The Tulip Driven Life Podcast

Friday, June 8, 2018

Review of All Are Welcome: Toward a Multi-Everything Church (Part 4)

By: Thomas F. Booher

We now turn to Jarvis Williams' chapter The Gospel: A Uniquely Planned Strategy for Reconciliation.

Williams reminds us that through Christ, man is reconciled to God, to his fellow man, and to all of creation/the cosmos itself. So naturally, cultures can find common ground and unity through redemption in Christ. Williams has some strong, perhaps controversial statements, such as "race in the American narrative has prioritized majority White culture and dehumanized and marginalized minority (and especially Black) cultures." In the 1600's race developed in our nation as a social construct in order to establish and maintain a racial hierarchy of whites over blacks. The construct of race has served "as a way to dehumanize and marginalize black and brown people and subjugate them to the White majority." And one more for good measure -- "The construct of race in the American experience has historically operated as a category of privilege for the majority White culture over black bodies and as a category granting to majority White culture social, economic, and political power and privileges over black and brown bodies both inside and outside the church, and even in many other Christian spaces."

To grow, Williams says we need to see "the ways in which race still socially privileges and marginalizes different races in the church, in Christian institutions, and in society."

I am twenty-eight years old. This doesn't ring true in my experience, but I admit my experience is very brief, my memories beginning in the early to mid 1990's. I do not doubt that race has been used to denigrate certain people groups because of the color of their skin, among other things. But it is also true that whites have been viewed as oppressive in overly generalizing ways, that all white people are bad just because they are white. While there may be some "white structures" that still privilege white people, I know in my situation there has been scholarships made available to ethnic minorities that never would have been given to me, simply because I am white. Is that biblical justice? I don't really think granting scholarships for one group of people over another, based on ethnic background, makes a lot of sense. That is not to say that I think receiving such a scholarship if it is available to you is evil, but I do wonder why we do these kinds of things. If it is to make up for a deficit or mistreatment of minorities in the past, then at some point will things be "even" and these scholarships will disappear? Or are we saying it is bad that privilege exists in any sense, and thus the advantages of a majority culture are by their very nature sinful and should be done away with by various measures? I do not expect, if I was in Japan let's say, to be given special scholarships just because I was not Japanese.

There are plenty of white people that I know who are not experiencing much if any so-called "white privilege," and there are blacks and others who are being privileged beyond some whites, and sometimes their advantages come because they are being rewarded just for being an ethnic minority. Surely this is an over correction? Let each receive based on their own merit, their own capacity. At the foot of the cross, are not debts forgiven?

More importantly, trying to do the math on who owes who what is not something that can very easily be done. In fact, if we are honest it cannot be done at all. Only by picking out one sin (like racism) could one perhaps try to do this, but even then it will become much more complex and difficult than might be initially thought. I imagine Williams and others in this book might would laugh at that and say it is fairly easy and straightforward, and that I cannot see that because of my white privilege. But privilege isn't inherently bad, and not everything said to be privilege is in fact privilege.

What if I find out that I had a direct ancestor who was a wealthy slave owner? If I was born into a wealthy family (which I wasn't, not even close), would that obligate me to give some of that wealth to the descendants of the slaves of my direct ancestor? What if I was middle class, lower middle class, or poor? What if the slave's descendants, when I come across them, are enjoying more privilege and prosperity than I am? What if they are really awful, terrible, vile and wicked people? Do I blame their wickedness on my ancestor who enslaved their ancestors, and do I assume that the ripple effect of that led to a bad living environment and mistreatment, which bred sinfulness and a bad life of crime down through the generations to the vile black man whose great-great-great grandfather was enslaved by my vile great-great-great grandfather? And if I am an elder in the church, how do I sift through not only my own personal debts that I owe for transgressions that pre-exist me, but also the debts of others in my congregation?

Now, extrapolate that out to the level of entire towns, counties, states, etc. The truth is that we have cultures and societies dominating and mistreating one another, because men are sinners, and we sin against each other, blacks against whites, whites against blacks, whites against whites, blacks against blacks, and everyone else against everyone else. Only Jesus can wash away all our tangled sin, and our parents and ancestors tangled sins, and we are called to forgive others of their debts as God has forgiven us of our own. Who is to say, if we went back far enough in history, that if justice was meted out perfectly, all the way down to when you or I was born, that we wouldn't be born into a better life-situation? Who knows. It could be better, or it could be worse. We are called to live faithfully and love others, not to unduly stress about the past and who owes us what and what we owe to others because of what people we never knew and never met did with their lives. This is not to deny that we are born into this world with different degrees of privilege, or that some of us are born into really terrible situations because of the sins of others destroying and ravaging our parents, grandparents, and further back. But I am saying that only God can give justice to the dead, and we all have suffered injustices, and have received advantages, because of our forefathers and others' forefathers. 

Yet, consider that all of us who live in the United States are born into a blessed situation compared to most countries, and we live in a blessed time of medical and technological advancement that is much better than what was available even just 100 years ago. Adam is our representative, our federal head, something we did not ask for, and yet we are guilty in Adam and born dead in trespasses and sins (Romans 5), unable to trust in Christ for salvation or do anything good because of our inherited and inherent sinfulness (Romans 3). Perhaps we could thank God for what we have been given, decry racism where it is found, including structural racism when and where it exists, and admit that one can be unjustly prejudiced not only against blacks, but any ethnicity, including whites. So we love each other without regard to ethnic background or prior grievances that have been confessed and repented of. 

