Tag Archives: culture

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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Outside the walls

A few months ago I overheard my husband counseling a friend who was going to accompany us to a party thrown by a bunch of my colleagues in anthropology.  “You don’t have to worry with them,” my husband assured our friend, “anthropologists are interested in everything.  Watch, whatever you say they’ll find it interesting, they’ll talk about anything forever.”

It’s evidently what makes us quirky party attendees or hosts, but I like to think that our curiosity as anthropologists is also one of our best qualities.  We find the world more interesting, more beautiful precisely because of diversity and difference.  Life is more intriguing because of culture, because your corner of the world doesn’t look talk, or act, like mine.  And yes, I could talk about those fascinating differences in culture, well…forever.

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A foster mom in Anhui, China embraces her foster son. Photo by Jason Fouts.

On the last day of the class I was teaching at the seminary this semester, when I felt like I’d earned the right to speak a little of my own passion into my students’ lives, I challenged them to believe that they might learn just as much about God outside the Church walls or the seminary campus as within.  I asked them to dare to believe that pushing their faith to include, behold, embrace, and learn from people from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds–pushing their faith to be real outside the Church might actually make it deeper, more powerful, and more poignant.

You see, I think that while it’s human to be curious, it’s also human to be really freaked out by difference.  And when we Christians get skittish, we often take a lot of the beauty and truth and goodness that God has blessed and made and called good and try to cram it into our manmade boxes.  I think good theology and good anthropology teach us to do just the opposite (like reminding us that Jesus blew the chains off women, tax collectors, diseased men and women, and prostitutes,  and included us Gentiles in salvation) (or anthropology that shows us how insightful, productive, and healthy cultural differences are), but we humans also like to be in control.

Anyway, I said these things to my students not only because they’re my truth but also because the next generation of spiritual leaders just might be our politicians, professors, doctors, lawyers, philosophers, non-profit managers, prison wardens, and community organizers.  A friend of mine had a conversation last week with a faculty member at the seminary who said her greatest concern is that we are preparing seminarians for jobs and a world that doesn’t exist.  A few days later, that same friend asked me whether I claim my Christian faith in community and what that means.

Being introduced this fall by my professor at the university for a presentation.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Being introduced this fall by my professor at the university for a presentation. Photo by Evan Schneider.

And I realized for the first time in years of discerning and seeking and praying that I can say that I’m “out,” for lack of a better term, in my department at my university, as a Christian, a minister, a person of faith, and it finally feels right.  My colleagues happily introduce me as their resident pastor, they call on me for counsel in difficult situations because they know I’m not afraid of the messiness of life, and they even appreciate being told they are prayed for.

But it doesn’t just go one way–these same colleagues hold me accountable when I begin to complain or gossip, they counsel me through life’s big decisions, and they rejoice and grieve with me.  Both these experiences close to home and those afar of being ministered to by those supposedly outside the fold have taught me that the Spirit isn’t limited to the walls of the Church despite our unconscious, subversive efforts to confine it.  The prophetic isn’t limited to God-fearing people, and Christians don’t have a monopoly on Truth.

A temple in Luang Prabang, Laos.  Photo by Ben Robinson.
A temple in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo by Ben Robinson.

Perhaps this is where my anthropology meets my theology so nearly, neatly, and dearly–in the enmeshing of the sacred and the profane in the everyday lives of people in culture, relationship, and meaning-making.  Real salvation is transcendent in that it seeps out of our pores to touch everyone we meet and everything we do.  And so I think theological education has to change to respond to not only this reality, but this Truth.  It has to equip all these people who are going to be outside the walls of the Church institution, and who will be ambassadors of faith and hope and love in this world.

I look around and I value and am inspired by both forms of leadership, service, and ministry–those inside the Church and out–but I believe the Church and seminaries have often been focused on internal ministry at the expense of the external, and our lives are lived, made, and redeemed in the everyday.

