The whole Body of Christ

I have realized something, and I’m still piecing it together. Please bear with me and love me even if this rubs you the wrong way. Let me preface it by saying this is about race and racism and the church, and my perspective. I have always had a heart for people who were not white, taught and nurtured in us by our mom as a contrarian reaction to growing up in an extended family with a lot of racism. She genuinely stubbornly loves people of color, and she taught us to as well. When you grow up around covert and overt racism, you learn the code words and the worldview, and you can recognize that spirit in others even in varying degrees. If racism is a spectrum (which I believe), there are many variations between someone who truly loves and celebrates people of color and the torch and sign holding people in hoods or adorned with swastikas we have seen in recent days. Most people land somewhere in the middle, and everyone hates being called a racist, even if they fall closer to the overt worldview we saw in Charlottesville.

Not only do I believe racism is a spectrum, I know it is fluid and we can move across the spectrum throughout our lives intentionally. If I may, I’ll use again my mom as an example. She called me one day, breathless with excitement. She had been driving alone earlier that evening and needed gas, pulling into a gas station at night that was almost deserted. She had been working the past year-and-a-half on the “security team” at her church, and had become really close friends with several Black men on that team. So she is pulling into this station and she sees a Black man filling up his car. She excitedly pulls in next to him, because her instinct was that a Black man was a safe man, and she knew he would protect her. It was only after she drove away that she realized this instinct was the exact opposite of an instinct she would have years before, before getting to know these friends as she did. We talked about it, and she was so grateful that in knowing these men, her innate instincts to protect herself from someone who looked different was dying away. I’ve thought of it so often since that day.

When we know each other, we stop fearing each other. 

I think this is really important in the church today, and I didn’t fully realize it until I stepped away from the church after serving in churches throughout Texas since I was 19 years old. In my time outside of church the past year, I have still cultivated my faith. But I have craved different voices, and in particular have been blown away by the voices of Black women: Austin Channing, Priscilla Shirer, Christena Cleveland, and the women of Truth’s Table (A podcast made by and for black women, but one I listen to and learn from as often as possible https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/truths-table/id1212429230?mt=2). These women have been my pastors in my time outside of the church. It is like I have turned a prism, and am seeing God and the world from an entirely different viewpoint. I am seeing something I missed, and I didn’t even know I missed it.

I have really wrestled with why this has been so fulfilling for me, and I think, for the first time, I am learning from something closer to the whole body of Christ. I’m still reading and listening to white men and women (Jonathan Martin, Shauna Niequist, Sarah Bessey), but now I’ve added in another perspective. And honestly it is expanding my understanding of Christ in a really revolutionary way. How have I missed this for so long?

Our society, and our churches, are entirely too homogenous. We don’t KNOW each other, so we aren’t relating to one another. We fear each other more than we learn from one another (certainly more than we listen to one another). And this isn’t a political reality, it’s an American reality. Somewhere between 70 and 81% of us have social networks entirely made up of our own race (https://www.prri.org/research/poll-race-religion-politics-americans-social-networks/).

And I thought, because I am blessed with friendships of people of other races, that I had a more diverse understanding of life in the United States and my role in the whole Kingdom of Christ. But I realized, in my time away from the church, that my church life (which had been so overwhelmingly active both in time and in intensity), I was not getting a picture of the whole body of Christ. In the past 20 years, I have been led almost entirely by white men. They have been my Senior Pastors and Associate Pastors and bosses and Worship Leaders. They have taught me the Bible and I have learned a great deal under their teaching. Some churches have made attempts at diversity, but in all honesty it has been Black or Latino people delivering songs or messages or carefully worded greetings chosen by white men (and very occasionally, white women). I’ve never sat on a Staff with any person of color in a position of real authority or influence. Thankfully I have sat under the leadership of one woman, but that was one woman in over 20 years of ministry. So in my entirety of church experience, the default worldview is that of the white male. I have learned, 52 weeks a year, what living the Christian life looks, sounds, and feels like from a white male perspective. So if I listen to a 40 minute message each week, and I’ve been in church 25 years, I have spent approximately 950 hours learning about God from a white male perspective. If I had that many hours in any university in one subject, I would have a doctorate degree (so I may update my resume and say I have a doctorate degree in white male theology :).  And that is great, but it is like looking through one facet of a prism, or working out but only focusing on one body part. You become really strong in that one area, but the rest of your body (and your faith) could very easily be weak and stunted.

The body of Christ is beautiful and diverse, yet our churches are not. I’ve realized the past year that I am ready to listen to someone else about the experience of faith in Christ.

In the march in Charlottesville, hundreds of angry young white men yelled “You will not replace us!” And I’ve heard that from white men in my life, as others moved above them in leadership at their work. They have felt replaced. And I’ve wrestled with that – is that what I’m advocating? Is that what I want? Do I want all white men replaced in the positions of spiritual authority in the church in the United States?

