After Charlottesville: Unequivocal, Repentant, Listening, Re-formed

 

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, creation and each other).   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?”   Will I?   We are asked if white pastors NOW realize that so much of the Christian life is expressed as though White-ness, the benefit and understanding of the world you have when you are white, is considered the explicit and implicit goal and best outcome of our life together as Christians?”  “Will you, White pastors, realize this and see what it does to your brothers and sisters?” Mr. Tisby is asking in this article.  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 wish ill on 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 woven throughout our institutions because we simply can and our daily lives of good abundance and our lives with Jesus would not be affected (but of course, it will be).

 

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 listen to what’s being said.  Its being impeded when we do not ask questions about, repent from, turn around, and finally see Jesus as the one who holds EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US.

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.  When we do not respond to grace a life like Jesus’.   When we refuse to let light into this area, we are refusing to have our lives taken over by the ONE  that is bringing all things together into unity, into wholeness,  that is destroying the wall that 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.  The white church thought it was right to damage and demean a whole culture of God’s creation to force it into whiteness, which they assumed was God’s truth.   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 own 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 – that it wasn’t by our work that we come into relationship with HIM – it is by His work and His grace.   And then He charged everyone to take that lived truth of grace 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.  Read other stories.  Listen to experiences, and understandings 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 and ask Him to reveal what’s going on.  Ok, maybe that should be first.  And also maybe that is actually happening as you do steps 1-3.

AND THEN LIVE DIFFERENTLY, in response and in gratitude to this good news of God with us.

 

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.

 

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Wrinkles in Time, 8 year olds, and Truth…all while trying to do the dishes.

A-Wrinkle-In-Time

My husband and I were in the kitchen cleaning up after dinner this week when my 8 year old walked in and asked, “But how can we know what’s true?”  That’s a “pay attention” question if ever there was one.  She went on: “Like with ITIT told Meg and Calvin that it knew what was best and that if they gave in to it, it would bring them peace.  They wouldn’t need to worry or think or stress.  How did they know not to trust it when those words sound like good things?”

 

If you aren’t familiar with the references, they are from Madeleine L’Engle’s 1960’s fantasy A Wrinkle in Time which we had just finished reading together last week.  The 8 year old had been thinking about it apparently.  The main characters, Meg and Charles Wallace along with their friend Calvin were tasked with saving Meg’s father from the powers of darkness, from a blackness that blots out the skies, that’s hard to detect from earth, that’s seductive in its grasp but is very, very real.  Meg’s father was trapped on a planet that had succumbed to the darkness and on that planet it manifested as IT, a huge central brain that did all the thinking for everyone on the planet.  When Meg and the others confronted IT, trying to save her father, IT offered them peace.  IT would say things like: “Why don’t you trust me?  Why don’t you trust me enough to come and find out what I am? I am peace and utter rest.  I am freedom from all responsibility.  To come to me is the last difficult decision you will ever make…..in Camazotz all are equal; everybody is the same as everyone else.”

The 8 year old heard the words which were meant to confuse. She heard the big nasty IT say words that could be good but didn’t feel right.   And so she asked critical questions about truth.  She wanted to know why Meg knew not to believe IT.

And like everyone else, I am watching the news and seeing different takes on reality.  I am watching, in real time, some people say one thing and some people say another, all claiming to be the truth.  Truth is apparently in the eye of whoever can shout the loudest.  Truth is determined by airtime and tweets.  Everyone sees reality according to their own pain and their own benefit.  Truth becomes synonymous with a worldview, not a real world where everybody lives.

Pilate asked the same question of Jesus, the question precipitated by the same circumstances – two takes on a reality that were vastly different.  Some people said He was a healer, a prophet, someone who changed them and knew them and offered life.  Some said He was a dissenter, a dangerous villain who was out to take away a way of life, to strip morals away from people, to ruin the work of God in their land and take power for himself.  Everyone was angry, everyone was shouting, some were crying, some hiding.   But the words of accusation made sense.  Pilate didn’t want an insurgency on his hands, an uprising—he didn’t want a rabble-rouser disquieting the natives, claiming power.  And yet, when he looked at the man before him, he knew to ask the question.  He knew not everything was as it seemed, not everything was as it was being interpreted to him.   So Pilate looked at the small, naked man in front of him and asked, “What is truth?”

 

There is no record of what Jesus answered.  There is only a small, naked man standing there.  Reduced, stripped, completely bare and unarmed. That is the answer to “What is truth?”

 

When my daughter asked the question about truth, she was asking about discernment.  How do we discern what is good; how do we know we can trust it?  How do we discern when the words all sound like good things?

 

This is a question I have been asking myself too.  What happens to truth when reality can be interpreted as far away from facts and physical reality as need be?  When anything makes sense if you talk around it long enough.

 

As my husband and I stood there in the kitchen,  we tried to answer the 8 year old.  Two things came out of that conversation that have struck me as genuine litmus tests for truth.

The first is fruit.  As in, what is the fruit of the claim, the action, that is being discerned.  What is the result.  The 8 year old understood this idea of fruit—there’s a song (or 100) about it.  This is what kids do in Sunday school – sing songs about fruit.   The fruit of the Spirit of God is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.   You can tell a tree by its fruit.  It makes a nice song but take it towards discernment and its powerful in its clarity.