A Lahu church congregation in Yunnan, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
A Lahu church congregation in Yunnan, China. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Thanks for letting me talk forever and ever this morning about what I really find interesting in this beautiful, strange, sacred world.

P.s. You may notice the blog has a new look.  About time, right?  Everything’s pretty much the same except some of the links are to the right and on the bottom.  Thanks for stopping by and let me know what you think of the facelift.   —Erin

This Advent, Share joy.

This time of year there’s always a flood of meditations on Christ and Christmas, on what counts as consumerism versus what counts as Christmas, what is profane and what is sacred.  Last week, I appreciated thoughts on the subject from a Lutheran advent blog which pointed out the vehemence with which we attempt to divide Christ from culture can become an obsessive act, the focus of devotion in and of itself.

Sarah Wilson writes,

“There’s a lot of self-righteous delight in pointing out how far the culture has traveled from Christmas’s authentic meaning. There’s a snide pride in saying ‘my liturgical year kicks your practically non-existent liturgical year’s butt.’ There’s a temptation to make Advent our own good work of getting December right and being really properly set up to get the most out of Christmas. Then it’s about our coming rightly to Christ and not about his coming graciously to us.”

Wreaths on the door of Miller Chapel.
Wreaths on the door of Miller Chapel, Princeton Theological Seminary.

I’ve been reading a lot this week in preparation for my course about how the images of the manger scene we cling to are not really all that Biblical or culturally accurate.  They’re inaccurate because they present the manger family as nuclear, quiet, and sterile, which neatly represent ideals we import from Western culture, not from Israelite or Biblical culture.  On the other hand, my Mexican friend told me the other day how their nativity scenes are kind of like our Christmas villages here in the states–kids relish the opportunity to add new characters (Biblical and extra-Biblical!) to the scene every year, creating elaborate vistas of mountains, crowds of children, lakes, dance floors, and parking lots!

Shifting our focus to the futile act of seeking cultural purity in our faith also causes us to miss what might be surprisingly central to both Mary and Joseph’s pilgrimage and Mexican nativity scenes (and problematically absent from ours, it seems), and that is community.  One of the important reminders for me this season, whether it comes from the Lutherans, the Mexicans, the Pagans, or the tribes of Israel, is that joy is best when it is shared.  

Joseph and Mary were probably not alone on the journey to Bethlehem or in the manger that evening–the joy of Jesus’s birth was shared by cousins and aunts and uncles and shepherds and wisemen.  And then Jesus, despite the very real sacrifice, left his family to walk door to door sharing the good news with people.  Finally, the disciples took that joy, not always bravely or diligently, but they did it–to the corners of the earth.

Now I’m not an especially evangelical Christian, but I feel God’s call during this season to share joy with those who I meet.  Of course, in my mind, joy is a lot like love–it doesn’t impose, demand, or judge–it, like the birth of our Lord, is not about us, but about Christ graciously coming to us and living within us.  I feel God’s call to let others in on this gift and especially not to worry who was really there in the manger or who belongs there today.  I feel blessed to live in a time and a place where great diversity exists from door to door, and where life is fuller because you and I are both in it.  And most of all, I feel humbled to realize that this joy is not my own.

Isn’t joy meant to be shared?  Pass it on!

Advent and Breaking In

My husband and I attended an Advent service on Sunday evening: candles were lit, we sang “This is Christ the King,” and there were repeated prayers that God, hope, and power would break into our lives this season.

Stones for the foundation of a church in Yunnan, China.
Stones for the foundation of a church in Yunnan, China.

For some reason these words, these prayers for “breaking in” caught my ear.  As I’ve ruminated over them the past few days, I’ve come to see that there’s inherent violence to the language, the request, and the action: we’re asking for God to shatter our present reality and its comforts and even our sense of justice.