Let me say unequivocally that is not what I am saying. I am simply saying that I want to be in a church (and honestly in a country) where I get to hear the voices of the entire body of Christ. I don’t think we should just accept the reality that Sunday morning during church is the most segregated hour of the week. I have spent almost 1,000 hours of my spiritual life listening to what white males believe about the Christian faith, and I’m ready to invest a few hundred hours in the other sides of the prism. I want to hear poetry and music and liturgy and theology from the perspective of everyone else.

Because when you know each other, you stop fearing each other. Maybe we would have more empathy, more understanding of the fears and concerns of others if we were hearing them in our churches and in our homes and in our lives. It humanizes them, and humanizes us. We develop empathy. Our faith becomes more well-rounded as we learn from the experiences and perspective of people with different struggles from our own.

We would know them, and when we know them, we stop fearing them. Yes we have a racism problem in this country, and in this church. We DO. It is because we do not know our brothers and sisters in Christ, made in the image of God. We are not hearing them, or listening. And our churches can, and should, do so much more to solve this problem.

 

4 Comments

  1. Err, I need to clarify what you mean in these two sentences: “Do I want white men replaced in the positions of spiritual authority in the church in the United States?…….Let me say unequivocally that is not what I am saying.” Do you think white men should share spiritual authority with all people, women, and people of color? Or do you think that white men and only white men should have authority and everyone else should just be heard but not in authority? I agree with much of what you say but would like to better understand your view on authority.

    Reply

    1. Oh no I’m so glad you asked the question. No I’m not saying that at all. I actually am searching for a church now where someone other than a white man is the ultimate spiritual authority and where there is diversity in leadership. But I’m also not calling for white male Pastors I know, with whom I have served, to step down. I just want them to open up their platforms to other voices that are not theirs, because it is good for their churches to hear from the whole body. Thank you for asking – I hope that clarifies.

      Reply

  2. I am digesting your words and admit to a fair degree of resistance, for what may be reasons that are both sound and unsound, since I am unfortunately a fallible human and impure (of course any known existential alternative might even be less desirable). Now that means that whatever those reasons are, they will include some defensiveness because I am a white male. I would say that I cannot change that, but. as we are ALL aware, that can actually be done nowadays (at least the medical world claims so).
    You said in your initial sentences that the post was about “race and racism in the church”. However the implications made throughout the message and the recurrent term “white male” suggested that patriarchy has a measurable degree of distaste for you as well. I wonder if you recognize this. Do you think that they may be fused somehow into an indistinguishable whole that shades your perspective on each of them?
    So, while I can internalize much of what you say about seeking diverse viewpoints (as long as they are viewpoints of the Truth) pertaining to race and ethnicity, (and we do have the freedom to pursue other perspectives along those lines and your freedom is certainly supported) but when you imply that there needs to be some level of acceptance of femaleness in the leadership that is not already there, I wonder if we are talking about the same category of concerns. Can you offer some Biblical authority for this aspect of your hopes? I have had a different experience than you, being at the “top of the food chain” as it were. I would not claim to have been only fed or taught by white males during my time in the church. I will agree that the majority of the time the pastors were white males (except for right now when my pastor is Hispanic) and all of the time they were male. That would be somewhat natural sociologically being as how white is the predominant color of my society and logical ecclesiastically since male leadership seems to correspond to the Biblical pattern and prescription, for whatever reasons God may have for it (and I believe there ARE valid reasons which are edifying to both men and women)
    But let me acquiesce for now that your points and concerns are mostly valid. Can we move from the opinions shaped by subjective experience (yours and mine) to principles and mandates from scripture? Where are you coming from in this thought pattern scripturally? And please, if you will, distinguish between emphases on race and sex.

    And I agree that the Body of Christ ought to be inclusive. It’s local expression ought always to draw diverse groups (color notwithstanding) because the gifts themselves attest to diversity and testify to the need for all to join (be assembled) in order to experience wholeness. As local bodies practice this, the larger representations will manifest it also. But it will never materialize when mandated or programmed from the “top”. Then it will only be a form of Godliness.

    I appreciate your pilgrimage and look forward growing myself with your discoveries.

    Reply

  3. Jen, your have beautifully put into words what a lot of us struggle with. It wasn’t until we moved to the US last year that we came to understand the the churches that we have created are socio-economic-racial-political-educationally crafted. This is many times done intentionaly and some other times unitentionally, but unfortunatelly it’s a reality. As middle class Argentines we did not feel confortable in an all-white or and all-black or even in a latino church. We visited many different churches, some super consevative, some contemporary ones and others thst could be considered too liberal. We ended up visiting 16 churches in one year until we found one where where we felt comfortable. When I think about why we feel confortable in this church I think it’s because we fit the socio-economic-racial-political-educational grouping criteria of this particular church. It has been eye-opening for me to see this as a reason to why I didn’t see any homeless person in our church, or from any other vulnerable group. We need to do better and this relied greatly the churchs’ leadership but also on us. In our social groups. It make
    me think: how segregated is my own social group? Is it only academic argentines living in the US? Is it only from people that live one or two ZIP Codes away? For me it is
    definitely a matter of social justice and, as you say, it has to do with our innability to listen to each other, to lear from each other and truly love each other. Thank you for bringin this up and sharing your experience with such honesty and gentleness.

    Reply

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