Do Not Conform: Resistance, Christianity, and Power
Growing up in the American Evangelical Church in the late 90s and early 2000s, I thought I was so counter-cultural. I was taught to make a point of how distinctive I was from the other kids in high school. I was a “Jesus freak,” an “alien youth,” part of a “peculiar people” set apart by God. The fruit of this identity was seen in my t-shirts emblazoned with cheeky Christian slogans, my green camouflage “Army of the Lord” Bible carrying case, and my very public prayers in the circle of friends from youth group competing with me for who could face the most ridicule for “not being ashamed of the Gospel.”
Of course, these sorts of things were simply how we marketed ourselves. But our distinctiveness was more than the advertising; there was substance to it. Being counter-cultural meant actively resisting the personal vices of secular culture. We didn’t drink or do drugs. We didn’t have (or think about) sex. We didn’t cuss. And we didn’t listen to music or watch movies in which such things were promoted (or even present). We were counter-cultural in the sense that we were cultural monks, emphasizing personal piety and aesthetic purity. Even at the risk of ridicule, we did not join in the “flood of dissipation;” we did not “conform to the pattern of this world.”
This particular scripture from Romans 12:2 served as a rallying cry for me growing up: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (NIV).
I interpreted the “pattern of this world” to mean lascivious behavior like what the kids on Dawson’s Creek were engaging in. So, to “be transformed by the renewing of my mind” meant blocking out certain content I considered to be impure. God wanted me to keep my temple clean. Garbage in, garbage out. My friends were perfectly content to give into temptation, but I had to rise above it. I had to resist the dominant culture, because that was God’s “good, pleasing, and perfect will.”
As a teenager, I couldn’t see how this idea of resistance could possibly be interpreted in any other way. As I grew into my late twenties, though, this way of “not conforming” started to lose its meaning. I noticed that people stopped caring so much about my personal life choices. For the most part, people I work with have been less concerned with whether I watch R-rated movies and more concerned with whether I’m going to complete my part of a project. It suddenly began to occur to me that my personal piety was not going to make waves in the revolutionary way I had thought it would growing up.
Luckily for me, it was at about this time that I began to explore different aspects of the Christian tradition. When I left fundamentalism and eased my way into a more progressive version of Christianity, “the pattern of this world” suddenly took on an entirely different meaning…
What is the Pattern of this World?
In the 4th Century CE, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great adopted a number of measures that altered the course of Christian history. Up until that point, while many sects were already growing increasingly structured and dogmatic, Christianity had primarily been a disparate group of scrappy worshippers resisting whatever decrees of the state they felt violated the way of Jesus. Constantine came along and changed everything.
First, he legalized Christian worship. Then, he set up the first conference in which orthodox teaching on Christian beliefs was firmly established. Finally, he even oversaw the construction of the Biblical canon that so many Christians today take for granted as having always been there. Then, just decades after his death, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
But that’s not the end of the story. As a matter of fact, there is no end to the story; the story continues today. Since Constantine, Christianity has gone from being a movement in opposition to power to being an institution in alignment with power. From the crusades to colonialism to contemporary American exceptionalism, Christianity has been a strange bedfellow with the same sort of “powers and principalities” of oppression that crucified Jesus in the first place.
Here’s the thing: we were taught growing up in fundamentalist Christianity that we shouldn’t “conform to the pattern of this world.” But what we weren’t taught was the historical reality: that Christianity is the pattern of this world.
Christianity is the dominant culture, at least in my experience as an American. I grew up hearing preachers droning on and on about the moral decay and increasing secularization of society. It never occurred to me that this very argument highlights the fact that Christianity has always been the status quo in America. The paranoia centers around it becoming less influential, indicating that the influence of the faith has always been the norm. Regardless of what the founding fathers actually believed or wrote about in the constitution, culturally speaking, America has always been a Christian nation.
Of course, this historic alignment of Christianity with the state has bred some fairly disturbing affiliations—from the German Church supporting Nazism to the white church in the south supporting Jim Crow laws to the Christian Nationalism of today manifest in the support for Donald Trump.
But the marriage of power and institutional Christianity is bigger than “the state.” It is also manifest in other forms of dominant culture such as racism, capitalism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, classicism, and environmental exploitation. The list goes on and on. Whatever presents itself as the cultural status quo, Christianity is right there with it—shaking hands, making deals, and doing everything it can to “conform to the pattern of this world.”
How to Be a Non-Conformist
So, given the fact that the Christian faith has been so integrated with the powers that be, what should modern-day Christians do about it? The way I see it, we have two options: we can abandon the faith…or we can reclaim it.
Some have abandoned the faith, and that’s fine. The institution of Christianity has failed humanity in so many ways. I cannot fault anyone for giving up on it. I can’t even fault them for faulting me for sticking with it. But for those who want to hold onto the faith, there is another way. We can rekindle that primordial fire within Christianity that made it something worthwhile in the first place. We can reject institutional Christianity and instead go back to living out the essence of the faith found in the Jesus that was executed by those in power.
I don’t mean that we should go back and be like the Church was in the first century. That would not be possible, let alone desirable. Instead, I’m suggesting that we could strive to be what the church might have become had it not been co-opted by the Roman Empire. I’m suggesting we reclaim that prophetic and subversive message in Jesus that calls for liberation of the oppressed and resistance to power structures. I’m suggesting that we go back to being the counter-cultural non-conformists that fundamentalist Christians think they already are.
In Trouble I’ve Seen, theologian and activist Drew G.I. Hart brilliantly dismantles the systemic racism of the contemporary American church. Among other things, he calls out the tendency for white Christians throughout American history to excuse themselves of their racist ideas on the basis of “that’s just the way people thought at the time.” In other words, Christians can’t be held responsible for their racist beliefs and practices—they were just “conforming to the pattern of this world.” Indeed, Hart alludes to the Romans 12:2 passage directly to drive his point home:
“Being a product of one’s own time doesn’t absolve anyone. We are all people of our time. We either renew our minds and become transformed or we conform to the dominant ideologies that convince us that we are moral despite what is going on around us.”
The pattern of this world is racism. We can either conform to it or be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
The pattern of this world is patriarchy. We can either conform to it or be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
The pattern of this world is ableism. We can either conform to it or be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
The pattern of this world is heteronormativity. We can either conform to it or be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
The pattern of this world is environmental exploitation. We can either conform to it or be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
There are so many patterns of this world that Christianity has had a tendency fall in line with, if not orchestrate in the first place. The church does not have the best of legacies. But we can change that. Today is a new day, and each of us has choices to make.
This is our “choose this day whom you will serve” moment, folks. Either we serve those in power, or we serve those who have been beaten down, marginalized, excluded, exploited, and oppressed by those in power. If we do the latter, we can alter the course of history again—this time for the better.
Despite all of its problems, I think there remains at least one powerfully redemptive core component of the Christian faith…hope. No matter what has happened in the past or what is happening now, we believe that things can get better. Right now, the pattern of this world is not the best model for humanity. But we Christians—we’re people of hope. We believe that the pattern can still be rewritten.