“Eccentric” is a dangerous word. It can mean odd or erratic. In the field of astronomy, it means “deviating from a circular form.” Oh, that more people today might deviate from circular forms of thinking and politics!
A danger in America’s politically divided culture is not being able to think outside the lines already drawn for us by politicians, lobbyists and even corporations. Deviation is dangerous. It’s one of the reasons why practically nothing worthwhile gets done in today’s divided Congress.
The great British philosopher John Stewart Mill (1806-1873) long ago warned of the dangers posed by a monoculture: “The amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time” (italics mine).
We live in a dangerous time, and perhaps when we fail to think for ourselves we are contributing to the downfall of society itself. I find that following Christ always leads to deviating from culture, no matter the decade or century.
One of the foundational freedoms Baptists traditionally embrace is soul freedom, that is, the freedom every human inherently possesses to relate freely to God. When we live out this freedom in its fullness, the church becomes an eccentric organization, unlike the rest of culture.
But do we truly believe in such freedom?
True freedom, by default, brings eccentricity. At one point, Baptists themselves were viewed as an eccentric people. In the American colonies, their scandalous beliefs included the notions that the king did not answer on behalf of the citizenry to God, that the government should have no right to define which marriages were legitimate and which were not, and that people of all faiths and no faith should be equally free.
“We Baptists have too often handed our conscience over to political leaders in our quest to become earthly king-makers.”
In contemporary society, we Baptists have too often handed our conscience over to political leaders in our quest to become earthly king-makers. Perhaps the identity of “dissenter” is, for many, too great a burden. Consider that synonyms for “dissent” include opposition, protest and resistance. Instead of embracing a heritage of dissent, however, many Baptists today seek the opposite. Antonyms for dissent include approval, conformity and endorsement.
As often as we Baptists seek the approval of “kings” and power brokers, we show disdain for our own heritage, including forebears who were locked up, beaten and even killed for daring to dissent. In seeking validation and sanction from politicians, Baptists of all stripes have ceded their own power and prophetic voice. Interestingly, the word “approval” can also mean “confirmation.” Confirmation isn’t a thing in most Baptist churches. It’s worth asking, however: do we seek confirmation from God’s Spirit and the body of Christ or do we desire a lesser blessing?
When we Baptists, for fear of rejection, choose the ease of conformity with political parties, with the new cultural norms of meanness and divisiveness, or even with our own religious family, we accommodate ourselves to the world instead of “accommodating the world to Christ” (in the words of Stanley Hauerwas). What if the world cannot be harmonized with the radical love of Christ?
Conformity also means compliance. When faced with the hatred and sin in our culture, will Baptists comply with culture or with the teachings of Christ? Part of the reason NFL player protests are so controversial to some is that the players have failed to comply. They, perhaps, are modern dissenters. Do we Baptists today count ourselves among the dissenters?
Some Baptist pastors even endorse political leaders and parties (on the left and right). Instead of cherishing our heritage and our freedom, these pastors would squander it. Another word for endorse is “witness.” That some do not see the trouble with the church bearing witness to worldly leaders instead of Jesus Christ is itself deeply troubling. Perhaps more Christians, particularly evangelicals, would grasp this if we simply replaced the word “endorsement” with “witness.” It seems simple enough that Christians would only witness in the name of Jesus, but in our culture (which some wrongly claim to be a Christian one) witnessing in Jesus’ name alone is increasingly seen as eccentric – ironically not by the most progressive Christians, but by the most fundamentalist.
It’s time to rediscover the eccentric nature of religious freedom and the eccentric nature of dissent. That is what it means to be Christian. That is what it means to be Baptist.