If you know me (really really know me), you’d know I tend towards cynicism with the church in general, because so often we have lost our way and done (and continue to do) some really twisted things that makes criticism and charges of hypocrisy completely legitimate. But I harbor small strands of hope that find examples of a compelling and different lifestyle from time to time, and it helps to share them.
This specific example comes from a fellow well known in Church of the Brethren circles named John Kline. This man was a powerful example of Christian discipleship whose life was lived amidst the struggles of moral ambiguity in slavery and the Civil War. Kline maintained that slavery was wholly immoral and gave his life equally for slaves and the white folk who owned them, while also rejecting the enormous pressure exerted by both the Unionists and Confederates during the Civil War to join ranks with either side. He lived in Broadway and was shaped profoundly by Linville Creek Church there to live a life of radical love and discipleship; when you consider the lives of folks who emerged as leaders from there (M.R. Zigler and others), the place was a seedbed in the 19th and early 20th centuries for revolutionary commitment to Christ.
The quote I’m about to write becomes even more deeply meaningful when the reality that John Kline was murdered by a Confederate hit squad becomes apparent. I found this quote in a history book;
It may be that the sin of holding three millions of human beings under the galling yoke of involuntary servitude has, like the bondage of Israel in Egypt, sent a cry to heaven for Vengeance, a cry that has now reached the ear of God. I bow my head in prayer…secession means war, and war means tears and ashes and blood. It means bonds and imprisonments and perhaps even death to many in our Brotherhood (Brethren church), who I have the confidence to believe will die rather than disobey God by taking arms.
– John Kline 1861
It’s encouraging to me to find lives like Kline’s. He knew slavery was a moral outrage, but that violent means to resolve that outrage was not consistent with a lifestyle of following Jesus. He was a product of a community in the Old German Baptist Brethren that drafted a statement in 1797 that “It was considered good, and also concluded unanimously, that no brother or sister should have negroes as slaves; and in case a brother or sister had such, he or she was to set them free.” Not only that, but the full proclamation was made in 1835 that African-Americans should be fully included in church membership if they so desired; as equals!
These sorts of actions were wildly unpopular and caused these folks to be boycotted and harassed by their fellow citizens, but they stood their ground and exemplified in word and deed a lifestyle radically different than those around them; including other Christians who justified holding other human beings as property. Examples like this should help us understand people like Stanley Hauerwas, who said,
“Christianity is not beliefs about God plus behavior. We are Christians not because of what we believe, but because we have been called to be disciples of Jesus. To become a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding, but rather to become part of a different community with a different set of practices.”
That quote, from a superb, convicting article called “Discipleship as Craft, Church as Disciplined Community,” illustrates that the communities we are a part of have the power to deeply shape our lifestyles, and if we are to claim to be Christians, we have two levels of submission to go through before we assert our individuality; the first, to Christ as Lord (which fundamentally dethrones any other who would claim to be Lord), and the second, to the church as the community Jesus set up. After that, and only after that, can we recognize our individual contribution as members living in submission. And even in that, we submit to those who have walked the path of discipleship longer than we, committing to sit, listen, and learn from them before we dare to even open our mouths and suggest we know a thing. This is unpopular, and it gets tricky when and if one’s primary community loses its foundation as a disciplined community of followers of Jesus, but we should err on the side of community rather than individuality.