This is the second part of a two-part discussion conducted via e-mail and in person with evangelical Nazarene pastor Geoff DeFranca as part of our ongoing Wizard of Monadnock interfaith series. You can read part one here.
It had been nearly 800 years since the patriotic prophet Isaiah, living in the small and feeble nation of Judah in present-day Palestine, had his vision of the heavens and answered the call of the Almighty. Much had changed, but these present times were no more tumultuous and uncertain than they had been in Isaiah’s day. Gone were the small “promised land” countries of Israel and Judah. Also gone were the antagonistic Assyrians and Babylonians. The Egyptian empire had fallen, as had the Greek. No, by this time in history, as far as the entire greater Mediterranean region was concerned, there was but one power.
Where once sat the tribal levantine countries of Israel and Judah there were now a number of conquered provinces, including but not limited to Judea, Samarea, Idumea, and Galilee. Part of Rome’s long-lived and iron-clad success as a conquering power lay in the flexibility of its rule, which it tailored to the specific needs of each conquered people. Since the religion of Rome had never been homogeneous – from the very beginning, its pantheon of gods and mythology had been cobbled together by combining separate traditions from different areas in present-day Italy and Greece – their most common approach was to recognize and adopt the local conquered god as one of their own. The people of most defeated nations would accept this notion into their culture and adopt the gods and mythos of Rome into their own as well. Thus the Romans would be very easily accepted in their role as occupiers.
The worshipers of YHWH were different, however. Their tradition not only required the supremacy of their god above all others but had evolved into rigid monotheism. There was only YHWH, or Yah, and everything else was idolatry. This led to much fiercer cultural conflict with any occupying power, much less one so monolithic and pagan as Rome. A lot of extra blood was shed over the decades and even centuries for this reason alone. But despite the continued and periodic resistance, Rome’s strategic flexibility allowed for multiple approaches. The Romans knew that traditional worship of Yah was dependent upon a single temple in the city of Jerusalem and the priests who staffed it. In their brilliance, they permitted the worship of Yah to continue unmolested and simply bought off the priests. Not only were the common people less likely to rebel against their own priesthood, but, conversely, when people did decide to rebel, their first target would often be their own priests, leaving Rome once removed from injury.
They coupled this with an unwavering policy of meeting all such rebellions with savage and final cruelty. That’s why they nailed people to trees and poles. A lot of times they did it even after they were dead, just to make a point. Say what you will against the Romans, but they knew how to drive home a point.
So it was that those who descended from the ancient Israelite tribes found themselves both conquered and betrayed by collaborators from within their own ranks. Even a cursory reading of the Old Testament makes it quite clear that Yah will tolerate neither. It should come as no surprise that there were many rebels – freedom fighters – leading would-be people’s revolutions against the in-house corruption and the pagan occupiers.
One such revolutionary was named either Yeshua or Yehoshua, and he came from the Roman province of Galilee. His roots were humble. You know him as Jesus.
Middle Eastern cultures tend to possess a long-standing emphasis on hospitality. Guests, usually even if they were uninvited, were always to be treated to certain ritual amenities, out of nothing but universal good manners. Sometimes, one such custom was for the host to provide water to the guest. The water was for the guest to wash the dust from their feet. Sometimes one of the host’s servants would be provided to wash the guest’s feet, and in some cases, the host would serve their guest by performing the foot-washing himself. It was a humbling gesture of humanity and welcome.
A story is found in the Gospel of John, chapter 13. Jesus and his followers have dramatically arrived in the all-important city of Jerusalem the day before the all-important holiday of Passover. He and his closest followers are holed up in their favorite hangout – known merely as “the upper room” – about to have their Passover Seder – or whatever the actual historical equivalent would have been.
According to the story, Jesus already knows he’s about to be killed. He knows his buddy Judas has flipped and is about to hand him over to the corrupt priests who want him dead. But he’s not mad. He’s not worried, either. In the supreme example of faithfulness, he trusts his god, his father, and he lets it all go.
Here’s what he does: in the middle of the dinner, he gets up, grabs a towel, gets some water, and washes everybody’s feet. They’re all very uncomfortable about this. Worst case scenario, this is a political hero, a revolutionary patriot. But to most seated around this table, this is not merely the savior of a nation but the savior of the world – the Son of God. Why would he be washing everyone’s feet? They protest – “Man, you can’t wash my feet. I won’t have it.” He bushes them off: “You don’t get it now, but you’ll get it later. It has to be this way.”
