Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Diverse Family of Christ

Being a Christian means being in a diverse family. Wilfred Cantwell Smith writes, “Jesus was not interested in Christianity, but in God and humanity. He could not have conceptualized ‘Christianity’.”[1] Instead of focusing on following Jesus Christ as Lord, Christians have too often devoted themselves to bolstering institutional religious structures, especially since the “conversion” of Constantine. In an institution, the proverb “birds of a feather flock together” tends to play out.[2] Even though many mainline Protestants blithely sing the racially slurred refrain, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight,”[3] these Christian congregations often function more like segregations, self-selecting into homogenous bodies.[4] Though singing about reducing boundaries, they effectively reinforce them in color-coded identity labels. In the process, institutional Christianity misses the point of the inclusive Jesus portrayed in the Gospels.[5]
Following Jesus means engaging with people who have different physical characteristics (e.g., skin tones, hair textures)[6]  and  socio-economic locations.[7] It means rich people seeking out poor people and vice versa. To emulate Christ means seeing every other person as an equal child of God and entering a diverse family.
Beyond intellectually recognizing the theological basis for diversity and appreciating its inherent value, I have experience working to build diversity in the church and community. This experience is my testimony to living out my faith. I am Caucasian.[8] In 2006, an African-American pastor and I started a project called Richmond United. We planned events for people to actively build on racial reconciliation. Inspired by Martin Buber’s notion that meaning comes through relationships,[9] we tried to model dialogical relationships, building trust through shared experience. The experiment helped participants learn ways to approach racial reconciliation.
The Northern Neck of Virginia, where I have pastored the past eight years, is a region with profound socio-economic disparity.[10] In this area, the differences between wealth and poverty can follow racial lines with frightening precision, although not all white people are wealthy and not all black people are poor. Against this backdrop, I have sought to build relationships between people in the white and black communities.
When approaching diversity, my method includes building an atmosphere of trust and creating a big tent for divergent ideas and approaches. I am guided in this work by a combination of theoretical “dialogical relationships” and practical notions of trust, appreciation for the richness of differences, and a conviction that we are more than the sum of our parts. By encouraging people to share their honest experiences and use “I”-language, people sense the spirit of inclusiveness and can relate to others who look different, believe differently, or have different things. Trust goes a long way toward achieving an openness to change or try something new.
As an example of applying these strategies for bringing diverse groups together, in 2015, I helped organize a local prayer service after the mass shooting at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. The service was held in Calvary Baptist Church and had clergy from different traditions, including American Baptist, AME Zion, Cooperative Baptist, Episcopal, Lutheran (ELCA), United Methodist, and Presbyterian (PCUSA).
In 2016, I worked with other pastors to organize two more services after the shootings at Pulse, a nightclub in Orlando, and police officers in Dallas. One service was at Sharon Baptist Church, the other at Kilmarnock Baptist Church. Also in 2016, an African-American pastor and I moderated a community roundtable discussion on inclusivity and racial reconciliation. Over fifty local leaders attended.
When Christians work together, they can explore our differences in productive ways. The conversations can be fruitful and produce meaningful relationships. Inclusivity, social justice, and religious liberty are hallmarks of the Christian faith.

[1] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1962), 106.
[2] Russell Golman, et al., write, “Why are people who hold one set of beliefs so affronted by alternative sets of beliefs—and by the people who hold them?” Russell Golman et al., "The Preference for Belief Consonance," The Journal of Economic Perspectives 30, no. 3 (2016): 165. Golman quotes Adam Smith to support the notion that birds of a feather flock together. Cf. Smith writes, “The great pleasure of conversation and society, arises from a certain correspondence of sentiments and opinions, from a certain harmony of minds, which like so many musical instruments coincide and keep time with one another.” Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (London: A. Millar, 1759), 497.
[3] This seemingly harmless children’s song categorizes people according to the color of their skin, which makes it racist. For example, Jeffrey Cox portrays the founder of the modern missionary movement William Carey as a failed shoemaker who envisioned Christianity as triumphant over all faiths and cultures. Jeffrey Cox, "Were Victorian Nonconformists the Worst Imperialists of All?," Victorian Studies 46, no. 2 (2004): 249.
[4] Hunt and Hunt argue that segregation even impacts whether or not people attend church. Matthew O. Hunt and Larry L. Hunt, "Regional Religions?: Extending the "Semi-Involuntary" Thesis of African-American Religious Participation," Sociological Forum 15, no. 4 (2000).
[5] E.g. Harold A. Netland, Christianity and Religious Diversity: Clarifying Christian Commitments in a Globalizing Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2015), 232ff.
[6] “Colorism is a persistent problem for people of color in the U.S.” It values people of lighter skin tone over people with darker skin tone. Margaret Hunter, "The Persistent Problem of Colorism: Skin Tone, Status, and Inequality," Sociology Compass 1, no. 1 (2007).
[7] Much of liberation theology explores seeing Jesus “from the other side of history.” Michael L. Cook, "Jesus from the Other Side of History: Christology in Latin America," Theological Studies 44, no. 2 (1983): 258. Cf. For a theological paradigm shift, see Juan Luis Segundo, Liberación De La Teología (Buenos Aires: Carlos Lohlé, 1975). In English, Liberation of Theology, trans. John Drury (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1976).
[8] “Caucasian” is a clumsy euphemism for white or European-American. It is attached to a concept of race that scientists reject, and people often contest the meaning in wider society. E.g. cf. Bruce Baum, The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race: A Political History of Racial Identity (New York: NYU Press, 2006).
[9] Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1937), 99-100. In the postscript of the 1958 edition, Buber refers to the “dialogical relationship” he has with his readers. I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958). I build on the dialogical approach and construct a model based on Christian eschatology to approach interfaith dialogue. Matthew Aaron Tennant, "Early Christian Eschatology as a Model for the Modern Practice of Interfaith Dialogue—an Eschatological Model," in Religion Beyond Its Private Role in Modern Society, ed. Wim Hofstee and Ari van der Kooij (Leiden: Brill, 2013).
[10] Alyson Zandt, "State of the South: Northern Neck--Virginia," in State of the South: Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity for the Next Generation (Durham, NC: Manpower Development Corp. (MDC), 2014).

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