Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Social Service Perspective on Holiness

For many people today, I suspect that holiness is a word that belongs to a previous generation, a concept too easily relegated to history. The powerful witness of the holiness movement in the mid 19th century made an indelible stamp on the character and methods of the early Salvation Army, but can that particular brand of holiness simply be revived today in widely varying social and cultural contexts? Certainly there are identifiable dimensions of holiness that continue to speak to people today: humility, integrity, total commitment, generosity, compassion, grace, connection to the sacred. Yet, one might well wonder whether the word ‘holiness’ has become so loaded with historical meaning that the term itself becomes a barrier to seeing its continuing relevance?

In Salvation Army social programs, the implied connection between holiness and moral perfection can be experienced as instantly alienating and impossibly unachievable for many of the people who are connected to our services. The darker their personal history, the deeper their disadvantage, the greater their problems, the more unattainable this idea of personal holiness becomes and when failure is experienced (as it often is), the impact of guilt and further loss of self esteem is harder still. Even those with the greatest hope and optimism for our fellow human beings would have to wonder why we might set people up for such seemingly inevitable failure?

Yet, problematic though it may be, I believe that holiness cannot be either discarded or ignored. Our obligation is rooted in the command of Leviticus 19:2 ‘Be holy because I am holy’. The motivation for holiness is to be like God, to share God’s characteristics. As a Christian, for whom Jesus is the definitive revelation of God, to be like God is to be like Jesus and to act as Jesus acted – inclusively, compassionately, generously, in powerful ways that bring healing to people physically, socially and spiritually. It seems to me that this is the beginning of an understanding of holiness that can speak meaningfully into the context of our social services and can also be reconciled with our own life experiences.


Much of the way holiness has been interpreted in the past feeds off dualities – holy/profane, clean/unclean, sacred/secular. However, we need to be wary of becoming dualistic in our thinking. When we artificially split our existence into different realities, we sacrifice the wholeness which God intends for us. Holiness which is anti-flesh or anti-body isn’t reflective of the Hebrew tradition, in which Jesus was nurtured. Jesus was clearly critical of holiness interpretations in his day that emphasised ritual purity above the social relationships in which we all exist (the Pharisees and the community at Qumran are examples of this thinking). He is continually associated with the poor, the broken, sinners and unclean but refuses to buy into a worldview in which such associations are defiling. Jesus rejects a holiness of separation for an inclusive holiness of compassion. Furthermore, we see that Jesus’ holiness has transformative power – not that everyone who encountered Jesus magically became saints but through him they experienced liberation, cleansing or reconciliation according to their own needs.

It is on the pathway towards wholeness that we are reminded that the meaning of holiness is always contextual and therefore reflective of the kind of mission that we choose to engage in. When Jesus declares about Zaccheus that ‘today salvation has come to this house’, we can see beyond the one-off redemptive activities (repaying others) that Zaccheus’ life is now placed into a different ongoing context. Can he still retain his job as a tax collector? Perhaps, but if so he will be a tax collector with a new perspective and a very different practice.

The search for wholeness can be made all the more difficult in those circumstances that are by nature depressing, debilitating and which diminish our humanity. However, there is no situation in which God cannot break through. I once read the story of Jewish women who spent time wiping the mud and grime off the faces of their fellow inmates in a concentration camp because they believed deeply that we are all made in the image of God. Such activity clearly demonstrates that holiness can be found in those places and times where God is made present – even in the worst of situations. In this way, holy activity can be understood as sacramental in nature – it helps to reveal the unseen presence of God in the midst of the ordinariness of the world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer tells us that the way to holiness is to rely on God, engage in mission in the world and stop trying to be a saint (that is to try and make something of oneself rather than allow God to do the work in us).

When we believe that God wants us to experience fullness of life, then our relationships will actively encourage the fulfilment of each person’s potential and we will work together to address those things that diminish our humanity- things like homelessness, violence, oppression and addictions.


There appears to be little doubt that individualism is currently rampant in our society. With a few notable exceptions, everyone seems to be mostly concerned about looking after themselves. We no longer know our neighbours like people used to just a few decades ago. Even families lack the strong bonds they once had. Too often it seems that life is all about ‘me and what’s mine’.

Whilst we’d like to think that the church is an exception to this pattern, there’s much of the same happening in our own ranks as well. A great deal of our theology has been about our personal relationship with God – how we get it right and how we keep it right. Personal holiness has been largely interpreted as an individual holiness. We maintain personal piety through prayer, reading the Bible, thinking holy thoughts and refraining from evil, all of which can be done in total solitude.

I think we need to regain an appreciation of the importance and relevance of holiness as a relational concept, which is the meaning of Wesley’s often quoted statement “there’s no holiness but social holiness”. Holiness is always relational before it is regulatory. It’s less about rules than it is about the way that we demonstrate care and concern for our neighbour. Jesus’ parable about The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is a perfect example because it explicitly critiques the holiness of the priest and the Levite, whose concern for their own purity has overridden their capacity to respond compassionately to the person in need. Major Elsa Oalang from the Phillipines says quite simply that “compassion is the overriding definitive characteristic of holiness”.

The story of the Good Samaritan also stretches our tribal boundaries so that none can be excluded from this social responsibility. If God is the God of the whole world, then our relationships must also be radically inclusive. The Samaritan redefines ‘stranger’ as ‘neighbour’. We can’t keep anyone at an arm’s length. If we understand love and compassion to be essential characteristics of the nature of God then our relationships cannot be bound by rules and regulations that restrict our capacity to demonstrate this.

It’s also perhaps helpful to remember the Christian understanding that God exists as Trinity. God is communal by nature. This speaks to the reality of our existence. Whether we like it or not, most of us live in communities and are part of intricate and extensive webs of relationship. However, in many cases these relationships are shallow and purpose-oriented. They exist because they meet our needs, whether they be professional or personal. Yet a social understanding of holiness calls us beyond our own personal needs to recognise the greater interdependence of the wider community. This particularly means that we need to seek out those who are more isolated and lacking community connections.

One of the things that I’ve learned in my experience of working with our social services is that social isolation can be awfully debilitating for people. In the absence of good social supports and genuine friendships, people’s health deteriorates, problematic drug and alcohol usage increases and mental illness is exacerbated. If we are to seek holiness, then we can’t ignore the plight of the lost, the lonely and those who have been socially marginalised in our communities. These are our neighbours, whom God calls us to befriend, to show compassion towards and to love generously.

For me talking about holiness in this way – as the search for wholeness in community – makes the subject not just something that I can grasp for myself, but, just as critically, something that I can share with others in my work and throughout my life.

1 comment:

Brian said...

Thank you for writing this Jason. There is a dark side to holiness movements that I have witnessed; communities that end up excluding people from their own communities and families because they don't follow 'the rules', and so the gospel is used to beat people into submission rather than used to set people free.
And the danger of individual Christianity, which in itself is surely not something found in the New Testament. Thank you for raising these issues.
Brian Harvey (Rev)