There is a phrase that’s thrown around churches like mine: “Reformed and always reforming.” Depending on who you talk to this refers to either the personal response of individuals (We have re-formed our theology now we need our hearts, minds, morals and outer lives to be re-formed as well) or the modus operandi of the reformer in the world at large – (Our theology and church and lives are always being re-formed by our engagement with scripture and the culture). People argue about this, I guess.
I was reminded of this phrase when I read the article by Jemar Tisby in the Washington Post on Sunday (and more of the work at RAAN- Reformed African American Network). In the Post Mr. Tisby wrote these words, “After Charlottesville, Will White Pastors Finally Take Racism Seriously?” This question leads to more questions: “Will white pastors NOW realize that the Christian life is expressed as though White-ness, its benefits and its understanding of the world, is considered the explicit and implicit goal and best outcome of our life together?” “Will you, White pastors, realize this and see what it does to your brothers and sisters?” Mr. Tisby is asking This cannot be unseen once you see it – our culture and our church were born out of this very assumption. What we saw in the states this weekend was the vile, end-of –the-spectrum outcome of assuming white culture, history, church history, theological and institutional conclusions were the norm and the goal. The vile outcome of this implicit way of walking in the world manifests in the degradation and utility of anyone not white for the purposes of a culture that benefits white skin and ideas alone. North America was founded on this and all the good we enjoy was built within this method. This is not in dispute. White Christian’s understanding of themselves and the blessing of God is rooted in this – this is also not in dispute. It is. It is. It is a fact. Now we can absolutely not be racist in theory or to the immediate people around us, but we can also absolutely benefit from the legacy of the degradation and utility of other human beings, and we do. And that has to be reckoned with. Because race and the habit of not seeing others who are not like you, plays out in economics and in opportunity. After 100’s of years, it is of course still embedded throughout North American culture that economic factors, capital, and opportunity factors, social capital, are unequal between the races. And when we talk about white privilege it is this: Can we look away from other people’s hurt, harm, words of protest, and in no way have our economic or physical lives threatened? Can we live our lives without being affected by this? IS our norm completely fine. That is our privilege which is a race privilege and a class-economic privilege. Now I’m not saying we all have to become full-time justice activists. But what our brothers and sisters are asking is that we do not look away from the evil of racism because we simply can and our daily lives and our lives with Jesus would not be affected (but of course, it is).
What Mr. Tisby is calling for is for the church at large to accept the diagnosis which our brothers and sisters of colour are giving us all. The human flourishing which God intended and incarnates at all points when God walks among his creation, (and that is a reformed, biblical, beautiful concept if ever there was one) is being held back by a refusal to acknowledge this deeply rooted brokenness, SIN of systemic racism. The flourishing which God intended in his Kingdom is being held back when we do not under-stand, ask questions about, repent from, turn around, and finally see Jesus as the one who holds EVERY ONE OF US for our transformation and salvation from this garbage. The flourishing of God’s creation is being impeded, by us, when we do not listen and obey, act, think, and interpret the world differently, with humility, with total, unequivocal mercy and grace. The flourishing of God’s kingdom is stopped and then perverted when we do not take the response-ability to be re-formed, as it were, in regards to The Other. To have our lives taken over by the ONE, the truth, the WAY, of bringing all things together into unity, into wholeness, to have our lives taken over by the ONE who has taken away that which divides us and is creating in himself one new humanity out of the divisions. (see Ephesians…all of it).
In Canada, in the Canadian Church, we do not have the cultural legacy of slavery, but we have a legacy of assuming white culture is God’s norm. We do. And it has decimated real humans, our indigenous brethren, in ways that are still being realized. If we are going to have reconciliation with anyone, we have to start there. The obvious and empirical evidence is this: God’s world is not defined by white culture (which was European and colonial culture and is now also North American and capitalist culture). The beautiful truth of God so loving this world got worded as, “you have to think, be and live exactly in this way, OUR white way, to understand God’s love.” And that is not the truth. Just travel and find out. Just listen to voices long silenced and find out. God’s world, and God’s word, empirically we can tell by using our eyes, is more than our understanding of it. It is more than our own interpretation of it. So as re-formed pastors, theologians, lay people, how do we understand God and interpret Jesus and these incredible scriptures knowing that our interpretation of them is rooted in a white cultural bias and is rooted in a cultural bias that puts the power of interpretation into the hands of a few who fit the bill?
What gives me hope is that Jesus got this “reformed and always reforming” thing and I think in both senses of the phrase. He understood his role as a prophet, calling the interpretation of God’s works in the world back into an original light, back into a wholeness, a love, a relationship of meaning, wonder and created covenant. But he also called into question the interpretation 100’s and 1000’s of years of that call that a specific culture had. He did not mind breaking Sabbath laws if they helped God’s creation heal and become whole, over and over. He did not mind breaking social taboos of associating with women, men of disrepute, over and over–it healed them and they became whole. He re-formed a cultural understanding of the work of God in service of each person’s restoration into loving communion. He re-formed the culture’s understanding of God and its theology and then charged everyone to take that theology and offer it back to God through the very shape, action and motivation of their hearts, minds, souls, and bodies. Love this God, love this neighbour, love this self.
And in the ultimate “the medium IS the message” moment, the incarnation of God’s self in Jesus offers us the truth of how God is. He is with us, over and over, in all cultures, in all races. In all various broken and incomplete understandings, He is with us. Andrew Walls, the missiologist, talks about how the very fact of the incarnation leads to a broader, fuller, truer, more whole understanding of the gospel with every new people group it encounters. It does this because the incarnation is a translation itself. A translation of God’s life force into the context of one culture. And as each group encounters the gospel, something new is made known about the presence of that God. And then that translation is translated again into another culture and then into another, with the truth being the kernel of “with us”, “for us,” “unto us” in every context and sola Christo (Christ alone) being the diamond waiting to be revealed with every generation.
To the church of North America, if I may, letting God translate Jesus into a context of diversity IS what IS happening now. We are not a whole bunch of worlds separate from each other. We are one world, one big-small world. This is the truth that He is revealing through His creation. And submitting to God’s work of opening our eyes to His diversity is the first step. Followed closely by an examination of how we don’t do this systemically, at large, and from the front. In practical, daily terms: Step number 1 – LISTEN TO OTHER VOICES. Ask for discernment, ask for courage, ask for humility and LISTEN. READ. LISTEN to stories, experiences, their understanding of our good God. Step number 2 – TALK TO OTHER VOICES. Talk, see, ask questions, under-stand – that is, stand literally under their experience until you get it. Step number 3 – TALK ABOUT IT. Talk about race, how it is experienced in your specific context, engage with stories from YOUR city and the world. To your kids, to your spouses, to your parents. In your classrooms, in your churches. Step number 4 – LISTEN, READ, TALK with the Spirit of the Living God, with all the honesty you are capable of. Ok, maybe that should be first. And also maybe that is actually happening as you do steps 1-3.
We affirm that Jesus would have none of this white supremacy garbage. That really should be easy to affirm. And now its ok to see where its roots and effects still lay within our every day workings. Its ok to repent now. It really is. Nothing happens until then. We all know this, don’t we.
Re-formed, always re-forming. Inside, yes absolutely, and also outside, with the help of our brothers and sisters who hear things and know things we may not be listening for yet.