Review: Doing Good

March 12th, 2012

Holiness is not an often-used term in many of the circles of current-day political activists. But perhaps it should be. Doing Good: A Grace-Filled Approach to Holiness, by Dr. Chris Momany, shows us it actually once was a common word among those who witnessed to God’s Kingdom justice in the face of oppression.

Doing Good brought me back to my days at Asbury Seminary where holiness was something not just taught in classes, but regularly discussed among students. All too often, the concept of holiness gets lost in misperceptions and misunderstandings. For me, even though holiness was commonly spoken of on Asbury’s campus, the concept of holiness remained aloof to me, held captive to an idea of perfection that seemed centered on either navel-gazing or in an other-worldly focus. Holiness thus easily slid into legalism, a list of rules to decide whether we were living righteously or not. Of course, when faced with such rigid legalism I naturally resisted against such rigidity, but my resistance was not against holiness itself as much as it was an attempt to escape the Pharisaical clenches of what I felt to be an abnormal focus on law and a complete absence of love, grace, and justice for the vulnerable.

Momany corrects this and many other misperceptions and reminds us of the real intent of holiness. He correctly writes that, “Living the way of holiness is not an exercise in isolation. It is, at its essence, an expression of relationship. Holiness embodies a perpetual dialog with God. By knowing God, we come to know ourselves. We also come to know and love others” (pp. 38-39). The “perpetual dialog” we have with God is of course given to us in grace, but yet it is also our calling into mission.

The “perpetual dialog” is also not meant to be private, though it is also at the same time intensely personal. Holiness leads us to greater knowledge of ourselves, but yet it does not remain trapped in our temptation to be individualistic. The “perpetual dialog” (a phrase I love by the way) is a conversation that inherently calls us to welcome others into this dialog, not as a means of colonialism or forcing others into our language or culture, but as a celebration of God’s love and yearning to be in intimate relationship with his people.

And this is where those of us who are politically engaged too often come tragically short in our understanding and practice of holiness. We are right to remind the Church that John Wesley said that there is no holiness without social holiness. There must be public witness. The Church is simply not faithful with a public engagement. That is absolutely true and I believe it intensely.

But isn’t the opposite true? Isn’t it true that social holiness entails personal holiness? Yes, God is as concerned with oppression as God is with personal morality (and I honestly believe more so). But God is still concerned with personal morality. Just because some (too many) in the Church have turned their back on social holiness and even at times become complicit with the structures and systems of injustice, that does not give those of us passionate about social holiness the license to ignore God’s call on us to manifest personal holiness. Momany reminds us that for John Wesley, the law “was much more than an impersonal standard of righteousness. Wesley understood the law as a revelation of God’s essence, God’s innermost being” (p. 18).

And we will do well to strive to be holy as God is holy. To be holy is to care for all the people of the world, to defend the poor and vulnerable, to incarnate ourselves among the marginalized. To be holy is to hold ourselves to a higher standard of personal morality—not in order to judge or condemn others, but to shine the light of God’s holiness as a light of love and hospitality, a light that draws others to us.  Momany’s book is a welcome reminder of God’s call on all those who follow Jesus to live passionately dedicated to both social and personal holiness.

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