Monthly Archives: August 2017

Why Christian calls for unity in the wake of Charlottesville may be both racist and theologically unsound

Whether it was the clergy in full vestments, arms linked facing down gun-wielding white supremacists or the torch-bearers chanting anti-semitic threats, it is abundantly clear that theology is not neutral in 21st century America.  And yet, in the wake of Charlottesville, many Christians have responded with opaque calls to unity and appeals to people of faith to “tear down the racial and cultural barriers that divide us.”

At first I thought such statements offended me merely as a cultural anthropologist.

You see, while it is powerful and poignant to condemn discrimination and racism, it seems a problematically ethnocentric, if not a positively white-privileged perspective to blatantly condemn “the racial and cultural barriers that divide us.”

Whose culture, whose race is dividing us?  Perhaps it seems like mere semantics, but when Christians posit that culture and race are problems that breed division, that they are the very evils that need to be stamped out, we reveal that our calls to unity run dangerously close to the rhetoric of those who rallied in Charlottesville last weekend (even if that was not the intent).

Even though race is a social construct, we do see color and it has socially and politically relevant power and effects that especially white Americans must grapple with rather than ignore.  The creative cultures that have emerged from communities of struggle and resistance among people of color in America are not barriers that divide us but rich resources to teach us about what America can and should become.

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Not only do we have to choose our words carefully from an anthropological point of view, but we have to do so because the ministry and the integrity of Jesus Christ is at stake here.  Countless Christians have boldly quoted Galatians 3:28 in the face of racial division: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ.”  But Paul uses this passage to argue that all are liberated from the law and therefore, we do not need to become like one another to be in Christ and receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit; rather, in Christ, we can live as one with those who are radically different from us.

Indeed, we often forget that Jesus came into a culturally pluralistic world and honored the cultural practices in communities and peoples who were different from him, while preaching a gospel that sought to unify.  There are certainly passages in the Bible that also justify slavery, genocide, and division, but when we look at the whole of God’s ministry arose history and in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, I believe we do see that redemptive reconciliation does not damn culture, difference, and the sacredness of varied human lives, but the ways in which we human beings often instrumentalize these differences as division.

There’s nothing theologically unsound about unity, but unity that obliterates, objectifies, and undermines difference falls short of the vision God has for the fullness of humanity in Jesus Christ.  Unity that maintains inequitable power structures is false and faithless.  And unity that fails to listen and value the struggles of people of color in America is not only anthropologically unsound but theologically dismissive.

If you’re a Christian, especially a white Christian like me, seeking healing, reconciliation, and unity, I recommend you read the PCUSA’s statement on “Facing Racism,” adopted in 1999 by the General Assembly as a policy document to guide the pursuit of racial justice.  Or read this exegetical lecture on Acts, where Princeton Seminary Professor Eric Baretto powerfully describes how differences are gifts from God.  You might check out my post on “Embracing Difference as a Spiritual Discipline” and consider the challenge in a theology where we recognize and affirm that although we belong to God, God does not belong to us.  And check out Christina Cleveland’s “Syllabus for White People to Educate Themselves.”

Of course, there’s so much more to read and do.  But at the very least, let’s check ourselves from parading around platitudes about unity at the expense of diversity, especially in the name of Christ.  Christians have got to stand for more than that.  We owe it to one another and especially to Jesus.

 

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Why they can’t take our joy

A few weeks ago a former student emailed to update me on her summer.  “How’ve you been?”  she asked spiritedly.  “I’ve spent the summer distracted by healthcare,” was the confessional, somber, and bitter beginning of my reply.

Indeed, in the last few months, alongside the very real threat of losing the ACA, Lucia’s Medicaid benefits, and healthcare for millions of Americans, there’s also been the more subtle feeling of frustration that this fight has also taken its toll on my academic and pastoral passions, reduced me to someone who wasn’t producing or creating so much as maintaining vigilance, waiting on others’ words and others’ actions–merely responding.

And I hate being in response mode.

I, like so many Americans, truly despise the discipline of waiting on anybody or anything–I’m even kind of lousy at waiting on God.

When there’ve been great gushes of joy as there are in everyday life alongside Lucia, I felt resentful that they still felt tinged by a foreboding, ominous fear.  How can you mess around with joy when you feel such aching fear and trembling, I’d cringe.  And then I’d smart because I’d be angry that 13 men in a private room were even threatening to take my joy from me.  How dare they do that?

This summer has been filled with ups and downs, victory and solace punctuated by deep uncertainty and angst—so many bills, so many promises, a little hope, very little peace.  So even the things that normally come naturally to me–forging ahead with bravery and decision–have been called into question, fretted and flummoxed by the helplessness and fatigue I’ve felt.  I’ve found that it’s easy to be brave when it’s just you, but it’s much harder with someone else depending on you.  Or when you’re made to feel that bravery is foolish or may count for little in the end.

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Speaking at the RunRAllWomen Rally on Friday night.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

But what has made all the difference in the last few weeks, through the wise spiritual counsel of trusted friends, is to discover that bravery is possible even in the face of tremendous fear and uncertainty, because joy is resilient, defiant, and knows no boundaries.  This is the message I shared last night about our life with Lucia at a rally for equitable healthcare–that joy may be an unlikely home for advocacy but it’s effective because it’s genuine and human and resounding.  That being human means sharing vulnerability and fragility but it can also mean finding joy in the most unlikely of circumstances and working together for change.

In these last couple of weeks, even before the Republicans voted against the repeal of the ACA, even before so many of you stood up for the needs of those on Medicaid (THANK YOU!!!), I realized that even if they take away Lucia’s healthcare and they deem her life of little value, our family will still have our joy in each other and in God, and we will rise in the face of all of it.  We will go on and create and make beauty from ashes because that’s what we do, and nobody can take that transformative joy that we’ve found in Lucia, one another, and in God away from us.  It doesn’t make any of it okay, of course–the assault on the healthcare of the most vulnerable in this country.  It almost makes it worse that in a world filled with real life challenges of health and life and death for kids like Lucia, it could be something manmade that’s the death of them.  But it reminds me that I’m not waiting on our government’s bills or decrees or approval to live my life–I never was.  Instead, I’m happily and graciously bound to a family and to a God and to people who love us and whose love is real and here and stable.

Of course, the one problem is that however lovely these words, they are tinged with privilege.  Many people won’t be able to lean on family or something as seemingly ethereal like creativity, but practically translated as amazing university employment.  People will be so hurt and scarred by revoking healthcare and Medicaid and those the most hurt won’t be me or my family but those whose dignity has not just recently come under assault but rather has long been denied by the classist, sexist, ableist, racist undertones of America’s unrelenting “greatness.”

But I do think it’s something–it’s certainly not nothing–to feel joy amidst fear and live to tell about it.  Indeed, this is what I find defying and powerful about so many saints of the church, champions for justice, and seemingly ordinary people who have gone before me.  Please, please don’t hear me wrong.  I’m not giving up, but rather recalibrating our fight.  I’m suggesting that we bravely, boldly live our joy-soaked lives even, perhaps especially in the face of such an assault.  Taking pleasure and joy in our humble lives becomes an act of resistance in itself, a luxury that many struggle to find.

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Our family celebrating at my sister’s installation service.  

And this is precisely why we must not measure ourselves by human standards because we see human standards faltering in our midst everyday.  I’m reminded these days that they can’t take our joy because our lives never belonged to them or even to us but to God.  And same thing with that joy.  It’s roots are deeper, wider, grander than many of these legislators have ever encountered.  May they feel its fury, its vibrance, its resilience and may they be led beyond fear, as I have, to seek justice.