Williams discusses the already/not yet nature of the kingdom of God, and points out that disunity, division, factions, and so on are all something we are presently being delivered from, but will not be delivered from totally until Christ returns. Nevertheless, we experience kingdom life now by the power of the Spirit and as we all live together in harmony with one another as the body of Christ (Gal. 3:14, 28; Eph. 4:1ff.). Williams correctly notes that the diversity of the Church universal right now represents the bride of Christ that is gathered around the throne in Rev. 7:9. He says quite plainly that redemption in Christ "neither guarantees every church will be multi-ethnic, nor that Christian unity will happen without hard work and intentional efforts." I am glad to see that he acknowledges this, and I agree that reaching out to others who are not just like us is not always the easiest thing in the world. However, I don't fully understand why it is made out to be such a big deal sometimes. I have had, and do have, friends from different backgrounds, cultures, skin colors, and we seem to have a lot in common, particularly Christ. 

Williams puts his finger on one of the most confusing aspects of racial reconciliation for me when he says "when location allows and the Spirit enables, Christians should live now in imperfect reconciled communities in our local churches on earth as we reflect in part the inaugurated presence of the kingdom on earth with redeemed brothers and sisters from different tongues, tribes, peoples, and nations in Christian spaces (Eph. 2:11-3:8). Certainly we should remove all possible barriers to have churches that can fellowship together regardless of cultural differences. But language differences? And again, when and where and how do we know that the location does indeed allow for and the Spirit i sin fact enabling us to live in imperfect reconciled communities (whatever that exactly is)? Isn't every church, broadly speaking, empowered by the Spirit to live together as imperfect reconciled communities, regardless if the church is mainly white, black, or brown, or a balanced mix? My point is that racial and cultural differences are not the only thing that divides us and causes imperfection concerning our reconciliation with one another. Not even close.

For those churches that can live out what Williams says is the "Gospel's strategy for reconciliation in churches located in communities where multiethnic expressions of reconciliation are possible," he offers a few strategies to pursuing this end. In short they are to pursue multi-ethnic friendships, and Williams makes the curious comment that "preferences are also attached to a particular ethnic or racial culture. With that racial or ethnic culture comes a certain theological culture with which we identify." He doesn't elaborate further on that last sentence, but I am concerned that he is saying that we need to soften our doctrinal rigidity in order to be reconciled with those of other cultures and ethnic backgrounds. This is simply sub-biblical if that is in fact what he means. We never sacrifice the truth of God in order to get greater reconciliation in the process. It is impossible. Certainly we can speak with other Christians (regardless of background) and have fellowship with them, and regardless whether they have the exact same theology as we do. But why the need to state something as basic as that? That happens all the time already.

Williams does place the bulk of the burden on the privileged/majority cultures, and by that he means whites, to bring about this reconciliation by being "aware and intentional about their need to negotiate, to share, and to leverage some of the privileges and preferences they have due to their majority cultural status for the sake of reconciliation." Specifics are not given here, but I do wonder what this means. Is theological precision something that must be forfeited? If so, how much, and why (isn't truth, well, truth, which transcends culture)? Worship styles? Does this extend outside of the church services? I love trying different kinds of foods, but I don't consider eating diverse food to be giving up a privilege. Do I need to give up my job to someone else who is less privileged (or why can't I have the job of someone who is less qualified than me but got it just because of the privileged family or situation he was born into?)? Should I move into a home that is surrounded by those not of my own culture (I've done that, but not because I was trying to give up my white privilege)?

Williams also says that we should ask God to "help us embrace the racial and ethnic diversity in our communities". We should come to learn about the ethnic diversity in our own neighborhoods. If we can't do this because we are surrounded by our own culture, Williams says we should read books "by and about women and men from different racial and ethnic groups and cultures. We can listen to music, lectures, and observe art from cultures that represent the beautiful racial and ethnic diversity of our world." He also says to attend conferences led by ethnic minorities. Finally, he suggests that we rely upon the Spirit, who produces the unity in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3). This is, for Williams, the Gospel's strategy for reconciliation as we pursue and walk in the power of the Spirit. I have no problem doing these things, but I think that they should occur naturally. I don't feel obligated to listen to someone of my own ethnic group or another's, I just listen to sermons and lectures that happen to be good. The same for music, and art. And that means I listen to and enjoy lots of different things from lots of different cultures. But again, not because I feel a moral obligation to make doing so my mission in life, and not because if I fail to do so I fail to faithfully live up to the ideals of the Gospel. I don't expect anyone to have to endure country music after all! I do not wish to be ignorant of other cultures, so I think in general Williams' advice is okay, but to indicate that we are being unfaithful to the Gospel if we do not go out of our way to listen to a certain number of songs, sermons, or whatever from cultures other than our own is absurd.     

Next up is chapter 4, Alexander Jun's chapter on Multivocality in the Church: Striving for More Harmonious and Diverse Faith Communities


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