Jeff Keoni Lane
A truly loving Nazarene ethic isn’t about purity or polity but it is about particularity. In every new age the Church of the Nazarene should be known as the people who make room for the marginalized in society and those people today are our LGBTQ family and friends.
Years ago I was heading from the airport to a conference with a fellow Nazarene pastor when our cab driver asked “What is a Nazarene?” I deferred to my friend who, to my surprise, began to explain how our identity follows from the Nazarite purity vows, committing to practices like abstaining from alcohol. As I listened I realized they had a very different perspective about the ethic at the core of what it means to be a “Nazarene.”
I think everything you need to know about Nazarene ethics you can learn from watching movies from 1984.
If you mention ethics and the Bible, people usually start by talking about the explicit imperatives like the “Thou shalt nots” of the Decalogue and to a lesser extent various constraints like prohibitions against eating pelican. The commands to not steal, or lie or covet the objects or relationships of a neighbor are generally held to always be good form and good for shaping communities.
Failing to live up to these principles generally wears away at the strength of a society. If a colleague has a penchant for poaching, you might be less inclined to leave your lunch in the office fridge. If someone is known to be violent or untrustworthy, they will probably have trouble finding a roommate who doesn’t feel the need to sleep with one eye open.
Viewing ethics as principles to be obeyed or embodied reminds me of the 1984 film Gremlins, in which a young adult is gifted an unusual creature at Christmas. At the outset we see that there are three simple rules to caring for this exotic pet, and if they are adhered to then life will continue normally. But if you end up exposing them to light, or dousing them in water, or God forbid feeding them after midnight, then your whole town will end up in disaster. Being sure to obey these rules is the difference between living with a cute and furry animal or a mischievous monster.
From Gremlins we might learn that many of the commands or rules in the Bible we view as principles demonstrate the sacred and stabilizing significance that authority and identity can play in a community or a relationship. For example, in the early days of Hebrew covenants, God commanded the people who identified as part of the covenant made with Abraham to be circumcised. This was a specific physical sign that a male belonged to the Israelites. Sometimes ethics and belonging are simply just that clear cut.
Living by a series of ethical laws is definitely illustrative of my experience in the Church of the Nazarene since childhood, though the litmus test has changed from time to time. In my experience the rules that judged whether someone “belonged” have ranged from how many weekly services they attended, whether you had been divorced, whether they drank alcohol or even who they voted for in the last election. But today more than any, the ethical test at the heart of our community’s conversation is your willingness to extend a full welcome to our many brothers and sisters, sons and daughters who are a part of the LGBTQ community.
In the late Spring of 2004, I was called to a meeting of Nazarene pastors to consider a public response to the recent Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling essentially legalizing same-sex marriage in the state. That day there were a number of ideas floated on the table from educational support to churches to full page ads in opposition to the decision. In the end we decided to table it and never ended up creating any real response. But looking back on that day I realized the spirit of the proposals themselves were in line with this Nazarene ethic that we are protectors of a certain set of rules and identities similar to the Nazarite vows of purity.
In the film Ghostbusters, in the opening foray into busting ghosts, Egon, one of the proton pack-wearing protagonists, admonishes them to never “cross the streams”. This is their Nazarite moment. But later in the climax of the film Egon suggests that crossing the streams might be their only hope, thus saving all of humanity from interdimensional oppression.
Watching Ghostbusters teaches us that some laws and absolutes occasionally cannot be applied universally and absolutely, no matter how much those rules may have girded your identity in the past. The practice of “descending into the particulars” was made a part of the tradition of those who study the Christian scriptures by among others the Jesuits who understood that in certain situations these laws could not be applied unilaterally.
For example take the biblical law “thou shalt not steal.” Generally speaking I think we would all agree that stealing is amoral. But what about for someone who is starving? What if your children are starving?
When I was in high school I stole a hubcap from a tire to replace one my friend had lost while we were joyriding in his father’s van. I don’t recollect for a moment even thinking about the ethical nature of doing it. I simply saw a similar van in our school parking lot and walked over and popped it off. It wasn’t until I realized it was the school’s culinary arts van and the head chef was outside watching me pop it off on his smoke break that I began to realize the wrongness of my actions. (Don’t worry, after I outran the chef and got away from school for an hour, I ended up returning it.) But in that case I think it’s pretty clear I was in the wrong. The law of “thou shalt not steal” holds.
