When a self-described anarchist pacifist writes of themes that resonate with my worldview, I sit up and notice. This morning I spent time reading a piece in the Atlantic by just such a woman: Quinn Norton. Apparently, she has been recently slandered on the internet and constructed into a caricature of herself. This is ironic, because she studies precisely this phenomenon.
The whole article is written with a combination of humility and confidence that I have found rare in secular spaces. I’m not familiar with any of Norton’s other writings, so I can’t pretend that I understand her point of view in totality, but her lack of defensiveness while defending herself felt deeply resonant with how we are called to engage with the humans around us as Christians.
I was moved by her explanation of why she spent time with abject sinners, indeed how she could form friendships with them. The language of sin is mine, not hers, but when one is referring to a Neo-Nazi, I don’t think it’s unwarranted.
What she says in her defense is worth quoting at length:
“In my pacifism, I can’t reject a friendship, even when a friend has taken such a horrifying path. I am not the judge of who is capable of improving as a person. This philosophy also requires me to confront him about his terrible beliefs and their terrible consequences… I don’t support what my terrible friend believes or does. But I strongly advocate for people with a good sense of themselves and their values to engage with their terrible friends, coworkers, and relatives, to lovingly confront them for as long as it takes, and it would be wrong to not do so myself. I had what I now see as the advantage of coming from a family of terrible people. This taught me that not everyone worthy of love is worthy of emulation. It also taught me that being given terrible ideas is not a destiny, and that intervention can change lives.”
This, I would think, is as close as person far from Jesus can get to grace and truth. And if Norton is this close conceptually, perhaps she is not far from the kingdom of God.
We see the shocking grace first. Humans often love to be publicly censorious regarding their moral pet peeves, to make judgments of guilty or innocent and then move on, the verdict rendered. But Norton refuses to do this. She flatly rejects the idea that anyone is beyond, can we even say it, salvation, or that deep patterns of sin are the final arbiter of one’s life. Isn’t this just what we see in the New Testament? Jesus was willing to associate with known, loathsome sinners such as Zacchaeus; he understood and modeled the very same thing.
But notice, too, the truth. Norton doesn’t practice blind acceptance. She demands that error be corrected, lovingly, and she targets the best place to do this: within the context of true relationship. Just so the church; as siblings in Christ, while not taking God’s seat in judgment, we are commanded to be each other’s keeper. We have to take out our own eye-log so that we can help with our sister with her speck. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t let a stranger touch my eye! That assumes a level of trust beyond acquaintance.
If Norton has this all figured out, why do we even need the gospel? Perhaps we should all sign up to be anarchist pacifists!
However, both Scripture and experience teach us that there is an impossible gulf between “not far from the kingdom of God” and “in Christ.” Not even instincts like Norton’s can make that leap. We are made in the image of God, but we are broken beyond self-repair. This means that we often have enough of the good sense of God to diagnose what is wrong, sometimes even enough of his common grace to see what is called for in response. But we are in our flesh—we try to fix these problems with our own intelligence, our own charisma, our own strength. It can’t but fail, even where it succeeds.
If Norton convinces her Neo-Nazi friend to renounce his views, she will have done real good. Praise God for that. But she will not have saved his soul, nor hers. And she will be faced with the temptation of self-righteousness in the wake of success.
Norton’s system relies on her belief in the power of persuasion, that human love and intention can overcome the death grip of sin. But we believe that only God in Christ through the Spirit has the power to break our sin, to make real changes in the world that last forever – both in individuals and in communities. And we who know Christ, whose lives are hidden in him, have access to this spiritual power, to live in the world with grace and with truth because Jesus has forgiven us and is transforming us. Let Quinn Norton’s words stir us up to recognize that the world is in hungry need of what only God can provide through his people, and let us act accordingly with the gifts and circumstances he’s given us.