He finishes up and begins to teach them some final things. “This is the lesson, guys. See what I just did? You call me ‘teacher’ and you call me ‘Lord’ – well, your teacher and lord just washed your feet. It’s on you to go out there and wash the feet of the world. It’s on you to serve the world with hospitality.”
Reflecting on that story – one of the two or three in the New Testament he considers of prime personal importance – Geoff DeFranca wonders aloud: “What kind of God is this?”
He references Psalm 8, which reads in its third and fourth verses, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
Now, an observation demands to be made, here – if this foot-washing story is so important to the Christian faith, there’s a major contradiction between the teaching and the image we all have of the stereotypical “Bible-thumping” evangelical. Judgmental finger-pointing (or even finger-wagging) is a far cry from what appears to be an exemplary call to serve the world with humble hospitality.
But even beyond this major disconnect, another glaring way in which DeFranca differs from the public voices of moral condemnation, whom cloak their loud righteousness in supreme certainty, is that he doesn’t merely acknowledge that these divine concepts make no sense intellectually or logically, he embraces it. “God is mystery,” he says, and it’s this mystery found when humble man looks upon the divine that makes up a large part of what he might describe as the awesomeness of faith.
One of the things, according to DeFranca, which Jesus taught through his deeds as well as his words is that “Repentance is not just turning away from something bad – sin – but tuning toward the highest and best good. Turning from a false self centered on me to a true self centered on God. This alters everything – and it’s fundamentally counter-cultural. It was then and it still is now. I think that’s an idea that’s always counter-cultural.”
Self-orientation is an important part of DeFranca’s faith. When he underwent his initial conversion experience in the early 80’s, he describes having discovered that he was loved by god and simultaneously realizing, regarding his life, “I couldn’t do this by myself.” He began living his life in a way, to the best of his ability, he believed to be in accordance with this holy trust. “Life was no longer about pleasing Geoff”; now, he began to “orient my life and relationships around the love I had for God. Whatever I did, I became motivated by the desire to not injure that relationship.”
* * *
The Church of the Nazarene, Geoff’s Protestant denomination, was born out of the Second Great Awakening, a major religious movement of the early 1800’s. According to DeFrana, the church began with a theological emphasis on “personal holiness” an aspects of social justice, particularly aid to the poor. The name “Nazarene” was adopted in reference to Jesus’ reputably lowly and humble roots. Like all religions (kidding, kind of), it began in Southern California along with other similar sects such as the Free Methodists, the Church of Good Anderson, the Church of Christ in Christian Union, and even the Pentacostals (they’re the ones who speak gibberish and fall down in holy ways).
The church emphasized sacrificial commitment to overseas missions, placing a high value on education and building many schools. There are currently about 60 Nazarene colleges in the world, only ten of which are in the United States. In fact, in a global denomination of around two million, more than half of those counted as Nazarenes exist outside of North America, due in no small part to the denomination’s early and consistent commitment to a global mission.
“Every Nazarene,” he says with clear conviction, “should go over to Liberia and see what’s going on.”
* * *
The two videos I posted above, seemingly at random, display the two songs which DeFranca cited to me as those which inspire him the most. I have to admit, I didn’t like them particularly much. They seem very simple and inelegant to me, and the impression I get is a general message of “Forget all this, there’s Jesus and heaven.” I ask him about this, wondering if his favorite religious songs are more about turning away from life than embracing anything found within it.
Vehemently, he disagrees, going back to the general theme of orienting or centering himself on the divine. “It’s not about turning away,” he says again, “but about centering in on Jesus as I go out into the world, not letting the world be the default.”
Before we’d even sat down for coffee, when I’d asked him to state his thoughts on the number one problem with the earth today, he had a ready answer. “In a conversation with our [Nashua’s] mayor a few years ago, i asked her what she thought was the biggest challenge in the city. She said, ‘We all operate in silos.’ I mention that because it indicated on a large scale the most significant problem for us: our self-oriented nature. Whatever the major ‘problem’ on the word stage is, it finds its root in self-absorption. It is revealed in many ways.”
