CELEBRATING A HEALTHY NON-CONFORMITY
Romans 12: 1-13
JULY 2, 2006
We are about to celebrate the birth of this nation. Much could be said about the distaste of tyranny, about mad King George, and the struggle for independence. More suitable to our gathering here this morning as we prepare for the Lord’s Supper, would be to celebrate a healthy non-conformity, to reflect on the religious freedom for which our ancestors died and which we, in our own time, are called on to reaffirm.
The attainment of these freedoms centers around the persons and ministry of particular people who stand out in the development of our story as a Baptist community. Yet I find myself alternately proud and embarrassed to be a Baptist, mostly glad I am an American Baptist, but troubled to see how society at large thinks of Baptists. To many people the name Baptist indicates intolerance and narrowness. The Southern Baptist Convention embarrasses us frequently and I am struck by how many novels assume a Baptist stereotype, either in the heredity or the family connections of characters, or sometimes as major characters, but nearly always as an oddity, an aberration in the human community, and frequently a target for ridicule. Part of the reason for this is that some who take the name Baptist in modern times exhibit an intolerance and a judgemental attitude towards all others, and this sadly in the name of a community born in a spirit of tolerance.
It is, however, no accident that in the city of Providence in Rhode Island, two of the oldest religious meeting houses in the country were established not far from each other: the meeting house of the First Baptist Church in America and the earliest Jewish synagogue in the New World. The special interest of this story is that the Jewish congregation was tolerated in that city when others would have nothing to do with them. Providence as a city was established by Roger Williams, the exile from Salem, Massachusetts. Banished by the General Court in 1635 for teaching dangerous Baptist opinions which he had inherited from England and Holland, he founded the the city of Providence and the first Baptist congregation on American soil. So later, that city of many Baptists was the more tolerant of those whom many others hatefully rejected under the dark title of “Christ killers”. This rapprochement of two diverse peoples, Baptists and Jews, characterizes the attitude of those committed to the building of a free society where religious tolerance would prevail. The irony hidden in this story is that so soon after the founding of the Massachusetts Bay colony by non-conformists from England, these Boston authorities could not tolerate in their midst a man like Roger Williams who would not conform. He was different from, and critical of, their establishment and they saw no other option than to ostracise him, the result of which was his departure into the forbidding countryside and his bare survival through the hospitality of the Narragansett Indians. Providentially, these Native Americans enabled the freedoms to survive which a century later Baptists helped contribute to the birth of the new nation.
Today we give God thanks for the heritage of freedom which the founders guarded, and transmitted, with such wisdom and such vigor. We need to acknowledge the deep relationships between the political initiative of 1776 here in America and the events which are known as the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation in Europe. The prominent people in the Reformation, according to mainstream history, were Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, Phillip Melanchton, John Knox, and perhaps a few others. There were lesser known reformers who parted company with Luther and Calvin, the so-called radical reformers, to whom we trace our spiritual ancestry more directly, like the Swiss Anabaptists. Men like Conrad Grebel, John Denck, Michael Sattler, some of them ordained priests of the Roman Church, felt that Luther did not go far enough. They rejected the state church concept perpetuated by Luther and Calvin, and called for the separation of church and state. Like John Smyth later in England and Holland they affirmed the priesthood of all believers, soul liberty, and autonomy of the local congregation. We may celebrate the fourth of July as a day of independence from what was .perceived as English tyranny but as a Christian congregation we should also celebrate the theological freedoms which lie behind those achievements and our own history.
We need to be vigilant and vocal. We cannot take lightly those principles for which our ancestors struggled to create a better world, and for which many died, often at the hands of other religious people.
John Bunyan, a non-conforming Baptist in the1600s, spent much of his life in Bedford Gaol. His book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, is peopled with numerous characters he observed in life, such as Mr Worldly Wiseman, Mr Legality, Mr Civility, and Mr Hypocrisy. When the pilgrim’s friend, Faithful, is before the court those elected to the jury include Mr High Mind, Mr Live-loose, Mr Enmity, and Mr Hate Light. Later the reader meets Lord Fairspeech and Mr Facing-Both-Ways. All this may seem pedestrian to the modern mind, or even naive, but in a licentious age marked by wide disregard for the values of character, of personal integrity, John Bunyan still reminds us of life’s needed qualities.
When William Carey, the young lay-pastor of a Baptist Church in Leicester, England, unburdened himself at a ministers’ meeting in 1790 about taking the Gospel to India an older minister spoke out and said: “Sit down young man. When God wants to convert the heathen hell do it without your help or mine.” So spoke a Calvinist who believed God was honored by such a harsh theology. But Carey refused to conform to this rigidity and finally gained support to go to India. It was he who baptized Adoniram Judson, the heroic young man from Massachusetts, who labored long years in Burma as the founding missionary there.
When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865, Walter Rauschenbusch was five years old. Throughout his life he carried a vivid memory of the shock which his family experienced on that terrible day. In adulthood he became Professor of Social Ethics at Colgate Rochester Divinity School. He died in 1918, the year when World War I finished. He was the son of a German Baptist missionary to the German migrants pouring into the United States in the late 19th century. Sixth in the line of succession of ministers in the Rauschen-busch family, he became the architect of what was to be known as the Social Gospel, a term often misunderstood and misused. He offered for foreign mission service but was not accepted, and he finally became the pastor of the small, struggling congregation of the Second Baptist Church in NYC, situated in the jungle of that city which was known as Hell’s Kitchen. As he struggled with theological and pastoral concerns he was convinced that the church must address the issues of unemployment, malnutrition, lack of medical care, and the vicious circle of crime and evil that stalked the streets of those dreadful slums. His work gave him insights into the breeding of these social evils. Remaining firmly rooted in his Christian background, he developed his theology of social concern to address the entrenched evils of society. He was no ivory-towered theologian; he remembered his youthful summers when he had worked in Pennsylvania and from this he drew a homely illustration. Attacking the evil of the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few he wrote: “Wealth is to a nation what manure is to a farm. If the farmer spreads it evenly over the soil it will enrich the whole. If he should leave it in heaps, the land would be impoverished and under the rich heaps the vegetation would be killed.” You can’t get a much more down-to-earth illustration than that! It will be 100 years next year (1907) since his ground-breaking book, Christianity and the Social Crisis, was published.
Jesus was the greatest non-conformist amid the religious rigidity of his day. Perhaps the greatest non-conformist of our time was Martin Luther King Jr., the black American Baptist minister who resolutely refused to accept the status quo in a racist America, and in 1968 gave up his life for the freedom of his people, as his Lord and ours had done.
In one form or another some of these same issues trouble us still but tend to be dwarfed by war and terrorism. Our celebration must always be tempered by sober thought and calculated support of issues in which Baptists have led the way. One most important initiative of Baptists today is The Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. Its Baptist Peacemaker magazine and the peace camps foster the development of a culture of peace in a world pre-occupied with and acculturated to violence in a multitude of forms. We do not conform to this world; nor should we conform to threatening power structures which appear from time to time in the institutions of politics and religion.
The Mennonites in Holland became the new face of the Anabaptist movement after the first wave of persecution had eliminated the Swiss Brethren.
What an irony it is that we have been stereotyped as narrow, intolerant, and inhospitable, when historically we came into being standing for quite the opposite
As we share the bread and the cup today we celebrate the freedom we have in Jesus Christ and affirm that, while we differ in various ways, ALL who confess his Lordship belong to us and we to them.