But imagine you are faced with the dilemma like the nuns in the end of the Sound of Music trying to help the Von Trapps escape the Nazis by confiscating their carburetors. In that case you might descend into the particulars and find a different answer.
Similarly, in the historic cases of usury or equivocation we recognize that sometimes situations call us to reimagine our ethical application of what may have seen as easily applicable admonishments. Sometimes situations call us to reconsider the sanctity of our standards.
Growing up in a “Nazarene” church but not necessarily a “Nazarene” home allowed me to see some of the principles of the denomination with more clarity. There were certainly principles that existed in both worlds like avoiding killing, stealing and the like. But the strict prohibitions against movies, alcohol, dancing or sports on Sundays weren’t really absolutes outside Sunday and Wednesday services. In that way the Nazarene ethic was less about owning these absolutes and more about avoiding “their” observation.
I remember seeing a Nazarene administrator joyfully “dancing” around at a college event who immediately got defensive and angry when they realized it was being filmed. I remember traveling for a Nazarene trip and the fear that some of the members felt that it might be discovered that we had gone to see a movie. Thankfully much of those Nazarite ways are in our past. There are times that the Church of the Nazarene has allowed situations to reconsider the necessity and universality of our standards, but then there are other times our reconsideration must come from our openness to relationships.
The 1984 film Footloose is the story of an outsider, Ren McCormack, played by Kevin Bacon, who comes into town and begins questioning the limits that have been placed on them. Many of the restrictions were a reaction to some of the local kids who had died in a car crash after a night of dancing outside of town. In response the town instituted “Nazarite” like rules against dancing and certain forms of entertainment. Townsfolk are seen railing against rock music and burning books. At first Ren has trouble understanding the restrictions of the town, but eventually he begins to gain perspective about the reactionary reasoning and the rendered relationships that shape the disconnect between the town and its youth. Ren has a famous scene in which he rallies support to have a school dance that had been barred in the past. In the town meeting he even quotes scriptures in the face of the prominent town pastor.
Now I used to think that Ren’s scene was a textbook case on how to use scripture adversarially, quoting passages that affirmed dancing in the Bible. It seemed only reasonable that if they were going to use religion to galvanize their position then he would weaponize the text to lay siege. But when you listen to his speech you see that Ren does not simply use scripture “against” them and their “Nazarite” tendencies but he expresses an understanding of their perspective and shows how the scriptures speak not only to a broader more nuanced vision of their rules against dancing but even more importantly the potential costs of their strained relationship with their kids.
In the newly forming church in Acts 15 a number of the church leaders are gathering to decide how to incorporate all the uncircumcised gentiles into their sect of the Abrahamic faith. If they applied the principles precisely then the process of inclusion was clear. The partakers from the party of the Pharisees in the process were seemingly fine with the price the gentiles would have to pay to receive entrance into the church. The apostles who had been traveling abroad building relationships with the greater gentile world came back; they were able to offer a report that God’s Spirit was present with the Gentile believers in the same way that the Spirit was present in the fellowship of the believers in Jerusalem.
When Peter, Paul, Barnabas and James advocate for the inclusion of the gentiles they are not making an argument based on principles or a particular situational ethic, but a plea based in their perspective. They had a firsthand account of the new thing that God had been doing to broaden their circles of belonging and brought the perspective that was so sorely needed in this situation. Like many Nazarene leaders I know firsthand the many gay and transgender people who live lives full of the Spirit of God. To exclude them from full participation is not only a disservice to them but a loss to our denomination as well.
If I could go back to that cab driver and define for him what it means to be a Nazarene I would proudly tell the story that I always claimed as our identity, the passage in John 1 where Nathaniel responds to Philip “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” The proudest moments of being a Nazarene have been witnessing the church that welcomes and includes and stands in solidarity with those in our world who need inclusion. From abolition to women in leadership, our Wesleyan Holiness heritage comes with a long history of making room for the marginalized.
I have witnessed great moments where the Church of the Nazarene has been a force for inclusion across racial, socio-economic, gender and political differences. This is an opportunity once again for the Church of the Nazarene to rise to its mission to stand in solidarity with millions of LGBTQ family and friends and their allies and welcome them into full inclusion.
That is the Nazarene ethic of which we should all be proud.
Jeff Keoni Lane is a pastor and teacher. He earned his MDiv from Nazarene Theological Seminary and his STM from Boston University School of Theology. Lane is the co-author of The Samaritan Project and Theology of Luck. He serves as a pastor at West Somerville Church of the Nazarene.