Every movement, every artist, every organization changes over time. Michael Jordan stopped dunking from the free throw line and began perfecting his fadeaway jump shot. Bob Dylan spent the 1960s morphing from a folk prodigy to an electric-guitar-wielding-hipster-genius. Apple discontinued the Newton and poured their energy into developing products people actually wanted to buy. The U.S. Civil Rights Movement wound its way from abolitionism to Jim Crow laws to eradicating “separate but equal” to the continued battle against systemic racism today.
While it’s possible to accuse changing movements, artists, and organizations of selling out or straying from their roots, the reality is much more nuanced than that: Change is a necessary component of staying true to one’s core identity.
As a synthesis of Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan traditions, the Brethren in Christ have always enjoyed a diverse, dynamic theological identity informing our lives and convictions. And yet, since the very beginning, we’ve held a commitment to peace and nonviolence central to the way we understand our collective ethos and contribution to the broader Church.
The problem is that most discussions about peace today feel like we’re reading from the same old, dog-eared script. We’ll move from exegetical disagreement over Matthew 5 and Romans 12–13 to discussing Israel’s violent conquests in the Old Testament to disagreeing over why Jesus never asked a Roman solider to change his vocation. Many of us will move the conversation to the realm of pragmatism: What if someone breaks into your house? What if your children are at risk? What if you have the opportunity to save dozens of innocent lives through violent force? Invariably, Hitler will be mentioned.
What would it look like for the BIC to change the way we think and talk about peace, precisely because we’re committed to it?
Perhaps it’s time we reimagine this discussion as one that's cosmic in scope, reaching beyond a handful of proof-texts to the entire canon of Scripture. Perhaps it’s time to dig deeper than a defense of pacifism and instead articulate a sincere conviction that the entire Christian story is a pilgrimage leaving no room for bloodshed at its final destination.
It’s important we talk about peace, not because it serves as some helpful ideal, but because, I believe, it reflects our foundational views of the Divine.
So first I’d like to say a bit about Trinity, then a few words about trajectory, then offer some thoughts on where we go from here. We’re headed deep, but hang with me, we’re on this journey together.
Revealing the Triune God
The understanding of God as Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is foundationally important to our Christian faith, yet so often ignored or unintentionally disregarded. In his book The Trinity, Karl Rahner once lamented, “Should the doctrine of the Trinity be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain unchanged.”1
However, a greater understanding of the Trinity should lead us into greater understanding of God’s heart and character. And a greater understanding of God’s heart and character should ultimately inform the ways we think about peace and nonviolence.
For all eternity, the Trinity has existed as a dynamic community, an endless outpouring of love between three Persons. While salvation in the Christian tradition is many things, perhaps it is most importantly a righting of relationship with God—an invitation to enter into the flow of this Triune love.2
From the beginning, this Triune God has revealed His character through creation. The Scriptures declare, “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible . . . all things have been created through him and for him . . . and in him all things hold together.”3 Every star, every planet, and every molecule in existence is, in some way, evidence of God’s decision to show God’s self. Manifesting Himself in physical time and space, the Christ revelation is God incarnate, taking up residence in human flesh as a man named Jesus who was born in Bethlehem and murdered in Jerusalem.
When we proclaim the name of Jesus Christ—affirming Jesus as Christ—we’re actually making two distinct faith statements: 1) Christ has been revealing Himself since the beginning of the universe, with all creation testifying to God’s presence and every human bearing His image; and, 2) Jesus came and lived among us so we could see Him, touch Him, hear Him, and fall in love with Him.4
If this is true, we might expect to find passages in Scripture indicating that what we do to others, we do to Jesus. That how we treat those society calls “least” is how we treat Jesus. That visiting others in prison, clothing the cold, filling hungry bellies, and loving our enemies are, in some mysterious way, actions ultimately directed toward Christ as much as toward people.
And, interestingly, Jesus teaches this exact truth.5
When we profess Jesus Christ as Lord, we affirm the Triune God who invites us to treat others with the dignity and value appropriate for a creation made in His image. It would seem, then, that how we regard the creation says a great deal about our perception of the Creator.
The Unraveling Mystery
The mystery of the Trinity is revealed to us slowly in the Scriptures. As the Early Church wrestled with this mystery, it was the ultimate revelation of Trinity through Jesus that led our church fathers and mothers to abandon their violent pasts.
Hebrews teaches us that while God had spoken “to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways,” in this last epoch of history “he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.”6
The idea that God exists as a three-in-one Being who loves us enough to enter bodily into our suffering was completely new for Israelites and first-century believers. It wasn’t just that Jesus came with new or more information about God, He came as the exact representation of God, discarding at long last much of the shadowy mystery that had obscured His character. And as the exact representation of this Triune God, he challenged prior, often inaccurate understandings of His character—ushering them into the Triune relationship they were created to participate in from the very beginning.
Like the first-century church, we have much to learn about peace from the Triune God most fully revealed in Jesus. As Christians living in the United States in the twenty-first century, one of our dominant cultural narratives has been one of redemptive violence—you hurt me, now I have the right to hurt you. Yet, by manifesting Himself in the person of Jesus and giving Himself over to the evil and violence of this world, Christ completely turns this narrative upside down, introducing us instead to the narrative of redemptive suffering: that the never-ending seesaw of back-and-forth violence only reaps destruction, but the world changes when we suffer on behalf of one another.
What we find in Scriptures is a Christ continually beckoning us toward Him, which means appealing to the Old Testament to justify violence is literally moving backward in the narrative.
I spent the first twenty-nine years of my life slowly making my way toward the Brethren in Christ. Though I found Christ as a teenager, I nearly walked away from Christianity in my early twenties because I wasn’t convinced the Jesus I had been handed as a child had anything unique to offer a world in need. It was ultimately a ravishing picture of Christ, pointing me toward the Triune God of love and peace, that brought me back to the fold.
Though I didn’t grow up in the Brethren in Christ, I landed here because this denomination provided a safe place to practice an unsafe faith—exemplifying profound obedience to a subversive Jesus through a life of transformation, simplicity, and peace. I fell in love with this community and continue to fall in love with the Jesus our theology presents.
In an interview about his book Paul and the Faithfulness of God, author and theologian N. T. Wright explains, “. . . theology is a never-ending exploration—each generation has to do it afresh in its own context . . .”7 For over 200 years, the Brethren in Christ have borne witness to the holistic peace of God’s kingdom. We must ask ourselves now: Will we continue to think afresh about our historic peace witness, or will we allow it to slip away as a distinct contribution to the greater Church body?
Brothers and sisters, may we see our peace witness as a signpost pointing to the Triune God.
May we, in the midst of evil and violence and despair, choose to illuminate a God who has much to offer a broken, hurting world.
And may we enter into the flow, joining with the Christ bringing forth a new creation right here in the midst of this one.
1 Bloomsbury Academic, 2001, p. 10–11
2 John 17:20–21
3 Colossians 1:15–17
4 Articles of Faith and Doctrine, Articles II and IV
5 Matthew 25:40
6 Hebrews 1:1–4