact on other people because they usually influence or determine the actions of the person who holds them. Based on what I believe, I treat someone a certain way -- well or badly, respectfully or ignorantly, kindly or cruelly. It is very possible to disagree with someone and yet treat them fairly and respectfully, but this is less frequently observed in life.
the dignity of persons is not negotiable
As a general principle, “I can choose to put aside and make secondary ideas and beliefs that are important to me and even sacrifice myself, but I may not sacrifice other people.” The dignity of persons is not negotiable, and one should not lay down ones standards if the result is that the dignity of another person is undermined.
An extreme example of standards directly impacting other people would be white people who believe in white supremacy, and therefore treat all non-whites as inferior, prohibiting them from taking part in their community and mistreating them in other ways. As white supremacist beliefs undermine the dignity of people, I should not set aside my belief in equality and in God’s love for all in order to be part of such a church.
Having said that, I am hesitant to make a hard and fast rule about it. It is possible that God might call someone who believes in equality, to be part of a white supremacist church. I don’t know why He might, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be that person. It might not even be clear at the time of calling, but if God is truly calling a person to do this, it would be right to go. The dignity of persons can be impacted at an individual level as well as at a group level. For example, a church event is planned and the invitation is given for all to attend. You subsequently hear that those planning the event do not want a certain person to attend. You know her, and see no reason as to why she should be excluded. While the standard here is not so much a matter of dogma or theological beliefs, it is still a matter of the church holding to a certain “standard” as to who can attend and who can’t, and in this case, it is undermining the dignity of a specific person. Do you go to the event yourself, ignoring the fact that someone else is unjustly excluded? Do you address the matter with the planners, or take some other action? This is where brutal unity at a deeper level might be helpful. As situations can vary from clear-cut to complex, we need to rely on God’s spirit to lead us in cases where the path we should take is not obvious, and to be open to hearing His redirection even in cases where the answer does seem obvious.
what do we do when the standards of a community undermine the dignity of others?
If we are considering joining a community and learn that some of its standards undermine the dignity of others, it would make sense not to join it. This can be an easy decision, as we are not likely to be drawn to something which does not align well with our standards. Other times, it can be a harder decision. For example, if friends or family are inviting us to be part of that community, or if a church has a lot of good things happening, it can be tempting to overlook or minimize how some of its standards undermine the dignity of some people. The exception to not joining would be if God is clearly calling us to go there regardless, in which case it would be good to have brothers and sisters confirm that this is God’s calling for us as it is easy for our hearts to deceive us as to our motives.
brutal unity at a deeper level
What happens when we are already part of a church community, and that community heads down a path which – at least from where we stand – will result in the dignity of persons being undermined? That’s when a more radical form of brutal unity can be appropriate: Instead of setting our standards aside for the sake of the community, we sacrifice our relationship with the existing community for the sake of those whose dignity is threatened, and stand in solidarity with them.
This would be particularly appropriate if the standards of the church community, as reflected in their decisions and actions, were resulting in actual members or attendees being disrespected and therefore leaving. In such a case, our unity with those whose dignity is undermined is obvious if we also leave and stand with them in solidarity outside of the church. One might be tempted to think that a church is less likely to undermine the dignity of people who are already part of it. However, the treatment of women in churches is a prime example where this kind of undermining has taken place. Some might consider this a poor example, as one doesn’t tend to see a mass exodus of women from churches which do not treat them with dignity. However, there are cases where a church which does not allow women to teach or lead, goes through a time of reconsidering this position only to reaffirm it again, and as a result, women who had been hopeful for change leave the church. This is where male members who affirm the equality of women and men might choose to leave the church as well in order to stand in unity with the women whose dignity is undermined. Or, to carry on the church event example, someone might choose to not attend in order to spend the time with the person who is not permitted to attend. This is indeed brutal, and applicable whether or not others within the church are being undermined. Whereas in the earlier discussion, the brutal unity was brutal to ourselves (in that we put aside standards which are important to us) and possibly unknown to others, this level of brutal unity is more public – we leave the community and we stand with those who are oppressed. It might mean that friends no longer talk to us, or that some form of church discipline is proposed against us.
deeper yet again
There are times when we need lay aside our standard in order to be in unity with others. There are times when the standards of a community undermine the dignity of others, and we need to leave the community to stand in unity with those whose dignity is undermined. There are still other situations when a church’s standards undermine the dignity of others, even though few or none of these others are part of the church community. The standards still undermine dignity in this case – for not only does the church send a message out to those around it as to who has worth and who does not, but members carry the message into their daily lives and live it out in their relationships with others.
What do we do in such situations? We could leave and stand in unity with some of those whose dignity is being undermined, even though they have no previous or current relationship with the church in question. That would be one response. To carry on from the previous example of a church that has again chosen not to allow women to teach or lead, male members could choose to stand in unity with women who have been undermined by staying in the church and declining to teach or lead until women are also allowed to do so.
This is yet a deeper level of brutal unity. To look at it more broadly, it takes place when primarily for the sake of those whose dignity is being undermined and secondarily for the sake of the church’s spiritual health, we keep our standard yet stay in the church as those who stand for dignity and against undermining. We stand as visible reminders of those who are excluded, advocates for them, and catalysts for change. We are agents of heterogeneity in the face of the homogenous perspective of the leadership and others in power. This is the third level of brutal unity. It might sound grandiose but it is likely difficult to carry out. Brutal, yet critical for the sake of unity with those who are the least of these, who are at the margins or outside of the camp altogether. Kinda reminds me of Jesus….
rob goetze, february 19, 2013
(click image for larger version)
Read a personal case study of a brutal unity in practice
Disclaimer: I have not read A Brutal Unity myself and make no claim as to how this exploration fits into what Radner is actually writing about. Shortly before posting this article, I did get the book via inter-library loan. However, it is extremely academic and has extensive sections which assume prior knowledge of other writers, philosophies and theologies – so I am just going to skim through it. I may be getting some of what Radner is saying wrong, but my point here is to take Shedden's post about Radner's book as the starting point for thinking and to share where my thoughts went from there.
Proclaimer: if you disagree with the views expressed herein, I will gladly “suffer the standard” of what I write here to be in community with you.
Further reading: The introduction of Radner’s book is viewable online.
Diagram updated on July 16, 2013.