Why We Need More Non-Conformists (And Why The World Hates Them)

by Frank Powell

For as long as I can remember, which isn’t that long – I have the memory of a baboon – I’ve asked a lot of questions. I’m a seeker. I’m curious. I’m sensitive. I wish I weren’t. I wish I didn’t care. I wish I didn’t feel the angst of the world’s brokenness. I wish humanity’s injustices didn’t burden my soul. I wish the flaws in our institutions, flaws that marginalize and wound real people, didn’t light a fire in my bones. I wish I could fall in line. Keep my mouth shut. Go with the flow. I wish I could fit in. 

But I can’t. I must ask questions, traverse the edges and see what’s out there. If I don’t, my spirit dies. I don’t want my spirit to die. 

There’s a cost for living like this, though. And the cost is belonging. People label you – troublemaker, heretic, and so on. I’ve been called those things. And worse.

You struggle to find a home. Groups require conformity. Loyalty is oxygen. There’s nothing wrong with loyalty. But loyalty isn’t more important than integrity, which involves asking hard questions and looking honestly at your flaws. Every group, at some point, must choose between loyalty and truth. Most groups, even Christian ones, choose loyalty.

I’m a non-conformist, and God’s people have never taken to non-conformists. In the Bible, they’re called prophets. Prophets disrupt the status quo. They see the world through the lens of injustice. They’re sensitive to the oppressed and the hurting and the marginalized. 

The list of prophets stretches throughout time, from the earliest pages of Scripture to this very moment. 

Abraham left his family to follow God into an unknown land. We don’t think much about this in our modern-day world. But family was everything during Abraham’s time. Everything. To leave them was to abandon them, a disorienting, shameful open-hand slap to everyone he loved.

Noah built an ark. He was a fool, a laughingstock. But he heard the voice of God, and to abandon that voice was to abandon Truth. Non-conformists never abandon Truth.

Then, of course, you have Jesus. The foundation of our faith. The cornerstone. Jesus, from the first moment of his ministry, called out the powerful, the religious elite. He refused to fall in line, to continue with business as usual. Jesus transformed the world. But he was also abandoned by his own people, by almost everyone, in fact, even his followers. Jesus was a non-conformist, and it cost him his life.

I could leave the pages of Scripture and move closer to home. Ghandi. Nelson Mandela. Martin Luther King. Shall I go on? I don’t think it’s necessary. You get the point. Today, these people are heroes. We build statues in their likeness and name holidays after them. In their time, though, they were disruptors. Troublemakers. Antagonists. They dared to challenge the status quo. The dared to lean into their curiosity, to hope for a better future. And they paid a price for it.

Why We Need Non-Conformists

Why am I saying all of this? Who even cares? 

I say this for two reasons, and they’re both important.

First, telling the truth still matters.

Telling the truth is, in a very real sense, all that matters. Non-conformists are humanity’s moral compass, its voice in the wilderness. A community without non-conformists breeds a culture of idol worshippers. And we have no shortage of idols in modern-day America. Comfort. Cash money. Country. The list outnumbers the sand grains in the Sahara.

We need non-conformists because we don’t gravitate towards truth. We gravitate towards the status quo. Non-conformists are the ones swimming upstream because we’ve seen what lies ahead. It’s a ferocious waterfall, and though your ride the River of Life feels tranquil right now, destruction is around the bend, if you don’t continue riding the current of conventional wisdom.

Truth hurts. Truth is a sword. It pierces the soul. It demands we look in the mirror and change. We would much rather crucify Christ than change. 

Second, the price for choosing non-conformity has always been high, but it seems higher than ever right now.

Our modern-day culture, where social media has replaced the town square as the center of human interaction, has no place for non-conformists. You must choose a side, defend your position with absolute certainty. No fence sitting. No doubting or second guessing. You must attack and dehumanize everyone who doesn’t believe your ideology. 

And non-conformists don’t choose sides. They’re loyal to Truth, and no group owns the deed on truth. Because they see things as they are, they’re neither conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat. If you believe your group is always right, you can be sure you’re not defending the truth. As Anne Lamott says, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when God hates all the same people you do.” 

Non-conformists call people away from their bandwagons and towards the Truth. They challenge the idolatry of blind allegiance, of toxic loyalty, of building large walls around like-mindedness. They stand against all forms of power and greed. They stand with the least of these.

Here’s a trustworthy saying: you can determine a group’s spiritual condition by how they treat those who have nothing to offer them. That’s why the first thing prophets do, when they arrive on the scene, is chastise the people for their neglect of the poor and the widowed.

If this is true, and I believe it is, our country is in trouble. Spiritually, we’re in shambles.

The Cost of Non-Conformity

We need non-conformists more than ever. But our fractured and polarized society has no tolerance for people who refuse to take sides. So, you end up in the wilderness. And that’s scary. The wilderness is lonely and barren, and those first steps away from belonging are the most frightening steps of your life. I tell you from experience. They shake you to your core. You turn around in tears and shame at the kingdom of belonging. 

You shake your fists at God. Why did you create me like this? Why am I so sensitive? Why do I feel the pain of the world’s brokenness? Why can’t I fit in? Ignore injustice. I want a home, God. I don’t want to be alone.

“Keep going, my child. The wilderness is scary. But things aren’t always as they seem.” 

And, of course, God is right. The wilderness isn’t barren. It’s filled with people just like you. Artists, poets, activists, and pastors. People who see the world as it is, who refuse to allow power and injustice to trump people. We gather out here, and we dance and pray and write and paint. We also cry and lament and bear one another’s burdens. 

The Higher Cost of Fitting In

Every time I feel the tinge of pain that comes with non-conformity, every time I look in the mirror and say, “Maybe it is me, maybe I am a troublemaker, and my actions have caused my own demise,” I turn on the news or return to social media, and I see how we treat one another. I see how the privileged prey on the weak and vulnerable. How we turn immigrants into pawns for political points. How the church turns a blind eye to blatant abuse. We would rather convert people for Jesus than protect the people in our communities. I see how we cling to our ideas and doctrines even though they leech the humanity from the very people Jesus told us to protect.

And I remember that I’m not crazy. I’m paying attention. The problem with our world isn’t that I reject it. The problem is everyone else surrenders to it. 

I will never return to the kingdom of belonging. I’ve made peace with that. The cost of citizenship is too high. And, yes, there is a cost to live inside those fortified walls of conformity. Here it is. You can’t be fully alive inside conformity’s gates. You can’t tell the truth, which means you can’t be human. You must ignore your longings. That voice inside you, the one that says this isn’t right or you shouldn’t treat people like that or whatever, that voice grows softer and softer, until it becomes mute. And the only voice that remains is the voice of the status quo. 

So, I’ll take up residence in the wilderness and endure a few wounds along the way, I’ll risk being misunderstood and labeled because the cost of living any other way is too high. The illusion of belonging is not worth losing my life. And it’s not worth yours, either. 

Grace and peace, friends. 

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1 comment

Julie October 26, 2022 - 1:41 pm

I feel myself throughout the whole article.

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