 

Does the outcome of the claim being made on truth result in love?  Love, not admiration, not adoration, not praise, but love.  I love bell hooks’ definition of love.  “LOVE is as love does” she writes; love is when we “openly and honestly express care, affection, responsibility, respect, commitment and trust.” (All About Love, bell hooks, 2000).  Does what is being offered express care, affection, responsibility towards, respect of, commitment and covenant over and trust of the people involved.  This kind of love takes seriously the human worth of people– all the people.  We talked about this and it was clear to the 8 year old, IT did not love the people it claimed to be helping.  IT offered them ease but not love for their very own selves, especially not when they advocated for themselves.

 

Does the outcome of the claim being made on truth result in joy?   IT did not offer joy either.  IT offered a version of satiety, but not joy.  Not the swelling of the heart, not the gratitude that verbalized joy, not the color, the taste, the movement and new life that joy creates and recreates continuously.

 

Does the outcome of the claim being made result in peace?  Well, yes, in a way, the 8 year old noticed.  IT offered utter rest, no one had to think, no one had to fight, no one had any say in anything so no one thought they were better than the others.  This is why the 8 year old asked the question!  This is where the kernel of truth lay in IT’s claim.  IT claimed peace but brought it through force.  Was that real peace?

 

We moved on.  But the questions are SO worth asking.

Does the outcome of the claim of truth result in patience?  Does it make people able to stop and step back and listen before speaking? Does is create the capacity for second, third, fourth chances?  How about 70X7 chances?

Does it result in kindness? Does what you are hearing as the reality you should live by result in kindness?  Does it engender kindness?  Kindness to who? You?  People just like you?  Or everyone—even those soooo different from you.

Does it result in goodness?  In flourishing, in harvest, in abundance?  For all of us?

Does is result in gentleness?  Does it result in the ability to step back from rage and see the fragile human in front of you?  Does it give you the capacity to then reach out with intention but care to who is in front of you?  To yourself?  We never talk about gentleness.  But the Spirit does.

Does this truth result in faithfulness?  In covenant?  Does it result in long-term commitments to the good of the other?  Does it help you trust more?  Trust God, trust yourself, trust others?

Does it result in self-control?  Does your truth result in the ability to hold yourself accountable to others, the awareness to hold yourself as living within a whole, not just for yourself and for the immediate?

 

The other thing that came out of our kitchen conversation about A Wrinkle in Time was this question:  Who benefits from this version of truth?  Who loses?  Who gains more and who suffers?  It didn’t take too many years of human stories for my younger daughter to conclude last year, “Bad guys always want money and power, money and power.”  Thank you Disney movies.  Seems simple, but it could be worth asking, “Where is the power (and money and fame) going?”  Meg Murray, her brother and her friend saw that IT was after the power to control, to determine the fates of all the people on that planet.  And IT carved that power by diminishing the humanity of all the people – it no longer saw individuals, but a cause, a system, a truth based on not seeing individual worth.  Want to know why governments, churches and any institution can quickly move from truth to lie?  From good to harm?  Because of this…By no longer seeing individuals but only seeing the cause, when ends justify means, when the power to act tramples the real-live individual its supposed to help.

When we are called upon to make a judgment about truth, where is the power, and the money and fame that give it, going?  Who is benefiting and who is suffering?

 

As Pilate stood there, looking at the naked small man before him, powerless indeed, he asked, “What is truth?”  And the truth stood there naked and small—the truth stood there as basic as each of us on the day of our birth and the day of our death.

What was the fruit of this man, upholding and drawing in the humanity of all of us by just standing there.  He did not have power or money to convince or sway.  But he left in his wake people made more whole.  People seeing themselves for real for the first time.  Was there love?  Joy?  Kindness?  Gentleness?

Who benefited from this man?  The lost, the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the orphan, the widow, the thief, the cheat, the lonely, the sick, the desperate, the questioning, the rich, the confused, the blind, the lame, the selfish, the adamant, the ones who cried out loudly, the ones who couldn’t anymore.  Every individual got to have their own selves given back to them, their dignity, their worth–Everyone who came into his frame, not just those who were just like him.

 

The God who gave.  Who poured out.  Who decided and intentionally emptied out for the benefit of the losers of the world, emptied out until his own death. Because he saw each of them?  And served them?  Touched their dirtiness?  And loved them?   Is that truth?  Is this how we discern truth these days?

The answer of truth, again and again with this Jesus, is no answer we can defend with swords and power or even with well-crafted words, initiatives, or programs, but truth?  Here, before Pilate and the powers of this world, truth is a person, fully alive.

 

Meg Murray…I keep coming back to her.  As she faced IT in the end, she was powerless to stand firm from its pulsing control.  She could not defeat IT through her will power, through her ability to think through the issues.  She could not defeat IT through any of her gifts, her strengths.  They were no match for its all encompassing lies that made complete sense.  But she held out for one thing – love.  Love for her brother, her baby brother who knew her, who saw her, who was cut from the same cloth she was, the one thing she could remember even in the face of the most peaceful lie of utter security, the lie of hardship ceasing.  Love for one person, for one individual in that moment, was the only thing that inoculated her from the lie that would not serve them, but take from them their power to be truly alive.

 

Love did it.  Somehow.  Over and over again, we read this in books–the really old ones and the really weird ones.  And 8 year olds the world over start to ask themselves the question, What is truth?

Is it any wonder the book was banned?

 

“A book, too, can be a star, “explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly,” a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.”  Madeleine L’Engle quoting astronomer Fred Hoyle in her Newbury Medal acceptance speech, 1963.