In reality, being broken into is a terrifying experience: I recently retold a story to family and friends about a time I awoke at four am in a strange hotel room in Yunnan, China to see a hand reaching out of the curtain towards me!  And brokenness, the type our God suffers on a cross all because we could not receive him as King, is the shattering of bones, spirit, and blood.

So why do we pray for brokenness?

I think while we ask for our worlds to be turned upside down, we’re often a lot more like Herod in the Biblical story than the shepherds who make their way to the manger.  We don’t like to think that when threatened we’d come up with some power-hungry, violent plan to preserve ourselves, but the flesh in me questions just how open, how cognizant, or how hospitable we might really be to a new order, a new truth, a baby King.  

Something tells me we’d be more likely to go kicking and screaming to the manger, if at all.

Sometimes I went kicking and screaming to the people I came to know in China.  I resented that my time had to resolve around them, I got hungry and tired walking from house to house, from field to field, and I dreaded those hours of buses and trains with little sleep or comfort.  I tried to put up walls that would preserve my sense of control, my time, and my culture.  Because to me, the Chinese life felt incredibly inconvenient and uncomfortable at times, and I didn’t want to let my sense of culture, right and wrong, or justice be disrupted by their messy worlds.

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But in breaking is a lot like living in China, I think.  

It’s the opposite of convenient, because it’s revelation where God doesn’t ask us to give way–God simply shoves us and all our convictions aside.  I saw a meme this week that said, “the world needs a stable influence,” but as long as we think of the stable as stabilizing, quaint, or even hygenic, we lose sight of the meagerness of the manger, the upheaval of nations and kings wrought by it, or the savior that made his way into the world only to be rejected, broken, and burdened by our sin.

It’s not that this season isn’t about joy and hope and power–the Christ story is ultimately a story of redemption from sin and evil when all seemed to be lost.  But given what God has done, I’m not so sure we need to pray that God breaks in.  Instead, I wonder if our prayer shouldn’t be that God make us willing and able to recognize and receive revelation, inconvenient as it may be, or seemingly out of place in a season we’ve chosen to decorate with candles and Christmas.

Bringing the water buffalo home for the day in Yunnan, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Bringing the water buffalo home for the day in Yunnan, China. Photos by Evan Schneider.

 

Journeywoman

I have had a rough couple of days, a roller coaster of ups and downs, but last Sunday evening I had a glimpse of inspiration and encouragement during my prayer time that has kept me going.

It was not easy, but definitely illuminating to stumble across the notion that the security that I have been craving is a luxury and even a bit of distraction when I consider that it is God, not things or circumstances, who is my security. In other words, I am the type who often worries over the destination, forgetting to enjoy the journey.

But if we believe God really gives us all the tools to meet all of life’s challenges, it is the journey, not the destination, which we are meant to enjoy.

On a particular day recently when I was struggling with being faithful and enjoying the journey, God brought another young Christian Anthropologist into my life who shared her own struggles with me, and I was able to put aside my worries, listening to her struggle, which was oddly cathartic. Ruminating on it, though, I don’t think it’s so odd, really, that God provides us with companions upon the journey, and when we receive their humanity, abiding with one another in this otherwise restless world, we feel the intimacy and the closeness of God’s peace in a tangible way.

That moment was a helpful reminder to me of the intimacy I desire which is paramount and perhaps countercultural, but only in the sense that the pace of the world often doesn’t halt for healing, wholeness, and human connection.

At the same time, what is good and true about culture, much as what is good and true about our God, is the richness of human relationships in all their beauty and brokenness. I guess what I’m getting at it is when I make God and intimacy with other human beings my destination, which is truly returning to my life purpose as a pastor and an anthropologist, I can only revel in what joy there is on the journey and chuckle at my own blindness and anxiety.

Those humbling moments bring tears to my eyes, deep breaths to my chest, and great awe at the goodness and carefulness of all God’s plans which I had doubted.

I pray that I might continue to grow into this type of security, this rootedness in God that brings peace and joy no matter how bumpy the road.  Amen.