This week in church, we discussed the transfiguration. I’m not going to go into that topic, because it’s complex and honestly difficult to talk about BUT it did get me thinking about the idea of transformation within a Christian context, and especially within the context of how those transformations ought to work today.
When I think about transformation within the pages of Scripture, I am hard pressed to find a story that does not involve transformation being coupled with actions, and often actions that disrupt entire societies and belief systems. Moses, after his encounter with God at the burning bush and subsequent spiritual transformation, is not passive. Rather, he goes and uses the impact of God’s change in his life to literally disrupt the social and economic structure of an entire civilization. He frees millions of people from slavery, and he stands up repeatedly to one of the most powerful individuals of his day, demanding that they let his people go. His shift from nomadic shepherd into God-appointed leader does not leave room for the status quo to remain the way it was.
No, God demands radical changes, not only of Moses, but of the entire socio-political landscape of Egypt. The transformation of a single individual triggers a landslide of freedom and promise for the people of Israel, but, at the same time, of terrifying and what must have been incredibly uncomfortable changes for those individuals who held institutional power.
Later on, in the New Testament, the transformation of the disciples after encountering the Gospel of Jesus Christ does not mean that they become acceptable to governing powers, either religious or secular. They instead challenge what were thought to be traditional beliefs about God and the Messiah, preaching that the Kingdom of God was not a militaristic endeavor, but rather a spiritual community on earth that transcended boundaries of ethnicity and culture, and welcomed into its numbers those whom the Jewish religious elite taught were unclean based on religious doctrine that had been passed down for hundreds of years.
The transformation of the disciples by means of the Gospel was not a comfortable one. They found themselves, as a result of their associations with Jesus, in places that they did not necessarily think were acceptable for proper Jewish individuals. They found themselves in the homes of tax collectors and well known prostitutes; even among their own number were people who might have been labelled vagrants or low-lifes. The Gospel took them into spaces where they would have previously avoided, disrupting the limits of acceptability, as well as overturning long-held traditions and prejudices.
It is for these reasons that I believe the Church is failing to fully embrace the transformation that the Gospel brings. What I see happening in Churches today does not line up with either of these stories.
In my experience, churches seek to create good citizens. They delight in conformity, both of ideology and of ethnicity, sexuality and cultural background. Transformations are not framed as we see in scripture: there the body of christ moves outwards, breaking down boundaries and corrupt systems of governments. Personal testimonies do not describe the revolutionizing of ideas and the questioning of corrupt governance or injustice. No, they describe people who were once different, and now have become just like the people who surround them.
Transformations in the Church today delight in a homogenous Body. Rather than leaving our comfort zones and entering into the homes and communities of those who are different, and who our societies perceive as dirty or dangerous or bad news, delighting in the differences that each of you brings to the table, the Church provides an opportunity for individuals to become just like everyone else in a space. But if they do not hold the same beliefs, live the same lives and act just like everyone around them, they are ostracized.
The Church should not create good citizens. The Church should not work in the service of oppressive power structures. The Church, I believe, should be a place where social norms are disrupted, and standards of acceptable are thrown away in favour of a community that celebrates the diversity of its congregants and which shares in the pain and hurt of those who enter into that community. The Church should create citizens that challenge the status quo, and question long held beliefs. The Church should facilitate transformations that are not only irritating to those who are in positions of power, but which, like Moses, are destructive to societies that uphold oppression. The Church should be seen as a threat to unjust governance, and NOT its greatest supporter. The Church should be dangerous to the nation state that upholds the rights of some people above others.
God does not transform people into individuals who maintain the status quo. Saul did not undergo his transformation into Paul so that he could continue murdering Christians. The impact of the burning bush was not to bring Moses into a place of comfortable privilege, but to demand that Pharaoh let his people go. The Gospel’s impact cannot be one that allows people to be thrown out of the Church because of disagreements about the morality of their sexual identity. It cannot be one that defends a justice system that refuses to condemn a white man’s actions because of the prejudice that system holds against black and first nations people. It cannot be one that refuses to see the value of what women have to say.