In the same e-mail discussion, I put forth my belief that our society is in many ways centered around business and financial profit, and I asked him to address that. His answer revealed at minimum a staunch tolerance for capitalism. “I guess I see that business and profit could have beneficial impact when applied rightly. So I would not address it as evil, but as a potential resource for good. Not something that is compelled or forced but in some way provides opportunities and encourages people to use them for good.”
Later, when we met in person, I challenged him on this. If self-absorption is such a problem, how can he reconcile that notion with a philosophy that allows for profit – ultimately born of self-interest if anything is – to be a force for good? He acknowledges the validity of the point and of the seeming contradiction, but explains that he doesn’t see any economic or political system as inherently good or bad. “What you’re talking about here, in the end, isn’t money or profit but power, and when we’re talking about power, the one question I always come back around to is, ‘What do you do with it?'” He recognizes the many evils within capitalism but also references the fact that many governments, like the Soviet Union, which began as a people’s socialist revolt, devolved into similar hierarchical evil.
On a more microcosmic scale, he says, “I’ve encountered some who are poor but are fixated mentally and spiritually on material and trivial things. I’ve encountered some who are very wealthy but who could give it all up because they are not focused on the material.” He’s (thankfully) not making the tired “human nature” argument – that capitalism must be accepted because humans always operate on a lowest-common-denominator kind of level – but at economically neutral argument. It’s not socialism or capitalism that’s important but whether or not those individuals involved are centered on benevolence and god or are centered on self-enrichment or self-aggrandizement.
“I belong neither to the far left nor the far right,” he says.
“But I bet they both want to claim you, don’t they?”
“You bet they do,” he says with a grin and a twinkle in his eye.
As we all know, the topic of working conditions and, more broadly, wage slavery, is of supreme importance to me personally – and I can’t attempt to understand anyone’s belief system without understanding their position on this subject. Initially, when presented with the plight of the ordinary low-income worker and asked how his faith can be applied into their lives, he responded, “One of the most important thoughts is to remember the gift of work (whatever that may be) as an act of service to God and others. It was my faith that altered my view of work as such. Before that, it was all about trying to figure out how I was going to become wealthy in the future.”
I press him on this a little bit, because while it may seem nice on the one hand, it also seems on the other to smack of the old-school hard-knock “Protestant work ethic,” the notion that working hard in and of itself is a virtue that gets one closer to heaven. He clarifies that this isn’t exactly what he means. “You look back at the creation story and after the Fall [when Adam and Eve are kicked out of the Garden of Eden for doing the one thing God told them not to do, and are now forced to work and have pain during childbirth], Adam has to work. We tend o think of that as a punishment – ‘now he has to work and it’s suffering’ – but that’s only part of the story. It’s also what God gave him as purpose. Tending plants, nurturing life, helping to provide, meaning.
“We’re made in God’s image, and God’s image is fundamentally creative. We are creative beings. Even when it comes to an oppressive and unequal work situation, I would ask, ‘What disposition do you choose?’ Even as a pastor you have to wonder about this sometimes. That’s the difference between a vocation and a job. Ask yourself what you’re called to do – being called to something isn’t a clergy thing, it’s a human thing. We all must have some sense of calling.”
* * *
In the end, Geoff DeFranca’s view on the way to be holy in life can be summarized by this statement of his: “The faith can’t be seen as one living on an island. Holiness must be demonstrated by love – especially for ‘the least of these’ [the most lowly and disadvantaged people among us, as described by Jesus] – or it is no holiness at all.”
If nothing else, without personally sharing the faith of an evangelical Protestant Christian, I am left with the hope that perhaps there are more evangelicals out there than we imagine who think this way. Even if we don’t share the specifics of their faith, it’s hard to argue that approaching the world in a humble, loving, and helpful manner as exemplified by Pastor Geoff’s faith and beliefs could ever have a negative impact on the world. In fact, I’d venture to say that more of that could do a whole lot of good.
If nothing else, through this two part interview, I hope that even the most ardent anti-religionist might at least tentatively grant that sane evangelicals do exist, and perhaps have gotten a small glimpse into how one such entity might think.
In the end, I find it hard to believe that there’s not something all of us might learn, even from what we typically would think of as an unlikely source.
Special thanks to Geoff DeFranca for his time and candid answers. Interview has been lightly edited for clarity. All direct Biblical quotes found above, as always on the Wizard of Monadnock, are from the New Revised Standard Version.